Chilly Gonzales is a true musical polymath.
At ease working in a solo piano setting or leaping into the studio with Daft Punk, his work is broad almost beyond definition.
Earlier this year, however, he was forced to draw in his plans. The pandemic halted all touring activities, and caused untold disruption for millions of people.
Recognising this, Chilly set about re-casting Christmas, unpicking the schmaltz that often surrounds the mid-winter season and locating fresh emotional nuance.
New album 'A Very Chilly Christmas' is just part of this. Out now, it's joined by his Toddla T collaboration 'A Very Chilly Mixtape: the Coldest Crimbo' and a new all-star festive broadcast featuring close friends such as Jarvis Cocker and Feist.
Clash fired up Zoom to chat all things December 25th with the Canadian born maverick.
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Your live-stream performance recently was wonderful! Was it nice to be able to flex your concert muscles?
Of course! I feel like as a creative person you have your preferred ways of getting fuel, and that has tended to be playing live for me, more and more. I really have come to believe that music happens when you’re in a room with people, and that’s really something that has over the past five, six years become really important.
I feel like my concerts are a work of art, and everything else supports that work of art. But like everything, humans are very adaptable. So when that is taken away, you find other ways. I’ve live-streamed bit, and I filmed this Christmas special… which is something I’m really proud of because it’s got high production values, it’s very ambitious, and I had my buddies Feist and Jarvis Cocker join me. It’s a really nice old school Christmas special live we used to watch when we were kids. And that’s been really fun. So we’ve adapted, and we’re looking for different ways to stay in touch with an audience.
But of course, it’s been super-frustrating. Live-streaming a concert is like trying to have sex with three condoms on – it’s just not the same! It’s better than nothing – I’ll admit that! - but I am very much about the relationship with the audience. Maybe moreso than other people, who feel that the art happens in the studio, but I see that relationship reversed. I only spend time in the studio so I can feed the actual artwork, which is the concert. I’m finding other ways to do it, but I guess it won’t be much longer… maybe this time next year I’ll be able to play concerts, I guess. The gods of music willing! Let’s hope so.
You’re a very collaborative artist, has adapting to creative conversations over Zoom been difficult?
Well, with the Christmas special we’ve got Jarvis on-hand, right there in the theatre with me. All of my musical family were there. We made sure everyone felt as safe as possible, through testing and such. We pulled it off. We were able to work, and my musical family, when you convene them for a Christmas special, you have that great excuse – hey, we’re working! Of course, it is also just an excuse to be around my buddies, but then that’s sort of the story of my life. Friends and professional relationships have always overlapped with me.
I made the album because I knew Christmas was going to be different this year. The mixtape and the album both exist for that reason. It’s to create that positive energy with your gang. Me and Toddla T have been making music together for ages, and it was like: how can we create this feeling of community? He’s got his gang of rappers and I’ve got my gang of musicians. We both felt that need to find another way to do it, create the community otherwise. Thank God technology is there at this time for us to be able to do that.
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Toddla T is such an enthusiastic guy…
Oh yeah! He has that child-like exuberance for music that is very important to me. I can’t work with somebody who can’t revert to a child-like state. If people are looking for the key to working in different genres, or how do you reconcile a sense of humour and musical seriousness… all of these apparent contradictions that people see in my work, but for someone like me or Jarvis or Toddla T it’s just… if you can revert back to that child-like state, that’s where opposites exist all the time without even thinking about it. It’s not us setting out to work in many genres, it just seems logical to me because I have this child-like fascination for music.
A child doesn’t see genre – a child just likes what it likes, or doesn’t like what it doesn’t like. That’s the principle I operate on. And it’s the same for Jarvis. It’s being ridiculous and serious at the same time. It’s not even a choice! It’s a false choice to say you have to pick your side, because if you see it through the eyes of a kid then it’s all the same.
I didn’t realise you and Toddla had been working together for such a long time!
We’ve been making beats together for quite a while. I met him back in the early 2000s days, but we didn’t do that much work together until about 2015. He put out this track with Coco, and I wrote to him, saying: oh my God, this is exactly what I like, let me send you some piano bits! So we just started in London, doing these sessions… and under the radar we’ve been low-key doing beats for rappers, and I helped him with the song ‘Magnet’ on his album. Apparently became a giant hit in Turkey for some reason!
So I wrote to him and said: hey, I’m making this Christmas project, how do you feel about Christmas? And he’s like: I like Crimbo! And I’m like: Crimbo?! What’s that?! And then he just made five beats in one night, and suddenly it was on!
I really wanted Coco on a couple of things. It’s just one of those things that came together very, very quickly… I think – honestly – I must have sent him the album in September, and next thing we knew we had a finished thing. It was really exciting – I’m proud of it, it has this really spontaneous energy, and I think that’s what rap was made for. Making things quickly. And so often in the non-rap world things take so much longer, it’s so painfully, excruciatingly slow. That’s what I love about how rap is made – it captures a moment, and that’s how I like to work as well.
Sounds like it worked out well, then.
Oh it really did. And most people I work with are like that, too. I can’t work with these tortured artists. I see it as people either having the Mozart approach or the Beethoven approach. Mozart was like a kid – he wrote tonnes of music, 100s and 100s of pieces, it just came out of him. You don’t have to love everything but you have to love how it was made because it’s exuberance, and an escape from how horrible the world can be.
