Olive green. The answer to the first question of the zoom interview. Surprisingly enough it was I, the interviewer, that is met with the first inquiry. “What’s your happy color?” Something I never really thought about until that moment. I respond with an answer representative of a very peaceful, neutral tone. “It makes me feel calm and grounded back to the earth.” A much needed thought to settle into my discussion with an artist I have long sought the opportunity to interview. “Yellow is my happy color.” Donning a loosely fit, bright yellow t-shirt – with both parties now in a comforted state – the session was off to a great start.
Like many, I was introduced to the ethereal being that is Gabriel Garzón-Montano through Drake’s track “Jungle” off of his If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late EP in 2015. The single sampled Garzón-Montano’s quite signature rasp-heavy r&b vocals, a moment that undeniably altered an eternal shift in emotions. The very first urgent whispers of “rock me real slowly” haunted my conscious until I was able to track down the artist behind the magical croons. What I thought i’d find was another artist to follow on Spotify. What I really found was the beginning phases of a most luring, amorphous talent.
Following his trajectory of work over a now seven year career – including Stones Throw Record releases from his first EP Jardin up to his latest LP Agüita, opening tours for the likes of Rosalia and Kali Uchis, and now a coveted induction into Fender’s Next program – it becomes clear that the more you attempt to put your finger on the French-Colombian New Yorker, the more your understanding slips through your hands as he unravels neoteric layers of studied musical complexity with every new project.
To attempt to summarize the essence of Gabriel Garzón-Montano in a few words serves as a disservice to the worlds his art creates. Yes he is hard to define, but that’s mostly because he’s not asking to be. Yet, in my line of duty, here is my humble attempt to do so. The closest encapsulation of his incantation is a comparison to the life cycle of a butterfly. At each phase of life, you’re viewing a complete, natural and honest representation of a developing creation festering in active, amorphous energy. While staying the same unit at its core, its transition from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly takes a complete different shape at first glance – yet closer study finds an emblematic intersection of a multitude of worlds fusing into one linear, creative aura.
He is prismatic, while remaining everything but fragmented. He can easily croon an emotionally tense r&b ballad as effortlessly as he can lay down a heavy Spanish reggaeton flow. He is neither, nor. He isn’t anything in particular, yet everything all-at-once. Able to achieve a multi-faceted mastery of musicianship, he attributes it to a rooted belief not in that he believes he can, but a confidence in knowing he can. And he has the track record – or track list – to prove it and he’s only just getting started.
LADYGUNN spoke to Gabriel Garzón-Montano on exploring his childhood as an adult, his ethos of doing whatever the fuck he wants and what it means to be named one of Fenders Next Class of 2021 artists.
First thing I always like to start with – how are you, how has it been and how is your heart lately?
My heart has been hurting – but I’ve been well. I have been doing a lot of creative work, but there is the feedback loop of presenting the work live which really informs a lot of the power and mythology of the character that’s doing all the presenting that does get cut off. So you have to find a new way to give that life. So I feel like my heart is duly tired from that task, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s just a different type of effort and new muscles. It’s cool because as an introvert, I think it gave me a lot of time to just lose myself in activities that before just seemed like if you didn’t do them in childhood, you missed out.
What were some of those activities you explored to keep inspired and your creative juices flowing?
Practicing very basic piano stuff. Stuff that makes me…stuff where I suck. I’ve been going into montuno piano, just messing up and doing that for two hours straight. Before there was always too many things happening to ever get into meditations like that. And drawing a lot!…I’ve also been reading this book (“The Beautiful Ones” by Prince).
Rest in paradise. Wasn’t it just the anniversary of his passing yesterday? 5 years right?
It was, yeah! I’ll never forget the day he passed. I was at Washington Square Park. I remember I had like 22 missed calls and I knew he had died just from that number.
So Prince is definitely one of those guiding artists for you.
