It’s hard to tell where Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s studio ends and his bedroom begins. There’s a fully-assembled drum set nestled in the bottom of the singer/producer/instrumentalist’s closet. An array of synthesizers, keyboards, and speakers occupy most all of his desk space. And, behind the door, looming over the room, are a stack of black crates filled with exotic percussive instruments—from the tiny Brazilian tambourine that graced “Keep on Running” to the Tibetan bells that open “Fruitflies,” a track from his upcoming LP Jardín. In an age of sample-pack and VST-based musicians, the presence of so many tangible analog instruments is refreshing. Of course, there’s a laptop too; it sits atop a vintage Oberheim synth on his desk. But, it’s clear that when Garzón-Montano says he plays everything in most of his songs, he really plays everything.
The walls of Garzón-Montano’s bedroom studio are adorned with a similar blend of music and personal mementos. Most notably, amid the concert flyers, vinyl LPs, and pictures of his idols (including an ornately-framed pencil drawing of Lil Wayne), are portraits of his parents. His French mother’s knowledge of classical harmony and Colombian father’s love of cumbia rhythms pulse through his music. In the end, Jardín’s 10 tracks of genre-bending soul play much like his room looks—the work of a man with as many talents as sources of inspiration.
Ironically, working from home is difficult for Garzón-Montano. “It’s something I’ve resented.” he says as we discuss the years he’s spent writing Jardín in his room, “I’ve loved going to studios or leaving my place to work.” It’s hard to imagine he’ll be spending much time at home in the upcoming months. Bishouné: Alma del Huila, Gabriel’s first EP, sent him on a world tour opening for Lenny Kravitz, then to California to sign with Stones Throw Records. Jardín is set to propel him even further. The question is no longer how far, but how high?
In the days before his debut LP’s release, we talked with Garzon-Montano about how Jardín came together, and his efforts to grow as a performer.
Are you excited for the album to be released?
Absolutely. I’ve lived with it for a long time. I’ve definitely stretched the patience of wanting the immediate release and the validation and then just moving on. It’ll be nice to see how people react to it.
When did the songs on Jardín start coming together?
“Trial” I wrote as soon as I got back from doing Bishouné, maybe a month in. “Sour Mango” was written before Bishouné. “The Game” was written a year or two ago…
So it wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to sit down and write this album, it’s going to be called Jardín.’
No, it was more like, write all the shit you can, get as good as you can, and prepare for all these live shows. There’s always the understanding that you’re going to have to make a collection of songs on a pretty regular basis, then record them. It was always just like, “What songs do I have and what songs am I continuing to write?” So yeah, it was over the course of two or three years.
What was going on in your life over the course of that several year span?
A lot of things happened. I guess the things that happen with everybody. Family changes. As you grow up, your conversations with people who are close to you change. You learn tons about communication. You fail a ton. You’re young in New York City. Whoever has that experience can relate. It’s all the same things.
Are there any lyrics on this album that you’re particularly proud of?
Lyrics are really hard for me, but yeah. I like some of the stuff in “The Game”, “Long Years” I like. I like “Lullaby.” “Fruit Flies” is good. That’s a cool one. Writing lyrics is crazy, because a lot of the time I think it’s easiest to write some kind of a vague love song. There’s a lot of things that are like really automatic, and so then you want to consider like, ‘What should I write a song about?’ It’s really difficult. My main motivations are musical.
So it’s about what flows well with the piece.
Sometimes not even that, it’s like, ‘What the fuck can I even talk about?’ I don’t have the soul of a writer, but I can find words. But, it’s a task for sure.
There’s a song called “Lullaby.” It was written as a lullaby, like for children, but also because I thought it was a beautiful piece of music. It’s not like there was any personal experience where I’m talking about trying to put a baby to sleep, or making music with that intention, it was just because a bunch of ideas came together and that’s what happened.
Then there’s “My Balloon,” which doesn’t talk about any experience I had of having my heart broken, but is a song about heartbreak, or about wanting to get somebody back. That came after some phonetics were laid down and I had to find words that sounded like what I wanted the vocal to sound like.
