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‘Feel the feeling’

Gabriel Royal brings chamber pop R&B from the subway to the jazz club

Gabriel Royal

Eliseu Cavalcante Photography

The Huffington Post once called Gabriel Royal “Brooklyn’s best busker,” but the Tulsa native has bigger ambitions than playing cello for change on the L train platform. He’s currently touring behind his latest album, Miss Once in a Blue Moon, which was released on Sept. 7. The nine-song LP finds the hardworking cellist/vocalist straddling the line between jazz classicism and contemporary singer-songwriter sensibilities, delivering what he calls “grown up lullabies” with a neo-soul flourish. With influences ranging from Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach to Thundercat and Janelle Monae, Royal’s music marries soulful, chamber pop stylings with a sharp ear for the standards. I caught the ever-hustling artist on the phone during a tour stop in West Lafayette, Indiana, before his return to Tulsa on Nov. 23 and 24 for a two-night stint at Duet Jazz.

Jezy J. Gray: A lot has been written about your history as a street musician in New York. Is that something you’re tired of talking about, or does it still feel relevant to your story?

Gabriel Royal: [Laughs.] The reason I laugh is because I was busking in September before I hit the road! There’s no disconnect between me and busking. I go play in the subway when I need money—and I was in need of money before I hit the road in September. So yeah, it’s still relevant. I’m not just talking about it. I think people think it’s this glamorous thing. Like, I just talk about it because it sounds cool. I supported myself teaching school part time and playing in the subway. … So it literally saved me.

I mean, that’s where I actually got comfortable playing cello. Cause I played for years in an orchestra, and that’s very different from playing solo. And I wasn’t writing music on cello when I was playing in the orchestra. … The subway helped mature my cello playing. That’s where I started writing music for it. I had a band for years, and I played on the In the Raw patio for about three years, any time the weather permitted. … So I had played a lot and I had been writing for years, but I hadn’t been writing for the cello until I moved to New York and started playing in the subway. So it’s not a gimmick—I swear! [Laughs.]

Gray: How do you calibrate for an audience like that, versus one that comes to see you in a club?

Royal: Well, it’s more challenging. [Laughs.] I mean, the club people, you know, they came to listen. Nobody cares about you on the subway. You have to grab their attention with the songs. So if nobody is actively listening, you have to convince them to. I’m playing acoustically with a cello in the subway, so the only way you can hear me is if people are quiet. So I drop the volume. I’m playing very quiet, melodic, soothing music that sort of asks for silence. As a teacher, one of the things they teach you is the louder you get, the louder your classroom gets. So I try to make a difference between me and the guys who are playing buckets, or playing saxophone, or they’re plugged in with a guitar. They’re loud as hell, and that keeps pushing up the volume. I’m playing more sensitive stuff, and most of the time people will quiet down to listen. … Sometimes you can come down on the platform and hear a pin drop, when I’m playing. That’s something I’m proud of, but it doesn’t always happen. But more times than not, people listen.

Gray: When you left Oklahoma for New York, what did you imagine your life was going to be like—and how did that stack up with your actual experience?

Royal: I was a full-time teacher in Oklahoma. I moved from Oklahoma City, where I was teaching high school and middle school visual art. So when I moved to New York City, it was really to continue teaching. I wanted to play music, but music has always been my side hustle. … I planned on just getting a teaching job and teaching full-time and playing my music on the side as usual. But when I got there, there was a hiring freeze for all arts—any electives: gym teachers, dance instructors, musicians, visual artists. They weren’t hiring anybody. So that forced me to look for other avenues of revenue. [Laughs.] So I was substitute teaching, and then I got my job with this spot called Wingspan Arts, a teaching collective that puts fine artists in schools, so I’ve been teaching an after school program for the last eight or nine years; and they were flexible enough to let me go out on my first tour with [Tulsa’s] Johnny Polygon in 2011.

I did not expect to be doing what I’m doing now. I was planning on coming up here and just teaching and being happy with that for the rest of my life—because I was happy with that—but I got this opportunity, because this guy [Roberto Randow] saw me in the subway. … He was like, ‘Did you write that song?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘You got any more?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I got hundreds of ‘em!’” … I found my manager in the subway. I found my entertainment lawyer in the subway. I’m signed with
Columbia Artists, the classical music booking agency. When my manager promoted me to them, the guy who’s now my agent had seen my in the subway. He was like, ‘Oh my god. That’s the guy who plays at Bedford off the L train!’”

Gray: What kind of a performance can people expect at Duet?

Royal: The first half is gonna be solo. It’s gonna be all cello, piano, vocals. Just me. And then my friend ... T.J. Haverkamp—he has a band called The Culture Cinematic, based out of Oklahoma City, and they’re gonna be backing me up. And I’m so happy about it. These guys are my favorite band. So the fact that they’re learning my whole second album is, like, more than honor to me. It’s huge.

Gray: What are you going to do while you’re in Tulsa? Any places you have to visit when you’re in town?

Royal: Soundpony, as far as my partying goes. [Laughs.] … They’re definitely my bar of choice when I’m back in town. In the Raw. I used to work there, so when I’m back I always gotta go get some sushi. The Brook—I still gotta get the chicken tenders there. And Taco Bueno, man! I just heard they’re going through some financial issues, which makes me sad—because there’s a level of comfort I don’t have until I’m eating a crispy beef taco. [Laughs.]

Gray: Well thanks for taking the time, Gabriel. We’re looking forward to the show.

Royal: Hey man. I’m looking forward to it. … This is going to be a first-in-a-lifetime show with this band. I’m really excited for it.

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