Alternative R&B act Gallant travelled to LA in 2013 to follow his music related dreams. Just three years later, the powerhouse vocalist has managed to collaborate with Jhene Aiko, gain huge recognition and duet with Seal, and nab a request from the office of the First Lady (Michelle Obama) herself to perform music for the Obama’s. This year saw the release of his debut album Ology, which has spawned the massive single ‘Weight In Gold‘, and the album itself received critical praise across virtually every major outlet. On the cusp of his success while in London performing as a guest at Jack Garratt’s sold out tour, we sit down with Gallant to discuss musical heights, inspiration, the state of American society and placing in the realm of R&B.
One thing I get from you is that you’re a traveller, describe your upbringings, and the reason behind so many moves across the States?
“I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which is a suburb basically, lots of trees, lakes and all that kind of stuff so I think naturally every kid from the suburbs at some points is like ‘okay, I’m gonna go to the big city!’ and do that whole thing, so that led me to NYU, up in New York City. It was fun, it was cool you know I drunk a lot of alcohol, made a lot of friends but overall the vibe didn’t really suit me after graduating early, so then came the LA move. I moved to try and get closer to my original roots, the suburban roots of upbringing, and it instantly worked. Even though I wasn’t living the fanciest lifestyle *laughs*, it felt a little more me. It wasn’t directly related to creating but I think the move brought me closer to my humanity and that activated something. It allowed me to be more honest in what I was making”.
So then would you say LA is the better of the three locations for you or your hometown of Columbia?
“You know I think it’s tough, your hometown will always, always be close to you but right now I definitely feel like LA feels like home to me. I just couldn’t imagine living, you know it’s California in general. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else for a long, long time”.
Your career has taken you to the likes of London where we are today, How did/do you find it here? Have you made connections while here for example with artists, producers etc?
“It’s funny because in LA, when I first moved I was working on this EP, that was super low-key, you know I was very modest, it was the start of getting things out from an honest perspective, London was the first place that responded through the magic of the internet. So it’s great. I’ve known Paul now [London based PR] for you know I don’t even know now”.
Paul: *laughs* We’ve known each other for ages.
Gallant: I mean everyone from my earliest support was definitely UK based.
When was the first time you played here?
“My first time actually performing here was way way early this year, honestly. It was surreal because it felt like I knew everyone already because I’ve worked with people from here from afar. I mean even Maths Time Joy , who’s a producer based in the UK produced a song for me early 2013 called ‘Jupiter Grayscale‘ which I re-did for the album [Ology], kinda gave me this weird but truly meaningful connection with London before I’d even come here”.
Any other UK names you’re vibing to right now?
“Producer-wise, I’m not entirely sure but its honestly down to there being so much talent out here right now. I mean the music that really matters a lot of it its coming from the UK. I’ve been obsessed though with NAO, who isn’t!? I’ve crossed paths with her a few times. Hopefully when things calm down we’ll be able to have a nice conversation/collaboration”.
Why did you feel the need to hide your music at the beginning of your career, I was reading that you were hesitant in junior high to share it with your friends?
“I mean I didn’t have an issue with sharing it in the beginning, I was really making the music form me so it didn’t really matter to me what effect that it had with other people at that time, I know that sounds weird but that’s how I felt. It was a way for me to finally work through mental baggage at the time and a way to still convey mental baggage I go through, so the reaction at first was pretty negative because it wasn’t music meant for public consumption, but also because *pauses* it was bad *laughs*. It was so bad but it was so irrelevant to my values and what drew me to the art-form in the first place, that sensibility has kinda lingered on, when trying to conform to societal pressures in New York”.
So then what kind of baggage were you/continue to hold on to? And what emotions or inspirations drew you to progressive music?
“Well I mean besides the really, really personal stuff, everyone has a certain amount of anxiety of wanting to feel unique, wanting to understand that uniqueness once its discovered, and really just however cliche this sounds, break down every wall that’s put up between you and the rest of the world, and you know me at that time, had a lot of walls, a lot of blocks dividing me from everyone as a whole and the universe. I felt isolated, so I think breaking down what makes one feel that… maybe cynicism is really important. Every time I’ve written a new project, or done something significant musically, its always got me to a better state mentally”.
