Chilly Gonzales: Igniting Renewed Appreciation for Classical Music

Pianist's new album links Romantic-era chamber music and modern-day pop
March 24, 2015 Updated: April 17, 2015

TORONTO—It was a childhood visit to an art gallery, chaperoned by his father, that first ignited Chilly Gonzales’s passion for rendering esoteric pieces more accessible.

It wasn’t really the art that inspired the Canadian-reared pianist (born Jason Beck), but how his dad struggled to appreciate it.

“He couldn’t decide if he liked the painting until he read the title and the paragraph that tells you something about it,” said Beck during a phone interview from Germany.

“I was touched by the fact that my dad needed that story to guide him through. I think those people also deserve to enjoy creative things. That’s why I’ve always done a lot of context-building.”

The bigger risk and the bigger gamble is always to take the harder road.
— Chilly Gonzales

In fact, it’s become a mission for the acclaimed 43-year-old musician, who has collaborated with Drake, Leslie Feist, and Daft Punk (which merited Gonzales a Grammy Award for album of the year).

Last year he released “Re-Introduction Etudes,” a book of 24 easy-to-master piano pieces designed to inspire lapsed players. And in a YouTube series called “Pop Music Masterclass” he’s been cheerfully dissecting hits including ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday.”

Last week, Gonzales released the solo album “Chambers,” which uses piano and strings to sketch links between Romantic-era chamber music and modern pop.

CP: Why is it that people are daunted by classical music?

Gonzales: There’s something about instrumental music … it must be some childhood reaction to the fact that we were told this was high art. It’s the reason we’re all nervous when we go to a concert hall. It’s a feeling of too much respect. We can’t take it on its own terms.

CP: Writing about your song “The Difference,” you mused that most musicians are “frauds, others merely mediocre, and a scant few worthy of listening.” How do you define that worthiness?

Gonzales: It’s anyone who creates their own lane.

I might think an artist is a fraud, but it doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t like them. It just means that when someone hides behind something that came before them that worked, at the expense of bringing something more original to the game, then I feel like they’re a fraud—they didn’t quite have the strength to resist temptation.

The bigger risk and the bigger gamble is always to take the harder road, be yourself as much as possible. I just know this from my own experience.

CP: What was that process like, of shaping your career?

Gonzales: I went through moments where I tried to shave off the rough edges, all through my 20s. It wasn’t working. Eventually I moved to Berlin and decided I would approach my career the way a rapper would.

I took the name Chilly Gonzales for that reason. It was audibly a fake name and I was going to … have somewhat of a cartoonish persona, and at the same time try to put a lot of musical depth into what I do. That was the gamble I took because I wanted to create my own lane.

The artists I respect the most created their own lane. Whether it’s Daft Punk or Drake or Leslie Feist, they really did carve something out. And the proof is many people try to imitate them, and very few are able to succeed.

CP: After Kanye West criticized Beck’s “artistry,” people argued that Beck was a multi-instrumentalist. How does that play into your idea of artistry?

Gonzales: I loved Prince far before I realized how he was putting his music together, and then that became a deepening of my insane obsessive respect for him as a teenager. But the music had to come first.

Skill without vision is just the saddest thing in the world. And vision without skill can totally be built. Clearly, one is more valuable than the other. Pharrell Williams has both, but not everyone is Pharrell Williams.

CP: Only “Myth Me” features your vocals. Are you comfortable singing?

Gonzales: Not very. My only true confidence comes from piano-playing and composing.

I’m really glad I’m not a singer. My singer friends have insane psychological issues with their voice. It’s just crazy to think that your instrument would be this sensitive thing you use every day to talk. If I had a fever, and was on crutches, I could still play my gigs.