When Xtra phones Chris Garneau, he has just arrived in New York on a flight from Asia. The 31-year-old spent the previous week performing across China and is on a 24-hour stopover in the city he called home for a decade before heading to Montreal and then South Korea to play more gigs.
In China, Garneau’s concerts attract hundreds of people, some of whom travel from the countryside to attend. Long meet-and-greet and photo sessions with fans, many of whom bring gifts and poems inspired by his music, typically follow the shows.
Asia is an increasingly important market for the singer-songwriter and pianist, who says he struggles to fill a room with 200 people in New York.
“When it comes to PR and marketing, China really works like a machine,” Garneau says. “It’s unlike touring anywhere else. It’s a bit difficult to spend time somewhere where you clearly see a whole population living in oppression. At the same time, it’s not just somewhere that I can go to once or twice. I feel like I have this karma, and going there feels like a duty now.”
He could speculate as to why his deceptively sweet-sounding songs resonate with Chinese audiences, but he prefers not to.
“They’ll sing along to songs, but I don’t think they always know what is going on as far as the content is concerned,” he says. “Even if English is the first language, the way people interpret songs is so different anyway. It doesn’t really matter to me.”
Since the release of his debut album, Music for Tourists, in 2006, Garneau has established himself as a fearless purveyor of his hushed piano ballads, which often contrast uplifting melodies with complex and painful lyrics.
On his newly released third album, Winter Games, he fills out his once-Spartan sound with moody atmospherics and eerie soundscapes that evoke the wintry chill blowing through each of its 10 songs.
In fall 2011, Garneau moved from Brooklyn to a 40-acre farm in upstate New York to take a job as a caretaker. He lived in isolation for 18 months — save for occasional visits from his boyfriend — and passed the time building teepee shelters, tending to goats, cows and horses, and working on the album.
Not only was his snowbound situation an apt place to work on a concept record about wintertime memories; it proved extremely conducive to experimentation.
“I was in the middle of nowhere and could make any sound or noise at any time of day or night. I ended up trusting myself in a way that I never have before,” he says. “And if I’m alone I’ll just do a million different things, and I don’t really care because no one else is there to hear the fuck-ups.”
Garneau began writing songs for Winter Games by asking friends and family members to share their childhood memories of winter. Using the memories as a starting point, the material gradually veered into darkly personal territory.
For example, the first song he wrote, “Winter Song 1,” deals with sexual abuse, and “Winter Song 2” delves into overcoming paternal abandonment. The deceptively titled “The Whore in Yourself” ruminates on rekindling family relationships after years of bitter divisions.
“There’s always been so much secrecy and denial in my family, and a lot of these songs touch upon that,” he says. “I was always stubborn about being open about my sexuality and about what I wanted to do. I was the youngest of three and I definitely filled that role.
“It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I confronted the abuse that happened to me when I was younger and started to feel like a real person,” he adds. “‘The Whore in Yourself’ is really just about growing some balls and having confidence to be the person that you can be and is much less about anything so sexual.”
After recording the songs on the farm, he turned to Bon Iver collaborators CJ Camerieri and Rob Moose to complete the horn and string arrangements, then sent the songs to a friend in Texas to be mixed.
The whole process was so satisfying and revelatory, Garneau was nearly tempted to hole up in the different, smaller upstate New York farm he now calls home and begin the process all over again — until he stepped out onstage.
“I thought, maybe I just want to be private, make and record music at home and be a recluse,” he says. “But when I get onstage and I’m performing this new work, which is so important to me at this point, it feels more like me than anything I made in the past.”