Can Gonzales be serious? Halfway through his morning latte, the Paris-based musician has already compared himself to Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen. But Silvio Berlusconi? Apparently he's a big fan of Italy's right-wing Prime Minister. "He's kind of a jerk, but you also like him," Gonzales explains, a sober expression on his long joker's face. "You're really not sure at what level he's working out his own complexes. Maybe Gonzales is the same."
Like much of what comes out of Gonzales's mouth, that statement is about halfway true. Over the past 10 years, the 38-year-old musician - born Jason Beck in Montreal - has steered a unique course, from indie rock to hip hop to solo piano. But the common thread has been a very particular and distinctly Jewish kind of joking. "It's about making humorous your worst flaws, your worst fears," he says.
And the shtick continues as Gonzales promotes his excellent solo album, Soft Power, out this month - a mix of skillful seventies piano ballads, disco grooves and Grease-y pop. "I went more toward the major side of music, the so-called naive side of music," he says earnestly. "There's more major chords, more repetitive rhythms that are meant to make you feel good - the so-called toe-tapping rhythms."
This is also goofy but true; super-sweet soft rock is a strong element of the new album. (The CD booklet includes a list of the winners of the 1978 Grammy Awards, except that Gonzales and his collaborator Renaud Letang are credited as "Best Producers of the Year.") Soft Power showcases Gonzales's songcraft and pop sensibility, which he has lent as a producer on Feist's two breakout albums and to chanteuse Jane Birkin.
But the album is also seriously eclectic, drawing on influences from Maurice Ravel to Dr. Dre. And so it makes a fine introduction to Gonzales as an artist. Born in Montreal, he finished high school in Toronto and got classical training at McGill's music school before launching himself as a musician in Toronto in 1992. Under the name Son, he got a major label release for his self-recorded demo Thriller; but things soon went sour.
"I managed to scale the heights and plumb the depths in a very short time," Gonzales says dryly. After his label buried his second Son album - a smart concept record about a Jewish werewolf, called Wolfstein - he used a settlement from his record deal to head for Berlin in 1998.
Escaping the conventions of Toronto's moribund indie-rock scene, he built a new identity as a rapper called Chilly Gonzales, and with his Toronto cohorts Leslie Feist, Mocky and Peaches, he performed a highly theatrical, self-deprecating brand of hip hop.
"I felt I had to take extreme measures to stand out from my contemporaries," he explains. "And I was attracted to rap because it's the musical language of projection: telling people what you want to be, how you'd like to be taken." His chosen persona: a Jewish superhero with self-esteem issues. "I don't wanna make you bounce/I wanna be loved and hated in equal amounts," he rapped on one song.
All of Gonzales's records mixed rap tracks with playful piano compositions, and piano became the focus when he moved to Paris in 2004. "I wasn't confident in my French, and I had a very solitary, silent lifestyle," he remembers. "I thought, I need to express this." The result was Solo Piano, an album of original compositions that became his best-selling album. At the same time, he established a relationship with Letang, a producer-engineer. Together they produced albums for some of France's top artists, including Birkin and Charles Aznavour.
And along the way he kept collaborating with a "rotating cast of characters" including Mocky, Peaches, British art-soul singer Jamie Lidell and Feist, with whom Gonzales was linked romantically in the mid-nineties. The couple have a long history; she played some of her first solo gigs opening for Son and, after she moved to Paris, the two of them produced her breakout album Let It Die. Gonzales had a front-row seat for her rise to stardom with her next album The Reminder, and the minor backlash that followed when an iPod commercial made 1234 a hit. "Up until that point I thought there was nothing for me to learn, because the success was too linear," he says. "Maybe she can go in a straight line, but it could never be that way for me. I really love failure. It brings out the best in me."
And in fact, Gonzales seems to relish taking the hardest path possible. But now, with Soft Power, he says he's putting himself out there. "Having spent four years in the studio with some of the most amazing singers of my day, it turned out that singing was the big risk for me to take," he says. After weeding out many songs, some of which went to his friends, he wound up with just 10 - including three instrumentals. "No one can sing those better than me," he says. "Those are songs that only my combination of complexes and character defaults can [deliver]"
Some of them have more obvious pop appeal; the manic vocal on Working Together mixes power pop with old-school hip-hop rhetoric. Others are, naturally, weirder. Apology is a highly theatrical I'm-sorry-baby that is either hilarious or uncomfortable to listen to. Fittingly, it's the showpiece of Gonzales's current live set - which sees Gonzales express his diva persona in over-the-top form.
And what next? TV, of course. Gonzales has a show in production for the French network Canal Plus - "a sitcom about an outsider in France, with a uniquely Canadian and bohemian view thrust into the world of French showbiz." Half fictional, but all true; it's the natural next step for Beck and for Gonzales. Even he says so. "I have a certain personality, and I can't censor it," he says. "I've done that before - people sense it. So the only way to [succeed] even if it takes a bit longer, is to work with what you actually have and try to take the parts that are entertaining." And you can tell he really means it.