Of any Canadian musician who is currently active, the most difficult to pin down – and perhaps the most intriguing – is a fellow by the name of Jason Beck, aka Chilly Gonzales. While most people are unfamiliar with Chilly’s solo albums, they’ve likely been privy to his musical stylings by way of his production work on Leslie Feist’s albums. Feist’sThe Reminder was a massive commercial success and her follow-up album, Metals, won the prestigious Polaris music prize in 2012; Gonzales had hand in the production of both. He even won a Grammy for his production work on a track from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and yet, not that many people know his name.
Chilly’s most famous albums are actually solo piano albums – titled simply Solo Piano 1 &2 – in the vein of well loved classical pianists such as Frédéric Chopin and Erik Satie. The albums have sold well internationally and brought him a level of recognition and respect within the adult contemporary crowd. In 2014, Chilly published a book of written music entitled Re-Introduction Etudes that is meant to serve as a tool for lapsed pianists and ambitious beginners who want to establish some skills on the keys. The book – along with the CD containing recordings of the compositions – is a fantastic tool on its own, or as a supplement to music lessons if you want to get ambitious about honing your chops.
The reason, perhaps, that Chilly Gonzales is less of a household name is that he is a restless musical chameleon who jumps from genre to genre in a baffling manner. In the 1990’s, he was the founding member of a trip-hop band called Son (think Portishead) that was signed to Warner Bros. When Chilly refused to change the name of the only radio-friendly single on their album (the song was called Making a Jew Cry) the band was dropped. He moved to Berlin where rent was cheap and the art and music scene was expanding rapidly.
In the aughts, Gonzales put out a lewd rap album called The Entertainistin which his flow bore an unmistakable resemblance to that of Eminem’s. He teamed up with fellow ex-pat Peaches, a provocative electronic musician and performance artist. His 2008 release, Soft Power, is the closest thing that Chilly has to a ‘normal album’, as it comprises elements of disco-pop, piano ballads and traditionally structured rock songs.
The straightforward nature of Soft Power gave way to more blending and experimenting with genres he’d grown experienced in. He put together an album of richly orchestrated classical arrangements called Chambers, which simultaneously brings to mind Baroque masterpieces and the strings you might hear on a Dr. Dre track. The next collection in his discography is a singularly strange record called The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, which contains lush orchestral tracks reminiscent of a John Williams score, over which Chilly spits ridiculous rhymes, questioning his own motivations and criticizing the vapid nature of the music industry.
So if Chilly Gonzales isn’t a name that is tossed around outside of more bohemian circles, now you know why: he’s cast himself in the role of outsider and it seems he intends to keep it that way. He is a true musician’s musician who is addicted to the process, but not so much the culture. By providing tools for musicians to improve themselves and constantly messing with expectations, Chilly pushes the conversation forward and inspires artists to have fun with their craft.