Wauwatosa musician finds fame, returns home
Singer-songwriter Rob Gonzalez is having a high-school reunion of sorts – and you're invited.
The Wauwatosa native is returning to Wisconsin for a three-concert mini-tour that comes to The Cabot Theater at Broadway Center on June 30. The previous two evenings he will perform in Madison and La Crosse.
Gonzalez has been seeing great success in the past decade, touring the country as one of the most popular acts on the college circuit and garnering praise from critics who compare his piano-centered performances to Elton John and Ray Charles. He has released three albums, Wrestling Athena (2000), The Rush From Your Touch (2003) and All is Right With the World (2006). He's also collaborated with big names like John Mayer and Kevin Richardson (of Backstreet Boy fame). His records feature the talents of artists like Kenny Aranoff (drummer for John Mellencamp), Brian Ray (touring guitarist for Paul McCartney), Paul Buckmaster (who composed the string arrangements for Tiny Dancer and Your Song), and Lyle Workman (film composer, Get Him to the Greek).
But no matter how high he climbs, his heart is still in Wisconsin.
"Wisconsin is always going to be home to me," he told OnMilwaukee.com. "It's always been dear to my heart. My family lives there, my parents still live in the house I grew up in."
"It's kind of fun because this concert is sort of turning into a high school reunion for me. So many of my high school friends and parents' friends and extended family from Chicago are coming. Originally I picked a smaller venue but then I realized it wouldn't just be my existing Milwaukee fans but my friends and family and we needed a bigger venue."
The 1987 graduate of Wauwatosa West High School is an alum of the popular Milwaukee jazz band Rainbow's End. He's been playing the piano since the age of nine and performed in clubs in downtown Milwaukee starting at the age of sixteen.
"I'd come home at eleven at night ad my parents would have this look of dismay in their eyes," he said. "When I was nineteen I went professional – my first gig was on the island of St. Thomas, where I performed at a 5-star hotel for six months straight [with Rainbow's End]. All of a sudden I was living on an island, making decent money, and I was nineteen years old."
Spurred by that success, he went to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. "I stayed there and really developed my craft, paid my dues there, performed six to seven nights a week around town and started playing colleges," he said. During this time he also studied philosophy at Stonehill College, which he says helps him find deeper meaning in his compositions.
By 2001 Gonzalez had become the foremost touring act on the college circuit, and he was starting to get some major attention from record labels. He was brought to LA by Sting's former label representative, Mark Mazzetti.
"The next thing I knew we were in a studio recording," said Gonzalez. "At that point it felt like a 15-year overnight success." He co-produced the 2003 album The Rush From Your Touch which features a track titled "Missing Wisconsin," which is a love letter to his home state written as he was on the cusp of his first real success.
"I wrote it on an airplane flying from Milwaukee to Boston. I kind of started singing the song in my head and by the time the plane landed I had all the music worked out," he said. "The song was inspired by the memories of me being back home in Wisconsin and what that meant to me, and then having to leave all that and go out to the East Coast. It was always a gratifying feeling to know I was pursuing my dream, but it was always hard for me to leave home."
The song is one of his most popular, and appropriately it expresses a nostalgia that always stays with him.
"There are so many things about Milwaukee and Wisconsin that I love," he said. "To this day, when I meet people and mention I'm from Wisconsin, they say 'Oh, I was there once, they're the nicest people I've ever met.' People really are impacted by their visits here."
Being away from friends and family is the price Gonzalez pays for living his dream.
"You know, oftentimes it takes relocating. That's the hard part of the arts is you may have to end up in New York or Los Angees to really get into the craft. But that's the way to do it. It's always a double-edged sword because you're doing what you want to be doing. But it's never been easy for artists."
His advice for young performers? "Believe in yourself. That's the first thing, because that's really what it takes." And find the right friends. "Seek out the people that area already doing what it is that you want to do. Do everything you can to be around those people. Intern for them. Work for them. Make connections. Maybe at first they'll say no but then you just find somebody else."
But for Gonzalez, nothing is better than living his passion. "You wake up in the day with that smile on your face thinking, 'I'm dong what I want to be doing.'"
Gonzalez and his fiancee Tara, a film choreographer (whose most recent work includes the Tom Cruise film Rock of Ages) are expecting their first child in August. "This is my change to get home and see everyone before the baby comes," he said. For the immediate future, he's hooked up with Atrium Music Group to do some composing and find placement for his songs in TV and film. "It'll be nice for me not to have to travel and tour as much when the baby is young."
He's not ruling out life on the road for good, though. "We're tentatively planning an East Coast tour in November, maybe do New York, Boston, Cape Cod or New Hampshire."
For now, though, the Milwaukee-bound singer says his gig is going to make for an awesome date night.
"If Dad wants to do something for Mom or a boyfriend wants to do something for a girlfriend, this is a great date," he said. "It's not going to be a very stiff, classical piano concert. People clap along and sing along and stand and dance. There's going to be some laughs."
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