The Maryland songwriter explains the vulnerability of falsetto and why Prince is the indisputable GOAT.
Gallant makes a strong first impression on record. The 24-year-old songwriter's dynamic falsetto feels powerfully out-of-step with the increasingly sedated sounds of modern R&B, forcefully reaching outward but always maintaining a certain delicacy. The falsetto has sometimes been referred to as the "head voice," and seems like the perfect vessel for someone who might feel most at peace with their own thoughts. As someone who identifies as an introvert, it's not surprising it's Gallant's preferred vocal style.
Gallant's unique vocal approach can be borderline startling at first, but his virtuosic abilities ultimately give his songs an immediate appeal. This was proven when his performance on the Tonight Show led to a standing ovation from the unfamiliar crowd. Despite his impressive skill as a performer, Gallant insists that technique is not all that valuable to him. His natural talent is simply the most effective means of expressing himself.
With release of his debut album, Ology, in April, Gallant has brought his intimate craft to a larger stage than ever, allowing him to perform at Coachella and earning him the respect of revered musicians – collaborating with Seal on a live version of "Weight In Gold" and going on tour with Sufjan Stevens. Growing up in Columbia, Maryland before studying music at NYU, the singer has found a comfortable middle ground in L.A., putting him a little closer to the suburban ambience he grew up with while still pushing his career forward.
In our conversation, Gallant takes multiple opportunities to suggest that music is nothing without the person or idea behind it. He cites Prince's "fearless," uncompromising sense of self as the ultimate use of the artform, and hopes to find the same growth and therapy in his own work. He's searching for self-improvement, and music just happens to be the way to achieve it.
How did you first get into writing music?
I was in middle school or something, and it was the way I got some things off my chest or whatever. It didn’t have to be music, it probably could have been anything. Just being that I was a kid who didn’t really speak a lot or talk to anyone or talk about my feelings or anything – just having the freedom to experiment – writing lyrics or whatever – while I was home alone – it just became a habit.
When did you discover your voice?
I never did really, it was just something I always did when I was alone in isolation. I never got any kind of praise for my voice, it wasn’t something I was used to.
You have a very distinct falsetto. Is that something that came naturally to you or was it developed over time?
Uh I think subconsciously there was something about the vulnerability of the falsetto that really attracted me. It was just one of those things that - it just doesn’t feel the most right when you first try to express yourself that way. It was just kind of how it was with the lyrics too – I was doing things that no one was gonna hear. So it didn’t really make a difference to me. And I was glad I had the freedom to experiment with nobody in the room and nobody looking over my shoulder or nothing. It was purely so I could progress mentally. That was the only thing I was focused on. I think if there was any kind of evolution – specifically vocally which is a whole different thing – I think it was just based on that I was really hard on myself. Really wanted to always push myself to express what I was exactly thinking. So the only way I could really express that without there being a disconnect with my brain and how I executed was to make sure I had all the tools at my disposal. And so I just pushed to have the most versatile tool that I could possibly have, but that’s just purely to work out my development as a human being.
Since music began as a very personal, reclusive thing for you, when did you first decide to share it?
Yeah, I mean it always was – I didn’t really mind sharing it ‘cause it was just so – I convinced myself early that it just didn’t really matter. Everyone was gonna think it was the worst thing they ever heard or whatever which they did - but it didn’t really matter to me ‘cause I didn’t – the only reason I was doing it was because it helped me. And that’s still kind of the only reason I do it. It just kind of puts me in a better place mentally.
When you write music now, do you still like to come up with ideas on your own, or have you opened up to collaboration?
It’s half and half. What I did the past few times with my album Ology, and what I did before that when I self-released this EP called Zebra – those were projects I made with my friends, with my best friends. To have that friendship right off the bat gave me the confidence to write the music with them in the room, bounce ideas sonically off of each other and all that. No matter who I’m collaborating with, I generally write all the lyrics by myself, either at home or in a corner, on the toilet, whatever. It’s gotta be in isolation –that’s what inspires me. I’m not inspired by a writing party or whatever. It’s gotta feel real.
