It’s a quiet afternoon in Toronto, but R&B singer Gallant has a busy day ahead of him. In addition to his sit-down with Urbanology, the Maryland-native is scheduled to meet with a few other local radio stations and then he’s slated to perform at the Mod Club. When he walks into his hotel suite at One King West hotel he looks mellow yet optimistic. He’s carrying coffee for himself and his personal photographer and sets them down before offering an elbow bump greeting to the Urbanology team.
“You know this coronavirus thing is no joke,” he says, explaining the reason for the unusual greeting.
In between posing stoically for both photographers, Gallant stops to take a few sips of his coffee. “I gotta keep my energy up,” he says with a laugh. That’s understandable — especially when you consider the past few years Gallant has had. He went from releasing his first EP in 2014 to touring non-stop and having his debut album nominated for a Grammy two years later.
Before the whirlwind of fame swept him up, Christopher Joseph Gallant III was just a quiet kid born in Washington, D.C., who later relocated to Columbia, Maryland and considered himself a Black nerd. He loved manga, anime, Korean and Japanese pop music and he also developed a love of mid-90s and early 2000s R&B music. It was during his middle school days when idols like Brandy, Babyface, Toni Braxton and Seal inspired a 12-year-old Gallant to start writing music.
Gallant’s trajectory since then has been a testament to the importance of staying true to oneself.
I would just write whatever and I’d play it for my friends. They thought it was trash, but it wasn’t about [validation] for me.
When his friends weren’t huge fans of his earlier work — “they thought it was trash” — he remained undeterred. He kept making songs, experimenting with his sound and eventually upgraded his knowledge of the craft by enrolling in New York University’s music program. Even then, his path was littered with hurdles in the form of peers and industry folk not seeing the vision. Some told the singer-songwriter he should quit music altogether. But the challenges only served to build his confidence and perseverance. He released his EP Zebra in 2014, and by 2015 he was touring North America with indie-folk artist Sufjan Stevens and promoting his single “Weight in Gold.” In 2016, his debut album, Ology, released with critical acclaim and got nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the Grammys. Today, Gallant is focusing on making music that he enjoys, and that’s true to all facets of who he is. His method is paying off with many falling in love with his unique blend of soulful harmonies laid over ambient and futuristic sounds.
Gallant sat down with Urbanology Magazine ahead of what would turn out to be his last Sweet Insomnia tour stop, due to COVID-19, to discuss his sophomore album of the same name, finding his sound and embracing the dualities of life.
How would you describe your creative process when making music?
What I feel like I learned from making my new album and getting back to a zone where I felt free is that I feel like I make the best things when I feel the same way I did when I was a kid in Maryland. I used to have this old computer in my room, and I would just write whatever and I’d play it for my friends. They thought it was trash, but it wasn’t about [validation] for me … [It was] putting everything that I like together into a soup that I could listen to and be like, ‘This is cool. This didn’t exist before.’ Now I have something that I can enjoy that I could see myself in. I’m a Black kid who likes anime, who likes videogames, who likes the mid-2000s, mid-90s R&B, who likes ambient music. To be able to take all those elements and just put it in a soup, like that was the most gratifying feeling that I could possibly chase. So it’s just getting back to a pure form.
Do you remember at what point you were like, ‘OK. I’m going to start to take all these influences and mix them together,’ or was it something that you didn’t even realize was happening?
Maybe half and half. Maybe it was mostly subconscious. I just wanted to make something that I knew I could enjoy. And I guess in the back of my mind I hoped that there was somebody else who would just happen to like the same things or be like, ‘Oh, I’m a Black nerd too,’ or ‘I want to subvert stereotypes too.’ Just [finding] any way to put as much of my very specific personality into the pits of the stuff that I made, without it being too generic or too bland for me to enjoy as a music listener. That was what made it exciting.
I know you talked about how you were really into anime and J-pop, etc. What was it about them that drew you in initially?
I just liked that it was different. Like with the [Hikaru] Utada stuff, she always hits the seventh in all the songs. It felt like you were [in] “The Last Airbender” and she was just bending air. That’s what it sounded like to me. So I just like the different layers and the different elements … The stuff that my peers were listening to felt so outside of all that.
Speaking of your new album Sweet Insomnia, I know you talked about the album being about duality. What duality do you experience in terms of your fame and your life now?
I really like quiet time and alone time, and I feel like that was probably my downfall when things started to get a little bad and weird for me when I was a teenager. I would always imagine the rest of the world, and in my head, it would be like this perfect thing that doesn’t have any downside to it. Like everybody would always be at the same party in my head or like everybody would always be complimenting each other on the same things … or I never thought they would feel inadequate for the same reasons that I might have. So once I stepped out, I was able to see that everything is a scale. There’s nothing that is 100 hundred per cent great all the time and everybody deals with their own realm of challenges. That was the duality that I felt I could kind of touch on that brought me away from the brooding, kind of depressed thing. [It] was also how I was treating my own kind of depression and feelings by challenging it constantly and making the kind of music that ended up being Sweet Insomnia.
