Published Nov 07, 2019Organically blending elements of 8-bit game sounds, anime and K-Pop influences into soul music? Why not? R&B singer-songwriter Gallant is out here representing the "being Black" experience in a way that's not often seen or heard.
"I was watching DuckTales and then I started thinking about old R&B wedding songs," the artist born Christopher Gallant tells Exclaim! about the creation of recent single "Sleep on It." It's this type of creative experimentation and mashup of his pop culture interests that define the 13-track Sweet Insomnia album.
The artist occupies a unique corner in modern R&B: he clearly has a future-minded musical mindset, but his points of reference define him as a type of Black artist not beholden to lazy stereotypes or branding. Raised in Columbia, MD, he grew up on the soul sounds of Brandy and Boyz II Men — but he also loved acts like Elton John, Seal, Radiohead and Incubus. This is on top of a love of Nintendo videogames, K-Pop and anime. It's not a unique experience for someone with Black heritage, but perhaps one that's not seen or heard about enough.
"Where I grew up, it was pretty diverse, to use the cliché. But there's a large Asian-American population in Columbia. Most of my friends were Vietnamese, Indian-American, Korean-American. K-Pop was just what some of my friends were listening to. At that time, I was bombarded by anime and Japanese culture that made it kind of easier to just accept stuff that wasn't explicitly Western," he says. "I remember listening to the popular K-Pop girl groups that were coming out while I was in college — and having discussions about it with my friends and even my professors at the time. So it's always just kind of been a part of my musical palette."
His debut album, 2016's Ology, received a Grammy nomination off the strength of smooth singles such as "Weight in Gold." This time out, the 27-year-old wanted to showcase an R&B sound that felt familiar, yet fresh.
"I wanted to go a little bit deeper into some electronic things that I hadn't really done before. I wanted to mix that with early 2000s R&B vibes and vocals, which I thought could be interesting. And then I could even take it further from the early 2000s, pull from the deep cuts from that era and experiment."
Gallant describes his approach to seeing the world as wearing X-ray goggles — something that the album's themes hit upon. "Humans walk through life and don't really see what's going on around them. I had to learn to just challenge the way I see the world sometimes. Not getting caught in your own echo chamber of negativity was something that was important for me to learn, but took awhile."
That album was all about mixing in ambient, 8-bit lo-fi, alternative sounds mixed in with some of these R&B or pop sensibilities, he says. For this album, he listened to a lot of those YouTube channels with "chill beats to study to" playlists with ambient sounds. It proved inspiring, and involved playing with sounds that aren't necessarily "drowned in reverb, but instead they're like dry and sound like that come from some wooden shed that somebody made in, like, early days," he adds.
"The theme for this album is 24/7 'relaxed and chill things.' It reminded me of like all the Cowboy Bebop episodes I used to watch. I wanted to mix that vibe with early 2000s R&B and vocals, which I thought could be kind of interesting.
"With my previous album, people got a sense of my style. But I don't think they really got to, like, shake my hand. They didn't really get to talk to me or know me. I think they're going to come out with this album with a better understanding of actually who Gallant is. Not just the style that he presents to the world, but also how his brain works or what kind of person he is," he says.
Social media has played a key part of his artistic persona. He's been able to grow a strong following based on his antics on Instagram for example. "I have a lot of anxiety and I never was the best communicator. But anytime I was face-to-face with somebody who feels my music, it was like I was meeting a long-lost friend," he says. "I hated that hyper-sensationalized vibe that social media is associated with. But it took me a while to really dip my toes and realize that I could use Instagram or social media to just be fucking weird. It's just an extension of that place that I come from in my music."
Singles such as "Paper Tulips" and title track "Sweet Insomnia," featuring 6lack, reveal an artist creating soul music on his own terms.
R&B music is in a space right now where there are artists who feel like they were underrepresented. But there are a lot of shades of Black, it goes deeper than just mainstream radio, the singer-songwriter says.
"The record has a lot of different pockets. All the singles that I've released are a perfect kind of online singles in a way. It doesn't feel like a major label system produced thing to me. It feels like the kind of music that I would find online, which made me excited," he says. "Finishing this album, there's nothing on there that I didn't at one point get in my car and listen to for months. It has to speak to me first."
Sweet Insomnia is out now on Warner.