Italian progressive whiz dishes on his debut artist album, 'Towards'

Gai Barone
Gai Barone

“I don’t judge music by genre. I listen to techno, I listen to classical, I listen to everything. And I try to only listen to good music and push good music – doesn’t matter about the genre. There’s good and there’s bad. That’s it.” Gai Barone folds his hands and laughs softly at his decisive statement. 

The Italian DJ/producer has made a name for himself in progressive house and trance circles across the globe without selling his soul or selling-out his artistic integrity. DJing since the ‘90s, he can be counted among those born into the scene as the scene itself was birthed — a confluence that fosters creative freedom. As such, Gai’s music is free of preconceived notions of what dance music is or what it should be. It is distinctly progressive in nature, but it moves far beyond any particular style and is ever-evolving. His weekly show, ‘Patterns’, on the Digitally Imported network is true to its title, with sounds and shapes and textures swirling together across three dimensions, linked by feeling instead of structure.  

Gai Barone doesn’t care where his music sits on the genre spectrum. His only concern is that it elicits an emotion and that it sounds beautiful. His peers seem to agree. Gai has remixed for the likes of Markus Schulz and Andy Moor, and his work is supported by Above & Beyond, Armin van Buuren, Paul Van Dyk and Nick Warren. His own hits are haunting, progressive trance tracks like ‘Voices Inside My Head’ and ‘Alicudi’, that showcase elements of dark techno and experimental music within their orchestral arrangements. The charts may need to define a song by style, but the ears hear the truth.  

Of course, this is what music is supposed to be: not a replica of something before it, not a template for the trend of the moment. Gai’s work is amorphous, with sonic elements shifting throughout the length of a song in moody journeys through spirit. It is euphoric, expansive, thick and textured. Most of it doesn’t fit neatly into a single category and perhaps this is why Gai Barone is not nearly as well-known as he deserves to be. Refusal to conform can make it harder for an artist to top charts, but in Gai’s case, this has done nothing to dull his shine.  

Gai’s spirit is as bright and unique as his music. He joins us by Skype from his home in Bologna, Italy, where he lives with his wife and two young children. Wearing a pair of giant headphones, a permanent smile plastered across his face, he is warm and gracious in the traditional Italian manner, yet surprisingly soft-spoken at times. That gentleness comes across in his work which, despite its massive sound, possesses a tender, human quality. Beneath the kick drums the songs are delicately nuanced, with intricate harmonies designed to elicit cascades of goose bumps.

“I sample everything. There are so many noises!” Gai gushes. “On the recent remix I did for Art Of Trance called ‘Octopus’, I used the voice of my oldest child.” He incorporates natural elements seamlessly: a chorus of crickets; the cry of a hawk; keys clattering; his child’s laughter.  

Gai’s songs are strikingly self-aware and above all, transformative. It is no surprise that a man who makes music so expansive and soul-touching should come from a background intimately connected to such things: Gai is a classically trained pianist and former music therapist who spent years working in a hospice, gently guiding the sick and dying into the arms of the next world using melody, harmony, and rhythm.  

If there is one thing that can intimately connect us to life, it is surely death.  

To bring people peace in a time of pain and fear is the ultimate exercise in empathy and compassion. It is a selfless endeavor that while rewarding, can place limitations on self-expression. “When I did music therapy, it was only for them, and not for me,” Gai explains.

“In the hospice, I used to play piano for people. Sometimes, they’d play for me. Sometimes, we’d play together and sometimes we’d make a lifetime selection [of music] together. It’s really powerful and really intimate stuff.” 

After his own father passed away, Gai’s grief led him to leave hospice work. It was then that he began producing dance music full time: “I started to play music for me, only for myself.” But all those years spent working in the hospice never left him, and very much inform what he creates today. “Music therapy leaves inside me so many imprints. I think that most of my production comes from it,” he explains.  

Gai insists that melody and well-constructed harmony are the most critical parts of any song and true to form, his records reflect just that. ‘Anzoo’, one of his recent releases on Afterglow Records, is a harmonic tour de force that it seems only a person who has witnessed the space between life and death could compose. It is a distinct departure from his usual style and Gai was concerned it might not work. But it does, beyond measure. The vocals in ‘Anzoo’ sound like a thousand angels singing in unison, their voices rising higher and higher as harmonies build in an epic crescendo. Orchestral and triumphant, ‘Anzoo’ imparts the sense of leaving this world for the next in a brilliant burst of light; a transition that Gai is intimately familiar with. 

It is fitting that Gai Barone’s debut artist album, set for release in early 2016 on Afterglow, should be titled ‘Towards’. The theme that unites his music is one of being on a transformational journey, whether towards the afterlife or the dancefloor. Even with the album still in its final stages of construction, the preview that Gai shares is a perfect reflection of its title. It glitters with a wide range of acoustic samples and styles, from danceable trance to etheric, soaring melodies far-removed from drum machines. Listening to the album’s more lulling snippets, one can’t help but feel the thin gauze that separates us from the only certainty in life — that we will leave it — in the most delicate, uplifting way. 

Gai sees himself as a storyteller, through both his tracks and his mixes. Where his forthcoming album is a reflection of his lifelong experiences, the recently released ‘Pure Trance Vol. 4’, a compilation mixed by Gai and fellow prog wizard Solarstone, is a reflection of Gai’s personal journey over the past two months. “The relationship between the music therapist and a patient is such an organic thing,” Gai explains, as he notes its similarity to the relationship between the DJ and the dancefloor.

“You know, every selection tells a story. It’s funny, no one likes to do the opening, the warming up,” he looks off into the distance. “I think it’s such an intimate relationship between people and the DJ. You start to tell them who you are. You’re telling them your story.”