Gallant doesn’t like to sit on music for too long. “It would be really tough to sit on something that might not match my mood by the time it comes out,” he says over a video call from his parents’ home in Maryland.
Born Christopher Gallant, the R&B singer-songwriter is referring to his second album Sweet Insomnia, and the three-year span it took to create the project. The record was released as the 2019 follow-up to his Grammy-nominated debut album Ology, but this time frame was too long for him. “The world that I create around it is not going to be as authentic if I’m retroactively trying to put myself back in that place,” Gallant expresses.
Both projects were released under Warner, part of a deal that the 29-year-old had felt uneasy about since it was initiated in 2016. “I was working with a smaller label that was run by my friend, and we were just on the same page,” he explains. “Then Warner just came in, first to help out with radio stuff, and then eventually, they ended up buying out the whole company. I always felt like an adopted family member.”
But after splitting with the label last spring, Gallant is eagerly embarking on what he calls his “return to form.” With his new EP Neptune, released last Friday (March 26), the artist is descending back into orbit of the falsetto that became an early trademark. In January, he released the EP’s first single “Comeback.” where his voice is reminiscent of classic Usher — something he takes as a huge compliment — which he then followed with a second single, the alluring “Relapse,” as well as an interactive website and merch leading up to the project’s release. “I wanted to contextualize everything and make sure that I’m reminding everyone that it’s in the same world, in the same message or at least in the same universe,” he says.
Billboard caught up with Gallant to discuss his newfound creative freedom, and finding his footing with Neptune.
Your new EP is finally out. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling happy that I don’t have an excuse to work on it anymore. I just kept taking songs off and putting songs on. There’s one song, “Chemical Romance.,” I had it written a completely different way. And then maybe like, three, four weeks ago, I just decided I had to rewrite the whole thing. I had to change the whole melody and everything. People were not happy about it. It’s hard to know when to cut yourself off.
I understand that you’re newly independent. Can you talk about what factored into this separation from you and Warner?
It was a tough one. When I first started putting music out, it wasn’t with any intention of having any kind of commercial success or anything like that. I felt like because of what I liked and because of the kind of music that I wanted to make, it was never really going to be realistic to try to cater to any kind of mainstream audience. It was kind of a situation where I was working with a smaller label that was run by my friend, and we were just on the same page. Then Warner came in, first to help out with radio stuff, and then eventually, they ended up buying out the whole company. I always felt like an adopted family member.
Then on top of that, with the way the label system is set up, it’s like one year you could have a whole very specific regime that really gets you and wants to put you in a place that’s aligned with your own artistic goals, as well as your commercial goals, or other goals, and then sometimes they’re only there for a year. That kind of happened twice over, where it was just constant personnel changes, and it was really tough on everybody.
I got a call basically saying that they understood everything and they understood that I wasn’t happy, and I’m happy that they honored that. I still had technically another album, but I feel like the worst thing that could have happened is them saying, “Hey, you signed a contract. This is what it is, you know, too bad.” And then that’s when you get into a whole crazy situation where it’s unnecessary. That’s a waste of art. I’m glad that they saw it and they let me go.
Are you done with major labels altogether? Would you ever reconsider signing with one again? Where’s your head at with that?
I would absolutely sign with another major label, for sure. That’s the thing about it: it really is a person thing too, you know? Each label runs themselves a little bit differently. From where I’m looking at it it’s like: the company is set up a certain way, [but] that doesn’t mean that every company is set up that same way. And the way that [Warner] was set up didn’t work for me. You have to have people who are like-minded and who are really aligned with your goals, even if they don’t match up with the [profit & loss reports]. And those people are definitely out there.
How has this independent status changed your creative freedom with music-making?
The pressure is completely off, which I think was great. When I first started writing songs for Neptune, the first one that I wrote was an idea that I put together right after [Sweet Insomnia] came out. Getting that album to a place where I could be comfortable with it in the world was really tough, because it went through three different iterations. Every time I got rolling, it would be stopped because of some bulls–t that I couldn’t control. So to not have that kind of pressure, or even that kind of threat, has already psychologically put me in a much better place.
I found myself doing things with an attitude that didn’t match the kind of person I was when I put together my first EP Zebra and put it up online. That’s really what I wanted to get back to. I hated spending so much time on [Sweet Insomnia] to the point where when it came to the third iteration, it was because the second version existed for too long. I didn’t like that, so I had to start over and then write a whole new project basically from the beginning of that year. Not having that pressure is number one.
Walk me through the conception and process of how Neptune came together.
I think it started with just that overall frustration with my second album. I wanted to get back to a place where it really feels like I’m making music and I’m uploading it to SoundCloud for the first time. That’s when I really went deep when writing “Relapse.” and then wrote a couple more songs in that same lane. I wanted it to be like: you’re walking home in the suburbs on a tree-lined street, it’s like four or five or six in the afternoon. That kind of thing where it’s just simple. Your world is really small, you have your group of friends, and that’s it. “Scars.” was one of the early things I put together and really liked. And that early version of “Dynamite.”
That probably takes us to like, maybe June. Then I started having a little bit more fun and doing some ‘80s-inspired things, put together a groove called “Julie.” Then I started to get serious more about the visuals, putting that together. Honestly, I think that whole period of time, I was trying to distract myself from how s–tty everything was.
What percentage of Neptune was made during the pandemic?
