Cellist and vocalist Gabriel Royal got his start as a busker on the New York City subway, but success in the literal underground has earned the Oklahoma-born musician performances at some of NYC’s top music venues, including (Le) Poisson Rouge and The Blue Note, as well as a number of shows in Europe earlier this year.
His sophomore effort Miss Once in a Blue Moon is out September 7, and today we have the privilege of premiering the record’s lead track, “Tough Love,” ahead of its Spotify release on August 10. In anticipation of the album release next month, Gabriel told us about his favorite subway stops, the social challenges of busking, and the importance of spontaneity in songwriting.
You are from Oklahoma originally. Did you move to Brooklyn specifically to pursue a music career?
In a way, but not specifically. I had a band back in Oklahoma. I was teaching school full-time and I was doing the band thing on the side, because I’ve always loved writing music. I’ve always had that outlet with me. So when I came here, I wouldn’t say it was to jumpstart my music career. It was just to move here. I have family here–my brother lives here. A lot of my best friends live here from high school. So I was coming just to make a life doing whatever. I actually applied to the department of education for a full-time job, so I was planning to keep teaching full-time as my major source of income. But when I moved up here there was a hiring freeze on all the electives. Gym teachers weren’t getting hired, art teachers weren’t getting hired, music teachers weren’t getting hired, so I had to start substituting. I was teaching drawing and painting, pretty much a portrait-drawing class. And I got another part-time job teaching visual art, too. Because I was making so little money substitute teaching and part-time teaching I went in the subway. That was when I had one dollar to my name and I was going home trying to figure out how to eat ramen and fruit punch and get full–like just sugar and salt calories–and I saw this dude playing guitar, and it was pretty shitty music, but he had twenty dollars in his guitar case. So to a guy who had one dollar, that twenty dollars looked pretty good. I had thought about playing down there before, but you get past your fears pretty quick when you’re hungry.
I wonder why more people aren’t playing in the subways, because I don’t think people realize how much money you can make down there. For a solid two months of the summer in 2011, I didn’t have a job. I used to go back to Oklahoma in the summertime because I wasn’t teaching, and then this one summer I was here looking for work. I would go busk from 10 to 1 or 11 to 2, and then I’d go around and start dropping applications at restaurants, bars, anywhere I could get some type of side-hustle money. What started happening was, I would be making like $200 a day before I would go put in applications. So after a second I was like, yo, why the fuck would I get a bartending job where I would get $200 in eight hours, as opposed to playing in the subway on my own jams and getting that money immediately, and then going home after 3 hours? So somewhere in there a light bulb came on and I was like, “Oh, shit! I could actually survive off this, to the point where I’m making more money than I would in the service industry.”
Were you playing at stations near where you lived, or was there another strategy?
There’s always been some sort of strategy. The more you do it, the more experience you get, and the more you see what works for you. Not every station is a money-maker. Some of them are busy. If it’s too busy and too loud, nobody pays attention. Some places are too remote, or the crowd is too “local,” shall we say. The farther you get out on the L train, the less and less decent the tip. So you need a spot that’s got enough hipsters, got enough tourists, got enough sympathetic ears to where they will listen. I went through spots for a while until I found my favorites. It was a trial and error situation.
Which ended up being your favorite subway spots to play?
Well the best money-making… I don’t know if I wanna give you this information, bro! *laughs* No, but seriously, let me just explain why: it’s very competitive. The information that I would tell you right now–which I’m probably gonna tell you–that’s because of years of research that I’ve done. So some clown is just reading this article and gets all the goodies that I’ve spent years learning! That’s not really fair, now is it?
That’s reasonable! What are the best spots in terms of acoustics for cello?
Man, it’s not–I mean, I can put it out there. The best stop for money is probably the Bedford stop because you’re on the center platform and you’ve got trains on both sides of you, so you get the crowd in either direction. So that’s ideal. Now, the sound quality there is very flat–it’s short ceilings, and it’s a lot of people, so you don’t necessarily go there in order to record a live audio.
