Gabriel Garzón-Montano on being influenced by Prince, feeling stuck, and his new album Agüita
For Gabriel Garzón-Montano, the idea of delaying the drop of his sophomore album Agüita due to COVID-19 was not in the cards. “I couldn’t have waited,” he tells EW. “We don’t know when this is over and I don’t know if my mind would have done well with holding it indefinitely."
The 31-year-old Brooklyn-bred artist first debuted in 2014 with Bishouné: Alma del Huila, a six-track EP that blended alternative R&B with strains of funk and soul. The project led to Garzón-Montano opening for Lenny Kravitz, and, later, Drake sampling one of his songs on the rapper’s 2015 mixtape If You're Reading This It’s Too Late.
The singer’s new album — his first since 2017’s Jardin — ups the ante, with Garzón-Montano splitting himself into three characters. The first two, “the debonair leading man” and “the wistful impressionist,” are heard on songs rooted in the raw honesty and vulnerability his fans have come to expect. "Moonless" sees the multi-instrumentalist singing about the grief that came with his mother’s death: "Mama died/and I was moonless in a Stygian tide... trying to hide the ripening tumor." On "Mira My Look" and "Muñeca," Garzón-Montano taps into his third character, “the Latino Urbano hitmaker,” rapping and singing across reggaeton and trap-style songs. With a new character also comes a new look: in the video for the title track, Garzón-Montano serves up a colorful and sexy aesthetic explained in a press release as “brujo energy means blunts and 3-inch heels.”
A few weeks after the release of Agüita we spoke to Garzón-Montano about the new album, being influenced by Prince, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You are a multi-instrumentalist and you do everything yourself. How much of a learning curve was there between Jardin and Agüita?
GABRIEL GARZÓN-MONTANO: It took me like two years. I had to give myself permission to do all sorts of things. This is a new way, you know? I really had to give myself permission to let things be because I'm used to really working for it. Long sound checks in the studio, literally six hours to get my drum sound and then record the drum. That’s just one day.
Jardin and Agüita are very different aesthetic-wise but also visually and sonically at times. What was the decision behind that?
In terms of the style of music, I just wanted to experiment. I felt a little bit stuck at the time. Once I had like, two songs that could never exist on the same album, I was like, okay, they must be on the same album. Visually, I used to not give myself permission to just look like two different people. Like, wearing heels and then changing into sneakers and adopting a more alpha thing, which both are very sexy to me and they both express who I am. I feel powerful in both of them as a straight man. So-called straight man, you know, in a world that demands categories.
Was that feeling of being stuck coming from personal struggles or the music industry or elsewhere?
I was young and I think I was just scared I wasn’t gonna be able to really make records. I wasn’t happy with the work I was making, that’s pretty much the bottom line. So when you're not proud of yourself, you don't really have much else left.
If we look at what is charting and take that into consideration, the song and video for "Agüita" are of the flavor of what people really want to hear and see when it comes to reggaeton. Do you expect your song to do as well as, say, a J Balvin track or are you just like, “Hey I made some art, and whatever happens happens”?
I aim to deliver the experience of a song and if it's not the time for that, it’s not the time for that. I’m going to keep making songs and I’m certainly going to keep making songs like “Agüita.”
“Someone” is one of my favorite tracks. It tells the tale of a classic heartbreaking love story. On it you sing, “Overcooked vegetables / 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.” Is this song from personal experience or just an idea you built on?
No, that happened, that’s an ex-girlfriend of mine.
Did you find it hard to pull from these experiences and then be expected to sing them every night on tour?
No, it’s not that difficult. I always feel privileged to sing that kind of lyric that matters to someone. That, to me, is the exciting part. I’ve known that vulnerability is key. It’s why people trust me.
When you look at your album cover or how you approach even singing falsetto, there’s a clear Prince influence. It feels very intentional and honest. Can you explain how he has further influenced your work?
The cover for Agüita is a nod to Prince’s Lovesexy, like down to the pinky. Prince is a figure who is really the book on how to do it correctly. As I started discovering this urge to play all the instruments in the rhythm section, I started identifying references, and Prince to me is the perfect crystallization. He owned his business and created a literal factory. To me, P is the baddest of them all, down to the splits, the heels, the three-outfit changes a day, making one record, and playing all the instruments.
Prince was able to embody femininity in his presentation that didn’t feel like a gimmick or a schtick. We see a lot of male artists today not able to have that authenticity and then do things that feel less about who they are and more about marketing, trying to have it both ways and being “edgy.’ They’ll answer questions about their sexuality but say a lot to say nothing. Earlier you identified yourself as a “so-called straight man.” What does that mean?
It means that I love women... I’ve had experiences with men and they don’t feel the same way. I fall in love with men and women. My experiences have been mostly with women. I lived in a world that taught me I was a straight white man and that my deviance from whatever that looked like, to whomever decided, would mark my path. I made the choices I made, I continue to and I do it easily. When I look back at the community I was raised in New York, it was a community of loving crazy people, it was sex-positive, it was all different types of people. A lot of my mom’s friends were gay Black men and were a big part of this flavor that informed my household culture in addition to being French, Colombian, and having my mother speak five languages and touring the world. When people say, “What... do you identify with?” Well, I feel like an outsider until I get to school. And then like, all my boys in the dance conservatory are finally kissing me in the face and hugging and it's all good, you know? And they just see the look in my eye and it's not this crazy, violent thing that I've seen in a lot of my confused boyfriends who really just resemble this heteronormative image that we were asked to chase.
Boyfriends or boyfriends?
My friends who are guys, definitely in that context. I've had men as lovers, but like so briefly, and it's really always just been an encounter of curiosity. This whole time, as I speak about this, I just haven’t opted to make it about that because my music doesn't have anything to do with that.
As you were making this album and visuals, was there any thought about how you were going to be perceived by the public and this new aesthetic evolution?
My life takes so much precedent over whatever small amount of time that I'm being considered in the so-called public. The numbers in terms of critical mass on this planet are so insignificant. It's just like, man, people don't even have memory. The idea that everyone's watching every change you make is just ludicrous. Nobody cares. It's just like to be who you are to that. And like, no one's following that. The idea that a 23-year-old kid could make aesthetic and creative decisions that would have to stand for the rest of that person's life is also just kind of an irrelevant thought. It's just so far from what would make a great artist in the future.