Honestly, probably like 95%. “Relapse.” was the only one that I had started an idea in like December 2019 and was toying around with the lyrics. But the final version of that didn’t come together till maybe late March or so. And now I just remembered, I do a lot of my vocals in my room just in my crib. There was one night I was really in a crazy kind of mood, and that’s when I took the cello that I hadn’t practiced in like four years, and tried to translate that into that kind of thing [on “Relapse.”], and that had to be April. I didn’t want it to feel like a quarantine album, that was a third tough variable that I felt like I was juggling.
I just wanted to comment on how seamlessly the project flows like with the transitions between “Comeback.” to “Chemical Romance.” and “Julie.” to “Third Eye Blind. to “Scars.” Is this flow technique something that you’re consciously trying to achieve when you make your music or does it just come naturally?
I like the flowing thing because I feel like sometimes when two songs are not 100% in the same world, I know that they can coexist in a way where one is maybe finishing the other’s sentence, but you might not get it if they’re cut so neatly apart. I wanted to contextualize everything and make sure that I’m reminding everyone that it’s in the same world, in the same message or at least in the same universe.
You also have some fire collabs on here: Brandy, Arin Ray, VanJess. Reading some of your old interviews, you said you weren’t too keen on collaborating. What do you think has gotten you more open to it over the years?
It just took me being out there a little bit more to realize it’s cool. All the producers I worked with, on the last three projects if you count Neptune, it was my friend Stint who basically did everything. He and I are like best friends, we hang out all the time, we’re on the same page. Eventually I realized making music with your friends is a different type of freedom. You don’t have pressure. You don’t have to feel like even subconsciously like you have to impress anybody or compromise.
Arin’s the homie — and he and I, we have similar influences, but we approach it in such a different way. I thought it’d be interesting and cool. And same with VanJess, I’ve known them for years and they’re great. It made sense to call them up and to create something and know that there was no pressure with it and know that it was coming from a real place.
Brandy was a little different, though, because I had a demo of “Dynamite.” for a while, and I guess, my manager showed it to her manager. I definitely didn’t expect any kind of solidified commitment or anything. But at the same time, I was trying to finish it, and I couldn’t really get the rest of the song done because I knew it needed that female perspective. It sat in that form for months and out of the blue, I got a text and it was like, ‘Here are Brandy’s vocals,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s great.’ The whole thing was crazy because it’s a collaboration I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Probably ever since Usher was in Moesha with her.
Speaking of Usher, “Comeback.” was one of your singles and to me, your voice is very reminiscent of 90s/00s Usher. But there’s also a beat switch at the end. Is there a full version of that existing somewhere?
It doesn’t exist right now, but I might have to do something with that. And also, I take the Usher thing as a huge compliment. He’s one of the greatest. I used to have a really bad singing voice, like really bad. And to practice, it was mostly listening to a lot of Usher to try to figure it out. Sometimes [my voice] is really close sometimes. If we actually sang in the same space, then I feel like it would be very evident that Usher is Usher and I’m like a baby wannabe.
Who is Julie? Each of your projects has a song where it’s just a woman’s name. What is that about?
Well for “Julie.” honestly, I think I was watching some of The Proud Family on Disney+, and I think it was just the way Oscar would be like, “Trudaaay!” but that didn’t work for the song. But “Julie” worked with the beat. Julie doesn’t exist. I know who she is, but that’s a different thing. I feel like it would be really lame and make me really uncomfortable if I pulled that much from reality, to actually use the real name, so I like interchanging it.
What song are you most excited to perform live when it’s safe to do so?
That’s an interesting one. I think the second track on the project “Chemical Romance.” I really love how it came out on the EP, but I feel like live, that’s the one on the album that’s going to really blossom. I feel like it will get better with the live performance of that. But “Scars.” is probably my favorite song on the project.
In a previous Billboard interview, you said that Sweet Insomnia was made during a place of emotion rather than introspection, something you called a “major shift” at the time. Do you think you maintained this mindset or deviated from it on Neptune and why?
That’s definitely true with the second album, just a lot less lyrical density. With [Neptune], I did really want to get back to a place. I wasn’t interested in stretching my sound too far with this one, I just wanted to make things that felt, sonically, as authentic as possible. The one world I still wanted to explore and go deeper in was the early 2000s vibe. At same time, [I wanted to] go back to, at least lyrically, that place of self-criticism, self-analysis. I knew it wasn’t going to be a bunch of love songs, it was really going to be mistake-based. Mostly my own stuff, but some of the stuff is from friends. I felt like I could lyrically go deeper and say things in a molecular way, and at the same time, I could make records that could be a little bit lighter. It’s more of a blend, but definitely leaning more towards going all the way back and making a return to form.
In your Zoom listening party the night before Neptune dropped you said you made this project to “find your footing.” What does this mean for you and do you think you achieved this?
When I started writing it, I was trying to get back to that place that I was when I put my first project online. [When] I didn’t care about so many things and I was really focused on making something that I liked. I didn’t really care about all the bulls**t around so I wanted to take all that stuff off. I would consider that [a] return to form or going back to who you are. You’re hovering above a planet and you’re waiting to get low enough to where you can really touch the ground and stand on your own two feet.
I would hope that people took [Neptune] in in that same way too. Like people who were fans of my earlier music would be like, ‘Oh, this is dope. Now I can see him again. He’s coming into focus again. He’s the same person that made this old stuff that I really like.’ And the people who are just coming in are like, ‘Oh, this is really different. I see clearly who this person that I’ve never heard before is.”