So it’s therapeutic for you?
“Oh yeah for sure, number one, it’s my number one outlet of the negativity”.
I was just surprised that anyone was listening, whether that was a million people or twenty people, it was honestly just a shock and definitely took me by surprise.
Now your first official project was Zebra, which led to huge moves on Spotify, how was it recording this, what were you trying to convey?
“For Zebra, it was very reactionary. At that point I was really starting to reject the entire culture of my peers and the NY music industry. You know it really started to have a dark place which I kinda was able to shake off for a while, but it didn’t feel very planned out, it was a meticulous crafting of sorts of an EP, but the recording process was you know all rules out of the window, just like vomiting literally expelling every possible toxic emotion that I was feeling at that time, and as a result I feel like it was very bruiting and the EP stays in this one sort of place throughout. That was very important to me though, that it did that, and that the progression and evolution on a human level, from beginning to end was momentous, so it really just motivated me to do the same thing for every project, it motivated me for the Ology album, I really really wanted to zone in on that honestly, spark and growth”.
Did you get the reception you anticipated, more or was it underwhelming for you?
“I didn’t expect anything at all, so you know I was just surprised that anyone was listening, whether that was a million people or twenty people, it was honestly just a shock and definitely took me by surprise. It took me a while to you know I guess grab on to that and understand what it did for other people, in terms of appreciation but it was all extremely humbling for me”.
So was it hard then, juggling the new fan-base established?
“Initially, very. But luckily the growth has been so slow and organic with me that its never been too quick for me to you know “catch up” mentally so I’ve been very fortunate with that”.
Now ‘Weight In Gold’ was your real breakout career wise. Following its Zane Lowe premiere, it gained enormous traction, how did you secure the premiere and describe the overnight success with it?
“Well first of all I was luckily enough to have BBC’s support early on, so when Zane Lowe switched seat a little [Beats 1 Radio Show] in a way it was kinda more natural and less forced and I was extremely ecstatic about that premiere *pauses*. You know it has one of those half pure-luck, half really establishing some sort of contentedness with that whole crew, just basically a year prior. To have that be the first song played on Beats 1 as his first world record was incredibly surreal. Definitely gonna remember that day for the rest of my life and I’m so honoured to have had his support early on”.
Moving on to our impressive resume collaborations wise, how was it to duet with Seal at both Coachella and via Spotify?
“Another incredible moment, I had the opportunity to meet him in LA, and I just talk about him so much in terms of ejecting all these boxes in music. So based on that I somehow got to go to his manager’s house and meet him, really early this year funnily enough. I was nervous as hell I just wanted to say “Hey, the new album’s great you inspire me.” that’s literally it, but for him to be like “Yo I heard that ‘Weight In Gold’ song and its a major record” and then want to do any form of collab after, you know I was completely taken aback. Three days later we were in the lab recording a duet and since then we’ve collaborated at Coachella performing ‘A Kiss Of A Rose‘ at my headline tour too, I mean last week we did a talk to students at NYU. To see how real that relationship has grown in such a short space of time has really been completely surreal.
You’ve also been invited to sing for Barack and Michelle Obama, what an amazing experience, How did that come about exactly and how was the experience for you?
“Its the word of the day but man it’s surreal *mutual laughter*, I think this year was the first real big huge South by South West. But anyway I was in the east room, with my band and we kinda did a little hour long acoustic type set and to be performing in the White House and with the President was just a new level of honour. I believe it came from the office of the first lady but honestly it was an honour”.
I think that R&B like many genres in this day and age have freedom to morph and change. I think its less about the artists themselves and more about the listener-ship. Listeners are willing to open their mind now to things which aren’t conventional.
Moving to Ology your debut album which is incredible by the way, its been described as rock soul and is seen as unconventional for R&B, how do you see it/want it to be conveyed?
