Change of keys

He’s Canadian but influenced by Europe and is classically trained but was freed up by rap. Chilly Gonzales talks about winning a Grammy with Daft Punk and playing the longest concert ever

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As a child, Chilly Gonzales was transported to Europe without ever leaving home. While living in Canada, his grandfather taught him piano, which became a passport to the homeland of great composers. He was taken to Germany by Bach, France by Debussy and England by Elgar. This was the start of a musical journey that saw him reinvent what it meant to be a pianist.

“I’m not trying to get people into classical music or make it accessible,” says the 46-year-old Grammy Award-winning artist, who embarks on a UK tour this month. “The piano is my primary mode of expression but I’m a pop musician. Classical music feels less alive than the world of pop music to me.”

Gonzales was born Jason Charles Beck in Montreal. His family fled from Hungary during the Second World War, serving his grandfather’s tutoring with a deeper purpose.

“I think he was very intent on his grandkids preserving a strong relationship with European culture,” he explains. “It was a message of respect for music and I still have a connection with that part of myself.”

The young maestro moved to Berlin in 1999, signed a record deal and created his current moniker. This followed moderate success in Canada with the rock band Son. What triggered his relocation?

“I was really determined to find an audience for myself,” says Gonzales, who now lives in Cologne. “Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum for me. To be isolated in Canada would’ve been frustrating so I thought I would try things in Europe. I had nothing left to lose at that point. I soon realised that my dream would be a viable thing to achieve if I put the time in.”

He spent subsequent years experimenting with contemporary beats. Most notably, he found rap music and the maverick pianist began developing a strong fan base.

“It wasn’t just about the sound: being a rapper means never choosing whether you’re an artist or an entertainer. That was instinctively something I was struggling with in Berlin,” he says. “Rap music inspired me to have some kind of pop element to what I do but a lot of people were discouraging me from that.

“In the world of composed music, my attitude was much too ordinary and disrespectful. When I decided to alienate myself in Europe it created a certain space in which to recreate my identity and approach the piano as if I were a rapper.”

Gonzales received much acclaim for his early recordings, production work and remixes. But his breakthrough came when he returned to his roots and released Solo Piano in 2004. The album showcased original classical compositions in a pop format. It differed greatly to the work of predecessors and changed the course of his career. Its sequel, Solo Piano II, belatedly arrived in 2012.

Whilst he considers himself a solo artist at heart, Gonzales has gained increased popularity as a collaborator. Amongst others – including Feist, Drake and Jarvis Cocker – he is close friends with the electronic duo Daft Punk. It was his contribution to Random Access Memories that won him his Grammy Award when it was named album of the year in 2013. Nevertheless, it remains a career high point.

“It was a beautiful moment. Their concept was to do the album with very accomplished and trained musicians. They wanted to take the kind of approach to studio albums that you would have seen in the 1970s golden age. I guess it was natural for them to ask me to come by, have a listen and see if there was anything I could think of. Very naturally, we realised where I could have a role.”

“I’m always looking for that sweet spot between slightly ridiculous and potentially transcendent.”

Not only does Gonzales make records, he breaks them. In 2009, he entered the Guinness World Records book after performing the longest solo concert. He played for 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds at the Ciné 13 Theatre, Paris. The reasons for this personal challenge were varied.

“I’m always looking for that sweet spot between slightly ridiculous and potentially transcendent. The concert was a way of exploring some of the deeper connections between the idea of competition and achievement as a creative artist. It also had the benefit of being a very poetic kind of marketing in the sense that I attracted people’s attention. It really checked all the boxes.”

Did he ever consider giving up? “No, absolutely not. There was no real danger of not finishing. The challenge was to make it a good performance. It was about not disappointing my audience. The usual goal of a concert will always apply: take people on a journey and give them some powerful emotions. That’s an entertainer’s main goal, so it was upping the ante on that.”

Gonzales’s forthcoming tour will showcase Solo Piano III – the conclusion of his trilogy. Despite playing the same pieces at each show, he says there is never the risk of repetition.

“Every piano is really different. The joy of being a pianist is that you have to negotiate a relationship with a new instrument every night.

“Also, performing my own music means that I can change it as I go. The pieces take on a new life, especially as I try to bed them into the piano that I’m playing. Sometimes I’ll play a particular chord and feel that it has musical value in and of itself because of how it’s resonating between the piano and, to a lesser extent , the room I’m playing in.”

Ahead of the performances, Gonzales considers the impact Europe has made on his career. “I’m now more aware of the contribution that it made to my music – it’s a really important one. All of those countries and their strong cultures played their part.

“It took me a while to succeed, but when things started to happen I realised I was kind of remixing the legacy of my grandfather and bringing it back to its source.”

Chilly Gonzales plays Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 8 September; Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 11 September ( Solo Piano III is released on 7 September 

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