Key Tracks: Chilly Gonzales on Drake’s “Marvin’s Room”

Pianist, composer and entertainer Chilly Gonzales is no ordinary musician. Originally from Canada, he has broken a Guinness world record for the longest solo piano concert, scored a Grammy for his contribution to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and seamlessly switches from working with Boys Noize to Feist to Drake. In this excerpt from his lecture at the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy, Gonzales explains how he came to work with the biggest rapper in the world.

Chilly Gonzales performing live at the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy Karel Chladek

You guys know who Drake is? Drake is a rapper from Toronto... You guys know where Toronto is? He used, without permission, a piece from my first solo piano album, it’s called “The Tourist.” It’s an instrumental piece of music. On his mixtape, which was called So Far Gone, which was kind of his breakthrough mixtape before he did his first real album, about two-thirds of the way through, there’s an interlude, it’s called “Outro,” and there’s basically the sound of a champagne cork popping and then my piece plays in its entirety.

In my mind, there’s always the rap beat playing when I’m playing the piano.

It’s not even a sample, it’s... [laughs] He didn’t sample it and turn it into a song, he didn’t sing on top of it. His only aesthetic change was to add the champagne cork popping, and there was no credit. I really felt of two minds. Of course I was very flattered that this music had ended up there. I fantasized about rap, and always thought, “If someone listens to a lot of rap, will they hear that I listened to a lot of rap just through my piano playing?” When you play the piano, there’s no beat, there’s no rapper, so if you have a view of what rap should be as what instruments and what people are doing, then yes, it’s not rap, but in my mind there’s always the rap beat playing when I’m playing the piano, in my head, and I always wondered, “Would someone who is in that world recognize that?”

It was very flattering, but of course there’s the whole problem of then feeling like, well, no one knows, and it didn’t say “The Tourist.” He renamed it. When it was on YouTube at first, I went and looked at the comments, and I had a few defenders there like, “This is Chilly Gonzales!” And then someone else was like, “I didn’t know Drake could pay the piano!” [laughs]

Then began a couple of years where I had to be very patient waiting for my chance to maybe work with him one day. We were sending music back and forth a little bit, but nothing really happened on his first album, and then I got a call to come play at the Junos. Now, if you don’t know what the Junos are, it’s Canada’s pathetic attempt to have the Grammys, and the Junos was being hosted by Drake that year, 2011, and for the opening sketch he wanted to do something where he’s in a tux, almost like a lounge singer, and he asked me to come play piano for that sketch. So I did the opening sequence of the Junos with him, and that led to, very spontaneously, “Hey, do you want to come by the studio?” And then I went to the studio, “Hey, do you want to hear some new songs I’m working on?” And he played me a sort of halfway-finished version of “Marvin’s Room.” Maybe you know that song.

Drake - Marvin’s Room (Explicit)

I was… I think I was very emotional because I was kind of living my dream. I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m in the studio with a rapper!” This is what I’d dreamed of for so long, so I was quite emotional when he played me the song and the lyrics and everything, and it really got to me. Honestly, my eyes became a little wet, just as I was hearing “Marvin’s Room.” It’s a very emotional song. I’m sure you’ve all cried to “Marvin’s Room” at some point, right? Then he said, “Hey, do you want to add some piano?” And I ended up playing an outro on a synth that was sitting there, like an [Korg] M1, like a really bad ’90s synth, and I thought I was just showing, “Well, it could be something like this,” and in my mind I’m like, “Yeah, and then they’re going to rent me a grand piano the next day and I’m going to do it for real,” right?

I do the outro, no pedal. Those of you who play piano might know that without a pedal also to do something… I was kind of struggling but afterwards, they’re like, “WOAH!” [laughs] They’re like, “That’s it!” Obviously, and that was it. That’s the 90 seconds that you hear at the end of “Marvin’s Room,” it’s just me sort of like, unknowingly just transferring the wetness in my eyes to the keyboard and “making the song cry,” as Jay-Z would say.

Watch the full lecture below.

Chilly Gonzales Lecture (Montréal 2016) | Red Bull Music Academy

By Chilly Gonzales on November 1, 2016

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