From subway sounds to pin drops
This year, Gabriel Royal moved his music from subway platforms to theaters. And while this is a desirable arc for a performing musician, he admits some anxiety.
“A captive audience is awesome,” the cellist says. “But now you can hear a pin drop in these places I’m playing. So I get anxious before every show. There’s constant self-doubt. But it’s controllable. I think it should be that way for every artist. A little moment where you stop and have just a moment of doubt.”
Royal for years played on subway platforms around New York, where he moved from his native Oklahoma. Like other strap hangers, he heard plenty of free music while waiting for trains that didn’t agree with him. Royal realized early on he needed to do something different than the average subway busker. The sound he found never tried to rise above the natural din of incoming and outgoing trains as they clacked along their rails. Instead, he relied on his smooth and soulful vocals and the cello, an unorthodox choice for busking.
“I’ve written songs that are specifically for the mood on the platform,” he says. “The idea is to calm people down. I call them ‘grown-up lullabies.’ That’s the nice thing about the cello. People just getting off work after eight hours, they want to calm down. They don’t want drummers banging away. It’s like shut the (expletive) up. Quiet that down. Play to the mood.”
Royal’s story plays like a film. After 10 years of busking, his doubts were beginning to shadow his faith.
“But I really had two things,” he says. “I gave myself credit because I believed I had a good sound. I knew that attracted some people to me. And I also had desperation. I was desperate. I was working the subway because I needed the money. I wasn’t trying to spread love on the subway. I was trying to get $100 for rent or to eat. That was the grind I was on.”
Royal arrived in New York in his late 20s with a broad musical background. He played keyboards and cello, he did some drumming. He described high school as “orchestra to OutKast,” a group of kids from orchestra class who’d meet after school and jam: jazz, fusion, hip-hop, pop, R&B, hard rock.
“I loved it all, man,” he says. “It was never genre specific. It was just about good songs. I never looked at it as cross-pollination or anything. Just good songs.”
That was Royal’s approach to playing on the train platforms: The music poured without regard to any sort of style. The sadder songs found him bowing long notes on the cello, while he went pizzicato for pluckier fare.
Then comes the Hollywood-type break. Royal caught the ear of Brett Paine Murphy, who made professional-quality videos for some of the best buskers he heard in the city free of charge. That clip caught the eye of Beto Landau, a musician in New York from Brazil. Landau was taking classes in hopes of becoming a music agent. He repeatedly reached out to Royal to arrange a meeting. Royal recalls blowing off a meeting with Landau and then ended up in the same bar that day.
“He called me out on it, and we had a meeting the next day,” Royal says. Landau had written a song for him, “and that got my attention.”
Commercial work came in, as did festival appearances in Europe. Then a deal with a record label. “It changed my life, man,” Royal says. “And all this happened in the past year. It sounds like a fairy tale: A kid playing in New York, some big wig wants to sign him, but that’s what happened. I found a hungry manager looking for an artist. He was enthusiastic, and he was able to do all the parts of the job that I don’t think I could’ve done.”
This year Royal released “Miss Once in a Blue Moon,” a collection of musically and thematically varied musings on love.
“There’s some stuff that sounds like Burt Bacharach,” he says. “And other stuff that sounds like modern trap. A jazzy prelude and some classical sounding things.”
Royal brings this unique one-man band to the Grand 1894 Opera House Saturday, one of those lovely quiet theaters where one can hear the pin drop. But he’s excited about the change in fortune with his venue.
“It’s really a pleasure to not have to worry about not having dinner,” he says. “To play a gig, get paid and come home without breaking even or worse. This year has been a really good one for me.”