Rui Gabriel: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features Rui Gabriel
Rui Gabriel: The Best of What’s Next

Rui Gabriel’s tenure as one of the best modern musical journeymen has finally paid off. The Venezuelan-born, Indiana-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s debut solo album, Compassion, has “instant indie-pop classic” written all over it. It’s, as Gabriel calls it, “a coming of age record for somebody who’s coming of age in their thirties”—a good actualization of a momentous creative turn toward easy-going, summery pop music, considering that Gabriel has spent the last decade traipsing through the annals of post-punk with Mac Folger as Lawn. From the bisque-yellow dawn of “Change Your Mind” to the kaleidoscopic road trip of “Summertime Tiger,” Compassion sounds like a musician coming into his own after more than a decade of wearing at least a dozen hats.

Gabriel nods to his dad’s interest in media as being a catalyst for his own music taste—which led to Gabriel’s dad bestowing upon him a magnetic appreciation for Beck’s Odelay and early Green Day albums. “When I was a kid, he started accumulating a lot of CDs,” he says, “and by the time I was nine or 10, I was observing my sister borrowing a lot of those CDs and burning them and making copies. I wanted to do the same, because you gravitate towards what your older sibling is doing.” His dad would let him borrow CDs out of his collection to listen to and copy, or he’d make special mixes for Gabriel. “He’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re into that, so I think you would like this,’” he says. Gabriel is quick to point out how different illegally downloading music in South and Central America is compared to in the United States. “There’s no way that anybody’s going to come at you, arrest you or shut off your internet services,” he says. “I spent ages nine to my early 20s just constantly downloading music.” While Compassion is a hefty dose of pop [X], Gabriel gravitated toward loud, noisy music right away—skipping over any Beatles or classic rock phases in favor of obsessions with Creation Records’ roster, which he explains gave him a “chip over my shoulder” because his reference points were unlike those his peers were exploring. Gabriel’s latest metamorphosis involves him becoming a bit of a Deadhead.

When considering who the artist that he found and adored through his own volition was, Gabriel bashfully admits that he was a Tumblr kid back when the platform made it easy and accessible to put people onto more obscure artists. “There was this band called Dear and the Headlights,” he says. “I was 15 when I downloaded [Drunk Like Bible Times] and I dove into it heavy. It was the first thing that I listened to that I was like, ‘This is my own, nobody else knows about this’—which is pretty gatekeepy, in a way, but nobody that I was hanging out with would give a shit about a band like that, anyways.”

Gabriel quickly acknowledges Deerhunter as a particular tome for him: “Around this time, Deerhunter was getting big,” he says. “This was a few years after Microcastle and leading into Halcyon Digest. I remember when Halcyon Digest came out, because the internet was blowing up about it, and I still take a lot of that influence with me. When I started recording music by myself, I was really bummed out—because I didn’t have a lot of gear. I didn’t have the patience to figure out how gear worked. Halcyon Digest and that Atlas Sound record [Logos] showed me that I can make something really pretty or fucked up with just what I have in the bedroom. I still take that to heart to this day. I have a nice job now and I have friends who are recording engineers and have studios. I have the capacity to do something more hi-fi, but I still gravitate toward just keeping it very simple and not really overthinking much of it.”

While in Nicaragua, Gabriel attended a private high school that used Florida’s state curriculum. There, he was encouraged to take the SAT and ACT and apply to American colleges. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he admits, “but I knew that I wanted to get out of there.” A self-proclaimed “shitty student for the first two years of high school” and a “very good student for the last two,” Loyola University New Orleans offered Gabriel a scholarship and, with the encouragement of his dad (and the fact that members of the band Caddywhompus were still students there), he moved to Louisiana. “It was really weird, I didn’t know what I wanted to study,” Gabriel continues. “I just picked something. I was like, ‘I’m going to go to class and then I’m going to start a band and whatever happens happens.” As soon as he got to Loyola, he discovered that the college had one of the most sought-after music programs in the United States. “It was intimidating, because I just wasn’t as good as most of these kids who were going to the school for music,” he adds. “And everybody paired up into bands. I didn’t have people to play with, so I just found other people who weren’t in the music program to play music with me.”