I was really trying to tell myself that it was OK to just let everything go and be as wild as possible on stage in order to put on the kind of show that would actually match the kind of music that I felt I was making.
In what other ways would you say throughout Sweet Insomnia do you feel like you’re facing duality head-on?
I think of “Sharpest Edges” because I don’t think I would have ever been able to write that song if it weren’t for… 2018 [when] I started diving into it really deep because I was finally beginning to feel more like myself, like the adult version of the kid … “Paper Tulips” is like the breaking point where I’m accepting the blame for the wrong that I’ve caused, but then I’m also angry that I’m being blamed for the stuff that I felt like I couldn’t control. Then “Sleep On It” is the culmination of it all in a way. So it just felt like a fun theme to explore, and it really matched what I was actually going through.
Which song in particular would you say feels the most personal to you on this album?
I think probably “Hips” which was the first time I ever wrote a song about my childhood in a way. When I was a kid, I felt really closed off. I was the quiet kid in the corner who didn’t really talk to anybody. So it felt weird, the idea of writing a song about me being a shy kid imagining some romance from afar, you know, because it just felt like I was too adult for that. But I also wanted to write a chill-hop kind of song that still had some of those mid-2000s R&B elements but felt more like a ‘24/7 beats to chill, relax, study to’ type of thing. It was tough for me to record the lines because it’s so literal and straight up … but when I listened to it after I recorded it, I felt proud that it existed. It felt like one of those songs that I had written in 2014 that I was really embarrassed to put online because it seemed like the opposite of what I should be making but I made it anyway. “Sleep On It” might be the most biographical, though.
Speaking of you being shy, you’re really charismatic and energetic when you’re performing. How did you break out of your shell compared to when you were younger?
I think the performance aspect of it helped. I made an EP called Zebra, and it was very ambient music and all electronic instruments. So when I first started doing shows around L.A., I put together a small band, and we were trying to figure out how to make it sound live because it wasn’t any of the same instruments. I was playing for like five people, so I was also trying to figure out how to make them pay attention to what I was doing … Even though it took me years to evolve into something that it is now, I think it’s a good balance. At that time, I was really trying to tell myself that it was OK to just let everything go and be as wild as possible on stage in order to put on the kind of show that would actually match the kind of music that I felt I was making.
You also got to perform with Seal, and I believe he said you’re one of his favourite artists. Do you have any other people that you look up to that you want to work with in the future?
Definitely. I think about a lot of the people that I looked up to in R&B when I was a teenager. They seemed so huge to me that I just never even thought of the idea of us in a room together. Like me doing something with Ne-Yo, for example, which to me would just be so huge. I would never even think that it would happen. Or me and Brandy or even Mario from my hometown. Just those figures that I’ve spent so much time replaying their music and idolizing their performances.
I also did some Twitter digging, and it seems like there might be a Daniel Caesar collab in the works?
It’s funny we were just on the plane with him (laughs). I’m working on something that I think is going to involve a lot of people and is a combination of the people that I idolized from the mid-2000s and more of my peers. This year I even got to collab with T-Pain, which you know, he’s on that list because he’s a genius. Then, collaborating with people like 6lack too. It’s the beginning of bridging that gap a little bit, and it was an idea that was terrifying to me like a year and a half ago because I just didn’t feel like I belonged 100 per cent in the music industry sometimes. I finally was able to get over that, and I think that this year I’ll be opening that door a lot more.
I don’t think that anybody should force [them]selves to fit in a box. Anything in the heart should always come first.
So now you’re feeling more like, ‘OK we’re all on the same level here.’
Yeah, of course. Instead of me seeing myself only in the stuff that I made, by taking a combination of things and putting them together, I’m actually starting to see myself in other people that do the same thing that I do. Which sounds really basic, but I know that it’s important. It’s just like a different level of connectedness.
How do you feel like your time studying music at NYU has helped or hindered the sound that you have today?
It really made me a lot more confident in my own ideas … I don’t think that anybody should force [them]selves to fit in a box. Anything in the heart should always come first. So I think I learned that in the face of everybody telling me that I can’t do it or that I should quit or that I should give up … I have a vision I just have to find the right people that believe in it and try to make what I would consider the best version of it and then I’ll be good.
What can fans look forward to in the near future?
Definitely no more three-year hiatuses in between albums or anything like that. It was tough. I had so many challenges, both with the music and just outside of music with industry stuff and the pressures of making something that was a follow-up to something that came first, you know? Now that I’ve passed all of that, I feel like everything is coming so much quicker and so much easier. So I definitely feel more agile and feel the freedom to move around and do whatever I want, which is a good place to be in. So they can look forward to me looking forward to sharing a bunch of new things with them.
Photos © Isa Miguel Ransome + Urbanology Magazine