The past, present and future are in lockstep in the music of Gabriels. The LA-based trio, who released their debut EP ‘Love and Hate in a Different Time’ in June, channel the uncompromising authenticity of gospel and 60’s R&B, but present it in a thrilling, contemporary context with tightly arranged production and sharp electronic flourishes. In a fast, oversaturated musical landscape, Gabriels demand that you drop everything and listen closely.
Comprising Sunderland-born producer Ryan Hope (the band is named after St. Gabriels Avenue, the street on which Hope grew up), Calfiornian producer and classically trained musician Ari Balouzian, and the stunning gospel vocals of Compton’s Jacob Lusk, they have quickly amassed an arsenal of famous fans, including Annie Mac, Gilles Peterson and Elton John, who described the debut EP’s title track as, “one of the most seminal records I’ve heard in the last ten years”. In other words, time is running out to be ahead of the game on this band.
As they prepare to release their second EP, ‘Blame’, on November 5, NME spoke to the band about how the project came to be, their upcoming run of live shows, and the spontaneous moment when Lusk electrified a Black Lives Matter march with an impromptu version of Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’.
Ryan, it doesn’t take a British person to notice that you have a very different accent to the other two members of Gabriels. What took you from Sunderland to California?
Ryan: “I left Sunderland at 18 when I went to study Art at Leeds University. I met a woman in a bar that I was working in, and her daughter worked in the music video department at Ministry of Sound. I wrote a message on the back of a receipt to her daughter asking if I could do work experience – I was just trying to make shit happen. She rang me up and said she needed someone to help put a Christmas party together – and I was already on the train when she said it.
“At that Christmas party, I met a producer who asked me to work on Massive Attack’s ‘False Flags’ video, and I went into a directing career. I moved over [to California] ten years ago. I was making techno at the time. In the first week, I was directing a video for Pharrell and 2 Chainz, and a researcher played me a short film. The music was amazing and it was by Ari – and we’ve been working on tunes together ever since. Ari and I were scoring a commercial one day when Jacob came in for an audition and blew me away. I heavily stalked him for a bit.”
Jacob: “Literally! I didn’t even want to do the commercial, and I was being very difficult. A couple days later, they showed up at my church and set up a remote studio in the choir room and we just clicked – we’re very different, but we have these similarities with each other. We’re literally the best of friends, it’s the biggest blessing in my life.”
Five years passed between that first meeting and the release of your first EP. Why was it important for you to take your time?
Ryan: “A big part of what we’re doing is to go back to that era of, ‘Let’s wait until the work is really good before we put anything out, and make sure it’s really good’. We’ve tried to do that with our videos and with everything we’ve done, to keep that integrity and quality to it, and I think people have noticed and appreciated it.”
Jacob is such a powerful gospel singer. Presumably, once you heard him singing in front of you that first time, you knew you could make something work?
Ryan: “It’s a completely unique thing when you have somebody who can sing like that, a one in a million chance to meet someone who can do it.”
Jacob: I’ll just say, I’ve sung all my life and I’ve always had a really big voice, but this was not about, ‘OK, let me show off my vocal chords.’ Honestly, that’s how I used to feel like I needed to be, but this was just, ‘We want to make some really great music’. It was freeing for me.”
Did you imagine you would end up making music when you were growing up?
Jacob: “I grew up in a very religious home where I was not allowed to listen to the radio. Nat ‘King’ Cole I knew of, but I didn’t know Motown music. I knew Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston because they did a little gospel, but that was all. So yeah, it was a dream I had, but I threw it away because I didn’t look at it as a possibility.
“And now, looking back, I know I always wanted to do something like this, but I didn’t know how. It’s amazing how you drop little seeds and they can turn into this. Some of our first gigs were on Jools Holland and Jimmy Kimmel – like, what the fuck?
Ari: “And that’s obviously partly to do with the pandemic, but yeah, it’s just weird. We haven’t even been able to play a full set yet.”
The response for your debut EP was so strong, and people are clearly connecting to the depth of feeling in your music. Could that suggest that those things are in short supply in music elsewhere at the moment?
Ryan: “I think it depends on where you get your music from. In general, it’s out there. But in short supply? I could see why somebody would think that, and I do agree.”
Ari: “It’s harder to get that good stuff out; it’s not fed to the public very much. Unless there’s some tower structure attached to it, it doesn’t seem like it has value. But there are a lot of really interesting musicians who are around that we love and are inspiring, but they are different to what the mainstream language of music is now. “
Jacob, the footage of you singing ‘Strange Fruit’ at the Black Lives Matter protest is pretty incredible. Was that something you planned to do that day?
Jacob: “No. I had done a couple of gigs with an orchestra singing ‘Strange Fruit’, which ironically is a song that my mom made me listen to when I was really young. My mom and grandmother are from the South, and my grandmother experienced the Jim Crow laws firsthand, so they made sure that I was very aware of what happened and what they went through before they migrated to LA.
“And so, one of the people from the orchestra was there that day, and it was Breonna Taylor’s birthday, and they asked me to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. I felt like I needed to get up to speak – I had been affected very much by the Ahmaud Arbery case as well.
“I’ll be honest, as a Black artist, you don’t want to say anything. I was on an American reality show [Lusk was a contestant on American Idol in 2011], and a lot of my fans are from the Bible Belt and they are white, and they don’t want to hear that. I was at the protest and I found myself very conflicted. But then I was like, ‘You cannot just not say anything because you’re scared you’re going to lose people. I have to participate’.
“So I went and marched, and it was the most beautiful thing to see people marching together. They handed me the megaphone and I sang the song. For me, that song has a different weight now; I understand that my voice is the sound of my ancestors, of my friends who have passed, of Breonna Taylor – they are all in my vocal chords. It’s an unfortunate thing that we’re still experiencing this – no, we’re not being lynched in secret anymore, we’re being lynched in public by police officers.”