New Orleans remains one of the most vibrant music cities in America and, while Gabriel has never felt particularly imbued within it enough to consider it “his scene,” he can’t help but give flowers to his friends who help make the scene as rich as it is, like Video Age and the Convenience. “They’re great people, great musicians,” he explains. “I’d never lived anywhere for more than five years, and I lived in New Orleans for about 11. I’ve been trenchant most of my life.” Gabriel’s dad worked in oil, which meant that his family moved around a lot. “I’ve never had that feeling of feeling tethered to a place before,” he says. “It’s more people than an actual community that I feel close to. But, there is a great community here and everybody I know here makes art, in some capacity or another, and they’re great at it. It’s beautiful, and I love it here. Every time I come back, I get really emotional.”

When Gabriel was in college, the world around him felt like it was just Loyola and Tulane kids in bands playing shows together every week. Once he graduated, it became clear that it wasn’t just college students—it was a whole universe of folks from all walks of life who happened to gravitate toward each other in the French Quarter, which is why the city is rampant with jazz, folk, dream-pop and indie bands. There’s no one color that can encapsulate New Orleans’ musical palette, just as there’s no one color that can encapsulate Rui Gabriel’s music. “When you’re 17 and you’re looking up at 21-year-olds playing music, they look so old and so wise above you,” he adds. “No band here sounds the same, and I always say that, if these bands were in a place like Philadelphia or New York, they probably wouldn’t be playing with each other—let alone sharing members.”

After the disbandment of his college band Yuppie Teeth, Gabriel started Lawn with Mac Folger and Nick Corson. He was going to grad school at the time, and found freedom in embracing a loose playing style and lack of rigidity. “I was so over my head in my other bands,” Gabriel admits. “I wanted things to be so perfect and to sound a certain way and I was really overthinking it. And Lawn was very much like ‘I don’t ever want to play guitar, I’m just going to play bass and I’m just going to yell—because it comes easy.’ It’s going to be rehearsed, but there’s not going to be pedals, there’s not going to be a lot of embellishments.” That’s the mentality Gabriel held until about 2018, when he wanted to prove to himself that he could write and arrange songs in a different way and not just “write a bassline and talk over it for three minutes.” “I felt like I hadn’t written a song at that point,” he continues. “I felt like I had written lines that were just fun to play, but I really wanted to write something that I would want to listen to. It took a long time.” Gabriel began embracing the music he loved when he was young, exploring simplistic textures and tempos and diving into songs that placed heavy emphasis on melody and big harmonies. But at the end of the day, the transition was much more personal for him. “It’s embracing the anxiety of writing music and then being content with the ultimate product,” he says. “When that’s over, you can just let it go.”

Compassion started six years ago, but discerning its origins is one of Gabriel’s self-prescribed weaknesses—aside from “Church of Nashville” being the first demo and “Money” being the last. The album has lived many lives already, and how these 10 songs exist now is as an amalgam of origins, transitions and reappraisals. With Lawn, Gabriel often would write 30 or 40 short songs, present them to Folger, and then let his bandmate decide what worked and what didn’t. He claims that he doesn’t have the best ear when it comes to perceiving that dichotomy in something he’s written. “I kind of just go,” Gabriel says, “and that’s what happened with Compassion in the beginning.” There are four different versions of the album on Gabriel’s computer, finished before, during and after lockdown, and about 20 or 30 songs that may never see the light of day.

That’s how Corson came into the fold on the project. “I was like, ‘I just need somebody to tell me you can work with this, you can make this complete,’ because I just kept recording and recording and recording and having songs that were 50 to 80% finished and I was getting nowehere,” Gabriel furthers. “I sent Nick probably 40 demos and voice memos of just garbage. God bless him, because he sat through that process and he was so patient. He would come over to my house and say, ‘Alright, I listened to these. I think these should be the 12 songs.’” Now that the record is out, Gabriel insists that he’s taking his time writing music now—considering himself “less prolific” but the “most content” he’s ever been. “Now, when I try to go at it, I actually sit down and finish. It might take a couple of days, as opposed to a couple of hours, which is something that I’m very glad that I took from this experience.”

