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Rising R&B singer Gallant on 'Weight in Gold' and growing up in Columbia

When the new streaming service Apple Music launched its highly touted Beats 1 radio station on the last day of June, Zane Lowe -- arguably the DJ with the most international cachet when it comes to tastemaking today -- premiered a song called "Weight in Gold." It was Beats 1's first "World Exclusive," a daily spotlight for an up-and-coming artist to be heard all around the world.

"You like it? We love it," Lowe said through his New Zealand accent as the track faded out.

The sleek, soaring song -- which sounds equal parts soulful throwback and modern R&B -- left a question in many minds: Just who was that?

His full name is Christopher Gallant, but the 23-year-old Columbia native records simply as Gallant (pronounced GUH-lant). A graduate of New York University, Gallant now lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on a "body of work" that he will finish before year's end.

With one celebrated single under his belt (along with a 2014 self-released EP called "Zebra"), the singer/songwriter took our phone call at his Los Angeles apartment last week to discuss growing up in the suburbs, writing "Weight in Gold" and more. These are excerpts from the conversation.

What was growing up in Columbia like? Were you born in Maryland?

I was born technically in D.C. and then my family moved to the Columbia area when I was in elementary school. It was right on the line between Clarksville and Columbia in Howard County. I remember it being just like a peaceful, safe atmosphere. I always felt connected to the woods and that whole suburban feel. It was like a block with a lot of people who were around my age, so we all kind of grew up together. We did the whole riding your bike around the cul-de-sac thing, the walking-around-the-trails thing. It's almost like a storybook setting that never leaves your head.

When did you fall in love with music?

I think it was in middle school. I had this USB-type mic or whatever it was at the time. I'd just go out and just be bored and record all of these really, really horrible songs on that. I remember playing it for my friends, and my friends would be like, "This is not good." I remember talking to a childhood friend. I was like, "I think I want to try and just do this for the rest of my life because it just makes me feel really good." It wasn't really a career choice. [It was] more so a cathartic type of affinity that just developed and got kind of out of control over time.

Do you have cornerstone artists that cemented the music you gravitate toward?

It kind of started with the whole '90s R&B world -- like Babyface, Toni Braxton and Brandy and then Boyz II Men and Bell Biv DeVoe. Then I went into a little bit of an alt-rock direction, essentially for the lyrical quality and the experimental vibe -- like Incubus or Radiohead. Went back to some Motown-era stuff.

I remember keeping a lot of journals and diaries and trying to form a complete thought just based off of those immediate, raw feelings. If anything, I was conscious about how I just always wanted to be as honest as possible, no matter how vulnerable it would make me seem. I knew that the artists that I loved the most had something about them that was very unfiltered and very rough. I think that's what really, really caught my attention, and made me say, "Wow, I really want to try and see if I can do that."

How did "Weight in Gold" come together?

I was at the beginning of working on this project, which has been my second project since I did a self-released kind of thing ["Zebra"]. At the back-end of that, I kind of stumbled into a team that I really, really believed in on different fronts. We started this whole creative process again and there was a lot of experimentation up until this point. I started worked with this guy named Stint. It was a very involved kind of way working from the ground up. We both had a lot of ideas. It was a very exciting kind of vibe, rather than a dude who shows up with an idea and you just do the idea.

"Weight in Gold" was the fifth or sixth or maybe seventh song we had done together. I remember thinking in my head, "I want to do something that's really honest." It'd be just as honest as everything else I was doing at that point, but I also wanted to do something that I felt like I couldn't really do in a way. I thought it would make the honesty more real. At the time, I stayed in falsetto a lot. I was very floaty and never really screamed that loud something that was honest. I was like, "Let me see if I can do that." That's where it came from basically -- the writing process started with that chorus. I just remember thinking, "Let me scream this gibberish," and then figure out what I'm saying and just let that come together. It just kind of happened. It's really hard to try and describe it retrospectively.

There might not be a more powerful DJ co-sign right now than Zane Lowe's, and you were his first "World Exclusive." What was that like?

It was definitely surreal because of course I knew about him and the impact he had made in introducing people to the world, so that was a really surreal feeling. The response, if anything -- I don't want to say it caught me off guard but it was a very cathartic affirmation. It made me realize, OK, I'm taking these risks and people seem to be really connecting to that moment where I felt the way I felt in order to spark this record.

Do you get back to Columbia often?

Yeah, I try to go as often as I can and just experience the whole vibe again. I haven't been back since around April. I'm hoping I can get back in the next couple of months.

What do you miss about the area?

I'm in L.A., so I miss seasons in a big way. When I was in New York, the whole vibe was really just not matching with me. I was kind of super depressed in New York. It just had this vibe of "Get out," you know? I would try to get out and we'd look back and just see the city and feel like, "Oh, I have to go back to prison again." But L.A. is very choose-your-own-adventure. It's very open spaces.

But at the same time, it doesn't have that very moving, living, breathing, "Planet Earth"-feeling Maryland has, specifically Columbia. There's just nothing like walking through the woods in the fall and smelling the burnt crispness of the air. And winter, summer and spring are completely different. In L.A., they all kind of run together.

At this point, what do you want new listeners to know about you above all else?

I just really value humility and honesty and vulnerability. My live show is a kind of a meditation experience for me. Throughout this whole process, I just want to learn more about myself as a human being and hopefully become a better one.

INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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