Yeah. And everybody knows me for that. Just getting to see this kind of thing (Flips through pages and holds up image of Prince’s notebook) His notebooks…he’s got these little comics that he would write. Crazy! Oh and here – here’s one that I like! (shares a few images of his personal sketchbook that include a magenta giraffe and images of Kirby. A Kirby in a Chef Hat eating noodles catches both our attention) I really love that one! But yeah, just stuff that I used to do as a kid. …This all stemmed from how is my heart. Yeah, it’s just been so crazy. I just feel like a lot of depressive states are more readily accessible in this kind of environment. But once you read about the world and about people who really have problems, it helps you just take a hold in what you should be grateful for.
Absolutely. There’s been a big revelation of how important the creative sphere is to the world right now. You’ve also taken part in a few digital performances, which has been a saving light for music lovers during this time. I know they’re sans audience, but being the closest thing we have to live performances right now, how has it been to moving into this kind of digital space?
It’s been really cool. Sometimes when you perform live, even as an audience member, I get reminded of how much detail you can perceive in a live concert. When you’re making records, you’re really living in the minutiae of how the whole thing plays from start to finish. In live performances, sometimes little moments get eaten up or because of the grandness of certain gestures, you feel like certain things get lost, musically. Yet you gain a lot of points, energetically.
When I saw Kendrick Lamar at Hammerstein Ballroom, he was standing really poised and delivering something very studio-like, just showing you his diction and how he can sit on the beat. Then, I saw him at Bonnaroo, he was giving like 80,000 people energy and losing his breath and saying only key lines and leaving out certain words. So the livestream brings it back to this idea of half-way studio, half-way live where you can focus on the details and you can be a lot more inward with the performance. There’s also something about knowing you’re only going to do it one time and that there’s no re-do that gives it power. Combined with the audience and all the loving energy creates a spirituality that sometimes is absent from certain moments of a livestream. Otherwise, its just really cool to be able to control the outcome. Like when you go “That show was great! But the guitar was really loud!” and you’re like “What? I didn’t know!” So the control is really nice there.
That’s a good way to find a positive in between. Still touching on the idea of the livestream – during your latest Tiny Desk, you mentioned something incredibly interesting. You mentioned how “this time has really given you the moment to explore being a child who wants to do it all, and being an adult who doesn’t know what to do with so much time and trying to figure it out.” What have you explored so far between those two spaces?
I think it brought me back to college. I basically skipped class to work on my first project. I was writing all the songs that would be on my first EP and there was something about how much scheduling there was, that made me appreciate time. So learning to appreciate time now, when you have all the time in certain pockets, it can sometimes get you into moments of indifference. And then becoming indifferent to indifference. Then you notice that without certain prompts, you’re less useful. But in my very productive moments, I’ve been making music that doesn’t have a finality to it.
The concept and energy of never being finite highly translates to your music that exists as very limitless compositions. From your identity as French-Colombian to genre-bending sound to non-gendered fashion – you don’t fit into the binaries society is accustomed to prescribing. How do you view your journey through navigating a rigid world sans definition?
It’s been freeing in the sense that it makes me believe in myself a lot more readily. I have a lot more confidence after tackling things that a lot of people would normally tell you not to do. Like why would I, at the age of 30, decide to suddenly start singing reggaeton, right? But it was there, it was already there. I’ve been listening to the records. I’ve been a fan of rap music. I’ve found a way to interpret that flow in the r&b music I was making, but I wanted people to see what happened when I got to the point where I made something that followed the schematic of a hit record. Something that was 3 minutes and was all trigger happy. Basically, I wanted to do something that was the opposite of all the tension I create in my music, because I LOVE tension. So my songs are often unresolved and the whole time you’re just kind of there like (tenses body to imitate the sensation). So I felt like after a career of edging, I just wanted to give an orgasm.
Have you come across any limitations in that process?
