Grammy Nominee Gallant Is Just a Regular Guy. His Voice Is Anything But
Gallant stands still as a pointer, his gaze steady. Under a velvet button-up the color of midnight, his shoulders are squared off and hunched close to his ears. Naked lightbulbs wink, and squeals from every direction attempt to lure his attention, but he's zeroed in.
This is some serious shit, man. It's Thursday night at Pickwick Bowl.
"I'm not a huge club guy. Not a huge partier. I'm pretty boring," the 25-year-old singer says, tipping a $2 pitcher of Bud Light into his plastic cup. "I need to stay grounded. Still need people around you to make you feel like you're 11 years old, riding your bike to your best friend's house."
Staying grounded might be a challenge in the wake of the rise Gallant just had. In 2015, Zane Lowe bestowed his first ever "Hottest Record in the World" title on Gallant's "Weight in Gold," and a year later, the singer was performing it with Sir Elton John. Billboard proclaimed his Coachella performance last year, during which he brought out a fan (Seal), the best of the weekend. He made Forbes' "30 Under 30" list and played an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
Last April, he released his slow-burning debut album, Ology. And on Sunday, Feb. 12, he'll attend the 2017 Grammy Awards as a nominee for Best Urban Contemporary Album, where his competition includes Rihanna and Beyoncé. Nobody would begrudge Gallant a bit of bottle-popping.
But he's just not that guy. "I was really shocked [about the Grammy nomination]. That was the first time in a long time I was physically excited," he says. But that was the extent of his celebration. "Being nominated, I won. Just being mentioned."
At the moment, he'd rather be here with his three roommates (who also all work for Th3rd Brain, Gallant's management company) for dollar bowl night, dipping his hot dog into a side of that gloopy "cheese" that squirts out of warming tins at ballparks. He's so very ... normal that he almost seems to be hiding something. Which, in a way, he is.
"We met and he was kind of awkward. I didn't know if he was an indie kid or an urban kid. Didn't know what his vibe was," says David Dann, founder of Mind of a Genius, the label that signed Gallant. "I went to his show at the Bootleg Theater and there was nobody in the room except the people working there. Lights go down and he starts singing and I was having a religious breakdown. I was like, holy shit, this is an unearthly artist."
Many artists have personas that perform for them — Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce, Prince's Camille. But the contrast between Gallant's Clark Kent, whose vices are "isolation and watching too much news," and his Superman is riveting. He sings deeply personal, and therefore often ambiguous, lyrics in a gorgeous, airy falsetto that rivals D'Angelo's. Onstage, he stomps, shimmies and straight-up spazzes, leaping onto risers or kicking over his mic stand. He borrows from both James Brown and Pentecostal preachers, his body shaking from top to toe as if electric currents are shooting through him. It's no wonder Dann caught religion watching him.
"I wish I could say I didn't know it was gonna happen," Dann says, not just of Gallant's Grammy nomination but about his career. "But I did."
Growing up in the bedroom suburb of Columbia, Maryland, Christopher Gallant's childhood was "storybook, cul-de-sacs, lots of kids." One of his early jobs was bagging groceries. He describes his parents, who are still married, as "blindly" supportive. Mild-mannered, he played sports ("not willfully") and the cello for 12 years. He never wished to be anybody else, exactly. But he did wish to be himself, amplified.
"My outlet was really just any way I could be a version of myself that I felt I never got to be. Writing stuff down or doing very 'alone-in-the-bathroom-looking-at-yourself-in-the-mirror' type stuff," he says. "Eventually, that manifested itself into writing music. That was the thing I felt I could do without anyone looking over my shoulder, or being too self-conscious."
He dug into R&B and ballads, downloading from Limewire and Kazaa. (Someday, the documentary on Gallant's life will include home videos of him belting R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly.") He began writing as a teenager, and by his senior year of high school was spending a lot of time in recording studios.
"All I knew was that the way for me to get to the best version of myself possible was through this one small outlet I discovered completely on my own," he says.
But the artistic voice he'd been developing wasn't well received. While he had fun attending NYU, the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music rejected his audition. His lyrics were too weird and the city's style didn't suit him — it seemed the industry mostly consisted of meetings and busywork.
"I was clinging to life," he says. "You felt you had to fill out your calendar. And most of the stuff you filled it out with don't mean anything. It didn't do anything to help me write the music that was going to make me feel a certain way and get me to the next place in my life."
So he left. In the fall of 2013, he arrived in Los Angeles with one objective: to feel the way he did when he was a kid, staring out his bedroom window and into the trees.
At Pickwick, Gallant is up. He and his roommates rib one another gently, as if they've been buds forever. Miles, Gallant's baby-faced day-to-day manager, glows with the blissed-out chill of a surfer, even though he is not bowling well tonight. "Adam Sandler loves this place," he notes.
These are easier relationships for Gallant than the ones that stoke some of his teeth-gnashing, sheet-twisting lyrics. He says he's been in love "maybe three times. It's very tough for me to fall in love. Even when I do, I get in trouble because it's very hard for me to show that explicitly. And that's usually why it doesn't work out."
But what provided most fodder for Ology ("a subject of study") is the relationship Gallant has with himself. Take "Jupiter": "I've been whispering to ghosts lately/I'm begging for more time/Before I'm buried deeper in the trenches of insanity/Feed me a piece of my mind."
"Right now, everything I write, I don't want people to hear," he says of his confessional lyrics. "That feeling is exciting — when I reveal to other people, I'm revealing to myself. So I jump over another hurdle. [It's] the difference between music that makes you grow and music that just exists."
It's a tangled-up way to say he prizes vulnerability in his writing. And he's right: When he shines a light into his dark recesses, it's exciting. His sedate personality belies the psychological war raging beneath, which manifests itself in tortured lyrics and an onstage battle. Any artist can withhold interviews and manufacture mystery, but Gallant is an enigma without even trying.
The bowling's moving at a clip, and it has caught Gallant in a reverie. Slipping his fingers into the ball, his mind seems elsewhere.
Suddenly, he pounces, lightly skipping forward before flinging his arm backward and forward again in a single, swift motion. For one long beat, there's silence — then a loud thwack, and the sound of pins toppling. He spins on his heel, and smiles.
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