“I think, I mean I feel like I wish I had a firmer grasp on how I wanted it to be perceived but I dunno, I guess I didn’t really think of it like that. I know I have a lot of influences based on the vast diversity of my musical pallets. I’m from you know a time era where I went on Limewire to buy albums *mutual laughter and nods*, [the label knows the truth]. I really wanted to undo any filter in the conventional process of the album. It was me, my friend, minus a few additions here and there writing the entire album. I didn’t see the point in making a methodical crafted piecemeal, I wanted to get to a better place and evolved as a human which I did but I couldn’t be happier with how it turns out. It explores a lot of things lyrically, sonically, it just represents humanity and how we don’t fit into conventional categories. No one thinks like that”.
Speaking of R&B how do you see the genre evolving, what are your current perceptions of it also?
“I think that R&B like many genres in this day and age have freedom to morph and change I think its less about the artists themselves and more about the listener-ship. Listeners are willing to open their mind to things now which aren’t conventional. The process is more democratic now in terms of the people, the listeners, selecting what is the cream and what is the crop, and also people are way more open to artists skirting one, two or maybe three genres nowadays. I’m honoured to live in a time that kind of selfish creation is looked at in a positive way, and that the formula of typical major labels of mix–tape, album you know is being eradicated”.
And who are some of your standouts?
“You know I love Brandy, always have. That whole 90’s R&B scene in general. Although not every act is from the Maryland area we take pride in having our Toni Braxton’s, the Sisqo’s. It’s cool to have so many. Present, I was really inspired by the Lo-Fi movement a couple of years ago, the NAO’s, the Blood Orange’s. There’s so much talent right now and its even up for debate what’s R&B right now which allows more diversity”.
Do you feel like you’re R&B or just existing?
“I honestly just see myself existing, but I would never deny the love that I have for traditional R&B, but that’s also true for a lot of genres but I wouldn’t personally feel to control the narrative of where people box my music, but I’m all for whatever inspires me, it doesn’t bother me. I’m inspired by what I’m inspired by and there’s no rules for that”.
Going forward, do you see yourself as in competition with anyone in the scene eg. Miguel, Frank Ocean?
“I would love to be called a peer but I’m not the kind of guy that’s very competitive, it doesn’t interest me that much, but those artists mentioned are absolutely brilliant at what they do so i’m totally happy for the comparison, but i feel absolutely no pressure to have any competition with any artist, I’m too concerned about me and my psyche”.
What is the long-term vision board as an artist for you, Grammy’s, etc or something different?
“Well this year touring as much as I did was big one, I did much more than I thought i could. TV performances too, you know your first one then you have your sixth and at some point you’re learning something new from each of them. It’s really inspiring, collaborating with people in Korea as an avid K-pop fan is something so organic to me. Winning or being nominated for a Grammy would be amazing, I don’t think going forward that I will limit myself in terms of honesty creativity and just being true to me. Creatively, there’s so much more to go I just want to better myself as a human being and make genuine connections with other humans”.
As an American how do you feel about the Trump presidency/Race relations in America in general?
“I think that its unfortunate that the party system we have arbutarily links a lot of social issues in a backwards nature, a lot of voters are frustrated with the tone that sets us back socially and it makes me sad, that”.
Do you feel like its a good or a bad thing?
“It helps to say that it’s a good thing to help some people swallow the pill, but I honestly did not know that racism was that bad in terms of turning on the TV and seeing, I mean Nazi groups, it’s a joke, I’m like “where did all this come from”, I’m sure there’s universal disgust for groups like this but I don’t think it took this ignorance to get there in terms of getting people to see our problems”.
Ending on a positive note what are your proudest career moments to date and why?
“In a weird way South by Southwest in terms of pushing myself, I did like seven shows in a row then a star-spangled banner performance, I just pushed myself to newer levels of connecting to audiences and in such an authentic way with no limitations, it so symbolic of themes I explore lyrically, such a transition from where I was to where I am am now”.
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