“Church of Nashville” being the oldest song on Compassion makes sense in context, as it sounds like the first chapter of an artist stepping into their own one-of-a-kind point-of-view. It’s a standout angle of the album’s final shape, as Gabriel sings of a city that “reeks of something rotten from the inside” and wagers lyrics about “Leonard Cohen singing poems by the gentrified alley” and movies being “better with a lead who’s handsome, tall, and charismatic.” It’s as political as it is personal, as Gabriel reflects on those lyrics with a refreshing sense of self-awareness—acknowledging his privileged background as a half-white, half-Hispanic man who grew up well-educated, can speak English and Portugese fluently and has a master’s degree from an American college. He explains that he’s not a confrontational person but does “take aim with things that I perceive as racist.” “My experience enduring racism in this country is very unlike the racism that a first- or second-generation Hispanic from a lower-income neighborhood somewhere in Louisiana or anywhere in the South might have endured,” Gabriel says. “But there are things that I have endured that have been scary, and [‘Church of Nashville’] tackles some of those things.”

Gabriel is upfront that he holds no ill will towards Nashville and that he found it easier to pick a place and a stereotype and take aim at them by reckoning with his own internal dialogue that has been molded and influenced by cultural biases and systematic hurdles within the music industry, its cliques and beyond. “I felt, for a long time—not much anymore—that I wasn’t being taken seriously, for some good reasons and for some bad ones,” he says. “A lot of this comes from self-projection and insecurities. It speaks more to my own anxiety about my own music, especially at the time, but I felt like I didn’t fit a certain style—like I was being relegated to a point where whatever I wanted to do and how I was presenting myself wasn’t very cool, for lack of a better term. I’ve heard stories about how rough it can be to grow up in a city that is so intertwined in its own culture, especially white culture, and there’s a lack of introspection that comes across as mean. I’m a very sensitive person, and I was very privy to those feelings.”

What makes Compassion such a compelling album is the way it tracks Gabriel’s sensitivities by way of measuring his evolution as both an adult and a musician. It’s an honest portrayal of a life continuously pushed uphill and thrown right back down it. Gabriel is not in his twenties and working at a pizza shop anymore; he’s a spouse and a dad himself now, and these 10 songs arrive like vignettes of him growing into exactly who he was meant to become. “Hunting Knife” is the closest example of a “nostalgia song” on the record, as it’s referential to parts of Gabriel’s life and the lives of the people around him (“Forget about the president and all the awful things he said, forget about moving away, ‘cause nothing bad’s supposed to happen”). “That’s the one that I hear now and wince a little bit, because it’s so juvenile—but in a good way!” he says. Gabriel will be the first person to tell you that Compassion doesn’t hold much optimism, but it’s not without joy (“You put your anxious thoughts on hold to make me feel at home / So when you smiled and held my hand, I felt something,” he sings on “If You Want It”). Romantic, fleeting, uncomfortable flickers of memory (“The touch of laughter in your life / The humbleness that faded out / The four of us cramped in a van / And how familiar buildings are”) fade into paternal fears and portraits of domesticity (“Like a good breakfast in the morning, I love the small talks we adorn in”).

“Dreamy Boys” is the track that Gabriel has the most attachment to, because it’s “covered in anxiety and uncertainty about the future,” and it was written when he was longing for the simple pleasures he once took for granted (“Slow down, boys, it’s not a race, because there’s nothing to avoid. Good days will get to you”). Most of Compassion was finished before Gabriel’s daughter was born, and the record’s doomy energy stems from his worries about becoming a parent; when he listens to “Dreamy Boys” and “Hunting Knife” now, though, he’s able to admit that, when he wrote those songs, he was “overreacting.” “I had a good support system, and there was really nothing to worry about,” he adds. “I had a good support system, but it didn’t really seem like that at the time.”

Standout tune—and Song of the Summer contender—“Summertime Tiger” was originally meant to sound like a rip-off of a The Clean song, and Gabriel believes he succeeded in paying homage to them (“The Clean is probably the biggest influence on Lawn, by far”). “There’s a part of me that’s really content about that, and that part of me overtakes the part of me that’s like, ‘Oh, I ripped off the band and I’m very unapologetic about it,’” he says. “I’ve been wanting to write a song like that since I was in my late teens, and when it came together, I was very content. I’m proud of that song, the fact that it was so simple and encompasses a lot of things that I really like about music. It was the first song that I wrote that sounded exactly how I envisioned it would.”

