The first thing that hits you about Gabriel Garzón-Montano is his infectious energy, and how he speaks with his hands. Throughout our conversation, he excitedly manifests thoughts and words into physical gestures. A born and bred New Yorker, Garzón-Montano's way of speaking betrays his dual roots: French, from his mother's side, and Colombian, from his father.
Bright rays of winter sun are peeking through the windows of his Brooklyn home and studio, while colorful records and artwork line the walls. At just 25 years old, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist is just starting his career, yet in the space of a year, he’s received the kind of accolades that hint at a promising future.
It all began in February of last year with the release of his debut EP, Bishouné: Alma del Huila, the title a reference to his dual roots. Released on the Brooklyn-based Styles Upon Styles label, the six-track 12” was a moment Garzón-Montano had waited for his whole life. “As an artist, it was my first watershed moment," he said. "It’s a beautiful object to hold, a record. It’s real, and now it’s out there and not even mine anymore.”
No artist, especially one who is just starting, wants his work simply categorized. On the surface, the music on Bishouné is clearly indebted to soul and R&B, yet repeated listens reveal layers and deeper meanings to the gentle instrumentation and vocals. Growing up, Garzón-Montano was exposed to cumbia and salsa by his father and to classical and avant-garde by his mother, who worked within the Philip Glass Ensemble. “All that has made its way into my work," he said. "Some of my harmonies have a classical austerity, less rooted in the pop and R&B that people listen to. There is an impressionist, psychedelic, saturated vibe. I try to pair that with [the] things that move people [from] funk, hip hop and electronic music.”
How music — and its physical form — connects with listeners transcends the underlying economics of the industry. For Garzón-Montano, these connections have been as memorable as holding the record itself. “I got a message today, someone going through turbulent times," he said, remembering the moment. "The music helped them. Everything you put into it really does translate to people. It’s easy to get caught into a thought cycle of ‘I’m the only one who is this sensitive’ when making art.”
The best was yet to come though. One of the people who picked up Bishouné was Mayer Hawthorne, the multi-talented singer and musician from Michigan, who has gone from the underground to the Grammy Awards in less than a decade. He loved the record so much, he gave it to his managers. They have now become Garzón-Montano’s managers. “Things fell into place,” he tells me excitedly. “And then Lenny called…” That would be Lenny Kravitz, who invited him to open his 2014 European stadium tour, propelling Garzón-Montano ahead of any career trajectory he had in mind. “I thought I might do a national tour of clubs as my first tour. So to be doing eight to ten thousand seaters in Europe was...” He trails off still in disbelief.
Such opportunities can make or break a young artist. Garzón-Montano seems level headed about it all though, pointing to the energy he felt at those shows as most memorable. “A few thousand people sending whatever energy they’re sending, responding to what you’re giving out. You can really tell when it’s aligned and they give back something positive. Likewise if you’re tense or scared that comes across and you feel their disapproval.” He’s mimicking these crowd reactions as he speaks. “I’ve never really felt energy that way.”
One thing I’m curious about is how his music, gentle and soothing as it can be, translated to such large settings. “I felt I had to make bigger gestures of things that were conceived without that in mind.” Garzón-Montano’s live show has evolved from just drums and keyboard to a quartet with the addition of bass and keys. The stadium tour was also beneficial in allowing the band to sharpen their performance and create new standards. While you’re most likely to find him sat behind the keys at a small show, onstage in Europe he stood up, “doing the frontman thing.” What else did he learn? “Presence. Looking through the room.” He mimics how he spent the first shows staring at the first five rows of the stadium, as if in a small club. “I wasn’t getting far. So I turned my gaze upward and that changed everything. Now in clubs I look above the crowd and it feels big. Simple things you don’t think about.”
While classical and avant-garde ideas inform part of Garzón-Montano’s music, he’s also a product of his era. As such, hip-hop and electronic music are just as influential. And it’s in the hip-hop world that Bishouné found another famous fan: Drake. The Canadian rapper has sampled "6 8," Bishouné opener, for his latest mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. “My girl Zoe played it for him and apparently he stopped in his tracks, played it back a bunch of times and was very taken with it.” She then let Garzón-Montano know that he was making a song. Again, the young musician strikes a confident and self-effacing pose. “The Lenny thing is very epic, but the Drake thing is so culturally relevant right now. It steps up the intensity of the disconnect between where I’m at and where these gestures are coming from.” He barely has more than a thousand or so followers on social media channels, yet giants of the pop world are coming at him. “It feels like a David and Goliath thing.”
Whether or not this interest changes Garzón-Montano’s position in 2015 remains to be seen, but he’s clearly not intent on simply waiting. His debut album is in the works, a project he talks about with a touching sensitivity, as if the songs were children he’s caring for before letting them loose into the world. New York’s subway is where he does most of his writing. “Leaving the house makes your mind start working. If you sit in a chair for three days, you might come across some lazy or depressing thoughts. If you’re moving, it’s harder. If not inspiration, there’s at least oxygen flowing through my body.”
Nietzsche would no doubt agree with this, considering he once concluded “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” As it happens, the German philosopher and poet has been a source of lyrical inspiration for Garzón-Montano, alongside French poet Rimbaud. “I write lyrics on the train while reading. I’ve been reading Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and a lot of Rimbaud, The Illuminations. That last one is by far my favorite book of poetry. It makes you see colors and smell things, it’s very sensual and psychedelic. Everything I want my music to be.” So how does a modern songwriter draw inspiration from such greats? “I lift words and phrases here and there, because it’s all public domain now,” he says with an irreverent smile.
Aside from the album, Garzón-Montano has also been working with British pop singer Eliza Doolittle (born Eliza Sophie Caird). The move seems like yet another disconnected gesture, one that affords him new challenges. For starters,he’s not up on pop music whatsoever, so Caird is making him a mixtape of new music. Additionally, he tells me he has never been attracted to that particular world. Yet that world came to him, so while writing for entirely different formats and audiences has been challenging, it’s also reaffirmed his belief that the path he has chosen is the right one. “Ultimately, these are all creatives,” he tells me in reference to Caird but also Drake. "They respect music and art so it’s only normal to be attracted to something you find beautiful. I understand and respect that.”
For decades now, globalization has been heralded as the future of our world, yet the reality of a global world has been slow for people on the ground. In many ways, Garzón-Montano embodies the vanguard of a true multi-cultural generation, one born at the dawn of the digital age with a global outlook and sensibility unlike that of our forefathers. His heritage gives Garzón-Montano’s music a subtle twist, “less classically American,” and opens it up for anyone to connect with.