INTERVIEW: Chris Garneau

By Kate Gilberd

Chris Garneau’s latest album, The Kind, was released on Jan. 29 via The Orchard. WTBU DJ and writer Kate Gilberd chatted with Garneau about his songwriting process, musical influences, and more.


KG: How has quarantine been for you as a musician?

CG: The last two years I’ve been working on this record that just came out. So I sort of needed to be productive, because I had to finish things. But that being said, I definitely had a moment. I actually went out at the very end of February to Joshua Tree, to try to finish the writing on this record. And then, you know, about two weeks later, the pandemic broke out. So that definitely put a little bit of a halt on things. I was down to doing like one or two out of 10 things a day, so it was pretty low functionality rate at that point. And that kind of continued through July. I came back to New York, I went up to Maine to a lakehouse to try to keep writing – and it wasn’t nothing, but it definitely was not where I wanted it to be. It really wasn’t until about August that I started being able to pick up the pace again, and started feeling a little more productive. But yeah, those first few months were really rough for sure.


KG: I saw you said on Instagram that you created this record in a lot of different places. How do you think that that influenced the sound of the record? 

CG: The writing started here in upstate New York, where I’m based. I was working, making some of the first drafts at the church studio where we made the album, just playing in that main hall on this gorgeous German concert grand piano. That whole energy definitely played into a lot of what ended up becoming, really, music around mourning and grieving. You know, I’m not a religious person, but I consider myself to be a spiritual person, and it’s hard not to feel a deeper connection to spirituality in a church. And certainly, in upstate New York, that is where I’ve connected more to any spirituality that is within me, just by being outside a lot. I feel like there’s a lot of space and time in these songs, and there’s a lot of space and time in my life – I literally take long breaths. I don’t really work a lot during the day- especially in nicer weather. I like to do some email stuff in the morning, but other than that, I like to be on my bike or swimming or just outdoors, even if it’s just sitting on my porch. And that feels very much like a connection to that spiritual energy. That is something that has helped me heal, and helped me create this album, and I think I felt the same way in the desert. It’s a very different vastness, but it definitely is one that makes me find deeper relationships to things that we don’t just see with our eyes. So I think that all of those places, whether it was the church studio, the mountain, the river, the desert, they all ended up being things that connected me to the material in a deeper way. 


KG: I know piano features really heavily in The Kind and in a lot of your music. Do you prefer piano as a songwriting tool? What does the songwriting process look like for you?

CG: I do prefer it. I mean, I don’t really play anything else, so I definitely rely and depend on it heavily. It’s my main instrument. I play a little bit of guitar, and I can play like a little bit of cello or some other string instruments, but not really. I wouldn’t sit down and perform for somebody on the cello or guitar, but I can play in a recording setting. I think that what happened with this record is that on the two previous albums, Winter Games and Yours, I was feeling like I wanted to substitute the piano a lot. So even if I wrote things on piano, we ended up replacing it with other instrumentation. And I think that a lot of the time even though it was fun, and it’s exciting to shift and change things, it ended up making me feel less connected to the work. And I think that it also made my audience feel less connected to the work, maybe not across the board, but in a general way. So, since this album is so much of a transformation for me, and, also is just very pure for me, it felt fully natural, to be completely dedicated and committed to my main, true instrument. 


KG: Is songwriting for you a spontaneous thing, or do you have to sit down and really focus? 

CG: It can be a little bit of all of that. Sometimes, if I do have something that’s floating around in my head, I will make an effort to grab the phone and make a voice memo, or just record something in some way quickly so I don’t lose it, because I never remember it. If I’m like, oh, there’s no way I could forget this – I always do, 100% of the time, so I’m not allowed to do that anymore. I usually make a little memo of it, but sometimes things come to me. Like, the third track on the album, “Now On,” I wrote that song while I was riding my bike last summer. It was a hot August late afternoon, early evening, you know. And I did have my phone with me. I was just biking around for a while, and had a few little lyrics and a little bit of the melody. I just ended up writing the majority of it on voice memos on my phone, on my bike, in the parking lot. So things happen in all kinds of ways. But the last thing I’ll say is that usually, I do need a piece of a lyric to really fuel the energy of the whole song. I do like to have a little bit of lyric content before I can really start writing.


KG: I know that you’ve been making music for a while. How did your personal music style evolve to where you are now?

CG: I think that I’ve gone through a lot of different phases of genre, and I think that part of that is owed to just wanting to explore, and part of it was owed to, you know, a lot of us try to transform and create new kinds of areas in our artistic lives. There may have been times where I went a little too hard with that. And I think what’s interesting about this album is that it really harks back to what I first started making, which was really raw, live-esque piano chamber punk. Over the last 10 to 15 years it went into some more kind of baroque, even like theatrical carnival-esque music on my second album, into electronic, ambient soundscape sound on Winter Games, and then into a much more Gothic, kind of dark rock, wave vibe on the Yours album. Of course, all throughout that, it was me, like, there was still folk composition at its core. It wasn’t out of nowhere, but it was definitely adventurous. I don’t have any regrets, but I do feel like what this album represents is a combination of my purest genre, which sits somewhere between chamber, folk, gospel, and pop, and hopefully with sophistication and more maturity. There is a fair amount of electronic production on tracks like “Little While,” and “Now On,” and “Telephone.” And rock, I mean, there’s full drum and bass pretty much throughout the entire album. You have some of the theatrical, baroque, kind of pop thing from El Radio on songs like “The Kind.” So in a weird way, I would say that this album is kind of a more sophisticated organization of all of the records I’ve made.


