Appearing seemingly out of nowhere late 2020, the future-soul group Gabriels made the most out of their auspicious introductory EP, Love and Hate in a Different Time. The industry-savvy trio of vocalist Jacob Lusk and producers Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope quickly caught the ears of many of music’s important movers and shakers, providing the group a quick ascension through the critical sphere.
The story of Gabriels is one that could only begin in their hometown, Los Angeles, California. Film/commercial music composer Balouzian and director/producer Ryan Hope were introduced to Lusk through a commercial shoot. The trio’s immediate rapport instigated a fruitful songwriting collaboration that, in lieu of a performance, needed a name. The name Gabriels came from the street that Hope grew up on in his native Sunderland, United Kingdom.
The group’s striking music features dynamic strings and infectious rhythms inspired in large part by America’s soul tradition, but it may be Jacob Lusk’s voice that gives the music its emotive depth. No stranger to the music industry, Lusk has been a professional vocalist for many years and even made it to the top five on American Idol’s season ten (covering Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and Luther Vandross’s “Dance With My Father”), but it has been with Gabriels that he has truly found his voice
Now signed to a major, the group have released the deeply ethereal single “Blame,” proving their unique sound and poignant power was no happenstance.
Wax Poetics sat down with the effervescent vocalist to discuss the inception of Gabriels, the group’s first tour, and how they intend to spread their heartfelt music farther into the world at large.
How does it feel to be on your first proper tour? What are your feelings going into it?
It’s exciting. There is a lot of self-imposed pressure. But it’s exciting for sure.
This is your first time in Europe, right?
It is my first time in Europe. I’ve always dreamed of coming here. I was dreaming of moving here.
Paris or London. Yeah. I was like, “I’m getting out of the States. I’m gonna be like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker and Nina Simone. I’m going to move to Europe, and I’m gonna fall in love with a famous European and have European/American children. And learn another language and take over the world.”
You’ve just mentioned some touchstone names. I feel that the music that you make with Gabriels spans this whole arc of African American music, from Leontyne Price to doo-wop to Gil Scott-Heron. How important is it for you to cover this breadth of musical information?
It is interesting. It is not really intentional, at least not for me. For the guys, it may be. But what I think that has happened is that we all have very diverse backgrounds, so what I think that you hear is all of those things coming together. This is a little different in that a label didn’t put us together. Honestly, we didn’t even put ourselves together. We met and we kind of became friends. And we did the music more out of love. So it took the bonds off of us. Prior to this, I was on this kind of R&B/Luther Vandross track. My records sounded a certain way, and I dressed a certain way, and I did a certain thing. I didn’t do other things, because that would take away from that thing.
This was not that. This was literally friends getting together and making great music. All of our influences were allowed to be what they were.
Going back to the Luther Vandross influence you mentioned: I assume you mean that you were utilizing your gospel roots and steadily getting into a more secular place. Do you want to talk about your formative years and how you developed as a vocalist? I think that would be interesting considering how the members of the group come from such different backgrounds. Let’s talk about how you came up through the church, and I do want to speak about your time on American Idol, because I think that is a big deal.
It is really interesting. I grew up singing, but I wasn’t really allowed to sing in my church. I wasn’t like this really great soloist at my church. So, there aren’t all these videos of me singing at church, because I was on another track. My family really prioritized education.
I went to church and I was influenced by… I wasn’t allowed to listen to much secular music. The one thing that I was able to listen to was jazz. And gospel. So when I started singing, I really started singing outside of church. It was singing at school and, as I got older, sneaking into nightclubs and singing at open mics. Doing different things like that. This is really when I started to get to sing.
I sang in the choir. But leading songs and things like that, that was not happening for me. I started singing outside of church more before I started singing in the church. In high school, I joined a chamber group in my eleventh-grade year. That is why you hear so many different influences.
I went to college and I had a vocal instructor. I just took the one-off voice class. I started as a speech communications major. I did competitive speech and debate. Traveled heavily and won some championships and things like that.
The teacher told me, “You were born to sing.” And I don’t know why this white lady said that. But she said that and I said, “I’m going to sing! Fuck it!” I’m sorry for cussing.
