Chilly Gonzales

Shut up and play the piano

Text by Meg Woof

Photography by Natasha Cox

Chilly Gonzales' enigmatic music exists between locations, never fully settling in any one identifiable camp. So it is fitting that I meet the celebrated rapper, producer and composer while he waits at King's Cross station for a train. We are here to discuss the release of his second piano album, the simply titled Solo Piano II.

Gonzales has adopted many pseudonyms in the past and he has written and performed in a variety of musical idioms. He has produced albums for Feist, made dance-floor-filling electroclash, produced and acted in a film about rival chess playing brothers and soundtracked Apple's iPad commercials. However, his most successful and enduring recording is the first Solo Piano, a gentle, moody and evocative collection of meditative nocturnes. Eight years on, Gonzales' piano was back into a studio in the Pigalle district of Paris to record the follow-up.

Whilst there are parallels between the albums, it is clear that Gonzales has moved on. "I think Solo Piano II is more modern, more poppy. When I was making it the stuff that felt the best to me was the poppy stuff. I started the album with "White Keys" specifically because I think that one couldn't have been on Solo Piano; it's a lot more forward-looking. It is to be considered the sequel, but I did want to take it somewhere."

Work on Solo Piano II  began straight after Solo Piano, since when small ideas and gestures have grown. "I find bits within the piano that lead to something, a little idea, it might be a couple of chords, or the way my head moves, it might be something very small.And that happens hundreds of times a year, in different places, different pianos in different people's houses. A lot of these things just come back. These gestures all simmer and some of them stay. One thing may be turned into a Feist song, or maybe into a beat for a rap song for someone else. However, some of them just seem to be stuck forever on the piano and those are the germs of Solo Piano songs. I develop those, sometimes very slowly, maybe writing a couple of bars every time I'm in a soundcheck. There's no one moment where I write the whole song. For something as delicate as Solo Piano, I wait. I don't even write the stuff down, or call my answering machine - I trust that the right melodies will not leave me alone."

Those melodies are often touching, sparking an emotional reaction and, by extension, prompting concern for the composer's motivations. But Chilly Gonzales does not refer to any specific experiences; he is more concerned with portraying large-scale themes. And just as his output has blended seemingly disparate genres, so Solo Piano II  unifies different styles to arrive at a final destination that is his alone. "Solo Piano was the first time I asked, "What if it was just the piano? Would people still be able to feel the Chilly Gonzales inside of it? 

"Solo Piano II can be quite intense. I like to play with emotions in contrast a lot. Often there'll be a minor verse and a major chorus, which was the old Paul McCartney trick for how to write a song, a very valid one. And, you know, juxtaposing obviously: if a song sounds more European and has a more classical bent, then I'll play it in a more American way, which is where I'll play it like I'm in a saloon. Or play with a secret hip-hop beat flickering in my head. This is evident on "Wintermezzo". If the song is a bit more American, like "White Keys", a bit more poppy, then I'll play it a bit more like I'm in Vienna, like it's a classical piece. I'm always going for that alternative approach. Usually that comes in big ways on a Chilly Gonzales album." §

Solo Piano II is out now on Gentle Threat.

  • Chilly Gonzales