The limitation is that as people, we’re all trained to follow this sound marketing to have…like a certain amount of flavors of ice cream. If not to have like – one. I just turned my brand upside down and turned it into a buffet. If someone’s like we’re going to a Peruvian or Sushi restaurant, it’s like “ok, great” because you know what to expect. So when people who just learned about me go “so what are you?,” I have to decide what videos or songs to show them and I usually pick a couple different styles. Then it’s like yeah, you do it all but …. and there’s something unsatisfying about that to people. Something that doesn’t give them a trust that they can go to you for something. I don’t understand why that is.
It’s like a very innate distrust for what people don’t understand or are able to define. As a society, we’re conditioned to believe we need to specialize and focus on one thing to be actually good at it.
Or do it long enough that it gains this critical mass. I just found an opportunity where I realized I don’t have another example of another artist who has done that. So I felt like putting my flag on the moon was a very attractive prospect. I want to be the first person who has ever done three styles of music on one record and to give you a tasting menu from three corners of the world. And, it’s just an honest reflection of what my experience is.
I think the important takeaway from that is many try, but few succeed. I feel there have been many attempts for genre crossovers, they just may not translate or be received well enough to be deemed “successful.”
Yeah! When I made Agüita, I was like wow – this is sitting up there, this plays down just like one of my favorite records from Bad Bunny. So I was like, “fuck it, this needs to be something that I show people I can do.” That’s how I decided on the medley for COLORS. We were wondering, if we had to choose one song off this record, how would that be an emblematic offering to show people what they’re in for? So I said it’s a tasting menu, so that’s what we’ll do because that’s what we’re here to give. I also wanted to confront people who felt like they didn’t like a certain style of music because I think that’s bullshit. It’s all music and when you can hear someone is putting their foot in it, it’s really about the love energy that that passion gives off.
I went to Miami with my records and played them for everybody, and they loved them. To see firsthand, to hear feedback from people making records like this and winning Grammys or whatever, getting that kind of validation is great. That said, I was in studios with people in the Latin “urbano” space who were geeking out on my “Fruitflies” live performance. So to me, I’m playing a long game. As the catalog stacks itself, people will come to know me as someone who just did whatever the fuck he wanted. At the end of the day, my ego is happy knowing most people don’t have the grumption to do that.
The new direction was a fun surprise. I remember first hearing Agüita, waiting for this emotional power r&b ballad and out comes this reggaeton song that made me want to dance. Then came Muñeca shortly after down a similar vein. I feel not being afraid to mix things up is really the purpose of the creative world.
With this new direction, you pull a lot of inspiration from Latin roots. With Latin music itself being varied with a multitude of genres and sub-genres, what made you decide to go with emphasizing reggaeton and trap on your latest project?
For me, it was a way I could still use my pop sensibilities and love for American music to strengthen elements of Latin trap. At the point when I started making this song, some time ago now, everything sounded really clean. There were no records that sounded like Migos or that Travis Scott and Quavo record, which I loved. The production of what was out was just, very clean. I love the Atlanta sound, so I wanted something dirty. I wanted to show how I could control my studying of that. I felt like from Myke Towers to Fuego – those guys were getting real nasty with it, but it still didn’t have that little lean I heard from Atlanta. So I wanted to bring that to Colombian kids, at least on the Colombian side everyone is so polite in sound. Which I totally love and admire, but between J Balvin and Maluma being the foremost proponents of Colombian Pop, I was just like somebody needs to come through and give a dirty record. I felt like that was the thing I could do to have the strongest impact – and that I would have the most fun doing.
Can we expect any further exploration into new facets of the sound soon?
I have been shedding piano and a lot of conga. The Lincoln Center has a great series on YouTube – I think it’s called jazz at the Lincoln Center, where they have instructional videos for a lot of instruments. After getting into all that, I was invited by Fania to work on a salsa record who I’ve known about since I was like 19 because my Dad showed them to me. I’m getting all the arrangements together, I’m putting the band together and shedding a specific track-list, which is going to be amazing to share. We’re going old school with it. Doing it to tape and we’re also going to make a documentary. So, that’s just continuing this line of me being a kid and upending any kind of aesthetic continuity and saying “I can do it all!”