Now, the G train–the Lorimer stop–has very high ceilings, very far tracks, so you can drop a pin and hear the echo for miles, you know? That’s probably the two biggest things that I look for: the first one is money, and other is, okay, if I can’t score the money-making spot, I at least want to go somewhere where it will be a spiritual experience. As a cellist, I need somewhere quiet enough to where I can play acoustically. And going back to before, just because it’s a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s gonna get a lot of tips. Sometimes I’ll go to my favorite quiet spot and make more money even though it’s less people, because they can notice me.
Do you think there are any legal or social rules that make busking more difficult than it has to be?
This is weird, but I don’t always think public playing is appropriate. Sometimes if I hear buskers playing too loud or it’s too busy I’m like, yo shut up, man! Like, nobody needs that right now. When you’re leaving your job, and it’s the hustle and bustle, you don’t wanna come down in the subway and hear people beating on plastic buckets loud as all hell. I look at myself in a very pragmatic way. I try to pick appropriate places to play, and I also play what I like to call appropriate music. I’m not out there playing acid jazz as loud as possible. I’m playing melodic, easily digestible music. I call them grown-up lullabies. My intention is to bring down the volume level. People always have to surrender their attention. You can’t force somebody to pay attention. That is something I’ve learned as a teacher: kids pay attention if they’re engaged, if they’re interested. Same thing with adults: the volume level has nothing to do with whether or not they’re paying attention. If they don’t like you, they’ll just start talking louder.
And yeah, I mean, there’s been some cop abuse of buskers–like that video that went viral of that cop taking that guy’s guitar off and hitting him in the face with it as he took it off. This happened at the Lorimer stop on the G train. The cop told this guy that legally he was not able to play, and the guy was like, “Actually, sir, I am legally able to play,” and had done his research so much that he told the cop the law to look up as he was sitting there. So, that’s the contradiction: this guy who was playing, it wasn’t my style of music–he was kinda loud and John Waite-y–but that has to do with how cops respond to you. If they like what you’re playing, they’ll tip you. I’ve gotten tips from cops. If they don’t like what you’re playing, or you’re playing in an obstructing spot, they’ll tell you to move. I haven’t had a lot of problems with where to play, because I try to be reasonable and work with the crowd.
So at first you were writing with a subway crowd in mind. Has writing for an album changed your songwriting style?
Yes and no. You have a lot more freedom in the studio to add tracks. There are certain songs that I don’t play on my cello. I play them on piano, because on piano I can play ten notes at a time and use my voice. On cello, at the most I can play four notes at one time, but on average I’m playing two. So the studio gives you the option to use your imagination. I’m writing for music’s sake when I’m in the studio. Sometimes I have an idea already before I go into the studio, sometimes I don’t and we’ll just jam out, me and my producer. His name is Matt Young. He’s an amazing piano player, guitar player, bassist–he plays everything, and he built his own studio. A lot of the arranging that happened on my first and second album is because of this guy. I want to give him some props because literally the album wouldn’t be the album without this guy.
Anyway, when I’m in the studio, it’s kind of a free-for-all for me, and that’s what I love so much about recording. On my first album, I’ve got this song, “Fall Apart.” I wrote the melody to that while I was walking to his house, and I was [humming]. It just came to me. So we turned that melody into a chord progression and then wrote lyrics to the chord progression afterwards. Sometimes the lyrics will come first, but that doesn’t happen a lot for me. I’m more of a melody-based composer: I’ll come up with a chord progression or melody and I’ll just hum it out, and then I’ll put lyrics in behind.
Are there other melodies on the new album that have just come to you?
“Lower East Side Battle Hymn.” I was walking from Houston to 14th, to the L train. This melody came into my head, and I was just singing it to myself. I recorded myself on my phone. The next day I came in to my producer and was like, “Dude, we gotta do something with this,” and he started laughing at me, like “What are we gonna do with it?” So we turned it into this meditative, repetitive “circle song,” to quote Bobby McFerrin.