Whereas Beethoven, it’s like how horrible the world can be extended into his tortured process. He really didn’t write that much, it was painful, his life was dark, and music could have been an escape hatch for him… but it wasn’t! Music became a continuation of the despair.
I can’t handle that. Even if a musician is great and talented, if I find myself in the studio and onstage with them, and there’s that darkness there, then it doesn’t work. The music is an escape from the darkness. Of course, sometimes the darkness is in there – there’s a lot of sadness on my Christmas record, a lot of melancholy, but it has to co-exist with the fact that there’s joy in being able to put that into music. That’s the point of music – being able to translate it, and get it out of you. I’m not saying all music should be happy, but I am saying that the process of making music should be happy.
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You’re right, Christmas can be a very emotionally complex experience – was that sense of nuance something that attracted you as a songwriter?
Now, I agree with you, but a lot of people don’t see it that way. I feel like most people I know resist Christmas, as they can’t stand that forced smile. The fact that it’s steeped in capitalism so heavily. The songs themselves become corrupted through constant appearances in advertising. So this album, was like: let’s take that back!
I don’t think you have to choose complete submission or complete resistance, there is a way to portray it in a realistic way. In a more intimate but also more playful way. So absolutely, I think those cynical cash-in records made it so I thought I would never release a Christmas album, but I thought: well, I have my singalongs with my friends every Christmas and my family… I’m going to keep doing those, and I know what Christmas music means to me, and I’m going to ignore the fact that on a higher level it’s become corrupted.
But in 2020, around Springtime I thought, oh, it’s going to be different this year. Maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s time to put this emotionally nuanced Christmas vision out into the world. I started recording and thought, OK I’m on to something here. Even friends who resisted Christmas music started to say: OK, now you’re melting my ice cold heart! Because there is something in these tunes. That’s when I knew I was on to something, when the most anti-Christmas of my buddies responded positively.
The songs themselves are a link to something ancient. Many of those songs come from a culture that exists before the individual. And that’s what is so frustrating about seeing them co-opted by giant, cynical, shitty entertainers, and John Lewis ads. To think, wow, this is one of our only remaining links with true folk music, music that had this social purpose, music that comes before artistic pretence… and that is irresistible for someone like me to try to find that connection again.
There’s no word ‘I’ in Christmas songs. They have no narrator. Christmas pop songs is a different story. All I Want For Christmas Is You – that’s a product of the culture of the individual. My job when I was portraying those songs was to take the ‘I’ - so to speak – out of them, and treat them as if they were folk songs. When I play them at singalongs – believe me – people act as if they are folk songs… people go nuts if you bust out ‘Last Christmas’ - it’s amazing!
The language of Christmas carols is so distinct, isn’t it? A lot of those signs and signifiers point towards cultural beliefs that don’t exist in the same way any more.
Absolutely. One thing you see in those old carols is that there’s a certain simplicity to the actual melodies. You don’t really feel as though the artist is present. These songs, in many cases, don’t have an acknowledged composer. And you hear it! There’s no moment when the melody is drawing attention to itself in a self-conscious way. The way that when I would write a piece I want my personality to shine through, I want people to hear me. But in folk songs you don’t have that. You don’t have it in lullabies, either.
It all comes down to an accessibility. Lullabies are simple because people who sing lullabies – who are mothers, fathers, primary care-givers – even if they are amateurs need to have access to that lullaby, so it can fulfil its function… to put the baby to sleep! Christmas carols are there so that any old drunk amateur or three year old child can find their way into singing this song. And that’s not the case with so many of our modern songs, which contain a compositional virtuosity and are meant to glorify the composer.
I love that. I love the openness to the amateur that folk music represents. I’m trying to find a way into that ancient world where music only had a social function, and had nothing to do with artistic pretence or the glorification of the individual.
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The Christmas special is coming up in a few days…
I can’t wait! I’m a showman, and this year I wasn’t able to show. It was really frustrating. All of that energy went into this one off Christmas special. It’s got sketches and guests, and this through-line where Santa Claus decides to go to therapy.
Santa Claus doesn’t believe in her job any more – not particularly because of coronavirus, but due to the Christmas spirit being corrupted in many ways. She’s also frustrated by the capitalism co-opting of the season, and she needs again. I play her therapist. It’s all written in ridiculous rhyming couplets, and then I put on my record at one point, and she starts to believe again. She starts to hallucinate this really surreal concert – which is where Jarvis and Feist show up!
It’s a beautiful theatre, and a lot of really exclusive stuff which isn’t even on the album. It’s all linked to Santa’s journey, so we go through all the emotional stages that you could through in therapy. We’re trying to bring back a certain way of seeing Christmas, that child-like sense we all had.
But when I made this album it wasn’t for people to relax to and listen to in front of the fire with a cup of brandy… although I have no problem with that! It’s also about people who can’t stand being around their family any more… and that’s also a part of Christmas. And that’s a part of the album, and it’s definitely a start of the Christmas special.
Santa is an anagram of Satan, after all…
I agree! That did not escape our notice when we wrote it, I can say that.
How will you be spending Christmas this year?
I’ll be in London. And I’m really looking forward to it. The English really know how to do Christmas. I can really say that because I can compare between France, Germany, and England… and the English win by far. Crimbo wins! I’m on team Crimbo!
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'A Very Chilly Christmas Special' will be broadcast on December 16th.
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