Gabriels: swooning, all-embracing soul fusion adored by Harry Styles and Elton John

Gabriels band

Last year, Gabriels’ secular gospel sounds and rousing pop earned them arguably the highest of compliments. Elton John called the LA-based trio’s 2020 breakthrough single ‘Love And Hate In A Different Time’ – a glossy, vibrant foot-stomper that blends classic R&B and swooning choral vocals – “one of the most seminal records I’ve heard in the last 10 years”. As we all know, you don’t argue with the Rocket Man.

This huge endorsement was a clear sign of Gabriels’ hard work finally paying off. Forming like a happy accident six years ago, Sunderland-born producer/keyboardist Ryan Hope and LA producer, composer and violinist Ari Balouzian had initially been working on a film together when, in looking for a voice for the project, they came across Compton gospel singer and choir director Jacob Lusk. This meeting led to the three musicians eventually forming Gabriels, with Balouzian and Hope acting as producers and Lusk’s thundering vocals taking centre stage. It’s all led up to the arrival of the first part of the three-piece’s debut album ‘Angels & Queens’, with the second instalment of the record due in March 2023.

NME catches up with Lusk as the band are about to join Harry Styles for his week-long residency at the Moody Center in Austin, Texas (which ends tonight, October 3), though the singer wasn’t feeling daunted by either the prospect of the size of the arena stage or playing to Styles’ devout fanbase. “I’m always looking for bigger and better,” Lusk tells NME over Zoom. “But then I have to sit back and realise, ‘Wait, we’re opening for Harry Styles this evening!'”

After all, Gabriels have past form when it comes to drawing in new fans: they performed to a packed-out crowd at Glastonbury‘s The Park in June, while in May they played at Brighton Dome just before Enny and Tems during a Great Escape showcase – though this billing was initially cause for concern. “Some of the guys stood there [in the crowd] were deeply masculine, and here I was coming out in a cape inspired by André Leon Talley,” Lusk recalls of the latter gig. But, by the time Gabriels walked off stage, people were “literally screaming… the young masculine guys were into it, too!”

A mix of the Black Baptist church tradition, ’60s soul and rhythm and blues (a musical era that has been successfully honoured recently by the likes of Leon Bridges and Michael Kiwanuka), Lusk’s rousing voice has been key in winning Gabriels admirers far and wide. The singer was raised in the Baptist church (he often ends sentences during our chat with “Praise God!”), and says he believes that his talent and his ability to express emotion through his voice is a gift that feels bestowed to him from a godly power.

While it’s often said that some Black music derives from pain, or even radical joy in the face of racism, Lusk has a different understanding. “It’s more that we’re seen to convey those emotions well, whether it’s pain… though it’s almost always joy”, he says, before adding: “Maybe it’s the resilience of Black people that gives us that power to express in a different way.”

The appeal of the kind of music that truly rouses people, including Gabriels, comes from it tapping into something. Lusk calls it “the Holy Ghost”, but “it’s a sense of whatever a higher power means to you,” he explains. “I used to get offended when people would call me a gospel singer and liken me to gospel artists. I realised that people weren’t saying that I’m a Jesus singer, it’s just the only thing that they can liken it to.”

The deeply personal but hugely relatable content of ‘Angels & Queens’ begins at its artwork, which shows a baptism in action. The typical intention of the practice may be to “wash off an old life, and [be] re-birthed,” but, as Lusk says, “it’s about me in a way. I also wanted to leave it to interpretation too, so people could get whatever they get from it.”

Death is also another prominent theme across the album, something that Lusk admits to being deeply scared of. ‘If You Only Knew’, a tender gospel hymn that sees Lusk’s warm vocals being supported by a Baptist choir, is thematically about his godsister’s battle with, and eventual death from, addiction. But it also came from Lusk’s bandmates grappling with losing their own family members (Hope’s mother recently passed away from cancer). Gabriels started thinking about what these late loved ones would tell them if they could, eventually determining that they’d want them to go out and live. “Some people die of grief,” Lusk says. “It’s not easy, but I know they’d tell us to get up!”

gabriels band
Credit: Jamie Parkhurst

Gabriels hunkered down in an LA studio for three weeks earlier this year to put ‘Angels & Queens’ together, recruiting Sounwave – the masterful producer who’s worked with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé – to add a further level of gravitas to their recording process.

“Kendrick came into the studio at one point, too…” Lusk begins, though he’s cautious to not go into further detail at this point. Compton natives Lusk and Sounwave, though, connected instantly: “[Sounwave] was incredible. It was refreshing for someone of that calibre to get [our music] and also give us the space to be ourselves.”

The result is an album that is huge in scope; its expansive production matching Lusk’s gigantic vocals. ‘To The Moon And Back’ is an operatic venture – the beginning has the feel of an Ennio Morricone composition, before it tentatively tracks back to the gentler sounds of violin and piano to truly spotlight the stunning peaks and bassy troughs of Lusk’s voice – while ‘Remember Me’ feels like a contemporary ode to Teddy Pendergrass or Luther Vandross. Through Lusk’s swelling vocals and the band’s all-encompassing sound, ‘Angels & Queens’ is an album that journeys through mortality and the confounding nature of the afterlife. “I’ve been meaning to let you know / It’s time now for me to go / This glass ceiling is falling through / Still I am nothing without you,” Lusk sings on the title track.

Gabriels don’t just live by the idea that the sky’s the limit: their music goes far beyond that. “I’m not singing to impress anybody,” Lusk says. “I’m just singing now, and whatever I feel, I’ll just let it out.” These stories will continue to dazzle audiences wherever they go, bringing new converts into the transcendental world of Gabriels.

Gabriels debut album ‘Angels & Queens’ is out now

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