Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn

The Maryland-raised, L.A.-based artist studied the history of music in order to define its future.

Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn

New York University’s campus in the West Village feels like it’s been under construction for years, but nothing ever seems to actually change. Christopher Gallant makes this offhand observation in his typically pragmatic way—a profound statement downplayed by his lowkey delivery. It’s a warm day falsely forecasting the end of winter, and Gallant is people-watching on a bench in the middle of Washington Square Park. Students and faculty, including author Zadie Smith in a bright-red headwrap, scurry by, likely heading towards one of the handful of university buildings that line the park’s perimeter. Earlier, a plan to visit the student center that once functioned as a second home to Gallant is foiled by a security guard who does not care that the 24-year-old is a recent alumnus turned recording artist. “It’s ok, I understand,” Gallant says politely to the guard, his hands jammed into a pair of black sweatpants. “You’re a pariah once you graduate.”

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It’s been nearly three years since he left NYU with a music degree, which he earned a couple of semesters early. As average college kids whiled away their time by sneaking into bars or loafing around the city, Gallant took extra summer courses and worked hard at turning himself into an artist. “I studied music but I mixed in a lot of anthropological and sociological studies. I studied trends. I studied cultural movements. It helped me understand contextually where I am,” he says of his self-guided study of the creation and consumption of music throughout history. “Being black and taking African-American history classes doesn't help you be a better black person, but it gives you context and depth.”

Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn
Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn

Gallant grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a suburban community that belongs to America’s second-wealthiest county. At home, where music was available but not a natural part of his family’s fabric, he would download entire discographies via Kazaa—“I’d type in ‘Brandy’ and just download everything,” he says—and become wholly absorbed by them. But as a black kid in a considerably white world, he began to develop a hyper-awareness of his own double consciousness. “At first, it doesn’t really matter until someone points it out. But then you start thinking about it and sometimes you can think a little bit too much,” he says, pausing cautiously between thoughts. As Gallant grew into adolescence and found his identity bumping up against reductive stereotypes, he began to consider his unwitting relationship to race and genre. “I tried to rebel against R&B because I felt like it was too close to what I was supposed to like, you know?” he says. “It was hard but it was a blessing because then I discovered progressive rock from bands in the U.K. and lyrics from Incubus and textures from Radiohead.”

The meeting point of those varied interests shaped Zebra, a nine-track EP Gallant began writing during his last year at NYU and then put out in 2014, after having decamped to the west coast in search of a less emotionally oppressive setting to call home. Zebra was a loose, rough-hewn precursor to his debut LP Ology, released this week by the burgeoning R&B label Mind of a Genius. Where the EP was defined by fuzzy production and obscured vocals that gave his gentle, rolling songwriting a grittier edge, the full-length is notably glossy, with songs that you could imagine being belted out over the radio by pop-R&B acts much more famous than him. (In an episode of his recurring web show, Gallant performed a version of "Weight In Gold" with Seal.)

Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn
Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn

On iTunes, Zebra is identified as “Alternative,” but Ology, which he teased with last year’s breakout “Weight In Gold,” lives under the tag “R&B/Soul.” The Zane Lowe-premiered single encapsulates Gallant’s style: gliding vocals with bright, optimistic textures that belie the piercing anxiety and introspection that linger below the surface. On the upbeat “Episode,” for instance, he sings dark lyrics—So inconsistent with my passion that I threw it all out/ I took it from you, you/ So apathetic with the forces that I burned them all out/ I took it from you, you—in a deceptively cheerful tone. “I asked myself a lot of questions,” he admits. “I was actively going deep so it was a very cathartic and kind of meditative process. I was picking up on intricacies that I didn't even self-consciously want to bring up.”

Today, Gallant is still endearingly studious. Ology gets its name from the informal suffix used to refer to a subject of study, and the album—recorded in collaboration with Los Angeles-based producer Stint—sounds like the culmination of years of careful music research. R&B, soul, funk, blues, and rock are expertly mined for their most elemental features—lithe melody, thick bass, crunchy guitar—and presented as a singular thesis under the shadow of his voice, which soars from throaty whisper to deft falsetto, often on the same song. As the genre of R&B has in recent years expanded to become dominated by an aggressive male perspective, in the styles of The Weeknd and PartyNextDoor, Gallant is doing the opposite. “I’m not focused on bravado or an obscene level of masculinity or power or whatever,” he says of writing the intensely personal material across Ology. “I just wanna understand the world in a certain way and I wanna understand myself in a certain way.”

Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn
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GEN F
April 07, 2016
Meet Gallant, The R&B Singer Who Just Wants To Learn