Singer Gabriel Rios is the type of person who will right the world in an afternoon. He’s humble and unassuming, as if he knows he has the right to be here, and yet he still can’t believe that he is. His organic approach to music has meant a journey with all the right twists and turns, with each one adding depth to his artistry and making it all the more worth the wait. His music comes from deep within, as if all this time spent on love, painting and writing has finally concluded in this small explosion of creativity and sound. Each sound he makes has a purpose, each movement a genuine expression of what he wants to tell you.
Gabriel enjoys the little things, and his music reflects that perfectly. Organically it’s developed, layer upon layer, untill well-rounded and beautifully formed songs appear like a pebble that’s been polished smooth on the beach. His music leaves you with warmth in your chest, as though you’re finding comfort in an old duvet cover or a childhood blanket. It’s honest and pure, hitting you right where you need it.
"Lay me down, tell me I've been found."
We chat with Gabriel at Sony Music UK, in the comfortable room with sofas and a special key to it, hidden away for only special people. We are all taken away by this special treatmeant and not used to the grandness of it. This includes Gabriel, he is still simply just a boy with a guitar, with a passion to communicate through his music. So we bond. We drink tea, and chat to Gabriel. For so long, that concerned heads pop through the door to make sure we are ok. We are. We got lost in conversation with this incredibly inspiring musician.
Photographer Cecilie Harris captures him after the chat outside in the jungle that is London. Welcome to the world of Gabriel Rios.
We watched you play a wonderful gig here in the London the other day!
It was great, did you enjoy it?
Yes definitely! It felt like you were really committed to making it a good listening experience, the whole audience were really listening. You were talking about the sound palette?
I said that didn’t I, sound palette. It was really quiet, as people were really listening. I come from a whole different background. I started making music in my teens with punk rock in Puerto Rico. I was never interested in the afro Caribbean music or anything from where I came from. Then I moved to Belgium, and being away from home I started to miss that music, which was weird. All of a sudden I liked the music from where I grew up, because I didn’t have it and I was so far away. I moved to New York about five years ago and decided to just leave everything and simply be left with the guitar. I think that’s the attraction, it became about being alone. Leaving the song as empty as when you come up with it in your room. That’s kind of what we did, we added the chello and bass, but it really sounds like three people in a room playing. We got really excited about leaving things like that, because we saw the reaction in the audience. When you strum a guitar in a normal way unconsciously the audience becomes more comfortable and they may settle down and start talking and have an experience that they’re used to. When you eliminate things out people start to lean forward. The chello does that to people too. It’s a big difference between not having any reaction and then suddenly having all this reaction. It almost felt like we were apart of the audience too, as there was no ‘look what we did’, it was more ‘we like this, do you like this?’. That’s how we made the record. Rueben produced the record and his wife Amber played the chello, so to impress them first of all with my songs - and to recruit them was difficult, because they don’t come from a popular music sensitivity. It's cool, because I had to work really hard to get the songs to a point where they were interested in hearing them. New York was cool in general, it was like going to school. First I had to step up my own game with songs I could stand to sing myself, and then bring it to them - and then to the audience. Luckily it’s a live music city where people are really interested in bands and watch people sing.
Why did you chose to live in Belgium?
For a woman of course. Everyone has a story like that. If you’re not in your home country it’s the same story.
Belgium sounds quite different to Puerto Rico.
It is. My idea of Europe as a whole was this romantic, old, continent. Graduating high school and coming here was amazing. I was basically slacking off my last year of high school and I met this Belgian girl, and she was an older woman too which was amazing, she was 20 and I was 17. She said to me, "Why don’t you come to Belgium and study Art?" It’s funny, because when someone gives you the right combination of words in a sentence like that, something clicks. I started to get better grades, because I had a goal. Everyone usually goes to College in the States or they stay in Puerto Rico, and this was a “Come to Europe, why not” persuasion, and I went and lived with her. There’s so much going on, and being in Belgium you can easily travel to London and Paris, so it was a great central place where I could really discover who I was. I went there and studied painting and started making music. I had heard that the radio was playing alternative artists and secretly that was the reason to go.
That must have changed your style a lot.
Totally, I was lucky enough to go to school in Belgium and take my time and discover things. The friends I have in New York who are musicians work two jobs and are constantly running around to be able to pay their rent and make music. Living and studying in Belgium meant I had 10 years to be able to find out what I really wanted to do musically and creatively. It was great as it really fitted with my personality - I like to take my time. This is what I did whilst making my record, too.
How do you feel about the UK?
The UK having the tradition of songwriting there is more pressure immediately when you step out on stage, which is the same in New York. Sub-consciously that makes you begin to write different songs, because when I sing in English in Belgium they see the total picture, but they’re not as conscious of the words as the people whose first language is English. Immediately it starts to change your songs.
You are facially very expressive when you perform.
I think that happens when I’m nervous. The more I play alone and the less I fill in the gaps, the more my face fills in the gaps. Sometimes it doesn’t happen though, which is weird because I enter this place and sometimes I don’t move at all. I like to just go through the motions. It’s a weird thing to play to people you know. People often think artists are extroverts, but you end up doing this thing and you sometimes don’t remember why. I guess that's what I want, to be in a place where you're not in charge of yourself and you can be totally free.
You started out studying art, how did you end up with music?
