When meeting a pianist for the first time, people rather involuntarily seem to glance at the artist’s hands, looking, perhaps, for particularly long yet graceful fingers and other physical traits that might explain the musical beauty born through them. With Chilly Gonzales, though, his bushel of chest hair distracts from any such mental meanderings as it pushes out of his unbuttoned shirt like a mini rain forest overtaking new territory.
Chilly steps out from a Berlin home’s front doorway, looks down Brunnenstrasse before inviting his visitor inside his temporary abode (booked via online home rental service Airbnb — with a piano as a must-have, of course). Clad in flannel pants, slippers, and grey wool jacket, his outfit suits both his woolly chest and hip Berlin-Mitte neighborhood.
The Montreal native thanks his assistant, in fluent French, for scheduling tonight’s flight to Paris and its related accommodations. He then throws himself onto the couch across from a clavier: His charisma unfolds, demanding attention in a way not wholly unlike the wild body hair, yet far more charmingly. This independent, talented, self-assured soul doesn’t much care about critics. He brings down borders. He widens horizons. He sells out — venues, that is (the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, two days ago). He drives audiences wild.
From the big button on his jacket smiles a portrait of Franz Liszt, classical music’s first pop star. Mixing these genres, pop and classical, is the core of Gonzales’ focus. At 43, he pushed the relationship further, recently releasing an album recorded with the Kaiser Quartett from Hamburg, Germany, entitled „Chambers“ that, while indeed chamber music, is, in his words, „pop music as well.“
„Even if I use a piano and a string quartett, in the end I want to write a three minute piece. That is why I say I make pop music. Even though there is no drummer, no singer, in my mind it’s still pop — with older tools, different tools. But still pop.”
While his training is primarily classical and jazz, his fame stemmed from pop — his electro albums, his work with renown fellow Canadian indie singers Feist and Peaches, his producing roles with British soul singer Jamie Lidell and French duo Daft Punk, his collaborations with rap stars (at one point he annointed himself Worst MC).
In 2011, he released „The Unspeakable”, perhaps the first rap album to feature orchestral arrangements. Some reviewers likened it to epic movie soundtracks. (Gonzales worked with his brother, the successful film composer Christophe Beck, on several soundtracks, actually).