STiNT is a producer whose name appears throughout the credits of Ology, what's your relationship with him?
Yeah, he’s my best friend at this point. The first time that we got in the studio, it made sense – we bounced ideas off each other on the production front. We built something together from the ground up. It was how it’s supposed to be. I met him a couple years ago. He’s from Vancouver.
He’s out in LA now I assume?
Yeah he’s back and forth. He was kinda in town for a showcase, and I met him in town. I’ve gone up to Vancouver a couple times – he has a spot that he works out of most of the time.
So are you in California full-time now?
Yeah I’ve lived here for a two and a half years or so. Almost three years.
Was that an adjustment?
Nah, it was great, it was easy. I was in New York before ‘cause I went to NYU over there, and I just didn’t – I’m from like the suburbs, so it feels natural to be out in LA versus the middle of a city.
You played at Coachella this year – do you feel your music works well in a festival setting so far?
Yeah, I think so. At this point. There’s some things - I’d change around the set list a little bit depending on the festival. I’ve had the privilege of being able to play a variety of different settings and in a variety of different brands of audiences. And with people who make decidedly different kinds of music. I’m honored to be able to be as versatile as I can.
Recently you played The Tonight Show and you got a standing ovation. Was that a cool feeling for you?
Yeah, it was great to be in that environment. Jimmy was a great guy. It’s cool – that’s something I was dreading to come up for a while. So to be able to like do it and not have it be a disaster –
You were nervous?
I mean not in the moment – it’s one of those things. It’s like taking the SATs. Know that you can literally fall on your ass if you don’t do a decent job. I was stoked to be able to soak in the environment once I got on set, and it felt right to me, so – I’m lucky to have had that opportunity.
You have a very strong voice, which isn't required to find success in R&B right now. Do you consider technical performance and musicianship to be a valuable part of the genre?
Actually – for me, that’s like the bottom of my list. I never think about the technique – I just never think about that when I’m listening to music.
I feel like some more traditionally-minded people might approach your music and say "wow this guy can really fucking sing, unlike so and so".
That’s a sad way to be listening to music. That’s like constantly being at battle – it doesn’t have to be that way – you can just listen to music and not worry about it.
What was some of the first music you got into?
The first music I think was like the 70s R&B kind of stuff and then the 90s R&B. Actually the 90s R&B was probably first.
Was that stuff your parents played?
Kind of. My parents – they had stuff lying around, but they didn’t necessarily play it. But yeah, they had a ton of Toni Braxton CDs laying around. I didn’t have the money to go out and buy my own shit, so I’d listen to that. Same with like the cassette tapes – even though I was born after that, they’d be lying around so… Yeah Toni Braxton’s first album was what I got really really into. Then I got into other people from the 90s and branched out even more.
And you got into alternative rock later on?
Yeah, from my peers and friends in school. That’s basically all they were listening to. Even just the scene stuff, the ripped out of your diary type stuff – that was like the shit back then. And then it just led me on a path to digging deeper - once I had the Internet at my disposal, it just made it really easy for me to go on Kazaa and download everything. Go back and look at the history of why certain songs sound similar for a period of ten years. What impact that had on people. It was just interesting. I guess slowly it inspired me in a way. I wouldn’t say it inspired me greater than life, more than a nature walk in the context of the universe. All together it kind of gave me some sort of motivation – that’s where I draw from when I’m trying to improve myself.
So when you’re writing a song you’re never looking at other music – you’re more just digging into yourself?
Lyrically, yeah. Sometimes I try to draw from things that I was really inspired by, but usually that’s sonically. Lyrically, it’s a whole different thing for me. I’m just really trying to embarrass myself so that I can get over certain things.
So you’re not afraid to be confessional.
