Neatly Folded Dreams: Gabriels Interviewed

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From lockdown soundtrack to IRL sensation, Gabriels’ path has seemed effortless. But beneath the hype and the mega-star co-signs are three friends, trying to find a way to communicate.

This story appeared in Clash issue 124, which you can order at our online store.

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Gabriels are making each note count. The LA three-piece caught our ear with their extraordinary debut EP, a sound at once classic but also timeless; velvet songwriting aligned to gospel-driven vocals, framed by an electronic landscape. At its core, it was music that vibrated with meaning, that resonated with emotion. The world seemed to agree. Gabriels’ first live performances were on Later… with Jools Holland and Jimmy Kimmel live – within five shows, they’d been booked for Glastonbury. Their debut album is so grand, so ambitious it has to be released in two parts. This year, friends texted to wonder why they hadn’t won a Grammy.

On paper, though, it shouldn’t work. Armenian-American musician Ari Balouzian is a noted soundtrack artist. Ryan Hope is a producer from the North-East of England who gained his first break on the set of a Massive Attack video. And then there’s the titanic voice of Jacob Lusk, who split the internet with his American Idol journey back in 2011. But there’s some indefinable glue that holds them together, some shared ambition. Granted an audience with Clash, Jacob greets us by grinning: “we aren’t afraid to be honest.”

It’s two days after the BRIT Awards, and we’re relaxing in their hotel. Ryan – ever proud of his roots – points to a tattoo on his right arm of Roker Pier. The last time he was there, he explains, was to scatter his mother’s ashes. For all his onstage dynamism Jacob is coy at first; indeed, Ari takes the reins when looking back on their origins – booked to work on a project with Ryan, the two urgently needed a gospel choir. Enter – stage left – a big personality with an even bigger voice. “I do direct with quite a firm hand,” Jacob says with a glint in his eye. “Was I… mean to the choir?” he adds, before exploding with laughter. “They didn’t have the confidence to lay it all out!”

Hitting it off, the three musicians booked a weekend at Ryan’s place in the Californian desert, using the time to “record little scraps of ideas, some lyrics… just hanging out and getting to know each other.” The magic was practically instantaneous. Gabriels’ debut release ‘Loyalty’ was sneaked almost surreptitiously out of the studio, and placed on to the airwaves by key cultural communicators Virgil Abloh and Benji B. Ari chuckles softly at the speed it all happened. “Everyone kept asking us: where’s the music? But we really didn’t have anything! So that became a turning point. It pushed us to write more.”

“Part of the reason this has resonated,” Ryan adds, “is because we’ve taken time over each song. Everything we’ve done, we’ve absolutely meant it.”

Each song from Gabriels feels like a three-dimensional object. There’s the bravura vocal performances, the exquisite arrangements that ricochet between decades. But there’s also the heart, the deeply felt root of each song. As Ari points out: “When you live together and work together, you get close. You talk. That’s when you get to know someone, really.”

Early in that fateful commission, Ari and Ryan decided to take their studio gear to Jacob’s church. The singer had been a church-goer all his life, raised in faith and the community that surrounds. To say they stuck out is kind of down-playing the comedy of the situation. “What’s weird is, no one really questioned it that hard!” Jacob says. “When you grow up in a church, it’s like a city. The Pastor is the leader, and there are all these communities. You want to have your own experience. And this was a family church.”

“So after that, we were pretty much family,” smiles the singer. “That’s when we got tight.”

There’s a stunning sense of musicality to Gabriels’ music. Jacob has covered Billie Holiday’s immortal rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, while reviews have compared exhilarating debut album ‘Angels & Queens’ to everyone from D’Angelo to Ella FitzGerald. It’s remarkable, then, that Jacob grow up largely without hearing secular music. With protective church-going parents, it was gospel or nothing – with only a few exceptions, the outside world remained, determinedly outside. Until, he explains, a life-changing encounter with Beyonce’s ‘Crazy In Love’ video – after that, anything became possible.

“My mom was really big on me knowing my history,” he explains. As it turns out, Jacob’s mother amassed a collection of short tomes on key figures in Black history, published through Ebony magazine. “So, if I’m reading about Billie Holiday then I’m listening to Billie Holiday. If I’m reading about Nat King Cole then I’m listening to Nat King Cole. It wasn’t listening to secular music… it was studying my history. It was me listening to my roots.”

Perhaps it’s this weight that gives Gabriels’ work such meaning. From early breakout tracks such as ‘Love & Hate In A Different Time’ through to album cuts such as the exultant ‘If You Only Knew’, they contain an almost incommunicable quality of pain, life, and experience. “It’s soul,” he says. “The thing about church is, that it’s all soul work, right? And I want to sing from that place. Our music doesn’t come from a Christian place, it’s a soul place.”

Working together out in the desert, Gabriels threw everything on the table. Opting for complete, ruthless honesty, the three conjured an atmosphere of total openness. “It’s a different form of therapy,” Ryan points out. “You’re around people you trust, and there’s this thing that binds us. We can say whatever we want to, warts and all.”

