Following marquee collaborations with the likes of ZHU and Jhene Aiko, R&B's dark horse steps out on his own with triumphant debut LP 'Ology.'
Gallant answers the door of the Valley Village home he shares with his manager expecting pancakes. He's wearing one of his signature black T-shirts, emblazoned with the same gold-painted sad face that overlays his sullen album cover portrait, and checkered red boxer shorts. The 24-year-old singer thinks I might be the Postmates guy delivering his food. I am not. Surprised at my presence, he retreats to his room to get dressed, leaving me in the foyer of the three-story, white, modernist estate.
Owned by independent management guru Jake Udell, whose Th3rd Brain enterprise has already launched the acts ZHU and Krewella from obscurity into the big time, the house is aflutter with boyish industry—half hive-mind, half youth camp, bustling with start-up vibes. Gallant is the latest focus: The songs on his first LP Ology, out today on Mind of a Genius, have already positioned him as both an indie darling and a touted savior of soul, with lead single "Weight in Gold" amassing high-profile co-signs and millions of plays. His SXSW performances inspired Grammy predictions among critics, and next week, he'll make his Coachella debut. It is in all likelihood that Gallant's arching falsetto will soundtrack countless bouts of tender lovemaking from now until neo-neo-soul becomes a thing.
A few minutes later, Gallant, now with pants on, meets me on the balcony upstairs. He's slight of frame, a little shy, and sparing with his verbiage, measured with his words––hardly the sad presence his logo suggests but a far cry from the explosive confidence expressed through his voice in music. After a moment's quiet, talk turns to the horizon. It's a crisp day, and sight stretches all the way over the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel Mountains. "I love LA," Gallant says, slowly with a cavernously deep voice. "It's the best place I've ever lived. I thought the suburbs were wack when I grew up there. Now I really appreciate it on some level I can't explain."
It was amid the weed-whacked, manicured lawns and lakes of Columbia, Maryland—a 100,000-strong planned community outside of Baltimore that was once home to author Michael Chabon, actor Edward Norton, and TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek—that Christopher Gallant first stumbled into love with music with some modest first steps.
"My parents weren't musical. I listened to a lot of different things. I wasn't really focused," he says. "I was inspired by the trees and the sky and isolation, being with friends playing video games as much as any music." Gallant's first musical explorations were laughed off by friends, instilling in him a sense of creative solitude, something that's still central to Gallant's music today.
"They told me it was the worst," he says, with no hint of hyperbole. "I never really thought I had a good voice. I've always thought it was kind of a shortcoming. It's pretty new for people to compliment that."
Nonetheless, Gallant moved to Manhattan to study music and the business of entertainment at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and he stayed to try his hand at pop songwriting after graduating. He does not have fond memories of the half decade he spent in the city. "I was pretty stifled creatively," Gallant says. "I got caught up in this culture of people being blindly ambitious, people who filled every second of every day with something meaningless. My best work came after I cut myself off from all those people in the industry and that culture in general."
For a guy whose lyrics read like a psychological excavation, it makes sense that the frantic cacophony of New York would induce emotional and creative claustrophobia. "I just remember being herded around on public transportation like cattle, walking around the city in a sea of people with emotionless faces who just don't give a fuck about anything. Not being able to control where you're going, always being at the mercy of somebody else, every building looking like the iron bars of a jail cell. All of those things, on top of the fact that you can't survive, you can't live, it just really got to me," he says, before breaking out in a wide grin and laughing. "So, yeah, LA's great."
The leafy quietude of the hills above the Valley suits Gallant. "I needed to just be alone, do things by myself. Not having anyone looking over my shoulder gave me the freedom to lower my inhibitions and just grow, finally," he says. "The moment I landed in LA, it just felt right. Everything felt aligned. Being in New York felt like I was running away from home, trying to do something, and I wanted to go back. Moving to LA felt more like coming home than escaping. I feel like I'm on Earth here. In New York, I don't feel like I'm on Earth. I feel like I'm on someone's ant farm."
Upon moving to LA in 2013, Gallant linked up with producer Felix Snow and began piecing together the first tunes under his current moniker. He's referred to his debut 2014 EP Zebra as "a sonic diary about dealing with the aftermath of New York." The tracks are tagged on SoundCloud with genres like "Xanax&B" and "Adderall&B." It's a melancholy affair—introspective, haunting, and full of promise. Raw as it was, the EP showed the intimacy of Gallant's songwriting amid remarkable stylistic breadth––future bass, soul, trap, indie-rock, pop––almost all of it under a sleepy haze of reverb and atmosphere of collaborator Snow's production. It was, for the first time in Gallant's life, a truly executed vision of his own artistry.
Yet only a few months later, in June of 2015, Gallant appeared with an updated aesthetic, releasing "Weight in Gold," the track that announced him to the world as an artist demanding attention. Gone is the melancholic haze of Zebra; in its place is an anguish that sounds more like triumph, confident and bold. The bluesy guitar licks and intimate crooning of verses like "Bricks on my shoulders / This gravity hurts when you know the truth," blast to life at the chorus with bombastic fuzz and a sugary hook belted as if from the ranks of a gospel choir. Gallant's voice makes you sit up and take notice from the very first note. When he hits that falsetto, it's like patron saints D'Angelo and Maxwell themselves are lifting him up to some celestial register.
Much of the newfound swagger and ambition on Ology can be attributed to Stint, a little-known producer from Vancouver who has unlocked Gallant's creativity and ambition. They met shortly after Gallant moved to LA, when he reached out after discovering a sound design project of Stint's on SoundCloud.
