Gabriel Garzon-Montano, finding escape in magical funk

Shaun TANDON
US musician Gabriel Garzon-Montano performs during a summer stage concert in New York's Central Park in July

Gabriel Garzon-Montano's career trajectory a few years ago sounded, to his friends at least, to be the envy of a musician on the make.

Still in his mid-20s, the Brooklyn-born singer and multi-instrumentalist driven by the sensibilities of old-school R&B was tapped as Lenny Kravitz's opening act on a tour of Europe and Drake sampled him on one of the hip-hop superstar's number-one albums.

Instead, Garzon-Montano, a perfectionist who struggles to determine when his music is good enough for release, was crushed inside.

"I felt like he had just mopped the European floor with me," Garzon-Montano said of Kravitz. "I just felt like I was going along for this shaming ride almost."

Acknowledging that playing as an opening act is a rite of passage, Garzon-Montano said he nonetheless felt ignored, his set on less than half the volume of Kravitz's as crowds trickled in "who paid the babysitter to go see the greatest-hits show."

Around the same time his phone kept ringing as friends heard his voice on Drake's song "Jungle."

Drake properly secured rights to the sample. But he credited Garzon-Montano only by his initials, leaving the emerging artist embittered.

"It was like 'Groundhog Day,'" he told AFP. "Everybody was like, 'Congratulations, everything is going so well,' and I was saying, well, actually this experience has been really horrifying for me."

- Fighting insecurities with magical realism -

Garzon-Montano, the son of a Colombian father and a French mother, channeled his insecurities into his latest song, "Golden Wings." Returning to his raw, early '70s-style production, Garzon-Montano builds the track off a hard and clean funk rhythm, layering it with a trippy organ and his suave, polyharmonic vocals.

The song reflects poetically on striving higher -- "Golden wings upon my feet / On clouds I dance."

Speaking with rapid-fire eloquence even as he meticulously rolled a joint before a show, Garzon-Montano said of the song: "Anybody who is having a rough, uninspired day, you can remember that you can make more out of life."

"It's kind of like a song to remind you of your magic. Basically, you create your life."

His lyrics are full of bright colors and dreamy metaphors. On his 2017 album "Jardin," he sang about wistfully picking sour mangoes off a tree and of biting into a "peach bite melody."

The trilingual singer, who has written almost exclusively in English but plans to expand into Spanish and French, credits his Colombian side for the aura of magical realism in his words.

But even more than from novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the singer takes inspiration from his uncle, Jaime Garzon, Colombia's leading satirical journalist who was shot dead by suspected right-wing paramilitaries in 1999.

"A bit of my Colombian identity is wrapped up in having this legacy of total compassion and excellence in human rights advocacy and commitment to people," Garzon-Montano said.

"It just really highlights how mediocre it would be to be in this for myself and just be another artist" rather than looking more deeply, he said.

- Finding idol and look -

His late mother spent 10 years playing in the ensemble of pre-eminent living US composer Philip Glass, nurturing in Garzon-Montano a discerning musical ear from an early age.

After a youthful dalliance with the aggression of Nirvana, he found his musical hero in D'Angelo, the elusive R&B sensation whose influence is instantly recognizable in Garzon-Montano.

"I realized that this is Stevie Wonder happening before my eyes. I would cry about it. For so long I felt that I had missed the era I was supposed to be in," he said.

As he looks to the next stage of his career, Garzon-Montano, who plays all the instruments in the studio, is fine-tuning his voice -- and his look.

Playing a recent show in Central Park, Garzon-Montano strutted on stage in an open-chest peach suit. By the end of the concert he had cast away the jacket, revealing his ripped abs as he hovered sensually over the microphone.

"Someone once said, 'you don't look at all like your music sounds,'" Garzon-Montano said, explaining he had never made a conscious fashion decision when he sported jeans and a T-shirt.

"Creating clothing is art, just as much as music is," he said. "To realize you're entering a multidisciplinary field is to really do this so-called pop music correctly and give people the experience they deserve."