It’s early November in London and the crowd at an intimate basement venue just off Charing Cross Road are only too aware that they’re witnessing the start of something very special.
At the centre of the group stands Jacob Lusk, whose spellbinding vocals go far in amplifying the group’s striking spin on the genre, which sees classic sounds pitched against more contemporary themes of loss, longing and identity.
Recent track ‘Bloodline’, one of the show’s standouts, sounds like it could have arrived straight from a 20s dive bar — with bluesy instrumentation pitted against Lusk’s voice to impart the powerful message that it’s not impossible to escape predetermined circumstance.
“What did your parents do for a living?” Lusk asks Rolling Stone UK as he discusses the song on a Zoom call from Los Angeles a few weeks later.
“’Cos when your parents are doing certain things, there’s an expectation for you to do certain things and live a certain lifestyle. But this goes beyond white, Black, rich and poor. That song says you don’t have to follow in those footsteps, you ain’t gotta do that. Fuck! You can work for Rolling Stone!”
That message of defiance also reflects Lusk’s journey in music so far. Before he met bandmates Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope in Los Angeles five years ago, he experienced a brief shot at stardom on American Idol, finishing fifth on the talent show behemoth’s tenth season in 2011.
But instead of this being a springboard for Lusk to make his name, he admits that his experiences in the intervening years were enough to make him consider ditching music for good.
“By the time I got to Gabriels, I was just done with the industry,” he reflects. “I’d gone through a couple of record deals that were terrible; I had people managing me that wanted me to do drugs and lose weight. I was just done. They were trying to exploit me sexually to get more likes. I thought that if this is what I’ve got to do to make [it], then I’m not making it!”
When Lusk, a Gospel-trained wonder from Compton, California, got together with his bandmates, things began to change. Their tight-knit chemistry is only too palpable on stage and, as Lusk explains, just as strong off it.
“Being in this band is the most authentic me I have ever been in my life. Literally, I have never been this authentic, and they were the ones to tell me that I didn’t have to do something if I didn’t want to,” he says.
“I gained a lot of weight last year and I had Covid, I gained 50 pounds and thought I was so ugly. But they just said, ‘Fuck that, you’re beautiful, bro’ and it’s the most loving, supportive group. They’re my tribe, they want me to go after anything I want and do whatever I wanna do. They created this vehicle for me.”
In 2020, Lusk also provided a moment of striking vocal power when he sang Billie Holiday’s seminal civil rights anthem ‘Strange Fruit’ at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles.
The stirring, emotionally driven performance now follows the end of Gabriels’ video for ‘Love and Hate in a Different Time’ — the track Elton John described as “one of the most seminal records I’ve heard in the past 10 years”.
“I hadn’t participated in any protests or said anything up until that point, but I was working a job with predominantly white co-workers and they were participating,” says Lusk. “I hadn’t and just thought, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’” he says.
But it was a leaked video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder while jogging through a predominantly white neighbourhood that prompted Lusk to step up to the megaphone at the protest and sing.
“Look, I have a hobby of looking at vacant houses I can’t afford, so that shook me to my core. It’s my thing! I go look at $20m houses in LA and peek in the windows.
“When that came out it shook me to my core, because usually they say, ‘It’s ’cos you didn’t comply.’ In his case, these people chased him down, blocked him in, shot and killed him.”
Of his performance, he adds: “I just got up during a heated moment during the protest and performed. But it’s sad that a song written so many years ago is still relevant today.”
And it is those powerhouse vocals from Lusk that will assure Gabriels’ place as one of 2022’s biggest acts.
“I didn’t expect it — this band — to be this, I was like, ‘I’m gonna work and see if this is fun.’ That’s all it was, and there was literally no pressure. But when we had the first meetings with labels, I was crying and it was the first time I realised that with Ari and Ryan, these men have literally changed my life and low-key kind of saved it. I’m now able to be everything I thought I could be and everything I wanna be.”