"The second I met him, we really vibed and gradually became really good friends," says Gallant. "It takes me knowing someone, to really trust somebody, to have any kind of friendship and be able to work with them musically. Once that friendship is there, all the walls are lowered, and you're actually able to say something meaningful." The lyrics on Ology somberly weave through dark themes—loves that never had a chance, fading planets, references to suicide, imagery of weapons and booze—delivered in a tone that paints a picture of a lonely heart.
"All the songs I wrote with Stint, with anyone else in the room, I could have never been confident enough to share that with anyone else," Gallant says. He concedes as much at an album listening party the night before the album drops. "My songs are, um, very personal, and I took it even further with this project. So the fact that I'm about to play it, and all you guys are about it hear it is, uh, crazy to me," he says, speaking softly into a mic. "So I hope you can take it in your own way and appreciate it, because it really means a lot to me."
Even surrounded by friends and supporters, he's visibily uncomfortable from the moment he presses play, shifting and staring at his feet before slipping away barely one track in. The only place the crowd goes, however, is towards the dance floor. The beats on Ology are slick, clean, and creative: Stint's production brings Gallant's startling talent front-and-center, unsheathing it from behind squalls of reverb and decades of insecurity. The clarity also allows Ology to pay homage to various eras of R&B, from the tense funk of Prince on album tracks like "Episode" and "Counting," to the moody swing of 90s heroes SWV and Teddy Riley on "Mizayaki," to the bass-heavy texture of FKA Twigs and The Weeknd on "Talking To Myself."
But if "Weight in Gold" is the track that announced Gallant's unique appeal to the underground, it will be "Skipping Stones," his duet with Jhene Aiko, that will canonize him to the mainstream. It is the most traditional tune Gallant has ever put out, and an absolute work of art––simple and beautiful and gripping. If it is the prettiest pop song you hear in 2016, it will have been a charmed year. The tune has a timeless effect; it would have been a hit if released at any point in the past half century.
Aiko's presence might seem like an obvious use of star power on the album, but the song almost didn't happen: Collaboration, when forced, is not Gallant's strong suit, and the two only ended up in the studio together through a chance encounter.
"A lot of time people try to mash artists together with all these other artists," Gallant says. "Doing that doesn't really work for me. I don't talk, I don't share what I'm feeling with people. That's the kind of person that I am. I've tried working on stuff with a lot of people involved before and I just can't do it. It's hard for me to write a song like that. It just has to be honest. That's the only way I know how to make music." But Gallant and Aiko made fast friends, and "Skipping Stones" is the result. "She really connected with everything that we were doing," he says. "It all seemed really organic."
One notable separation between Gallant and predecessors like D'Angelo, whose music is informed by gospel roots, is that he does not draw on religion for the same type of emotive expression. Gallant's soul is a little more subversive. "Bone + Tissue" and "Counting" feature biting references to Catholicism ("'Til my mouth dries, I'm praying / I can hold my liquor like the saints do," he confesses on the latter), and hope or reverence to God are not emotions often expressed on Ology. "I'm not really that religious," says Gallant. "There are even moments where I really do mock religion, but I'm not sure that cuts through. I was playing a bunch of Christian colleges recently, and I don't know if they even noticed!"
Last October, Gallant hit the road for a one-month, 18-date national tour with indie-folk legend Sufjan Stevens. "It was nuts," Gallant says of the experience. "It was my first tour experience with a bus and stuff. We had gone into that only having played festivals and 200-cap rooms, but we were playing to all these older people who were sitting in seats with alcohol being served. We weren't used to having to impress a crowd, let alone a seated crowd of 50-year olds."
Gallant and Stevens were immediately drawn to each other after seeing each other perform, even dueting on a cover of Drake's "Hotline Bling" during encores and appearing together in the first episode of Gallant's In The Room YouTube series. Despite vastly differing aesthetics, their music shares thematic perspective. Carrie and Lowell, Stevens' latest album, was an introspective work inspired by his own mother's recent death. "He writes purely, from the same place I want to come from," Gallant says of Stevens. "Completely taking a situation and taking yourself, dissecting certain elements, analyzing why you reacted to something a certain way, and diving into that one moment, writing a song like a paper about it, and moving on. It really helps you move into a space where you really understand what's going on in your head."
Whether for a crowd of mature theater-goers or a bunch of sweaty kids in a nightclub, transferring the intimacy of his writing and recording process into a performance has come naturally, if slowly to Gallant. Sometimes it's easier to expose your fears to a crowd of thousands than of one or two. "When I'm on stage, it feels like I'm being vulnerable in a different way than writing," he says. "I'm lowering all of my inhibitions consciously, allowing myself to physically portray what I was feeling, on paper, when I wrote the song––as If I was in a room by myself. It's a cathartic thing."
Stevens and Gallant will share a bill again this month, although on a slightly larger, hotter, and rowdier stage: Coachella. For an artist who got laughed at the first time he played his music in front of people, who conveys his vulnerability at such volume with such intimacy when performing live to a crowd of thousands, who has the tools to turn the event into a breakout moment, it will be a big challenge and an important milestone. "I've never been," Gallant says, smiling. "I'm really excited. I can't believe what we've been able to plan."
Whatever the reaction to his Coachella set or Ology's release, Gallant will still be looking inward first for validation. Whether it was the kids in Maryland or the industry mob in Manhattan, Gallant has long since let go of other people's approval of his music. "Part of me believes that making music in search of a psychological and personal evolution is gonna be an endless pursuit, but if I truly get to some kind of emotional nirvana, then I guess it's a win-win," he muses to me in between bites of blueberry pancake. "I'm just honored that people are listening to anything that I put out at all."
Jemayel Khawaja is editor-at-large for THUMP and founder of Black Circle Media. Follow him on Twitter.
All photos by Cara Robbins.