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Self-declared “musical genius” to perform in Norwich as part of bumper festival line-up

PUBLISHED: 17:20 03 April 2019

Chilly Gonzales will come to Norwich in May to play at Norwich Theatre Royal. Picture: Alexandre Isard

Chilly Gonzales will come to Norwich in May to play at Norwich Theatre Royal. Picture: Alexandre Isard

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You have to really watch Chilly Gonzales perform to understand what makes the self-described “musical genius” tick.

Countless YouTube videos show him taking to the stage in a dressing gown and slippers as he offers the crowd a mix of musical styles on a genre-defying playlist. His performances are, by turns, intense, intimate, funny and provocative. “I like to play with the audience’s emotions,” he admits. “I like to disrupt.”

At the heart of it, Chilly Gonzales – real name Jason Charles Beck – is a classically trained pianist who began learning to play at an early age. “My grandfather was my first teacher,” he says. “He represented the respectful side of music – the humanist tradition which builds on itself and means that, as a musician, you are conscious of the musicians before you.”

And the other side? “That’s the disrespectful side,” he says. “The 1980s – the side which means I’m wanting to dance on the ceiling with Lionel Richie.”

After growing up in Montreal, Gonzales graduated from the Crescent School in Toronto, Ontario and trained at McGill University. The first step of his performance career was a stint as a jazz pianist, before embarking on a pop career as the leader of an alternative rock band, Son. But his break into the industry was something of a false start. “My Canadian experience of the music industry was a failure,” he admits. “But failure is the best teacher.”

Chilly Gonzales, at his piano. Picture: Alexandre IsardChilly Gonzales, at his piano. Picture: Alexandre Isard

After several years trying to make it work in his homeland, Gonzales moved to Europe – first to Paris, then to Berlin – where, with the space to live out his musical performance, he was able to reinvent himself. “I created my alter-ego in Berlin – it clicked the moment I moved.” Since then, he has been better known on stage as “self-described musical genius”, Chilly Gonzales.

“But that isn’t exactly accurate,” he assures me. “I’m a self-described musical genius” – he says again, pausing – “in my fantasy.”

For Gonzales, performance and fantasy are one and the same and, he says, the reason he still has a career. He admits that he is “troubled” by spending time in the studio and, in contrast, describes performance as idyllic: it combines the very essence of music with a necessary way to pay the bills.

“A performance is close to what happens spiritually but it’s also always a pragmatic way to make money,” he says. And while a performance is primarily the “way to get music to people,” Gonzales cannot perform without an element of fantasy. “You can’t be on stage how you are in everyday life,” he says, and by Gonzales’ own definition, to watch him perform is to understand, intimately, how he wished he could act the rest of the time.

Chilly Gonzales will be making his first visit to Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2019. Picture: Alexandre IsardChilly Gonzales will be making his first visit to Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2019. Picture: Alexandre Isard

This respect for performance is what partly inspired Gonzales’ latest passion project, the Gonservatory, an all expenses paid music performance workshop. The first intake took place last year and saw seven students from all over the world travel to Paris to take part, with the guidance of guest professors such as Peaches and Jarvis Cocker. “No-one is teaching performance. No-one is teaching audience psychology,” he says. “So how do you arrive at the experience of being a musician?”

It’s a fair question, and one that Gonzales, and the Gonservatory, hope to tackle over the next 10-15 years. Applications are currently being welcomed for the class of 2019, which will involve 10 days of intensive music performance workshops in Gonzales’ hometown of Cologne this autumn.

In the meantime, Gonzales will continue performing his own musical fantasy – a “kaleidoscope of different musical styles depending on the voyage I want to take people on.” When I ask him what the Norwich audience can expect from his upcoming show in May, he says that he doesn’t believe in “selling” the show – but, put simply, “it starts with a whisper and ends with a scream.”

Chilly Gonzales will perform at Norwich Theatre Royal on Wednesday, May 15. Tickets from £10 available at www.nnfestival.org.uk

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