Despite its dark subject matter, “Stranger”—the latest release by recording artist Chris Garneau—burns with a bright, ballad-like intensity. The genre-defying track flexes Garneau’s expertly emotive songwriting and the layered sonic landscape carefully supports his words. In the collaboratively crafted music video, premiering here, Garneau’s song comes to life throughout iconic Brooklyn destination Coney Island, where choreographer Tenaya Kelleher helped the ethereal artist ease into his surroundings. Altogether, it’s a creative coupling of beauty, depth and reflection.
“Stranger” is very much a sonic departure from the tracks on Garneau’s brooding previous album. “I think I literally just wanted to chill after not being very chill for a long time,” he tells us about the song’s inception. “I felt like I almost had to die to make [his 2021 album] The Kind, or at least go deep into the death, mourning, grief, loss, surrender, yada yada yada. Once it was released, I felt like I could move on with my life, finally, after 37 years of just staying in this cyclical sort of hell. When I started writing new stuff and it felt a little lighter, I was having fun and was also kind of relieved to feel that way.”
Still, intimate themes have carried over. “A lot of the material on the previous album was about letting go of a person who had really hurt me, who I was then estranged from and later died under some pretty horrid circumstances,” Garneau continues. “That album was really a plunge into all of these years of unknown and very murky territory with that person. The writing for this song feels more specific to the actual moment where you turn around and a person is simply not who you thought they were. Sometimes people really have a switch, like a light turning off, and all the goodness that you ever knew from then disappears and this… monster is revealed.”
Ultimately, to complete the lyrics, Garneau wove this personal experience into inspiration from a teleplay that the track was originally supposed to support. “Weirdly, this teleplay had a lot of parallels to my own life story,” he says. “There was a complicated and sad relationship between the lead character, a son, and his father. There were a lot of dynamics that crossed over into my life, and so I really just felt like I was writing a new Chris Garneau song, but it happened to fit well in both instances.”
There’s so much nuance to the production, which continues to reveal itself through repeat lessons. This aligns with the track’s specific production process. “I made a few demos of it at home using a synthesized vintage keyboard and horn patches, drum machine and vocals, and I liked how it had this kind of chill like ’70s groove, almost. I knew I wanted bass and drums. Later in spring, I was in Los Angeles working on music for this teleplay/pilot teaser, and I really wanted to work with Patrick Higgins on the track. He produced my last record in his Upstate New York studio and we had gotten really good at building a track in a day or two so I brought him into the studio in LA.”
“We knew we wanted Rhodes, acoustic piano and vocals so I banged those out in a few hours and then Patrick tracked bass and drums,” Garneau says. “By the end of the day we had a good foundation for the track. Back in New York in late summer I reached out to CJ Camerieri who did all the horn arrangements for my third record, Winter Games. He does all the best horns for everyone really, and he loved the track and was super-down to write and record a brass arrangement for that, which he did remotely.” After passing notes back and forth for a few weeks, Higgins mixed everything together.
“It was a difficult mix to achieve basically because things were from three different studios all over the place. It was a fragmented thing to put it all together—just to get everything sounding cohesive, but I really love it,” Garneau says.
As for the music video, Garneau eschews the track’s incisive intensity for a more playful artistry. Garneau, who had just moved back to Brooklyn after 11 years away, chose Coney Island as the location. “This beautifully talented photographer Michael George and I collaborated on photos at Coney Island, also a favorite NYC location for him, just after Luna Park shut down in early November. I knew I wanted to shoot the video here so I wanted the press photos/cover art to all be in the same place. The work that Michael did really served as blueprints for the video. The work was so stunning that I was very easily able to plug those into a video treatment and we had at least half a dozen shots ready to go for us.”
I just wanted something very cinematic, very old-school New York feeling. The character and weirdness of empty winter Coney Island is so weird and fun, everywhere you look is basically a film set
“I scouted the location again later in winter and put a great team together with my co-producer Abigail McCreary. I really wanted to keep this video on the lighter side—I think everyone’s seen enough devastating melancholy from me—and I just wanted something very cinematic, very old school New York feeling. The character and weirdness of empty winter Coney Island is so weird and fun, everywhere you look is basically a film set. Our director of photography, Paul Quitoriano, exquisitely captured all of that really well.” The endearing video has no official director, as it was truly a collaborative effort.
Images courtesy of Michael George