Arrangement-wise the tracks on Jardín feel very spacious to me. Was that a conscious stylistic choice, or does that come naturally to you?
I think that it’s the product of not knowing any better. You lay something down that you know establishes an idea, and it kind of has to be there for it to be what it is. Then you want to make it fuller and embellish it. But then things you add don’t seem worthy of the original, or they betray the sound you want, so you just take them away. Then you’re just kind of left with something simple. I find that happens a lot.
Also, the fact that I perform most of it live makes it that way. There’s not a lot of automation in the box. The production gets defined when I’m recording it.
When you say ‘live,’ do you mean playing the songs in one take in the studio?
Certain things are one take. But yeah, just playing. It’s a tape recording, so you can’t edit. You can go back and do stuff again and punch in, but it takes the magnet a quarter of a second to hit the tape so you can’t punch in in the middle of a sustained note because you’ll hear the gap.
Where does your affinity towards tape recording come from, given the challenges that come with it?
It’s got balls. I listen to Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, Earth, Wind, & Fire, and Sly Stone and that’s just the sound of the records.
I think the energy of of a live performance stays on the recording. When you listen to it, you hear a bunch of humans concentrating and making sound—or, in my case, layering myself over and over. There’s an energy I think that comes across from that. It would be almost impossible to program notes that are different every single time. It just gives you a different feeling.
At the same time, there’s still an electronic vibe to your music. When did you first start experimenting with music production?
In college, when I started interacting with Garageband on a more frequent basis. Just discovering MIDI and drawing stuff in and making productions—trying to make beats that sounded like the beats I liked.
You were making hip-hop beats?
Totally. I made tons of stuff like that. I’ve made a track that for me is my Dipset track, with all the crash cymbals; my Just Blaze track, with an epic Barry White sample; trap beats, just exercises and styles—whatever was interesting. I’ve always felt like I had an obligation to include my awareness of drum machines and those rhythms, to make it a fusion that was contemporary and that talks about where we’re all at now, and to put me in the current conversation, even though the “warmth” of the tape influences people to feel a certain way about my music. It acknowledges soul from the ‘70s a lot I guess, but equally, like you said, has the electronic thing. I find that most contemporary music is just way too digital and cold.
I don’t have any disdain for that arrangement of vibrations, but when everything’s tuned and quantized and whatever…You can tell the difference when there’s an actual performer on a record, as opposed to a computer intervening. Some people can transcend that. You’ve got like Andre 3000, who can sit on a beat that’s very thin and just create it with his presence. Lil Wayne does that for me. Great singers. That’s why I love Prince, because he had a very cold production style sometimes. It’s just like everything is loud and proud and sometimes it’s awkward, but the overriding oneness with the groove, and knowing where home is—that’s what makes those records so special, and that’s why pop music is so cool.
Great performers really are in themselves, and they’re just front and center. So on the new record you hear a lot more vocals that are a little too loud for me, even.
For sure, so that was a conscious effort to…?
Yeah, to be more down the middle and up front, and just stand there and not try to be so cool and intellectual and rarefied. It’s hard. It’s hard to listen to a single vocal or something like that, that doesn’t have a double. You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s just me.’ There’s no production, there’s no chant.
I noticed there’s not as much reverb as on Bishouné.
A lot of my older stuff was me singing like five times and then it gets this whole group funky feeling, as opposed to just the naked vocal.
Last question, how did the cover art come about?
I had conversations with my friend Santiago [Carrasquilla], who does all the visual stuff. We just react to references, hang out, and talk about it until it’s like, ‘All right, cool. Let’s do a shoot.’ The cover is a photo of me looking at the camera. The last cover was all blurry, which I liked, but with this one I’m coming in a little more surefooted, whereas the first time I was trying to be more obscure.
It matches the way that your vocals are more front and center in the songs now.
Right. It’s just more, ‘This is me and what’s up?’ Whereas back then, I had no desire to do that. I mean it was still hard this time. But I understood the value of it.