“This is our safe space,” Jacob adds, his hand sweeping around the room. “We want to come together and make the greatest music we can. We have our influences, absolutely, and we listen to different types of music. But, for me, I was released from all that. For the first time, I went to the studio and sang… naturally. This is what naturally comes out of my mouth.”

With the voice of an angel, Jacob Lusk has learned to sing nothing but the truth. The title track of their debut album ‘Angels & Queens’ for instance, was prompted by the tortured life of Donyale Luna, the world’s first Black supermodel and a muse to Salvador Dali. During these sessions, the singer was told that his god-sister had died – having lost his father at the age of 12, family means everything to him. Instead of succumbing to grief, he pushed back, and the three-piece recorded the scorching ballad ‘If You Only Knew’. “It’s great that I was with them,” he nods. “All of our songs come from that kind of place. All of our songs mean something. It wasn’t that crazy an idea – we were together, and it happened.”

“When the three of us are together, and talking… that’s when the best work happens,” Ari says. “It’ll come from films we’re watching, or things we’re going through. Whatever is present in our lives, that’s the glue that binds us.”

“We’re so different,” he points out, “that when we’re writing together, it makes the song applicable to so many different people. It’s three very different voices and perspectives.”

Jacob interjects, his arms aloft and his voice booming. “There are more things that make us alike than make us different,” he insists. “And when you think about that, and find the thread that makes us the same… that’s where the songs come from. We don’t rest with a song until it resonates with all of us.”

Everything these musicians touch has been defined, refined, and finessed to the most infinitesimal degree. Gabriels work with an exacting sense of detail – if it’s not right, it won’t reach the outside world. Live favourite ‘Great Wind’ for example took over 12 months to bring into focus. “We take pride in this,” says Ryan. “A lot of pride. If we finish something, and put it out, then we want to put 110% into it.”

Part of this attitude comes from the weight of experience behind these musicians. Each of them has lived a life, walking their own path through this industry. If there’s a stubbornness to their approach, then that’s only right – it’s all in service of the music, after all. As Ari explains: “It gives you the confidence to say ‘no’ and to set boundaries and to protect the work. We aren’t kids. You can’t really mould us, because we already know who we are.”

For Jacob’s part, he’s still unpacking and working through his experiences on American Idol. The common notion is that he was traumatised by it, by the intrusive glare of the camera lens, but this is something he rejects. “I learned things,” says the vocalist. “I met some people! It was about getting myself to the highest level of myself that I can be. And not for anybody else… but for me. I want to be the best version of myself I can be. The best singer, the best friend, the everything I can be. So when I need to rest, I know I’ve done my absolute best.”

At times, he can be hard on himself – but that where the rest of Gabriels come in. They’re this self-supportive network; after all, a triangle is the strongest structure in the natural world. “Having two people to rest on when I’m overwhelmed, or when I’m tired, or to push myself… I need that. To have that support allows me to be my better self. The person that you see.”

“Mess ups happen,” he shrugs, the volume in his voice dropping. “Mistakes happen. But you have to learn from them. And hold yourself accountable. Do I hold myself to a high standard? Yes. But if you want to be the best, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

The energy around Gabriels built up over lockdown, fans absorbing their music without being able to fully experience them as a live entity. Breaking that stage silence with a sweat-drenched run at London’s tiny basement venue The Social, those triptych of performances proved to be just the start. A breakout set at Glastonbury followed, with each show containing an electrifying bond between the band and their audience. “We were feeling our songs come alive for the first time,” Ari says. “And the audience was experiencing it for the first time. The energy was just overwhelming. It felt amazing!”

Bandmate Ryan shakes his head at the velocity of their path. “It blew up so fast,” he says breathlessly. “There’s this crazy expectancy now. People said to me, oh how come you didn’t get a Grammy?” he says, before breaking out into laughter. “It’s like: hold up. We’ve literally just finished our album.”

Gabriels’ starstruck path has brought them in alignment with some bona fide icons – Elton John has rhapsodised about their music, while Harry Styles invited them on tour. The group’s network is growing by the minute. “I’ve got really good friends,” Jacob beams. “Me and Harry are really cool. Me and Elton are really cool. I have people who really care about me.”

The path from an impromptu gospel session to the BRIT Awards has taken Gabriels little more than a year. It’s a staggering achievement, a testimony to the power that great songwriting, with all its emotional pull, can provide. At heart, though, they remain three friends who just want to make music. Looking back on those early sessions makes Jacob reflective, even nostalgic. “Life is short, bro. And sometimes you can get really caught up. Don’t get me wrong: I want every award there is, I want Beyonce and Jay-Z to be godparents to my children. I want to do a song with Adele. I’m ambitious. But here it is: I enjoy this.”


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‘Angels & Queens’ will be released on July 7th. This story appeared in Clash issue 124, which you can order at our online store.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Róża Tyborowska
Fashion: Grace Joel
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers