Gabriel Garzón-Montano on His Shapeshifting Sophomore Album, ‘Agüita’

When Gabriel Garzón-Montano released “Someone”—the funky, slinking first cut off his sophomore album, Agüita—in May, the Brooklyn musician was praised for the song’s “anxious, anguished backing vocals” and “deliberately sluggish beat punctuated by sticky, squishy clavinet notes.”

But “Someone” also showcases Garzón-Montano’s raw talent as a lyricist. “Overcooked vegetables,” he sings in a verse, “Conversation tense, you were edible / Kissed me, pulled back and said / ‘Not tonight but can I get some head?’ / It hurt me, had to double take / I went ahead and did it anyway.” Beyond oral sex, these lines are all about verbal pleasure—allowing certain sounds and meanings to play off each other, letting language pause then pop forward like dice in Trouble. “It hurt me, had to double take.”

Garzón-Montano—the multilingual, multi-talented French-Colombian rnb phenom also known as GGM—wrote Agüita between 2017 and 2019, mostly in New York and Colombia. The album’s conceit is that it combines three sides of the artist: “You have an A, a B, and a C,” Garzón-Montano recently told me over the phone. “You can think of it as raw, then that high heat, and then that deep burn, like three hours on the French cast iron. You got three distinct piles, one being the Latino Urbano hitmaker, one being the whimsical impressionist, and then the third is the debonaire leading man.” The final product (out this Friday via Jagjaguwar) is a magnificent, shapeshifting follow-up to Garzón-Montano 2017 debut full-length, Jardin.

We caught up with Garzón-Montano about his new record, an ill-fated stint in Los Angeles, and his “Nicholas Cage-ass performance” in Agüita’s rap tracks. Check out the full interview and listen to “Someone” and “Agüita” below.

American Songwriter: A few years ago, in another interview, you said, “I don’t have the soul of a writer, but I can find words.” Where did you find the words on your new album? What did the songwriting process look like?

Gabriel Garzón-Montano: The songwriting process just looked like trusting myself a lot more than I have in the past. 

When was the writing period?

The period was between 2017 and 2019, and then it spilled over into recently. It’s not done until it’s done, so you can always make another edit until the very last moment.

Were you mostly writing in your studio?

I was writing wherever I was. It was either in my studio, in a cab, or in the very errant airplane and that was mostly just me passing out before I got too drunk. It was done in New York, in Colombia, in Pereira, a little bit in France. Mostly in Brooklyn.

Do you keep notebooks?

Yes indeed. There’s like four or four of them, one of which was lost on tour when I was touring Jardin. It was this pink notebook and I was on this flight from Australia to Asia—no, it was within Australia—and I was just so depressed and so down on myself. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ll never be as cool as [Moses Sumney] or Thom Yorke or Arca or Bjork.’ That’s my gamut. 

I lost this notebook [while] I was making this song called “Fields” on the record. I was like, ‘Okay, no drums, just like [Moses Sumney]. Leave the space open, be more mysterious.’ I had this whole narrative about how uncool I was. And so then I was like, ‘Okay, what do you wanna do?’ and I was like, ‘I wanna be the coolest motherfucker on the block.’ I was like, ‘Alright, what does that mean to you?’ and I was like, ‘It means through-compose, nothing ever repeats, and it’s like eight minutes long and nobody likes it,’ and I was like, ‘Let’s do that,’ so we did that. And then I was like, ‘That scares me,’ because now all I can see is Lorde’s manager saying, “He’s talented but where’s the song?”

That’s all I’ve gotten my whole life: “You have a Mexican-ass name, you’re talented, but where’s the song?” That was my fear of going to LA and that was exactly what happened. Then I decided, ‘I’m gonna be as LA as fucking possible,’ just to temper this anxious feeling of completely departing from anything that my whole company is based on. So I’m completely doing a 180—I’m going by this Steve Jobs thing of ‘They don’t know what they want until they see it.’ I’m like, ‘Maybe they just want to hear Bad Bunny and Bjork in the same concert? Maybe everyone’s just trying to watch Criterion Collection but also kinda trying to watch The Office?’ Then everybody can just feel good and go to bed and feel like Emily Dickinson’s in the room but also Madea’s in the room, and Prince. Everybody’s in the room at all times for all of us, and we’re all so upset that we can’t translate exactly what that moment feels like for us. Like, ‘Here are my references in the world. Here is me, very self-consciously but very patiently giving you a tasting menu of all my favorite things about them, in the terms of those parlances, those idioms, those traditions.’

Effectively [the] marketing ploy is, ‘Homeboy can pretend he’s three people.’ So I [told myself,] ‘Okay, you can do that, but you have to base it on your execution. If you are convinced, then you can yell to the fucking mountains about how you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread—how you’re making history, trilingual, all this bullshit. But if you don’t do the rap thing perfect, you’re gonna fuck it up.’ [I had to ask myself], ‘What’s really happening here? What are the active ingredients? What makes this Latin? What makes this Colombian?’

The thing that mattered to me about the rap music was, like, I have to be smoking blunts while I’m doing this session [to get the right sound]. It was this Nicholas Cage-ass performance. I don’t hide it.

How would you describe your production style on the record?

The production style is a total tasting menu. You have an A, a B, and a C. You can think of it as raw, then that high heat, and then that deep burn, like three hours on the French cast iron. You got three distinct piles, one being the Latino Urbano hitmaker, one being the whimsical impressionist, and then the third is the debonaire leading man. 

What you have is this dude who loves Biggie, then it’s like, ‘Wait, I don’t get it, oh! [A Tribe Called Quest] and all that.’ Then Wu Tang Clan—holy shit, they used to scare me, but now I’m feeling the funk in here. I recognize the Parliament. Then I was like, ‘Nothing is harder than O.D.B.’ And before that it was Prince. Nobody could be as funky, nobody could be as hard—or soft. The fact that if he didn’t exist in the ‘80s we would have had this sad little pageant of a music industry is just really remarkable to me.

How does the A-side interact with the B-side?

Honestly, it plays down like a soundtrack. I wanted to call it a soundtrack in light of the playlist event with the Drake record. It’s like cutting cheese with a butter knife, if it’s creamy. I think boldness is a currency. Ever since Odd Future, I think this culture’s been really aware of that and really celebratory of that teenage instinct to overshare.

It’s a tasting menu, and the idea was that it couldn’t be top-heavy and it couldn’t be backend-heavy, so it’s literally just A-B-C, A-B-C, A-B-C until the end. But it plays down like an experience. [I was like,] ‘How are we gonna do this? Should we [do] a block of each, or should we constantly break expectations?’ That’s really what the vibe is.

40 minutes of me getting into Thom Yorke—you’re just done, you’re like, “Okay, this is so fucking boring, let’s move on.” That’s me being cynical, and then someone who’s a fan of me, they’re like, “I’m crying, this is transcendental,” and then the next thing is like, [gasp!], ‘This is an affront to all this piety! It’s talking about sucking dicks and it’s in Spanish and English, like what’s happening? Where’s the guy who wrote ‘Naeja’? Where’s the guy who could never even pay his bills?’ It’s okay. I still spend most of my time doing music you’ll never hear, so, like, don’t even worry about it. I deserve a little rap track.

It’s just this very vulnerable, I-know-I’m-making-history type of weird-ass [production]. Like, if I can execute it, it’ll be the thing, and if not, then y’all can laugh at me until I go home. That’s the vibe. It’s really just about-facing. It’s about doing away with cultural imperialism and hierarchies. It’s like Marcel Duchamp putting the toilet in the art gallery just for the fuck of it. I’m still deciding how forthcoming I want to be about my vision, but at this point I’m so angry that I’m just saying what I’m doing and I’m a motherfucking nerd and I sit in my house and I get high and I make music, you know?

I appreciate the candor.

I’m so tired of whatever the posturing is… If you love something, venerate that culture. Put respect on its name, you know? That’s it, just say your piece. All people need is permission to be what they know they really are. That’s my piece.

Last question: the album cover

Lovesexy reference to Prince!

Can you tell us how that came about?

Sure thing. That’s me sitting on my farm in Colombia, and that is a guadua, meaning a bamboo thicket  arising out of water. In Colombia you have a lot of guadua, this very green bamboo that shoots up, and if you see them from above, like from a plane, they have this wispy, fernlike quality. Then you know, ‘Okay, there’s a river running.’ It’s just water—water being my whole focus here. 

Why did I appear naked? Because of Lovesexy, because of the Prince cover. Prince is like my biggest idol. Everything that it means is a rebuke to capitalism, to privatization, to centralization of ideas and funds and infrastructure. That’s it.

Agüita is out October 2 via Jagjaguwar. You can pre-order it here.

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