Earlier this year, singer-songwriter Chris Garneau emerged from hibernation in Upstate New York where he spent the better part of the past five years recording his third album, Winter Games.
As the title suggests, Garneau uses the coldest season as a springboard to explore the kind of uncomfortable and sometimes painful emotional terrain he has been known to tackle in blunt fashion in song — and in interviews.
A while back we rang him up in New York City to discuss the album, his recent Chinese tour, living the rural life in New York state and a certain mega-famous pop diva who may or may not have ripped him off. Read the interview after the jump!
So you just finished touring China. What was that like?
Really beautiful in a lot of ways. Two nights ago we were in Guangzhou and there were people who had flown from Western China to come to this show. There are really long, intense CD signing and photo sessions after every show, which is another two hours every night. It’s exhausting but it’s so incredibly touching to hear what people have to say. It’s really strange to see Communism in full effect and to see the lack of freedoms that people have, and their disconnect from the rest of the world. It’s really sad in a lot of ways but it makes being there really special and really beautiful at the same time.
Your music sounds beautiful and uplifting, but the lyrics are dark, disturbing and fraught. Do you think that dichotomy comes across there?
I don’t know. Of the people I meet, probably one out of 10 can hold a conversation in English. So my idea of what they’re getting from the songs is not really lyric-based. It’s a pretty sonic experience. They’ll sing along to songs but I don’t think they often know what really is going on as far as the content is concerned. So much of it can be abstract. Even if English is your first language, the way people interpret songs is so different. It doesn’t really matter to me. Just the idea that there is a feeling and sensation being translated is great.
“Oh God” by Chris Garneau
Why did you want to record a concept record about winter?
Four years ago I first had an idea to ask friends and family as an exercise to write down their first memories of winter. I started gathering the writings people sent me over a couple of years and that was going to be the whole concept behind the record. I intended each song to be a person’s name. But then it started evolving and some of the first songs did start that way, but time went by and the concept evolved. It wasn’t so much based around everything that I collected. Then I moved out of the city to a farm upstate at the end of fall in 2011, I was suddenly in the middle of rural countryside winter.
Are you a big outdoors person?
Super outdoors. At the time, I was the lone caretaker at this 40-acre farm. I actually had to be outside to take care of animals, but I’ve always loved winter and snow and there are days where I would be out there for hours and hours. I would build a fire inside a teepee and spend a lot of time in my little teepee shelter with my goats around. I got pretty into it. I’m still upstate. I’m on a smaller farm now with animals but I’m not taking care of the amount of animals I was taking care of before. Now I just have some goats, chickens and ducks. At the big farm I had horses and cows to take care of too. But now I’ve minimized. I just have my own two goats and a bunch of chickens and ducks.
So how did the songs evolve from the initial memory exercise?
There is “Winter Song #1,” which was the first song that I wrote for the record. It was inspired by a memory that I received. I did engage myself in the memories that I chose to work with and the result was I definitely related to it by the time I wrote and recorded the song. “Winter Song #1” really talks about abuse and sexual abuse, which is something that I’ve been public about in the past with my first record. And so there’s that relationship that was strung together through that memory. And the idea of it happening as a child and in this it was a family member living alone with those truths – completely alone for so long. Living in denial. There’s another song, “Winter Song #2,” which delves into paternal abandonment.
“Winter Song #2” by Chris Garneau
What inspired “The Whore In Yourself”?
Having the family that I have there’s always been so much secrecy and denial and a lot of these songs sort of touch upon that. “The Whore In Yourself” is really about growing some balls and having confidence to be the person that you can be and much less about actually anything so sexual.
When did that happen for you?
Since I was young I was always stubborn about being open about my sexuality and about what I wanted to do. I was the youngest of three in the traditional sense. I definitely filled that role. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties when I did confront the abuse that happened to me when I was younger that I started to feel like a real person. It’s related to the rest of my family in that I wanted everyone to come out with what they had to come out with.
The overall sound of Winter Games is more ambitious than your other albums in terms of the arrangements. There is more atmosphere. How did that happen?
I knew at some point I would want to add more production, but I didn’t realize that I would do so much of it alone. Once I moved out of the city and started making this record, I made it completely alone for about 18 months. I just kept building and building and layering, time after time, and I kept thinking I would be finished but I wasn’t on any deadline. There was no label or contract. There was nothing. I was in the middle of nowhere and could make any sound or noise at any time of day or night so I ended up experimenting in a way that I never have before. I never trusted myself before in terms of recording.
You recorded a cover of Elliott Smith’s “Between The Bars” that was on The Skin I Live In soundtrack. Madonna recently covered that song and it sounds very similar to yours. Have you heard her version?
Yes. I did. At first somebody posted it on my Facebook and I didn’t even think it was Madonna. I just thought it was some performance art disaster. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t read the blurb about it. I just watched a bit of it and I didn’t think it was Madonna. I was confused and I forgot about it. Then there was a formal press release about what the performance was and I was like, ‘Oh that was Madonna’ so then I watched the entire thing.
It wasn’t just similar but it was the exact piano arrangement. In my cover I changed a few of the chords and they did the same exact chord changes. Even her vocal arrangement has some of the same nuances that I did in my version. I can’t really get pissed off about somebody covering something that I already covered. It was so uncannily the same arrangement that I thought it was a bit bizarre. But what am I gonna do?
Chris Garneau performs “Between The Bars”
You could always try and say call me next time you need a piano arrangement.
I tweeted at her because she also f*cked up the words. First of all, if you’re gonna rip off my cover and sing an Elliott Smith song around the 10th anniversary of his death, and then you f*ck up the words – I don’t even know if she knows who Elliott Smith is. The whole thing was so strange. It was for whatever her current activism stance is, which is on the prison industry in the U.S., which is of course completely f*cked. The whole thing was a huge question mark for me.