Out singer Chris Garneau finds success on his own terms

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jul 7, 2011

When Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Chris Garneau burst onto the indie music scene with his 2006 debut, "Music For Tourists," his heart-breaking, soul-wrenching piano-based songs immediately found a devoted, if small, fan base. Soon enough, his songs, most notably the flawless ballad "Relief," began to turn up on TV -- including on shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice". It appeared that the musician was well on his way toward initiation into a new generation of uber-talented, openly gay pop musicians carrying forward the tradition of Rufus, Elton and so many others.

Five years have now passed since Garneau released that first album and, though some of the initial buzz has dissipated, the quirky, cute singer still feels he is on the brink of something big. While his voice whispered and trembled through "Music For Tourists", he sings defiantly with a heightened air of confidence and maturity on the upbeat, baroque-infused songs on his 2009 follow-up, "El Radio."

Based on the hints the handsome singer dropped to EDGE regarding his upcoming album, it appears this is a singer who is ready to step into the spotlight once and for all -- even if he resists the sort of mainstream acceptance his achingly beautiful music probably deserves.

Just on the tail-end of a North American tour opening for French-Israeli songstress Keren Ann, only his second nationwide tour in his career to date, EDGE caught up with Garneau to learn more about his creative process, thoughts on touring and, perhaps most pressingly, whether he likes to party.

Getting the word out

EDGE: You’re just coming off your first North American tour in several years -- was it nice to be back on the road in such a big way? How did the experience compare to your last U.S. tour (in 2007)?

Chris Garneau: It’s going really well. I only did one other full North American tour, right after my first record came out. It’s really tough trying to headline a lot of places, especially when you’re playing really small towns and major cities alike. It was kind of hard and I would definitely get worried about stuff like people being there. This tour is really nice for me because I’ve been looking to do a support spot on someone else’s tour for a while. I’ve been working with Keren Ann the past couple of years on and off and it worked out really nicely. I don’t have any bandmates with me and I’m doing the whole tour solo. It’s very comfortable and nice and there’s people at the shows so that’s always helpful.

EDGE: What were some of the hairier moments from the last tour that you’re hinting at? What were some of the biggest challenges of the last tour?

CG: It was just like we would play places like Urbana, Illinois, or some random town in Kentucky. The promoters were always awesome and excited but we were just so new that it was hard enough making sure there were people at the major city shows. I think in Urbana the show was at some strange little bar and there were like five people there. It was one of those awkward moments that happen sometimes. But those shows were fine too and there were moments there that were sometimes very special and fun. Playing for only a few people can be weird and cool sometimes, so long as it’s not repeatedly.

Story continues on following page.

Watch Chris Garneau’s video of "Relief:

His new video

EDGE: Your latest album -- "El Radio" -- was out two summers ago but you have some more recent promotional material out to support it, like the new-ish music video for "Dirty Night Clowns," which I really enjoyed. Tell me about how that video came to be.

CG: I didn’t really have much to do with the video. At the CD release show for "El Radio," I met this younger director, Ryan Gibeau, and he talked about wanting to do a video for the song. Another six months after that, he showed me the treatment for it, which was essentially what the video turned out being. I basically kind of said, ’Hey, there’s no label budget for this at all and if you want to make something, I would love for you to do it, but it would have to be on your own behalf.’

I was very distant from the process because of the nature of how it was being funded. But I did go to the sets when he was making everything and he had a great team of designers and carpenters and whatnot making the marionettes and whatnot. I was on tour when it was actually filmed and I was mostly quite happy with the result.. But I really can’t take much credit for it.

EDGE: Tell me more about what inspired that song in the first place -- it kind of has a playful, cabaret-like feel but has some pretty dark lyrics.

CG: It’s mostly just a kind of fun way of having a kind of political or social commentary on a lot of things happening in the collective over the years while I was writing "El Radio." There are characters throughout -- fireflies, pirates, clowns -- who represent different forms in general, different people and societies. The pirates more specifically were not really about anything revolutionary, but it was kind of a shout out to people I don’t like generally, in this case, general politics, politicians and the systems created that control the things we don’t like.

EDGE: I understand that your musical background and upbringing was fairly classically-oriented, but what impact has pop music had on your musical development? Do you recall some early music you were exposed to that made you interested in veering from a more traditional path?

CG: I did study piano since I was really young, and voice as well. When I was 11, 12 and 13, I did some fairly intensive training and at the same time I was also introduced here and there to Nina Simone, the first person that really hit me. That was kind of my door to this other world of music, of pop music, jazz and folk. From there, it went to Nick Drake and the Buckleys and I guess when I was 14 or 15, Elliott Smith came into my life. He was and is very much a big influence both in terms of his writing and his music. He’s kind of like my silent guru for a while, I guess, and that’s how it started happening.

