Gabriels: ‘People can never say the things they say about me on the internet now’

AAs his name suggests, Gabriel is blessed with an angelic voice. It belongs to 35-year-old gospel singer Jacob Lusk. Active Angels and Queens, The Los Angeles-based trio’s upcoming debut album features Nina Simone and Billie Holiday as she squeezes every drop of emotion out of the band’s songs of love and loss. Among their growing fan base is Elton John, who called last year’s EP Love and Hate in Different Times “One of the most important records I’ve heard in the last 10 years”.

Lusk’s soaring vocals are the perfect complement to the rich mix of electronica and orchestra created by his bandmates, British producer Ryan Hope and Armenian-American instrumentalist Ari Baluzyan. The three have been close since meeting in 2015 – which they still find surprising. “We’re very different,” Lusk said when we met at a restaurant near his home in downtown Los Angeles. He wears YSL sunglasses and a Dodgers baseball jersey with logo sequins. It’s a wardrobe choice that Elton is sure to love. “I’m this chubby Black guy from Compton, Ryan from Sunderland and Ari, a classically trained musician who grew up in Glendale,” he says. “We are three different people with very different personalities, but there are more things that make us similar than what makes us different. We find this common theme when we write. Then come the songs.”

Lusk had already spent decades honing his voice when he first met Hope and Balouzian. Bishop Carl Stewart’s visit to Temple Emmanuel Church was daunting for a child with dreams of singing the gospel, but he sang in the choir when he was still in kindergarten. “Our pastor’s sons were famous musicians, so they produced the best musicians and the best singers in the world,” he recalls. Rapture Stewart earned a Grammy nomination for his work on Aaliyah’s “Rock The Boat,” while his brother Nisan is one of hip-hop’s most sought-after drummers, having worked with the likes of Missy Elliott, Sean “P Diddy” Combs, and Timbaland. By comparison, young Lusk was still a beginner. “When I was a kid, it was kind of like, ‘She’s fine, she’s not!’ was like “I really didn’t know how to use my instrument.”

Lusk looked for opportunities to sing outside the church. In 2007, he discovered a Craigslist ad seeking backup singers for an unnamed hip-hop artist. G-Funk icon, Warren G’s soulful contributions to classic hits like “Regulation” turned out to be Nate Dogg, earning him the nickname “The King of Hooks.” Lusk soon won a spot in Nate Dogg’s InNate Praise gospel choir, and the pair bonded overnight after Lusk caught the last train home. “He invited me to stay and shared some life stories,” Lusk said. “He told me about Tupac and Biggie and how he wrote songs, and our relationship got stronger after that.” Luck later began recording with him for other artists, calling the experience his “formal introduction to the music industry.” It came to a sad end in December 2007 when Nate Dogg suffered a massive stroke. He died of heart failure in 2011 at the age of 41.

That same year, Lusk came into the limelight while competing in a talent show American Idol. While classics like Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” won her thousands of fans, she also received all kinds of unwanted attention. On social media, she was often accused of coming off as rude or pompous, and one critic from described her attitude as “posh”. “There were many things Idol that I’m kind of unpacking right now,” Lusk says, taking a sip of water. “It was a very pleasant experience, but there were also many traumatic events. I’m working on some of those things now. The industry was cruel, and so was the world then. The things that people will say about me on the Internet, they will never say now.”

When Hope and Balouzian first met Lusk, they were unaware of her reality TV history. Then Luck’s aunt conducted the church choir for a commercial the couple produced. When additional parts were required, Hope and Baluzian tracked down Lusk at a church service. “They hadn’t heard me sing, they just knew I was directing the choir,” Lusk recalls. “I played soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, tenor and alto. I was just whipping all the parts and they were like, what the…?’

Impressed by Lusk’s incredible vocal ability, Hope invited him and Baluzia to their home in Palm Desert, California, so the three could work on music together. Their breakthrough came when Hope directed a video series for Prada in 2018 featuring her track “Loyalty.” Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé then spent several weeks recording together during the pandemic before heading to Hollywood’s historic Conway Recording Studios to finish the album with producer Sounwave. “We went through a similar process with him, where we closed for exactly 12 days or something like that,” says Lusk. “It was a good mood.”

There they put the finishing touches on an album with real emotional depth. Lusk says the track, “Angels and Queens,” was inspired by a sympathetic look at the life of Donyale Luna, the world’s first black supermodel. An inspiration to Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini, he was just 33 when he died of a heroin overdose. “He kind of rapped because he wasn’t the greatest person,” she explains, “But then you realize that everybody’s trying to figure it out like we are, they’re under a different microscope. Imagine if someone had a camera in front of you in your worst moment. They’re love. they want, they want a relationship, they want companionship, they want everything we want.”

Gabriels’ Jacob Lusk: “We’re three different people with very different personalities, but there are more things that make us similar than we do different.”

(Atlas Artists/Parlophone Records)

There is a streak of loss that runs through the album. The heartbreaking ballad “If You Only Knew” was written right after Lusk received a phone call during a session that her god sister, who was struggling with drug addiction, had been found dead in their apartment. “Ari and Ryan said we should just break up and I was like, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ If I go there, I won’t do anything,’” Lusk recalls. “So we wrote a song, it’s about a person singing from the other side. We have all suffered loss in the process. I lost a friend. I also lost someone I knew. My uncle jumped off a building. Ryan’s mother passed away, she had cancer. Ari lost his grandmother. If I passed, I would hope that my people would think about me and smile, and that’s where the song comes from.”

The seven-track record released this week counts as part one Angels and Queens, the second installment will come next March. Lusk says that the next chapter, which they already mentioned, “may be a little more fun. This is another part of the story.” Before that, they’ll return to the UK for shows in Glasgow, Manchester and London shortly after finishing a week-long residency supporting Harry Styles in Austin, Texas. Unlike Elton, Lusk isn’t sure if Styles is a fan yet — though it’s only a matter of time. “I don’t want to lie to you,” Lusk said with a smile. “I don’t know how it happened, I’m glad it did. I hope Harry and I can be friends, you know?

Gabriels’ film “Angels and Queens” will be released on September 30

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