By almost any measure, Gallant is having a good year. The 24-year-old Maryland native is, at the time of our speaking, still riding high on critical acclaim from his debut studio album, Ology, released in April. It’s a record that truly confronts the artist: his anxieties, discomforts, and small joys.
The album is more than its moving parts, but then all the moving parts are what make Gallant so fascinating. Following a solid effort from 2014, the Zebra EP, Ology shows off a more mature sound, in part by finding a tricky balance: It’s music that busts out of genre categories but that is unafraid to pull from its r&b and soul roots — and to find new ones along the way. His writing is both carefully crafted and open to risk (“I’ve been whispering to ghosts lately,” he sings in “Talking to Myself,” a track that adroitly probes inner uncertainties), while his musical palette seamlessly blends elements from different eras: The album’s lead single, “Weight in Gold,” is steeped in Motown shine, while a song like “Counting” feels of a piece with the early Nineties.
Given his ability to ease elements of nostalgic soul into crisp-sounding songs, Gallant should fit right in at this weekend’s Afropunk festival, which he’s playing for the first time. “I’ve actually never been, even as an attendee,” Gallant tells the Voice over the phone. Even so, he’s interested in the festival as a space for an increasingly manifold black identity. “What Afropunk represents is really cool,” he says. “I think it has grown into something that encompasses all of black culture, and it shows that people in this community are more than just one thing.”
Gallant is eager for his songs to find new ears. He talks about how he fell in love with “a bunch of different genres” of music early in his life, which has had a firm imprint not only on his sound, but on who he imagines will listen to his music. “I never really think [in terms of] audience,” he says. “I’m really just trying to reach as many people as possible. I just got back from playing a jazz festival. I enjoy the fact that people might not be able to generalize what a Gallant audience looks like.”
You can hear this in Ology. “Miyazaki” has a jazzy bounce that borrows, lyrically, from Groove Theory’s 1995 hit “Tell Me,” while “Skipping Stones,” featuring vocalist Jhené Aiko, is a classic Sixties-style r&b duet that could have been performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. The album is delightfully difficult to pin down, a close listen revealing not just r&b influence, but also disco (“Episode”) and even punk — an overall mix evident on the song “Percogesic,” with its rapid-heartbeat percussion and soaring vocals.
Gallant’s mixing-and-matching is, of course, in good company, with peers such as Laura Mvula and James Blake pushing into similar terrain. But Gallant is particularly good at not sounding like a genre tourist. Ology‘s songs are textured and layered, but also cleanly shaped. Individual elements are given time to breathe: Those drums on “Percogesic” get to stretch their legs; the keys on “Chandra” fill and haunt the track’s otherwise quiet moments. This is where the album shines brightest: when Gallant steps back and lets these musical strands ripen on their own, contextualized but showcased with care. He pulls from a reservoir as wide and varied as the diaspora of black identity itself, which should stand him in good stead at Afropunk, with its young, musically savvy — and curious — audience. “The festival has the same internal bones as Gallant does as an artist,” says David Dann, founder of Gallant’s label, Mind of a Genius. “It isn’t focused on resonating with just a single fan.”
Gallant is happy to talk about himself this way, as an outsider, comfortable away from the spotlight. “For real, I’m a boring person,” he tells me several times in our conversation. When pressed a bit more on his interests, though, he says, “but I can beat anyone in Settlers of Catan. Anyone, for real.” He perks up when I ask him what video games he’s playing (Overwatch for PlayStation 4) and which he’s anticipating (Pokémon Sun and Moon, and the return of Crash Bandicoot). There’s something endearing about this: He’s still a young guy, still growing as an artist; music is music, video games are video games, much more is possible.
When he gets to talking about what’s next, rattling off his tour and musical plans (he says he’s excited to get off the road and put what he’s learned while traveling into new songs), he pauses mid-thought. “You know, I’m getting used to having a lot more artist friends,” he says. “That’s something I never thought I’d have before. Artists who I’m close with and really like working with.”
The freshness of his rise comes across most clearly when I ask Gallant who else he looks forward to seeing at Afropunk. Almost as if considering the question for the first time, he says, “Oh…well, I’m excited, and I’m sure there will be a lot of people I’ll try to catch when I’m actually there. But I was really just going to find a quiet room and play some video games for a while. I’m telling you — I’m really boring.”
He says this last bit convincingly, but what lives in his sound is anything but boring. Ology is an album of questions, many of them rhetorical. One of its tracks ends with Gallant asking repeatedly, “Why don’t we open up?” As the song fades, it feels like an invitation to the listener: It’s Gallant leaving the door open to his world, his honesty. No matter what happens when the music stops, there’s nothing boring about that.
Gallant plays the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn on August 28.