‘The stuff that people would say about me on the internet they could never say now’

Gabriels: (lr) Ari Balouzian, Ryan Hope and Jacob Lusk (Atlas Artists/Parlophone Records)

Gabriels: (lr) Ari Balouzian, Ryan Hope and Jacob Lusk (Atlas Artists/Parlophone Records)

As their name suggests, Gabriels are gifted with the voice of an angel. It belongs to Jacob Lusk, a 35-year-old gospel singer with the power to break your heart with a mere tremor in his voice. On angels & queens, On the Los Angeles trio’s forthcoming debut album, he channels Nina Simone and Billie Holiday while draining every drop of emotion from the group’s love and loss songs. Their steadily growing fan base also includes Elton John, who proclaimed last year’s EP Love and hate in another time “One of the most groundbreaking records I’ve heard in the last 10 years”.

Lusk’s soaring vocals are the perfect complement to the rich blend of electronics and orchestration created by his bandmates, British producer Ryan Hope and Armenian-American instrumentalist Ari Balouzian. The three have been close since they met in 2015 — a fact that still surprises them. “We’re very different,” says Lusk when we meet at a restaurant near his home in downtown Los Angeles. He wears YSL goggles and a Dodgers baseball jersey with the sequin logo. It’s a wardrobe choice that Elton would certainly approve of. “I’m this chubby black guy from Compton, Ryan from Sunderland and Ari a classically trained musician who grew up in Glendale,” he says. “We are three very different people with very different personalities, but there are more things that make us alike than different. When we write, we find this common thread. Then the songs just come.”

Lusk had been honing his voice for decades when he first met Hope and Balouzian. He sang in a choir when he was still in kindergarten, although visiting Bishop Carl Stewart’s Emmanuel Temple church proved intimidating for a child with dreams of singing gospel. “Our pastor’s sons were famous musicians, so the best musicians and the best singers in the world came,” he recalls. Rapture Stewart was nominated for a Grammy for his work on Aaliyah’s “Rock The Boat,” while his brother Nisan is one of hip-hop’s most in-demand drummers, having worked with the likes of Missy Elliott, Sean “P Diddy” Combs and Timbaland . In comparison, young Lusk was still a beginner. “When I was a kid, it was like, ‘He’s okay, he’s not like that!’ I didn’t really know how to use my instrument.”

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Lusk looked for opportunities to sing outside of church. In 2007, he spotted a Craigslist ad looking for backing vocalists for an unnamed hip-hop artist. It turned out to be Nate Dogg, the G-funk icon whose soulful contributions to classic hits like Warren G’s “Regulate” earned him the nickname “King of Hooks.” Lusk soon earned a spot in Nate Dogg’s gospel choir InNate Praise, and the pair bonded one night after Lusk missed the last train home. “He invited me to stay and shared some of his life stories,” says Lusk. “He told me about Tupac and Biggie and how he wrote songs, and our relationship grew stronger after that.” Luck then began writing with him for other artists, calling the experience his “formal introduction to the music industry.” That came to a sad end after Nate Dogg suffered a massive stroke in December 2007. He died of heart failure in 2011 at the age of 41.

That same year, Lusk was thrust into the spotlight when he took part in a talent show american idol. While his renditions of classics like Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” garnered him thousands of fans, he also ended up at the end of all sorts of unwanted attention. He was frequently accused on social media of appearing rude or pompous, and a critic from TVLine.com described his attitude as “stank”. “There was a lot going on idol which I’m unpacking right now,” says Lusk and takes a sip of water. “It was a very pleasant experience, but a lot of traumatic things also happened. I’m working my way through some of this stuff right now. The industry was cruel and the world was cruel then. What people would say about me on the internet, they could never say now.”

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Hope and Balouzian were unaware of Lusk’s reality show history when they first met him. Luck then conducted his aunt’s church choir for a commercial the couple produced. When additional parts were needed, Hope and Balouzian located Lusk at a church service. “They hadn’t heard me sing at that point, they just knew I was leading the choir,” Lusk recalls. “I sang the soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, tenor and alto. I just rattled off all the pieces and they said what the…?”

Stunned by Lusk’s incredible vocal abilities, Hope invited him and Balouzian to a house in Palm Desert, California so the three could work on the music together. Her breakthrough came when Hope directed a video series for Prada in 2018, accompanied by her own track “Loyalty”. They then spent several focused weeks writing together during the pandemic before heading to Hollywood’s historic Conway Recording Studios to complete the album with Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé producer Sounwave. “We had a similar process with him where we locked ourselves in for 12 days straight or something,” says Lusk. “It was a good vibe.”

There they put the finishing touches on an album of real emotional depth. The title track, “Angels and Queens,” says Lusk, was inspired by a sympathetic look at the life of the world’s first black supermodel, Donyale Luna. The muse of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini, she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 33. “She had a reproach for not being the greatest person,” he explains, “but then you realize everyone’s just trying to figure it out, just like us, they’re just under a different microscope.” Imagine if someone had a camera in front of them at your worst point. They want love, they want a relationship, they want companionship, they want all the things that we want too.”

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Jacob Lusk von Gabriels:

Jacob Lusk von Gabriels: “We are three very different people with very different personalities, but there are more things that make us alike than different” (Atlas Artists/Parlophone Records)

There is a thread of loss that runs through the album. The heartbreaking ballad “If You Only Knew” was written immediately after Lusk received a phone call during a session to say his godsister, who was struggling with addiction, had been found dead in her apartment. “Ari and Ryan said we should just go, and I said, ‘There’s nothing I can do. If I go over there, it won’t work,” Lusk recalls. “So we wrote the song, which is about a person singing from the other side. We have all experienced losses during this process. I lost a friend I also lost someone I was with. My uncle jumped off a building. Ryan’s mother died of cancer. Ari lost his grandmother. If I passed I would hope that my people could think of me and smile, and that’s really where the song came from.”

The seven-track album, due out this week, is billed as part one of angels & queens, A second installment is due to arrive in March next year. Lusk says the next chapter, which they’ve already recorded, “could be a little bit more fun. It’s the other part of the story.” Before that, they will return to the UK for shows in Glasgow, Manchester and London next month, shortly after completing a week-long residency supporting Harry Styles in Austin, Texas. Unlike Elton, Lusk isn’t sure whether Styles is still a fan or not — although it’s certainly only a matter of time. “I don’t want to lie to you,” says Lusk with a grin. “I don’t know how it happened, I’m just glad it happened. Hopefully me and Harry will be friends, you know?”

Gabriels’ “Angels & Queens” is out on September 30th