You really can – including remixing some tracks off your last album into new versions of the songs and even a special remaster of one of the tracks. What inspired that?
I recorded and am about to put out one of my songs (“Bloom”) in 3 languages. I already did it in English on the record, but I re-recorded it in Spanish (“Flor”) and in French (“Fleur”) with very beautiful translations that stand alone as their own songs. People will get to hear me sing in Spanish and French, the way they know me in English. I just didn’t feel as secure being as vulnerable in Spanish, but I needed to puff my chest out and do something that was more than one dimensional. I just thought it was so different from everything else I was doing. One of the first records that I finished for Agüita was “Blue Dot,” which was ambient with a vocal that you’ve heard me do before. Right after, I thought if this record is going to be songs like this then (thumbs down motion).
Also, I’m always angry at the LA establishment and how much everybody sounds exactly like everyone else. It’s just, so crazy to me. And it’s so depressing to go to sessions just have people throw out the same diatonic key. There’s no rub to the ear. You’re going to these stores that are playing these same records and by the end of the day you’re like, this is what music should sound like. I resent that and I rebel against that. I want to give people more freedom in their options. That’s why I am the artist that I am. I made “Agüita” just to counter the self-indulgent indie-ness of the other records. Life is bigger than being the nerdiest person in the room.
Yeah, I get that.
Right? There’s this injustice that’s never really served when you inhabit the nerd space fully. You can only relate to people going there with you. That’s not what it’s about, you have to give offerings that everyone can access. So I talked about wearing heels in Agüita, I talked about getting makeup done, I tried to subvert this idea of alpha masculinity. I did the whole video doing 3-inch heels. That’s something that people don’t recognize. As a cis-gendered hetereosexual man who’s never had training or who has never inducted into the ballroom space, thats really hard to do! That wasn’t even commented on. I was like man, people are just – sometimes they see details and sometimes they don’t. When I see Twitter or memes, I see how subtle their humor is and how perceptive the eye is. That was surprising to me that wasn’t recognized and celebrated as a real achievement. To be down in Colombia, in La Pica de Pereira on a Sunday with all those motorcycles, sniffing tootsie with everybody but also holding your own in heels? I thought that was an event.
On subverting standards – I think Latin culture as a whole has many interesting conversations happening, especially when it comes to music. While it’s quickly become a global phenomenon and only growing stronger, it’s still very categorized and boxed in terms of what Latin music “looks like” and that being very male, reggaetonero forward. How do you feel Latin music can move forward without being “othered” in the larger music lens?
I think making statements that don’t capitalize on the fetishization of Latinx culture. That’s what serves the movement, the aesthetic, the style and that’s what will lend to more of its face value ubiquity as opposed to this exoticized corner of music. Like not saying “rock en español”, it’s just rock music. And just giving the power to where it’s due. Seeing more Afro-Latin musicians becoming as popular and acknowledging the African roots of all music is the first place. Afro-Latinas son las olvidadas de Latino América. They’re the most disenfranchised people in Latin America. Here, you have the concept of black and white, but in Latin America, we don’t have that and they’re just so under the radar that you’re just complicit when that’s your gaze.
So I think that inclusivity and grabbing references from anywhere and bringing them in while addressing cultural imperialism by not restricting the sound. People just need to own that they can do anything – as long as they study it enough and also just realize that all music is just so diverse. The strength of the greatest traditions come from international mestizaje, you know. The strength of the best music utilizes the dopest part of both traditions. So yeah I think a more international gaze and not compartmentalizing it into these fetishized (Afro-Carribean) offerings.
We’ve discussed your musical process, but let’s move to your visual one. Do you feel like your sound informs the visual or does your visualized world inform your sound?