So I started singing. I was actually doing classical music. At that point, she decided for me. I was like, “Oh! Let’s do it!” There is a college in Philadelphia called the Curtis Institute [of Music] that is scholarship only. A prestigious conservatory. So I was like, “Okay. I’m going to go there and become an opera singer.”
I’m very logical, and as much as I loved music, I didn’t see sure ways that you could be successful. However, if I went to Curtis, even if I’m just a chorus member at the [Metropolitan Opera], I’ll make like $70K to $80K a year. I could do that. So that was kind of what I decided. Then within a few months, I started singing at open mics and doing other things in L.A. I was going on Craigslist. Going to auditions.
Then Nate Dogg had auditions for BGDs [background vocals] for a Christmas album that he was working on. I went to that and that turned into another thing. It turned into me writing with him. It turned into me hanging out with him. Then I dropped out of college, so music just sort of started snowballing from there. I was doing a lot of BGD work for other artists.
The Idol thing happened. A whole horse of another color.
The important thing was that you were recognized worldwide. How did the experience change your career after the fact?
Honestly, it tears your brain into scrambled eggs. I learned a lot. Performing for television and working with different producers, it definitely upped my ante on how to speak, on how to carry myself. I knew how to do it before, but this was a different level. Because you go from being a budding singer—I [was] doing gigs here and there. Then I’m on the cover of People magazine. I’m on the red carpet with J. Lo. I’m in the same magazine. They got my baby pictures in People magazine.
“Like, what? Where did you get it?”
It’s really fast and it was just…I’ll just say this, because I’m trying to be as positive as possible: It was a learning experience more than anything. And I learned quite a bit. There were parts of it that were hard, but…all those trials and tribulations have made me better for it. For sure.
We all have very diverse backgrounds, so what I think that you hear is all of those things coming together. This is a little different in that a label didn’t put us together. Honestly, we didn’t even put ourselves together. We met and we kind of became friends. And we did the music more out of love.
What was your path after that? How did you end up meeting your bandmates, Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope?
I’d been doing [background vocal] work. I’d been working with Gladys Knight.
I understand that you’ve also worked with Diana Ross, Ledisi…
Beck. I’m on one of St. Vincent’s records. My thing is that I like to sing! I don’t care what it is. If I can sing, I’m going to do it. That is kind of what my philosophy has always been. After I did the show, I had a couple little deals that weren’t the best. They weren’t fair deals.
So I went through a couple of those situations. I’ve always been my own person though. And I was like, “I’m not doing it. Nope. I won’t do it. I’m not coming. Bye.” I was done with the industry. But I’d been doing TV, theater, and background work.
So, I met the guys… I did this round of singing commercials that were national. My aunt was like, “Hey, can you do this commercial with me? There are only a couple spots.”
“No. I’ve paid my dues. I’m not playing with y’all. I just did a play with Loretta Devine… I’m not doing this with you. I just sang in the desert. Lucie Arnaz. I’m not doing it. I’m not coming. Mary Wilson. I’m not coming.”
She’s like, “This will be with the church. They’ll be excited that you’ll be doing it with us. It will be fun.”
So I went. And I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. A little bit is probably not enough. I’m a crazy, psychotic perfectionist. In everything that I do. Hear me. Everything. It is going to be level ten, always. Okay? It doesn’t matter. Level ten. All the time.
We prepared for it. Got there. I didn’t even sing. I’m just directing the choir. We booked it and then they went to Ari’s studio to do a session. Now, remember, I’m not one of the choir people, so I’m not coming. God bless y’all.
It didn’t yield any results, because they are not in that range. These are just choir members. These aren’t professional background singers. The next Sunday, which was three days later, Ari and Ryan showed up at the church, and when church got out, they had set up a remote studio. In the church! Ari was like, “Morning!” And Ryan was like, “Hello! How you doing? We’re here. You are going to sing right now. Yes, you are. Here is the mic. Let’s go.”
Ryan gets what he wants. That’s what Ryan does. No matter what he wants.
