Some singers are screechers; some are crooners. Some warble, some growl. There are vocalists we admire for their confident delivery, and others we cherish because they are vulnerable, or funny, or just flat-out bad. (There’s a reason, after all, that Janis Joplin made it into the canon, and it’s not because she was a shoo-in for American Idol.) Simply put, we appreciate some idiosyncrasies in our musicians.
Chris Garneau is about as idiosyncratic as it gets. For one thing, he’s a whisperer. At times, he seems hesitant to break the sedate surface of his own music, almost as if he’s afraid of his own voice—or is divulging something precious and compromising in his lyrics. His default voice is wary, almost hesitant: a reedy, wavering ghost in the speakers.
But, it doesn’t take long to realize that Garneau is glad to be unburdening himself. The opening track on his second album, El Radio, is a perfect illustration. A short, purgative piece called “The Leaving Song,” its operatic string introduction gives way to Garneau’s faint, trembling voice, which after a few tormented verses spikes into a crescendo delivered with all the power and forcefulness of a Broadway lead. “Go, just go,” Garneau wails, jolting his listeners out of their aural stupor, and hinting that there will be more surprises ahead.
It’s a hint confirmed by the second track on El Radio, “Dirty Night Clowns.” Whereas “Leaving Song” is struck through with melancholy, its follow-up is practically Vaudevillian in its manic intensity. A bouncing piano riff and clattering drumbeat drop into swelling, orchestral choruses in an interplay of disparate movements that could be part of a late-era Queen song, or the soundtrack to a Tim Burton flick.
And indeed, Garneau is as much a latter-day Freddie Mercury or Danny Elfman as he is an acolyte of Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith, both oft-cited influences. Garneau is first and foremost a composer, and a virtuosic one at that, although he’s quick to point out that he only lays the groundwork for his songs. A classically trained pianist and singer, Garneau writes the lyrics and basic melodies for each of his compositions, but it’s in the buildup to recording that most of the tracks develop their final, distinctive anatomy.
“I try to bring [the other musicians] sketches,” Garneau told me recently, “but usually things end up changing a lot with them. They’re really good at helping me make things better.”
Listen closely, and sure enough, the improvements crop up everywhere: on “Dirty Night Clowns,” for instance, in which drummer Adam Christgau created the trotting backbeat using a set of animal hooves. The most distinctive mark in that track and elsewhere, however, was made by cellists Anna Callner and Eleanor Norton, two virtuosic classical musicians. Garneau brought in Norton after his then-cellist bowed out to attend to a burgeoning solo career. Soon thereafter, Callner stood in for Norton at a Bowery Ballroom show, and Garneau was so impressed that he scrapped plans for an upright bassist in favor of a second cellist. Callner and Norton are behind the eerie sliding scales on “Pirates Reprise,” and the stately fill-ins that grace “Dirty Night Clowns” and “Over and Over.”
But, perhaps the most poignant new influence is buried in the album’s title. El Radio refers to Garneau’s maternal grandmother, Eleanor, whose death marked a turning point in his creative process, breaking his navel-gazing routine while leaving his weirdly confessional musical style fully intact.
“I sort of started to grow up a bit,” Garneau remembers, “putting on new shoes, taking care of my mother in a way I had never done before. It forced me in a really good way to take the focus off myself.”
“This [album],” he elaborates, “is about so many different people, and about a lot of women, really—a lot of close girls and ladies and women who have been in my life.” Garneau’s childhood friends, for instance, are the subject of his plaintive “Hometown Girls.” And the residents of a crisis center in Juárez, Mexico, are at the center of “Hands on the Radio,” which Garneau conceived as he was leaving a benefit concert there. The city is infamous for its high rate of unsolved murders, especially of women.
Garneau’s debut, Music for Tourists, garnered considerable acclaim and had songs cherry-picked by TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. El Radio takes Garneau’s star even higher. There is something altogether unprecedented in its strange brew of indie rock, classical music, and folk—something that begs comparison to another path-blazing young composer, Nico Muhly. But, Garneau brings a Gilbert and Sullivan vibe to what has been shaping up to be an esoteric genre. He’s created a brave new movement in American music, and we’re lucky to have him aboard.
Alex Littlefield lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Nylon, Paper, Radar, Slice, and Futureclaw, and on the websites of New York Magazine, Black Book, Flavorwire, and KGB Bar's Lit Journal.