My music is definitely the mother of my visuals. I’ll tell a little story to explain how it came about and how it was brought to my attention in a more poetic way. I always knew if you didn’t have a good look, you had less of a fighting chance in the game. I resented that. Because of budget and of fear, more fear, I used to dress with a lack of capitalizing on my adventurous spirit. I always used to dress in a white t-shirt, blue dickies pants and some chuck taylors. I always wanted to look more like a magical god, and I knew I could. When I took my clothes off I was like you have the carcass for it, but the aesthetic came after trying things and not recognizing myself. I think not recognizing yourself in music is very powerful.
In 2015, I remember doing a concert in Paris wearing what I always wore which was a white t-shirt, blue dickies pants and some chuck taylors. It was my way of assuming some form of codified masculinity. I was doing my sound check and the lighting engineer asked “What are you going to wear for the show?” and I said “Oh, it’s pretty much this.” And he was like “That’s impossible! Your music is so magical, you have to look like your music! How could you give us records that take us to a specific world from such an every person look. That just doesn’t do the whole experience justice and it’s a let down to be honest with you.” I was so marked by those words, I felt really bad. I thought about it for a long time until I realized my fear was holding me back from giving a fullness of my world.
Well I’m definitely a fan of the aesthetic, which is subtly subversive. You’re not proclaiming to be ending sexism, you’re just living in your truth and using that confidence to express genuine art.
When I started thinking about what I wanted to look like from a blank slate – I realized I was basically looking at Prince. He took cues from western women’s wear and raised his waistline, wore heels to have these beautiful long legs proportional to his body, and just looked like a god. The 70s were where I thought men looked so sexy, beautiful and powerful. That’s very powerful to me. I wanted to assume that form.
This was right before I was getting ready to tour with Kali Uchis. I was like “I’m not going out like a sucker while she’s doing the catwalk. I’m going to be as diva.” I had costume changes and a glow in the dark jacket that changed colors depending on how you light it. Thats how I used to do “6 8.” Just learning how to use sound and color on myself in that way opened the door to casting more of a spell on my audience. Being a musician first, it started with the music. That’s how my mind grasped transcending the mundane, everyday world we live in (that isn’t nature or art). I married that with nature for my last album. I went to Colombia and shot 80-85 rolls of film in 5 days, thats where all the imagery came from. I was so proud of that.
Beautiful imagery – worth it, but that’s a lot of film.
It’s A LOT of film. It took 3 days to get the album cover, everyday just holding that pose.
Aside from the music, what else inspires your visuals?
Just looking at visual art is always going to be a prompt for me. Whenever I go to a museum or see a painting, all of it has its home. Instagram can also become very delightful if you follow enough art, as opposed to people who are just selling you some tea or whatever.
Not the tea!
Herbalife! I also always go back to this quote from RuPaul – “you’re born naked and the rest is drag.” That’s so heavy. People assume they’re departing from their baseline by trying on a different outfit, when they had to try the first outfit to even box themselves in. I remember I was like 19 years old when I first started wearing women’s pants because my mother passed away and I inherited a lot of her pants. After that I was like “Oh, this is great! This is so different from my other pants, let me get more!” I remember going shopping in Pereira, where half a million people live and it feels like a different time, and I picked out some pants and the guy was like “Caballero, esos pantalones son para damas,” and I said “Pues yo tambien soy para damas, entonces perfecto!” It’s just having fun with the encounters where you’re just searching for something a little different. It’s not revolutionary, people have been blazing the trail. But within my experience, it was finding the resistance with that.
Once I realized that raising the waistline and raising the heel gave me that stance, it gave me the ability to do different things. I realized what a power move that was and how walking onto the stage just bewildered people. Very hyper-masculine looking dudes come up to me after gigs like “Bro, when you first came on, I didn’t really know it was going to be, like what’s going on with this guy? But that shit was hard bro!” and I saw their eyes lighting up. Just the realization that different forms of powerful imagery really excites people and gives them cues for their own expression. That’s what I really enjoy now, controlling that.