Even in that moment, we kind of gelled. I arranged the vocals in about five or ten minutes. “How are you doing this this fast?” They didn’t know anything about my prior history. I never talk about it. I feel like it doesn’t matter. “So what [if] I did TV? So what [if] I work with so-and-so? So what?” Can I do the job? Period. If I can do the job, that is all that matters. So I didn’t speak on it. I don’t think that I told them until we got really close, the history of the people that I’d worked with prior to them. I put in some work. I just didn’t pop up and get on TV.
We kind of melded together in that moment. We did the commercial. They actually hired some more choir people. They hired some professional background singers this time. So it was the choir from the church and about twenty other singers. They were my friends. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in L.A., but it is kind of small. All the background singers all kind of know each other. We see each other at all the same auditions. We all knew each other, and we did it.
Then [the three of us] started recording with each other. I went to Ryan’s house. He lived in the desert at the time. We went for about a week and just started recording. That is kind of how it started. And it was really just for fun. But what it did—it kind of freed me up. I had a musical outlet that wasn’t pressurized. So I left my label. I left the management situation that I was in. And I was just doing what we were doing together. Then I started running out of money and I had to get a job. Hello!
God works in mysterious ways. I went to the management people and they said, “If you don’t do such and such…” To be transparent, they started taking my money. My gigs. I wasn’t getting the money and I was like, “That’s fine. I’ll go get a job.”
So I applied at Whole Foods. I went to Whole Foods every day. I’m a Whole Foods head. And I applied for this running sunglasses company, called Goodr, which you can mention, because they are effing amazing.
“Oh! It is going to be paying like fifteen dollars an hour.” It ended up paying twenty-one dollars an hour to start, and I worked there for three or four years… When I left, I had tenure and a salary. I was making good money! I dropped out of college and I’m making $85K! Listen! I was doing okay! I was doing so good!
Prior to COVID, we were working from home three days a week. So I was still able to record. I was still able to do gigs. It is funny how God works, and I have to mention the company because they are really great. I was a retail support manager, so I handled all their retail reps and stuff like that.
Anyway, it kind of worked. So I was out of this place of pressure of having to [do] a certain thing, and I was able to freely do music. How I wanted to do it. When I wanted to do it. Whatever I felt in my heart is what I say. I hadn’t been in that position in a long time.
How exactly did the collaboration with Ari and Ryan develop? Do you write most of the lyrics for the group?
Let me clarify: I don’t write most of the lyrics. We write the lyrics together. Don’t get me wrong, I have songwriter credits to my name. That doesn’t take away from that. But Gabriels is really us. We literally get in a room together, and we do the music and do the songs. That is literally what happens. Sometimes, it may happen in phases. Ari would have started an idea, and I will be like, “Let’s do this…” Then boom, boom, boom… But it is definitely a group process.
It started with the commercial. That was the first time. They gave me kind of what they wanted, and I executed the vocal arrangement. That’s all it was, a vocal arrangement. When I went to Ryan’s house, it was writing the music and doing the song together. And that was one song. It took us a week to do one song, which is insane.
Which song was that?
“Wreath.” No one has heard it. Then we started doing more songs. Ari and Ryan were doing film scoring and things like that. They did some scores for films that went to Sundance. Now I’m a witness to that process. While they’re doing that, I’m there, because we are friends. So I’m hanging out. And I’m like, “Oh! This is how that goes.” I’m going with them to the mixing sessions and the recording sessions.
Then it was, “We should meld these worlds together, Jacob. You should do this with us.” It turned into that. Now we are doing more and more songs. There is a club called Rhonda that travels in L.A. They were like, “You guys should do a show.”
We didn’t even have complete songs. We needed a name, and Ryan was like, “We should just name it Gabriels.” And we were like, “Okay, Gabriels we are.”
So we did this little show with these half-ass, little songs we had. But there was something there, because people were really into it. After that, we kept on doing more songs and getting better and better. Then Ryan did a short film for Prada, and it starred this guy who is an Oscar winner, J. K. Simmons. He starred in it, and Ryan directed it, because Ryan is a legit director. Legit as fuck. They needed music for it, and he was like, “Let’s see if we can do the song for it.”
We did a sixty-second clip. A little snippet of a song. Then we were like, “We should make this a full song.” And that is where “Loyalty” came from. We had done other songs before that, but that was like, “This is our sound. This is us.”
