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Austin Nelson

Gabriel Garzon-Montano’s smart neo-soul comes from unique sonic schooling 

Gabriel Garzon-Montano arrived at his brilliant neo-soul release from 2013, Bishouné: Alma del Huila, in a topsy-turvy way. At 15, the teen, who'd been playing instruments since he first picked up a violin at age 6, met legendary producer Henry Hirsch and played him a couple of songs. Hirsch heard – and eventually Drake heard, when he sampled Bishouné track "6 8" on "Jungle," from If You're Reading This It's Too Late – an invigorating young composer whose sweet soulfulness shone through his smart songwriting. Hirsch agreed to record and mentor Garzon-Montano at Waterfront Studios. But the kid was rough.

"He was very real with me about the takes," Garzon-Montano says. "We had to do things the right way. He would A/B my drum takes with John Bonham's, and he would A/B my vocals with Jeff Buckley, and he was like, 'This is what you like, right?' And I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'This is you; this is Jeff.' 'This is you; this is John.' He just kind of broke it down for me: 'What you want to do is very difficult.' And especially doing it the real way, without a computer."

It took another eight years before Bishouné's six tracks came together, following a formal education at Purchase College's Conservatory of Music. There, he melded his formative training with Hirsch with his classical upbringing in a musical family. (His mother sang with the Philip Glass Ensemble.) Despite the impressive pop fusions achieved on the EP, Garzon-Montano still questions whether this schooling stiffened him.

"Certain parts of that [education] makes me fall into patterns, and I wish that I could approach music more like a Kanye – or someone who I'm sure is not really that aware theoretically, but who can kind of make these collages," Garzon-Montano says.

Bishouné is basically a master's thesis in pop, with Garzon-Montano performing all the instruments and as the sole composer. The only intrusion is a startling one – "Pour Maman," a song about his mother dying, was the sole track with lyrics outsourced. Garzon-Montano was struggling to find sparse lyrics to fit the stunted melody and his friend, Bobby Elliot, suggested making the song about his mom and then penned the end result.

Now Garzon-Montano's in Florida for three dates, performing songs off the EP. His debut album is expected out next year, a hotly anticipated release now, thanks to the visibility he gained at South by Southwest and through Drake's "6 8" shoutout on "Jungle."

"It was a very surreal colliding of two worlds that I would never have imagined living together," Garzon-Montano says. "It only did good things for me."

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