Artist to Watch: Gabriel Garzón-Montano

SOURCE: Stones Throw Records

After a year of great music, it can be hard to turn to the future. My rotation is still dominated by the music of 2016. With artists like Run The Jewels, Childish Gambino, The 1975 and Mitski as well as my top 5 albums of 2016 controlling my playlists. The first month of Q1 also tends to be a slow month for new releases. It takes some quality music and some encouragement to force me out of that comfortable inertia. With the help of my friend/co-worker/work wife Arianna Soto, I was introduced to the music of an artist who I expect to be one of the breakout stars of 2017: Gabriel Garzón-Montano.

Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s debut album Jardín is out on January 27th, the day after he performs at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. It will be a full-circle moment for him, having been born and raised in the borough that I happen to call home. He’s the son of immigrant parents, a Colombian father and a French mother, the latter of which was a member of the Phillip Glass Ensemble, an experimental minimalist group in the 90’s. With her instruction and his own studies of artists like Stevie Wonder, Prince, J Dilla and Pete Rock, Garzón-Montano laid the foundation to his aesthetic: a multi-instrumentalist who’s strong messages are delivered with soothing grooves.

You may have heard Bishouné: Alma del Huila, his EP from 2014. If you haven’t, you must. Inspired by the fears, anxieties and insecurities that came from his first year out of college, I was impressed by its relatability and delivery. For example, on “Everything is Everything” he nailed the difficulties of living in New York. Whether it was his “mind is number from worrying” or the “roaches in his place, water ain’t working”, it captured my psyche of being young and broke in my first year in the city. It took me long to rationalize what he does so easily here:

Everything is everything
Go out and play nevermind the rain
If your makin ends baby don’t complain
Cause everything is everything

Simply put, there is too much more to be grateful for, so just let it go. Everything is everything.

"Everything is Everything" is the standout track, but Bishoué all really you can ask for in a debut EP. “Keep On Running” minimalist production and fast tempo capture the pace of the real world, rife with the wrongs of capitalism (“We bake the man a big loaf / Go home with the crumbs and close our eyes”) and materialism (Spending and spending/Don’t care what it is/Gotta get mine/Try to stand above the others/ So quick to forget that we were the same child”). “Naeja” covers the feelings of falling in love after being stuck in a metaphorical desert of self-consciousness and bad luck.

The album displayed his abilities to sing, write and produce and caught the attention of some big names, leading to Garzón-Montano going on tour with Lenny Kravitz, Glass Animals, and Mayer Hawthorne. Most notably, “Six Eight”, a woozy lullaby, was sampled on Drake’s “Jungle” off If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. When Drake catches wind of your music, you know you’re doing something right. As did the many subsequent listeners following that song’s release.

SOURCE: Stones Throw Records

While Jardín won’t be released until the 27th, I can assure you it’s really impressive (you already know I got that private SoundCloud link for the album #humblebrag). Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s debut album builds on the work he did on Bishouné in tackling the trials and uncertainties of modern America in a beautiful psychedelic, neo-soul manner. Like Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo before him, he tracked all drums, bass, guitar, piano and synthesizers on the album all while writing and singing. I won’t go in on the entire album in this article -- that would be like describing a Picasso over a ham radio. Instead, I will discuss the songs that are currently available to the listening public: “Sour Mango”, “The Game” and “Crawl”.

Atop a hill under the mango tree
Wishing on a memory
Hoping you were sitting thinking of me.

"Sour Mango" is impressionism at its finest. Garzón-Montano makes seemingly small choices to paint a vivid picture while never being too on-the-nose. The opening verse above is simple but evokes the profound feelings of missing and old flame. It's on par with a Six Word Story in its effectiveness. To enhance the feeling for the listener, he backs the lyrics with bombastic drumming, tinkling keys and delicate synth and strings. It creates a soundscape that is as bittersweet as it is hopeful, as comforting as it is dizzying.

At the end he asks his old flame to take him back, crooning “Come Naeja won’t you pretty please rescue me / At the bottom of my barrel on bended knee / I’m sick of sour mangos give me some sweet.” Likening her love to a mango — a fruit historically used in the Latin American tradition to represent life and fertility — is, again, a simple choice that enhances the record. The other mangos are sour, you are the only one that I find sweet. Sometimes love is that simple.

“The Game”, on the other hand, flips the script: it keeps the production to a standard cool jazz feel while letting the songwriting do the work. The song argues to not play “the trife aristocratic game” of keeping up appearances that is so prevalent today. We “worry about everything” and ”feel just a little to plain” just to “compare yourself to what’s his name.” It points out materialism, likening it to biting “with stolen teeth”.

Rather than get lost in the game he pleads for others to “have heart like a tangerine.” To be brave, to show your happiness to others, to give love. Life isn’t meant to be a zero-sum game: everyone can win.

My favorite song thus far has been “Crawl”. It’s on the short list of Songs That Make Me Feel Way Cooler Than I Am. Let me explain with a scenario: imagine you’re strolling into work for a big meeting in front of the entire company. You need to put yourself into the right groove. That espresso shot you’re eyeing will make you too jittery and anxious. That shot of whiskey at your desk will slow you down too much (read: "It’s like 10:30 in the morning, dude. Slow your roll."). Luckily, your Spotify turns to “Crawl” on shuffle. That funk staccato guitar, the walking bass riff, and the legitimate ear candy induced by GGM’s vocal runs in the chorus has you feeling cool, calm and confident. Those TPS reports (or whatever you do at meetings at a normal job, idk) won’t know what hit them… THAT is how “Crawl” makes me feel and it’s a very delightful way to feel.

That feeling was Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s goal when he created Jardín. “The album comes out of wanting to make music that reminds people how beautiful life is and how delicate their heart is” said Garzón-Montano in a press release. “I’ve always wanted to make music that is healing, comforting, and funky. I named the album Jardín [garden] hoping for it to create a space for healing when people put it on.” I think at each turn on this record it accomplishes its goal, whether it be through thoughtfulness like on “Sour Mango” and “The Game” or escapist bliss like that on “Crawl” or “My Balloon” (which hasn’t been released yet, but hot damn, just wait until you hear it).

With his virtuosity and authenticity, Gabriel Garzón-Montano has caught my ear. I’m looking forward to seeing him at Music Hall of Williamsburg on the 26th to put him to the eye test. If his music is any indication of his live show, he has the potential to be one of the best new artists of 2017.