“Summertime Tiger” is a breezy rock track sung from the perspective of someone who can’t help but give bad advice to someone down on their luck. “I know these feelings stick around too long, and hope becomes another thing you’ll never know,” Gabriel and Stef Chura harmonize, his drawling, post-punk voice the engine and hers the jetstream. “At least you’ve got your health and the money is pretty good!” The keyboard chimes out like Ray Manzarek tried performing “Baba O’Reilly” while on MDMA; Gabriel’s lilt, which flirts between pitches of slacker musings and a post-punk drawl, breaks through the stratosphere on “Summertime Tiger,” only to fall right into the kinetic guitar strums like pollen dusting a flower bed. That guitar roars back again on “Change Your Mind,” and the whole landscape of Compassion sounds exactly like its origins: a post-punk homer settles into the poppier sensibilities that date back to when he was just a Nicaraguan kid discovering the variety stylings of Beck for the first time. Compassion is chameleonic in that way, in how it so effortlessly oscillates between various tangents of pop melancholy and sugar-sweet, rollicking daydreams of hopeful one-liners.

Gabriel wears his influences on his sleeve, and “Target” sounds the way it does because he loves Dido and wrote it on piano. “End of My Rope” and “If You Want It” sound like bedroom songs that would transfix a basement crowd, while “Money” is a subdued romp tinted with hues of a woozy, serpentine waltz and the kind of bassline Gabriel made good on in Lawn. On Compassion, he employs deft background singing from Kate Teague and Chura, and it’s a movement that comes from his time in Lawn. “I didn’t understand how backup harmonies worked until I was in a band with two dudes who are extremely talented singers and like to put harmonies wherever they can,” he admits. “Writing a lot of those harmonies, I was like, ‘What would Mac and Nick do in this situation?’ Backup singers are one of the easiest ways to make something sound way bigger. I can write harmonies without having to know how to sing that well, but I wanted things to sound nice. That’s why I asked Stef and Kate and Nick and Mac to come do it, because I knew I couldn’t do it myself.”

Compassion is a breath of fresh air, if only because it’s an album that wasn’t rushed—which Gabriel admits he had a tendency to do in the past, despite Lawn’s not-so-extensive output. Throughout our conversation, he speaks of himself as a late-bloomer—especially noting that he didn’t buy into the Beatles until he was long out of college. “I was exposed to things—that most people are exposed to in their teens—when I was in my early 20s. I was always really bummed out about that. I felt like I was very naive and I didn’t really have a lot of experience in the ‘real world,’” he says. “I felt like a lot of my friends that I went to college with, they were exposed to music and drugs and had been playing in bands for a long time, touring from the moment they were able to get out of their parents’ house up until they couldn’t do it anymore. I started my first band in college, I didn’t really start doing drugs until I was late in college. I was a pretty reserved person for a very long time, and I just felt likt I was always missing this experience that other people had lived.”

But now that Compassion is out, his worries about exposure have buttoned up into feelings of gratitude and an understanding that the record is a product of a very Rui Gabriel-shaped domino effect. “If I hadn’t done or experienced things in the order that I did for so long—from the moment I was born to the moment I finished Compassion—that record wouldn’t have been done,” he says. “It’s a very specific set of conditions that ended with that record being written, recorded and released. It made me realize that some things take time—that you can’t predict the future, and that you just gotta take it one day at a time. It’s okay to be the slowest person in the race. It’s not really a race. It’s just life. Not to get too corny or optimistic, because life fucking sucks, but your experience is your experience and nobody else’s and that’s fine.”

Despite having spent the last decade playing in a critically revered band like Lawn, touring the world and befriending enough amazing musicians to have access to studios and shows in cities all over the country, Gabriel remains beholden to the doubts of eld that galvanized him into finding his people and his voice. “When I was in high school, I just wanted to be surrounded by people making art. Nobody was doing it, it wasn’t encouraged. I was like, ‘I want to be a musician’ and people were like, ‘That’s not chill,’” he says. “I feel very lucky, in a sense, because all it took was me just stepping outside of my comfort zone, going somewhere else and meeting people. The record wouldn’t have been recorded—or even written—if I hadn’t just kept moving around and meeting people who were able to elevate the vision that I had for the record. I know how insecure I was when I was 17 and thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to write a song, let alone record it.’ Now, I put out a solo record after putting out records with bands for 11 years. Whatever mission I set out for myself when I moved to college, it’s been accomplished several times.”

Rui Gabriel’s Compassion is out now via Carpark Records.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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