It’s about giving offerings that everyone can access. That’s why I talked about wearing heels in Agüita. I talked about getting makeup done. I tried to subvert this idea of alpha masculinity. I did the whole video doing 3-inch heels. That’s something that people don’t recognize. As a cis-gendered heterosexual man who’s never had training or who has never inducted into the ballroom space, thats really hard to do! To be down in Colombia, in La Pica de Pereira on a Sunday with everybody but also holding your own in heels? That was an event.
It is. I cant even wear 3 inch heels for like 5 minutes – let alone for a whole video shoot. Do you now feel any pressure to now always be fitted in these certain styles of wardrobe?
I was afraid at first. Like what if I just want to wear my Jordans and some nice sweatpants? Then I was like no – that lack of continuity can’t be prohibited. That also helped me with the music. Like, it’s the same thing. I can be very ethereal, signing falsetto and giving you strange chord extensions and then also come back and sing in autotune and talk my shit. I think the space in between can then get filled up by the rest of the music.
We’ve talked about your musical journey, and now that’s landed you to be named one of Fenders Class of 2021 Next Artists. The program helps support guitar centric acts develop the next phase of their career, which has led to the explosion of some notable prior alumni. Do you remember the first time you picked up a fender guitar?
My first guitar was the 48th street custom strat, and I chose the yellow one with the mother of pearl pick guard. I bought it for $420. Actually, my dad bought it for me when I was 12 years old. Getting your first instrument is such a crazy experience. At that time we were living in Saint George, Long Island – a shitty place to live if you wanna get to school in Manhattan – but I went to the public library and rented a DVD of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. I remember sitting on the couch and putting the disc into the little laptop and just holding the guitar. I wanted to see what one of the dopest guitar players, electric guitar since I had an electric, to me of all time did with this instrument. I remember watching Jimi and just (mouth open). I didn’t even know he was playing left handed and upside down! My stepmother sat down next to me and after about five minutes, I realized I was still holding it and just went “ew!” and put it back in its case. I turned to her like “I’m never going to play like that.” And she was like “that’s not true, you don’t know that! You haven’t even practiced.” But it was just this feeling in my bones like that’s just not me, he was truly one of a kind. Anyways, that’s my first memory with that instrument.
How do you feel going from that moment to where you are now, named as one of the best upcoming talents on that same instrument?
It’s really special. When you look at some of the best musicians of the 20th century from Jimi Hendrix to Carol Kaye to James Jamerson, you have a fender instrument there. So it’s an absolute honor to now, 20 years later from picking up a guitar for the first time, be called upon to represent such a legendary company as a guitar player. I’m not like Blake Mills or Jimi Hendrix who only identify with the instrument, but I’ve been playing the guitar my whole life and I never thought something like this would happen. It gives me a reminder that I’m performing at a level of doing world class things and a greater reminder of the work that I’ve put in. Sometimes it’s hard to appraise your own shit when you’re always criticizing it to make it the best it can be.
It’s true, you’re always going to be your own worst critic.
Correct! So yeah, it’s super special for me. And this is only the 3rd year of Fender Next, so it’s very poppin’ to represent the new face of guitar!
What would be your advice to aspiring guitar players picking up a guitar and could one day. be a fenders next fellow in future years?
I do encourage people to teach themselves. What they like about the instrument; hold it, strike it and see what sounds you can get out of it. I’m self taught in all instruments and I think that has given my approach to music a certain magic because it’s not mediated by someone telling me something I did is wrong. Your sound is not something for somebody older or more set in their ways to decide. That being said – when you’re looking for more options, do practice your scales and do find out what the people who mastered the instrument did to get closer to it, because then it will be a better friend to you.
CONNECT WITH GABRIEL GARZÓN-MONTANO
photos / courtesy of Jack McKain & Stephanie Hanson
story / Jeanette Diaz