KG: Did you know that that’s what you wanted to do with this record?

CG: Patrick, who produced the record, and I made “Little While” first, which is the ninth track on the record. We didn’t know if we were going to make a whole album together yet, but what we came to understand over the next six months or so was that the timbre and tone of the record would be more live, or live-ish, takes. We knew that we wanted the rawness of those performances. Then it was just a question of how deep do we go into production, you know? We did have one track, “Not The Child,” that has a full string arrangement on it, but that was all pre-pandemic. Once we got into the real heavy lifting of the album, we were also fully immersed in COVID. So one thing kind of led to the other. I think ultimately, yes, that was the direction – but it also was fueled by the crisis that we’ve found ourselves in. 


KG: Who are your biggest influences and inspirations, and have they changed a lot over time?

CG: I wouldn’t say that they’ve changed a lot over time. From being a kid and hearing Nina Simone, and also classical composers that were alive much earlier, who I studied – like Bach and Chopin and Grieg – they were influences 100%. I still love and appreciate and listen to classical music all the time. But as far as modern artists go, I would say that the biggest influence and inspiration over my whole life has been Nina Simone. I still just listen to her and am completely astounded. I still find new recordings by her. I think that the reason that it hit me so hard when I first heard her, when I was probably about 10 or 11 years old, was that she was clearly a very accomplished pianist, but she was revolting. She was singing jazz standards, and songs she wrote, and songs other brilliant songwriters that she worked with wrote, and ultimately was combining her classical and Baroque aesthetic into all of that – while singing like a badass and also making her politic very clear. So she’s a big, big, big one for me. 

My siblings are both older than I am, so they brought Tori Amos into my life when I was pretty young, actually, to be listening to her – not that I think that children are too young to listen to Tori Amos. I’m just surprised that I had the opportunity to listen to Little Earthquakes when I was seven years old. And again, hearing this woman just like completely freak out and be like, absolutely fucking shameless and crazy and beautiful but so in control, and then also a pianist. She was really huge for me. My parents listened to, you know, the Beach Boys, and Joni Mitchell and Francoise Hardy and Judy Collins, and Eric Satie is a big influence. Those were all formative, and they stay with me to this day for sure.


KG: Who has been your favorite artist that you’ve toured or collaborated with? 

CG: Two artists that I toured with quite a bit and have worked with are Emily Jane White and Xiu Xiu. I never formally made recordings with Xiu Xiu, but we were on the road for so many years together, and one of their former bandmates is one of my best friends. We started a project that kind of never really got finished for a while, but they were just like, beyond collaboration. They were so generous with me when I was really just starting out. They kind of took me all over all over the world with them – and we make very, very different sounding work. So it was just a very big gesture, and it was really fun to be able to open up for them for so many years all over the place. Emily Jane White and I met in France about 12 years ago, and she and I have recorded with each other quite a bit. She’s so great. She’s like, folk, enchantress, dark wave, gothic. Really, really beautiful. We live on opposite sides of the country, but anytime we’re making a record and we want a little backing vocal arrangement or help with anything like that, we record all over each other’s music. So it’s always a really nice collaboration for me with Emily. 


KG: Who is your dream artist to collaborate with?

CG: I wouldn’t really have any business working with him, but Frank Ocean is like a very current huge influence. I think that the blonde record is one of the best albums ever recorded. I really like his experiment and the adventures that he took. The risks that he took with sound and space on that album have been really influential, and it’s really cool to see people doing that in pretty mainstream pop. 


KG: How has your identity influenced your work, and this album in particular?

CG: When I first started making work, I was very open with how I identified generally and also sexually. I think that people really latched on to that, especially in the press. Not that I think anybody should do anything that makes them uncomfortable, but when you have the opportunity to let your audience know that you’re out there, living and making work in the public eye, and you’re queer, I think it’s really inspiring for a lot of people. It’s not just people in the US, although of course there’s a lot of places in the US where it’s extremely, extremely dangerous and scary to identify as queer. So I always think that, you know, we should go forward with that and be really loud about it in whatever way it makes you comfy. 

As far as how it related to my work, I didn’t find it to [at first]. I would say that right now, my queerness is something that I’m able to embrace more – not that I felt shame about it before. I was just still working on so much of my trauma from childhood that had very little to do with my queerness, and so it wasn’t really manifesting itself in the work. And now I just feel very, very whole, and I feel very, very, with myself. I feel very comfortable and confident in a way that I’m really grateful for. So I think that safeness within myself, and that bond to myself that is much more loving than it was when I was a younger adult, is ultimately extremely beneficial to the work, because I can make something that is just as round and whole.


KG: I have a radio show on WTBU called Spotlight, where we pick an artist and play artists we think sound like them or who are their influences. If your music was to be played on a show like that, whose music would you want to be played alongside it?

CG: I mean, there are a few friends who are peers where we have crossover, you know, sonically speaking, and whose music I also just love. I mentioned Emily Jane White. Perfume Genius is a good friend of mine. Oh, there’s a new record by Baby Rose. It might be her first record, it’s called To Myself. She’s only like 23 or 24, and it sounds like it could be her 10th album. The songwriting is incredible, her voice is incredible, and the production is amazing. It feels very vintage soul, and it’s really beautiful. Tirzah, I love that album from 2017 – Devotion, I think it was called. I don’t know that we sound anything alike, but it’s minimal, sparse, kind of electronic, and really lyric forward. 


You can follow Chris Garneau on Instagram @chris.garneau, and check out his album The Kind on Spotify and Apple Music.