the classical-pop adventures of gabriel royal

Gabriel Royal. Photo courtesy of Columbia Artists.

Seated before a microphone in a video for his composition “Remember Us,” the dual musical worlds inhabited by Gabriel Royal quietly bleed into each other.

As a bow hits the base of his cello, a sense of classical clarity is summoned with long vibrant lines that sound distinctly European. Then he sings, but not with the sort of operatic color one might expect as dressing for such stately music. No, what emerges instead is a solid pop-soul tenor, one that winds into a sense of longing the strings already suggested. The two voices are remarkably complimentary, even if they sound like they were forged in different centuries.

The biggest surprise, though, is saved for when the camera pans out at the end of the clip. There you discover Royal wasn’t recording in a studio or rehearsing in a theatre. Instead, he was performing live in a New York subway.

That latter detail is the catalyst for the unlikely career of this genre-hopping artist. Raised in Oklahoma, he moved east and became a Brooklyn busker playing to legions of New York commuters.

“I feel like every time I went down in the subway, I was facing my nerves,” said Royal, who performs Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “Nobody asked you to be there randomly setting up and playing. As such, you don’t feel confident until you see that first dollar drop. Then you’re like, ‘Okay. People like me. I think I can do this.’ It can be a battle, but in the subways, for me, there has mostly been positive response.”

Having since graduated to such prestigious New York club gigs at the Blue Note and Le Poisson Rouge, Royal has been honing a classical cello/pop vocal hybrid that links New York to his youth (he calls the numerous home state refugees he discovered in Brooklyn “Oklahomies”). One sound didn’t necessarily lead to the other, though. Royal took to classical and pop simultaneously.

“The cello does what I tell it to, pretty much,” Royal said. “If I’m playing in a particular style, it’s because I’ve chosen to do that. I’ve never really had those kinds of hang ups about classical music.

“Back in school, my brothers and I would go to the orchestra and then we would come home and get on other instruments. I played drums when I was in college, so we would have the classical training, the music theory, ear training, choir and all that at school. At home, we would listen to hip-hop and jazz. I never had an idea that classical music was the end all and be all of everything. It was just one of the genres I was into. During the day, we would be on the classical side. At night, we would be on the jam-out side. The two always went hand in hand.”

Taken by the orchestrations and compositional structure of vintage Burt Bacharach songs, Royal’s musical scope quickly became panoramic, absorbing everything form Erik Satie to Black Sabbath to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. From the communities of R&B, soul and pop, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Thundercat lead a diverse lineup of inspirations.

“I always start with Burt Bacharach. I’m a huge Burt Bacharach fan, especially the stuff he did with Dionne Warwick, like ‘Walk On By.’ A lot of his songs had that laid back, kind of smooth, early ‘70s pop sound. I don’t know if you can hear it all that much in my songs, but there is a real bouncy happiness that definitely comes from listening to Burt Bacharach.”

While his heroes may have favored massive, expansive sounds, Royal – at least, for now – goes it alone in his concerts, forging a patiently paced classical/pop blend with one instrument and one voice.

“It works because I can add a beat. I can add a verse. I can make up some stuff. I can take extended time with certain phrases. But there are also things that I lose. I love the huge group harmonies, but I can’t get that when it’s just me and the cello onstage. There are things that you gain by having an actual ensemble with you. I want to get there, but for now, this is doing alright.

“I mean, to be onstage, look out and see people smiling at a song I wrote, that’s a special thing. So, really, I couldn’t be happier.”

Gabriel Royal performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut in Danville. Tickets: $29, $39. Call 877-448-7469 or go to nortoncenter.com.



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