Yeah, that’s what it is for sure.
There’s a song on the album called "Miyazaki" – is that a reference to the filmmaker?
Hayao Miyazaki, yeah.
Is he someone that inspired you?
Yeah, half and half. When I was in college, I used to have a group of best friends and we’d have Miyazaki parties. Every week, you know. That was kind of like the thing we did. I think I was writing about a specific feeling within that scenario. I was trying to dig up whatever dirt I could possibly dig up about that for me. I think that’s why I called the song Miyazaki. Also yeah, totally the energy of – not even just Studio Ghibli stuff – but like, you know, an anime film, and that kind of laid-back kind of vibe. It’s kind of like a samurai shampoo vibe. Like the Dilla world and the Japanese world. I love that shit. It’s extremely inspiring.
I saw on Twitter someone asked you to make a longer version of that song, and you said you would. Are you going to follow through with that?
Yeah I am. I have a lot of plans for that song.
Is that gonna be a single down the line?
Possibly. I did get really inspired by that one song, so I’m thinking about it – and that one scenario I was talking about – ‘cause there’s stuff I can still learn about that period in my life.
That song in particular reminded me of the 90s R&B influence you mentioned, like Janet Jackson's "Velvet Rope" or something.
Oh, thank you.
How did you end up linking with Seal?
Well, I got the opportunity to meet him in LA. I wanted to just be like “yo, you know you’re the greatest, you’re a huge inspiration and my hero.” So I wanted to do something that would pays tribute to his music. And yeah, I was honored to have him say nice things about me – he suggested that we do a duet of that song. So that was kind of our jumping off point of our collaborations. He’s such a great guy, and just by being himself, I’ve learned a ton from him. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Do you think you’ll work with him again?
I think we’ll definitely work together again. Even at this point, we’ve done a bunch of great things – from Coachella to some other projects that haven’t come out yet. I’m really just honored to be a part of the kind of tribute to Seal movement.
Is there anyone else you’ve met that you’ve had a lot of respect for that surprisingly was really into your music or anything?
Uh yeah, I felt that way with Suf for sure. Um, Sufjan. Sufjan Stevens. (Laughs)
You performed with him at Coachella as well, right?
Yeah yeah, I had gone on tour with him last fall. I’d been a fan of him before that, so it was crazy to be on tour with him, and we collaborated on the In The Room series When we’re both in town, we hit each other up, and collaborate whenever we can.
That's pretty awesome.
That’s huge for me. And I’m just stoked that anyone cares. Me and Sufjan have very similar motivations and approaches to the music making process.
At Coachella, you did a couple of Prince tributes. On Twitter you said Prince is the indisputable greatest of all time. Why do you feel that way?
He’s the kind of dude you can never – there’s some artists that will be remembered forever that still can have the finger pointed at them that they fit in a box. You can still say that they were calculated and commercial. But with Prince – he completely refuses to fit in any of those boxes – he’s like an artist, as true as the definition goes. He’s so culturally indisputable – Prince does what Prince wants. Prince does what Prince wanted to do. And that’s been the case for like decades. Looking at the impact that he had in terms of what it means to be a male of color in the music industry – and in general. It’s a hard thing to deny. Musically, obviously, he’s just extremely fearless. He’s incredibly inspiring to everybody who even attempts to make music.
As you said, no one can fill his shoes, but is that something you aspire to do – just to never be put in a box and push the boundaries like that?
I’d say it’s a crazy thing he was doing just ‘cause of the nature of music at that point. It was so canned, and he rejected that. I feel like that’s what everybody should make music for. It’s kind of like one of those things – it doesn’t have to be music – in my opinion there’s nothing crazy about just music. People who really want to grow and really want to move past something that’s holding them down, etc. – everyone has their own form of catharsis and everyone has their own form of therapy. It’s about finding what that is. There’s no good reason anyone should stop trying to improve as a human. That just happens to be what music means to me.