In 1975, James Baldwin spoke with fellow writer Maya Angelou on an American public television show about status. “In a very serious way, it is not possible for an artist to be a success,” Baldwin said.
Of course, “serious” is a relative term, as is “success.” And, by most measures, Baldwin was both of those things. But was he correct about the non-existent intersection between artistry and commercial achievement? Or was the best-selling author just being a snob?
The Canadian expat musician Chilly Gonzales might agree with the latter. Speaking from London, where he lives part-time when he’s not at his long-time home in Cologne, Germany, Gonzales brings up the notion that artists are allowed to be successful, but only if it’s a byproduct of their art – that their commercial achievements should be accidental.
“That was expected of us back in the 1990s,” says Gonzales. "It was like ‘Oops, you’re successful. I wasn’t trying to be successful – what happened?' Well, I can say that I was really interested in being successful, albeit on my own terms.”
Mission accomplished, one supposes. After failing to break through as a “traditional” pop artist in Canada in the ’90s, Gonzales (born Jason Beck in Montreal 48 years ago) has crafted an idiosyncratic career abroad as a flamboyant rapper, an eccentric techno artist, a Feist collaborator, a specialist songsmith who calls Drake and Daft Punk clients, and a bathrobe-wearing classical pianist with elegant pop sensibilities and a pro wrestler’s flair for audacity.
There’s more: In 2018, the mentoring Gonzales created his own international music school, the Gonservatory. Last month he released a book, Enya: A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures, about musical taste and the reclusive Irish pop star Enya. And now his classy Christmas album, A Very Chilly Christmas, is available to the roasted-chestnut crowd.
Hip hop mogul Jay-Z famously said of himself, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” On a smaller scale, Gonzales, a man of many niches, has built a modest but admirable empire. He’s hustled, and makes no apologies for his ambition.
“I believe there’s been a generational shift,” Gonzales says. "When I started out, there was this thing that artists shouldn’t be seen as calculating. But it seems we’ve finally shaken off that bugaboo of selling out that was plaguing musicians.
“I’m here for that. Thank God we’re moving on.”
Gonzales also believes we’ve moved on from the concept of “guilty pleasures.” It’s a subject of his book on musical snobbery and the new-age, Celtic-pop stylings of Enya that are perceived by the tastemakers as lowbrow. “People feel this need to categorize their tastes and wonder if they should be embarrassed about liking things,” he says. “With younger generations, this is less of a concern.”
In the same way, on his new album of Christmas music, Gonzales covers All I Want for Christmas and Last Christmas, contemporary classics by keening pop stars Mariah Carey and George Michael’s pop duo Wham!, respectively. Gonzales’s sparse, poignant instrumental renditions are the opposite of kitsch.
“I played them without irony,” he says. “And without a lot of transformation and without a lot of playfulness. I wanted people to take a fresh listen to their songs.”
In doing so, Gonzales takes the Mariah out of her smash hit yuletide single – saluting her (with his stripped-down, pseudo bossa nova variation) by removing her.
“Her version is a lot about ego, and a lot about singing the hell out the song,” he explains. “It’s not exactly self-effacing, to say the least.”
To say the most, it’s showboating.
“It’s extroverted,” Gonzales allows. “But I was able to find my way into performing a version of that song by removing all of that and really focusing on just the straight melodies, and to focus on the song itself, which is a beautifully written piece of music.”
Both the book and Christmas album (which includes affecting instrumental versions of time-tested carols, along with new songs made with Leslie Feist and Jarvis Cocker) were conceived before COVID-19. But what Gonzales calls the “strangeness of the year” only strengthened his beliefs about the pureness of music and its social function, stripped of self-conceit.
“It’s too late to undo growing up in a culture of individuality,” he says. "My ego and my personality will always be in my music. But I can see if those elements can find a proper place, maybe in balance with something that is a little more collective.
“Music should be useful, not a decoration. It can bring us together, God dammit.”
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.