Minutes before he’s supposed to play his first Los Angeles show, at Hollywood singer-songwriter haven the Hotel Cafe, Gabriel Garzón-Montano takes a deep breath. Nursing a Pacifico beer in the dimly lit lounge area at the front of the venue, Garzón-Montano, sporting a sweatshirt, skinny jeans, and a pair of Jordans, has been dissecting the two-song soundcheck he just completed. Then he pauses, slowly rubs his eyes, and tries to sneak a yawn before taking a quick swig of coffee. The fatigue comes with good reason: The day before, the multi-instrumentalist and his manager embarked on a marathon journey driving to and from San Francisco, five hours each way, for the first of his three shows opening for rising British indie rockers Glass Animals.
Despite the early (8 p.m. sharp) set time, the venue is already filling up. Glancing at his watch, Garzón-Montano looks up at the steady stream of people who can’t see him and flashes a confident grin.
“It’s cool that these people are here for me,” he says in between sips. “Even if they aren’t, hopefully they’ll get a glimpse of what I’m about.”
Garzón-Montano has been around music his whole life. His mother, a classically trained, multifaceted musician who played piano, cello, and saxophone, was part of the Philip Glass ensemble and sang in church choirs. On his sixth birthday, she told him while they were on a walk that they were heading to the Third Street Music School and he could pick out any instrument he wanted to play. Gazing around and hearing the delicate sound of students plucking as they prepared for class, Garzón-Montano decided he wanted to pick up the violin.
“Later, when I was twelve, I realized that I meant to choose guitar,” he says. “It was news to me when the bow came into the picture.”
Once he came to that realization, Garzón-Montano shifted to his preferred instrument and added the drums to an emerging musical prowess. By fifteen, he was writing his own folky songs in the vein of Ben Harper and Jeff Buckley. He attended the Rudolf Steiner School, where he instantly formed a bond with classmate Zoë Kravitz, a friendship that remains strong today. During this period, the budding singer-songwriter heard Prince for the first time, and for him, that changed everything.
After hearing “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Garzón-Montano dived into r&b, soul, and hip-hop. Becoming fully immersed in urban music (“I was listening to Motown and Biggie”), the teenager steadily became more adept at writing in that fashion, which led, ultimately, to his participation in his college band, the eleven-piece funk outfit Mokaad. They were a hit with students at SUNY-Purchase and frequently played packed shows — including a headlining date at the Gramercy Theatre — and house parties across the region. Even without “a&r or marketing appeal,” as he puts it, Mokaad served as a fun, creative outlet for Garzón-Montano, who served as the frontman, songwriter, and composer.
During the mastering of Mokaad’s EP, longtime mentor/collaborator/multi-instrumentalist Henry Hirsch couldn’t believe how much Garzón-Montano’s songwriting blossomed during his time in Westchester.
“He told me that these songs didn’t sound like me,” Garzón-Montano recalls. “He also said I should do a record by myself like he and I used to do when I was fifteen.”
On the next page: “I was setting my purple dove free”
Joining forces in August 2012, the duo recorded nine songs, but the result didn’t turn out how Garzón-Montano envisioned — to the point where he never wanted to release the material.
“I sat on these songs for seven months and I cried about it in my room because it wasn’t what I wanted,” he says. “Eventually, I said to myself that I didn’t care anymore and I put it out on SoundCloud one morning. I hastily decided on a name for the album and posted on Facebook that I was setting my purple dove free.”
The move paid immediate dividends. Promoted on both Mokaad’s and his personal page on the social-networking giant, the six-song Bishouné: Alma del Huila prompted a response far beyond what the self-described perfectionist could have expected. Not too long after, Garzón-Montano received a direct message from Phil Tortoroli from Styles Upon Styles Records saying he wanted to give the EP a proper release on vinyl.
By a stroke of luck, Bishouné: Alma del Huila was blaring through the sound system at A1 Records when Mayer Hawthorne and producer 14KT ducked into the store. Mesmerized by what they heard, Hawthorne and 14KT each purchased the EP, with the former encouraging his management team to work with Garzón-Montano, which they ultimately did.
The past few months have seen the multi-instrumentalist’s profile rise quickly. On top of opening for his buddy Zoë’s dad in Europe this past December, Garzón-Montano got a call from Drake and his management team asking to sample his “6 8.” Introduced to Garzón-Montano’s music by the younger Kravitz, Drake and producer Noah “40” Shebib used the track for the delicate “Jungle,” from February’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
“He [Drake] started texting her [Zoë] about how that song was haunting his dreams,” Garzón-Montano says, “and ended up using it.”
The rest of 2015 will be busy for Garzón-Montano. He’s performing at major U.S. festivals like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits before returning to his studio to craft his debut full-length. Before that, he’ll be playing Central Park’s SummerStage on June 6, something he knew would happen ever since he traded in that violin for his musical future.
“I had two goals then,” he explains. “I wanted to play Central Park and wanted to get signed by a major label. The business has changed since then, but so far, I’m halfway there.”
Gabriel Garzón-Montano plays SummerStage as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival June 6.
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