We wrote the song in like ten or fifteen minutes. It happened extremely quickly.
When lightning strikes. Gabriels has a new recording coming out this winter, right?
I believe it is the new EP, Bloodlines.
How have things evolved since that nascent phase of songwriting? The last EP came out late last year, in 2020.
It is interesting. We kind of put the EP out as a fluke. COVID happened. We were at home. I was freaking out because I’m a germophobe. I didn’t want to go nowhere. I didn’t get any haircuts.
We each individually caught COVID, which is crazy. The one time I went out, I got it. Guess who is not going outside anymore.
We just kind of did it. We didn’t think [the EP] was going to be anything. We didn’t think that people were going to pick it up. Maybe because Ryan is from Europe, [the Europeans] kind of attached to it. Next thing, they are playing it on BBC Radio. Gilles Peterson was playing it. Then Jools Holland played it. This was even before we did the show. This was last year. Then Elton John got a hold of it. All these amazing things started happening. It was just like, “Wow! People want to fuck with the music. This is amazing.”
These are just songs from our heart. This is not us trying to write hits. It is just us. Three brothers. Like, literal brothers. Ryan’s dad is my dad. Ari’s mom is my mom. Literally brothers. That was when the turn happened, at the top of this year. We met Duncan Ellis, who works with Atlas and Parlophone and Warner. It just felt right. I’ve always dreamed of being signed to Warner and Parlophone, to be honest. I’ve always wanted to come to Europe and, maybe, get knighted by the Queen or something. I don’t know.
I’m so for real. Like, “Yeah!” I’m going to go to Europe, and I’m going to fall in love and never return to America. This is before this all happened. So when we started to get a little love from Europe, I was like, “Holy Ghost! We right! I knew Europe was my place!”
Then the label came and I was like, “Yep! I’m moving to Europe, and I’m not coming back.” I was looking up ways to become a British citizen. I’m like, “I’m not coming back.”
We signed the deal and have been working hard ever since. We’re just really grateful. It is my dream come true. It took a lot to get here, but I feel that I’m in a place where I’m really able to do music. I’ll say this: having Ryan and Ari with me, even working for Goodr—if you ever need some sunglasses, let me know—it allowed me to do things my way.
When you are signed: “God. If I don’t do this or if I don’t do that, I will not be able to do this and I won’t be able to get that…”
It allowed me to create music without that pressure. Now I know who I am. Honestly, I don’t think I knew who I was before. I think I was what people wanted me to be. I was on a TV show where people were voting, so I was doing what I think people want, not realizing, “Ya dummy! Be your goddamn self! You clown! Be yourself-fucking-self, and they will fucking like you, punk-ass, stupid-ass!” Do You know what I mean? “Stop being a punk. Be yourself and you will be fine.”
Now, I love myself the most I ever have. I’m completely myself all the time, and it is completely amazing. I’m making music that I love with people that I love. And I’m in a place that I’ve always wanted to be. I’m fucking here. Let’s fucking rock out!
I like it. I know that you also have a new full-length recording coming up next year. What is being signed to a label allowing you to do that you weren’t able to do before? Or is it basically the same process but with a little more security? What has the deal given you that you didn’t have before?
It has given us the support more than anything. It is also different. When you sign a deal when you don’t know who you are, the label is going to help you figure it out. In this case, I knew who I was before I signed on the dotted line, and they also understood who we were. So there wasn’t like, “Oh, let me show you who I am.” No! They know who we are. They understand it. They get it, and they love us for who we are.
There is also something about the shows. They sign you because you were on the show [American Idol], because they think you are just an easy bag. No. They signed us because they love the music. “Oh! This is who they really are! We fuck with that. That’s dope.”
Now we have that support, so we can make those things happen. There is a big feature on our EP that is coming. I can’t tell you who, I don’t think. We’re allowed to do those things, and if we say that something is not us, I have a mountain that is Warner and Parlophone, who is like, “Uh-uh. They don’t want to do that.”
I’m telling you, these motherfuckers in Europe! These people in Europe are fucking with us! They are fucking with us!