It’s funny, because some people are like, “What is this one about?” and I can’t even really tell them. It’s just a working song. I once drove from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Fayetteville, Arkansas, which is a 3-4 hour drive, and I didn’t have a radio, and I didn’t have anybody riding with me so it was complete silence. So I started singing this thing that I remember to this day. *sings* I sang that for like three straight hours in my car, just because it was fun to me. And that’s kind of what this “Battle Hymn” is like. It’s working music. It’s something that helped me walk fourteen blocks without realizing I walked fourteen blocks. And this other song was something I was just repetitively doing for three hours, and next thing you know I’m in Arkansas. So I don’t know if that’s a normal thing, but I’ve always [done it]. I think that’s one of those natural things. Music suits some people. I feel like I found my calling through this stuff. I feel blessed.
You’ve said previously that you see songwriting as a conversation. Can you say more about that?
Yeah! I can write a song about anything, and it kind of depends on the mood you’re in and the people you’re around. On this new album, Miss Once In A Blue Moon, a lot of the conversations are about ex-girlfriends. So, each relationship dictates the sound of the song. Sometimes that comes out opposite. Some songs sound happy when, in reality, they are extremely sad. Some songs sound sad, when actually they’re extremely happy. My song, “Remember Us”–“I don’t remember us falling in love / I’m sure that it happened”–that song has a very dreary mournful tone, almost. But in reality it’s about the first time that you love somebody.
So the conversational aspect is that, any time, I could write a song about anything or anyone. And it’s always going to sound different than the song before. That’s why I’m always surprised when I hear people like, “I’ve stopped writing music,” or like, “I’m just done with music.” That’s probably because you’re not [being] that creative! Because at any point you can make up a song about anything. Fast, slow, pretty, mathematic, about a turtle, about a bird, about a woman–it’s a very open-ended artform. There’s no reason to put yourself in a genre box.
Which bands did you listen to growing up? How did they influence your music?
Harry Nilsson is a big influence for me–the guy who wrote the original “Me and My Arrow” and “One Is The Loneliest Number.” He’s got a very conversational way of writing. He was friends with The Beatles, he was friends with The Monkees, and he’s got kind of a lazy, melodic style about him. I listened to him a lot. I listened to a lot of Burt Bacharach, Stevie Wonder. I was always into pretty things. The Beatles, too. My grandparents live in Mississippi, and in fall or summer we’d always take a road trip down there. That was how me and my brothers listened to all the Beatles albums. We bought Sgt. Pepper one year, then we bought “I Am The Walrus,” then The White Album, then we went back to Revolver. Each year we spent twelve hours in the car listening to the new record, and we’d get home and play the shit out of it. So the Beatles are a huge part of my influence, which I would call “art rock.” They were the original art rockers.
It doesn’t sound like you usually have that much trouble coming up with ideas for songs. But when you do have trouble, how do you overcome that?
Lyrics are problems for me. If I just wanted to make instrumental music, I feel like I could do that non-stop every day. On this last album I had layered [instrumentals] on the track, and then it was like, “Oh, I need to write the lyrics.” On a couple of sessions, I used to keep procrastinating. On this next album, there is a song called “Dagoba,” and it gave me the most trouble, thinking of what’s the subject, what’s the melody, and so I procrastinated working on it for a good three weeks. Then my producer Matt was like, “We gotta finish this up, bro! What’s goin’ on?” and then as soon as I found the subject it was like night and day. I was immediately able to write the whole song.
It’s not just the Muse. You can’t just depend on Inspirato, as Tenacious D would put it. Talking about another musical influence: Tenacious D. Put that in [the interview]! I’m being dead serious. But I feel like you have to work through those difficult moments, and that’s where the real art happens. If you’re just depending on the Muse to tell you what to do, you’ll put the pen down as soon as you get bored. As a real musician, you have to trudge through, put your head down, and barrel through the difficult, brain-wrenching problems. For me it was lyrics, for some people it’s melody, for some people it’s, “All I write is party music and now I want to write a ballad,” or vice-versa. Being able to work through your discomfort, I believe, is a sign of a mature artist. Maybe. I mean, I don’t wanna talk in law. I’m not entirely mature myself. “Only a sith speaks in absolutes!” I believe that was Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.