Chris Garneau on Madonna, whores and other complexities

Late last year, singer/songwriter Chris Garneau released his third album Winter Games. Today the Brooklyn-based musician begins a Euro tour, including a Berlin stop on April 10 at Grüner Salon. (No show scheduled in Sochi.) Jan Noll of Siegessäule asked him a few questions about Madonna’s brazen borrowing, embracing whoredom and the record’s complex themes.

Jan: For your new album, you created songs out of other people’s “winter memories”. They deal with topics like abuse, incest and neglect. Why did you choose the term “games” in combination with “winter” for the title of the album? I mean, “games” implies some kind of fun…

Chris: Mancala is an ancient game, most likely started in Africa, that has a focus on memory and probably helps to improve it. When I asked for people’s earliest memories of winter, from as far back as anyone could remember, deep into their childhoods, it really felt like an exercise, or even a game. While most of the material on this record deals with darker issues, there were some lighter, sweeter memories that I received as well. But some of those didn’t make the cut for the record. They’ll maybe be on an EP to be released later this year.

As far as I can see, you’re working with electronic elements for the first time on Winter Games. The song “Oh God” reflects this the most with its Eurodance-like synths. What’s your connection to electronic music? Have you ever thought it would be nice to get people to dance to your tunes?

I don’t have very strong ties to electronic music, or at least none that I feel like I can claim as foundational. With most of these songs, it was really an experiment for me to start using some extra gear I had around the house – one that I didn’t think would necessarily come to fruition. But the more I started playing with synths, pedals, effects, et cetera, the more I felt really attracted to those new sounds.

Another factor that contributed to some of the electronic and ambient sounds was that in the last few years, I started composing a lot of music for dance, which is when I first started dabbling in this realm. I was composing a score for Brooklyn-based artist Jonah Bokaer at the same time I was making Winter Games, and I think of the two as sister projects. John Cage, Brian Eno, and more current artists like The Knife, John Maus, Molly Nilsson have all been quite influential.

My favorite line on the album is “You should get more in touch with the whore in yourself”. You’ve said that it’s about having self-confidence. Why did you decide to describe that with the word “whore”? When I think of me and my friends and the way we talk to and about each other, it seems that gay guys have a very positive connection to this term in general…

Well, it is something that can be interpreted both literally and figuratively. I think the original intention was to embrace yourself, love yourself, respect yourself, kiss yourself. But to take it literally for a second – I think some people have really big issues with the idea of being sexual with several people, or that there is negativity tagged onto having sexual relations on a regular and frequent basis. I feel badly when people might feel shame in this. I’m not saying everyone should just go sleep with everyone around town every night, but I would hope that people would take some liberty in having many sexual experiences and not feel shame in that. I’m glad to hear that you and many people you know have a positive connection with the term. There’s nothing wrong with that! Everyone needs to relax!

I heard that Madonna stole your arrangement of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” for her cover version of the song. Does that piss you off?

Ha ha, you know, it only kind of pissed me off, but I was more laughing than actually angry. I always find it a little weird and shitty to cover a cover. Or like, when Rufus Wainwright just started belting Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with seemingly no emotion whatsoever, and also reading the words when he performed it live. After Jeff Buckley’s cover, it felt a bit sacrilegious to go and do that.

In the case with Madonna, it was the exact same piano arrangement as my cover, and she even did some of the same exact vocal nuances I did. It just made me think there was no question she and her pianist listened repeatedly to my recording, and I felt that this was kind of shit. She also failed to credit Elliott Smith, or myself, and the fact that it was in a performance where she was using Smith’s fucked-up memory and addiction narrative to promote her protest again the prison system and persecution around the world. A good cause, obviously. The wrong choice of song, obviously. Again, it’s a respect issue.

Chris-Garneau-Winter-Games

Besides your face, the cover of the album shows a symbol that reminded me of the Algiz rune. Is it just a graphic element, or is there an idea behind that symbol?

There is an idea behind the symbol! This is also an ancient friendship symbol. My friend Mike put it on a mixtape he made for me many years ago, and that was the first time I saw it. I fell in love with this symbol. It wasn’t until 12 years later when I was going through old CDs and tapes that I came across it again, and I immediately thought it would fit this record for album art somehow. It’s also kind of gay to me. To me it also signifies peace, love, support, kindness, togetherness, community.

You’re playing Berlin in April. What do you think of the city and what can we expect from your show?

I fucking love Berlin! Some of my favorite people in the world live there. I always love spending time here, and I really love playing here. A very, very special place. I will be on tour with my friend Max who is an extremely versatile musician, and who also sort of produced my live show for this record. He helped me find ways to bring the recorded material to life in a performance setting – something I wasn’t sure how to do. I am really grateful for him and he’s really amazing to play music with. See you then!

Chris Garneau on tour:
06.04 — Heidelberg, DE — Karlstorbahnhof w/ Allie
07.04 — Haldern, DE — Pop Bar w/ Allie
08.04 — Hamburg, DE — Nachtasyl w/ Allie
10.04 — Berlin, DE — Grüner Salon w/ Allie
11.04 — Dornbirn, AT — Spielboden w/ Allie
12.04 — Wien, AT — Radiokulturhaus w/ Allie
13.04 — Feyzin, FR — L’Epicerie Moderne
14.04 — Tourcoing, FR — Le Grand Mix
15.04 — London, UK — The Lexington
16.04 — Paris, FR — Café de la Danse
17.04 — Paris, FR — France Musique + France Culture