• About A Band: GABI

    It might sound a little strange to utter the words “classical music” and “Brooklyn” together in the same sentence, but that’s guaranteed to change as soon as you meet Gabrielle Herbst. The vocalist and composer, who lives in Crown Heights and performs with her band under the nomer GABI, has been playing music nearly her whole life. Beginning with piano and then clarinet as a young child, Gabi was primed for the classical music conservatory track—until, that is, she attended Bard College, where she branched out into vocal work and composition. And, judging from the sweet-sounding result, it’s a good thing she did.

    This spring, the multi-tasker has tied all of her talents neatly together into her impressive debut album, Sympathy. The lush, beautifully textured LP (released in April via Mexican Summer) draws inspiration from time, space, and Gabi's own life experiences. Each of the 10 tracks zooms across an airy, celestial soundscape, woven together by her soaring vocals and experimental melodies.

    Gabi has spent the last several weeks touring Europe, and this month she’s bringing her ethereal vibe back home to Brooklyn at Northside Festival with a performance on the UO Live stage at Williamsburg Walks. (You can also hear a remix of one of her songs on our UO Mixtape: Volume 7.) We met up with the musician to talk about her debut album, her writing process, and her ongoing search for the perfect stage outfit.
    Photos by Joe Woodhouse, words by Liza Darwin

    Take us back to the beginning. When did you first start playing music?
    I started studying classical music when I was a really small child, around age five. I began with piano, and then clarinet, which I played for over 10 yeas. I was really on a classical track my whole life. I also did a lot of singing, but it was only in front of my family or for myself; it wasn’t really in this trained sort of way.

    Along with classical, what other types of music did you listen to growing up?
    During high school I became interested in jazz singing, and started exploring musicians that I loved. I was obsessed with artists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.

    At what point did music feel like something you might want to pursue more seriously?
    I went to Bard College, and that’s when I really started studying singing. I had this amazing German opera teacher, and she really helped me learn that my voice is an instrument. She helped me find the ways that I could sculpt my voice, and I really fell in love with the process of studying voice. I started studying composition there as well, with Joan Tower, who is an amazing composer. It became clear that voice and composition went very well together for me. It was this epiphany when I realized that this is what I wanted to do, and I started focusing on that. When I graduated, I continued to push in that direction and make new projects.

    What inspired your debut album, Sympathy?
    This particular project is a culmination of all of the influences I’ve been exposed to so far. Along with my upbringing in classical music, my dad’s an ethnomusicologist, so I’ve had a lot of world music in my life. The fun part about this project is that it’s not just one thing – it has a lot of elements and reflects all of the kinds of music.

    How were you able to shape all of these different influences into your own sound?
    Well, that’s why I love writing for my own voice. It just becomes really personal and very much my own statement. Expressing yourself is often hard to do, and it’s been something that I’ve been working on for a while: This concept of how to stay true to myself in music, and not be sidetracked by ideas about how I “should” sound. When you study classical singing, they tell you that there is a right way and a wrong way to sing. My goal is to take elements from that that I like, but discard those parts that I’m not interested in. Sculpting your own technique is an ongoing process, and I try to trust my gut.

    Where do you feel most inspired to write?

    I wrote a lot of the album at home in Brooklyn. I wrote some of the songs on the album at a residency I had a few years ago at the Watermill Center in the Hamptons, New York. I wrote some songs in this beautiful, big barn that my family has in Massachusetts. Basically, I like to be in my own element.

    How would you describe Sympathy to someone who hasn’t yet heard it?
    It’s honest and raw. I want it to reflect where I’m at and where I was at when I wrote each song. It’s abstract, but also autobiographical in a certain way. It’s a portrait of my first record, my first cohesive statement in the world. The album was very much about traveling inwards and discovering my own voice. Each song is like its own little state of being, and each one was inspired by different things. Some were inspired by feelings; others were inspired by a person, others were inspired by architecture and space. They all weave together to create this whole, but each one came from a different place.

    How would you describe your onstage style?
    My style is really still developing, so I’d love to focus on that more. I’m so entranced by people who are designers, because I just really love fashion as an art form. I think Björk is an amazing example of a musician who has worked with designers and created her own unique aesthetic. It’s interesting and challenging, and I want to work with designers who can help to visualize the sounds that I make. Some of my favorites right now are my friend Gemma Slack, Lindsey Thornburg, and Proenza Schouler. I love to dance around onstage, so it’s important to have clothes that facilitate that.

    What’s next for you?
    We’re going back to Europe this summer, and then we’ll perform around the U.S. during the fall. I think I’m going to do some collaborating, and maybe singing with other artists. I actually love singing on other people’s work.

    Why is that?
    It’s really fun to have a bouncing board, and to have someone else’s material to work with.

    Who is your dream collaborator?
    There’s so many! I’d love to do a duet with Kate Bush or Björk, or Antony [Hegarty] from Antony and the Johnsons.