I started playing and singing different things and it all evolved into whatever I started doing when I was 18, 19 or 20 when I started recording songs. The first 12 or 13 I was not always completely in love with but I was confident about them at the time and those became "Music For Tourists." I think of that very much as a first collection rather than an album, it was very much about what we could scrape together.

The ’Grey’s Anatomy’ connection

EDGE: You have a somewhat unusual style for the most part. Was there ever pressure, either exerted from the outside or from yourself, to conform to a more, maybe, widely accessible style of singing or song creation?

CG: There wasn’t really much of that. There never was. When I first started writing or recording, it was just on my own behalf and on behalf of the producer I was working with. There was never any kind of persuasion to do this or that, I kind of just did whatever. I was lucky in that area. I knew also that when I started writing in a serious way that I didn’t have any intention of going to major labels or trying to do the kind of very pop career. I really just kind of wanted to start slowly and find my own way instead of being directed.

EDGE: And yet, in your attempt to avoid the mainstream, you ended up landing a few songs on "Grey’s Anatomy." How is that?

CG: Well, even that was just because I did have a publishing rep at the time but that was really the first little job that came about. It was just through a friend, also. It was all kind of connected with the people I had in my life and not so much through the most normal career pathways. It was nice and I have always felt really grateful for people spreading the word or helping me out.

EDGE: You’ve said in previous interviews, sometimes in the same one, that you prefer live performance to recording music in a studio but that you also feel insecure about performing live sometimes. That sounds like a bit of a conundrum. Where are you with that now?

CG: I’m in a different place with recording now. I guess what I’ve learned about myself is that I do actually really enjoy recording and making things but the thing that keeps coming up is that the most fun I have recording and the things I’m happiest with when I’m recording things is that I can’t plan to record. Creations just happen and it has to feel experimental instead of executing a plan with arrangements all written out, performing those accordingly in the studio. I’m just learning how to bring that spur-of-the-moment feel to recording. Maybe some of my next record will be more impromptu than the past few I’ve put out.

I still have the same issues with performing live. Two years ago, especially after something was released publicly, I became very insecure about my performance or what we were doing live. There are still bad days, of course, but in general live performance can be what I do really love the most. Touring is really hard but the rewarding part is I can perform the way I want to. I don’t always love touring, but I do love playing.

His new CD

EDGE: You’ve mentioned a new album. How is that coming along?

CG: I’m working on a new record but slowly and without any rush to have a final piece done. I’ve learned from the past two albums I made that I’ve always had this pressure I’ve put on myself to make things happen quickly and I’m kind of over that. I don’t really care when it comes out. I just want to make something I really love and can finish and not just call it a day. I have no label obligations at this point, so I am free in that regard.

There’s no date or anything but one thing I can say about the general nature of the next record is that it’s based around asking my closest friends and family to write about their earliest memories of winter. I’ve collected a lot of writings from the people in my life on that. Winter and cold and snow and that kind of very severe season is something that’s always really intrigued me. Hearing about those memories as far as I can go back is something I loved reading from these people I know so well. I’m building a lot of material around this collection of writings and that’s kind of where we’re at. I’m playing a lot of these songs in the last year or so and not playing others. I’m recording some of them and waiting to record others. There’s no rush.

EDGE: Finally, it is Pride weekend coming up in your home state of New York where the same-sex marriage battle is just coming to a head. Do you get much involved with that sort of scene (the Pride parade)? I don’t picture you as much of a parade person.

CG: Not really, no. I don’t usually get too involved in that kind of bigger, public setting of lots of people just for my own social reasons. I just get weird. I just like to party and have fun and I’m sure a lot of Pride is just about having fun and all... But it’s kind of Pride everywhere right now, when we were driving into Portland and San Francisco. I guess I usually have my own sort of Pride party but they’re usually just in my house anyway.

EDGE: And for the marriage issue -- do you feel pressure as an out performer to take it up and talk about it?

CG: When it comes to that stuff, I just want, like anyone else, for everyone to be able to do whatever they want to do all the time, to get married and do what they want wherever. Marriage is personally not a thing for me, but I want it to be legal and all of that. But I also sometimes just wish it could be illegal for everybody and just not allowed at all. Then maybe everyone would all be happier.

To learn more about Chris Garneau visit his website. On the site you can follow his progress with the new album and keep an eye out for future live performances.

Watch Chris Garneau’s video of "Dirty Night Clowns":

Watch Chris Garneau’s video of "Fireflies":

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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