I had to make a record, because I met a producer from Belgium. I’d been connected with him through the label guy, and it became really clear that if we were going to make a record it would be every day for a couple of months and it ended up a year and a half, and I couldn’t go to school anymore. Visual art takes as much of a commitment, you have to put all your energy into it. I had graduated school and was starting to do exhibitions and it became clear that if I was going to put a body of work together, you need to do that everday, and I had to make a choice between doing that and making the record. This guy was waiting, he had a studio, and music at the time seemed like a direct route to people, and in art I was doing a lot of things by myself. So I chose music for the sound, because it’s so immediate. I miss the visual art though, and I realize now that it’s the same. It’s also immediate it’s just that you make it and you put it there and you don’t have to represent it anymore. With songs you really have to be there.
I think it’s really helpful to have the two outlets though?
That’s it, but I didn’t think it would be possible. Until very recently I started to draw again and then I realised you don’t have to choose, you just have to put in the time. I read about these people who 200 years ago had already written or painted masterpieces by the time they were 23 and it feels to me like I’ve just started to really be comfortable with what I do. When I went to art school there was no discipline at all. I’m part of that suburban generation where ‘I can do anything, and I’m already an artist and I’m going to Art School’, but there is no humility. You just have to show up and put in the time. Everything takes time and everything takes energy.
I get a feeling you have always been a creative.
Yeah, my parents were too. I thought everyone’s parents were like that for the longest time and then I realised that it wasn’t true. My dad was making mix tapes for me as a kid, I remember all the sounds from the Beatles, Paul Simon, African Music Jazz and the Police. That really influenced the way I do things. Plus it was finger paints on the floor, make things up, tell me a story. I thought everyone’s parents were like that. It’s a blessing and it’s a curse, because you grow up with this head that’s always on and then you’ve got to shut some doors. You’ve got to learn to shut some of those passage ways, because you don’t want to be emotionally open all the time. Too many ideas, too many colours.
I think a lot of creative people struggle with that?
It’s almost like taking this piece of ice from the middle of the jungle out to where the village is and by the time you get back home it’s melted. That’s how it feels to me, it’s so frustrating, but you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to have one foot in the real world so that people actually understand what you do. There has to be structure and there has to be discipline. Learning that has taken me a long time. I used to think that if you’re a natural, your ideas just come out and you don't have to do anything. But it’s not like that, it’s a lot of hard work. The initial idea is very fluid, but then you have to finish the song. You really have to bring people through something, you can’t just blurt it out, and then lead them out.
You need an emotional hook. You've travelled around a lot, do you think that’s reflected in your personality?
Yes I think so. I didn’t really question it much until recently. It has to do with not thinking too much about things and enjoying that irresponsibility and nonchalant way of living, which catches up with you sooner or later. People said “oh you’re so brave”, and I don’t really think it’s that. In order to be brave you have to say this is dangerous, and I’m going to do it anyway and it wasn’t that. I was always sold by the title of something. “Come to Belgium, study art and make music” is just a great title. So that sold me on the idea. Maybe the trait in my personality is that. I jump and I don’t realise until much later.
Living in the moment.
Yeah. It comes from being a little spoilt and always having done whatever I want to do and that’s great, but sooner or later when you want to put down roots you do need to be grounded.
Let's talk about your upcoming album!
It's set to be released 18th October at the moment. We recorded six songs in Woodstock in this wooden chapel in the middle of the woods, and then we played gigs whilst finishing the last songs. We filmed some videos, which is a live version of the song, so it all feels really authentic. The album sounds exactly what it sounds like, and it is a nice calling card for what we do. I guess that describes the record, it’s just those three sounds and the best songs I could write.
Influences comes from everywhere.
Yes. For instance for Madstone, I was in New Orleans and New Orleans is not the US for me, it’s like an island there. I heard about this medicine they had, Mad Stone, it's like this rock that you can find in the belly of a deer. It’s the equivalent of a hairball from a cat, but it cures mental illness. Things like that I thought were so interesting. It was like that for the album, just taking whatever you come across and turning it into a song.
Is there anything you want to talk about with the people of the UK?
I want them all to come and see us live. I think the accent on this whole project is the live thing. We’re going to be opening for the Staves in October and November, I really look forward to it. It is very much a live record. My favorite moments with this have been when we’ve been playing to people and they don’t necessarily like singer songwriters or acoustic music and they’re still looking at us like (pulls funny/ confused face). If I’m honest it’s not the things that really are a good match with me and my personality that I end up enjoying the best, it’s more the things that I didn’t know that I would like. That’s what this music is about for me. The last place I thought I would end up would be playing the guitar with a chello and a bass, I come from a whole different place. The fact that I ended up here doing this, maybe that’s what I want to share. There is no typical person doing music, and I that maybe it’s not what people expect.
That’s a great place to be in.
Totally, I’ve been enjoying these first runs, because people don’t really know what to expect from us here yet. And also you get to talk to people after, which is an amazing thing. I don’t get to do that in Belgium, because the shows are too big, but here after I finish playing I get to go out and I talk to people and there’s something about that that’s fantastic. People tell you what they think, they’re not always like ‘oh that’s great’, they’ll tell you. There is this thing about performers and rock and roll that I don’t really buy into, you write your songs at home and then you give them out. There’s not really anything else, well maybe when I was a teenager, but not anymore.
Do you find it weird when the audience scream at your shows?
Yes haha, this happens more in Belgium, but in recent gigs in Norway these kids who were 14 were screaming. They know it from this remix I did and it was really big there, so the image of what we do came through this remix. It was great actually, because in the beginning of those shows they were open mouthed. They thought it would be this thing, and it was different. And they stayed, they were really open. When we left they screamed so loud, it was this 14 year old scream, and I’ve never heard anything like it. Reuben the bass player started laughing just as a nervous reaction.
To evoke that reaction must be amazing.
It is. I’ve never really been that person.
Listen to more of Gabriel Rios, and find out more about his upcoming album here.
Words and Interview by India Opie Meres.