AdHoc chatted with GABI about her composition process and what it’s like to make music when you have one foot in the classical world and one foot in pop.
The music of GABI, a.k.a. composer Gabrielle Herbst, defies definition. Existing in a nebulous liminal space between Björk and Beethoven, the classically trained composer says she’s still trying to pin down the distinction between the alias and her name. Her upcoming full-length—Empty Me, out October 5—has been three years in the making, and fully a labor of love. “Whole With You,” one of the singles off the album, features Herbst’s voice lilting gently as though bobbing on a cloud, interwoven with lush harp. Ahead of her record release at the Park Church Co-op on Wednesday, October 3, AdHoc chatted with GABI about her composition process and what it’s like to make music when you have one foot in the classical world and one foot in pop.
Make sure to be there to witness GABI “explor[ing] [her]elf as a performer,” and pre-order Empty Me via Double Double Whammy.
AdHoc: Can you tell me a little bit about how GABI came to be?
Gabrielle Herbst: The very beginning of it was maybe when I was a little kid and used to write songs for myself. I studied classical music growing up and kind of just sang for myself. I studied clarinet and piano and played a lot of classical music. Then I went to Bard [College] and studied composition there. I started composing for lots of different instruments and discovered writing for my own voice and other instruments. I kind of started a project there that just kept growing.
When I left Bard, I had this residency at the Watermill Center, which is this amazing, really strange place. It’s an art estate run by [visual artist and stage director] Robert Wilson, and it’s [got] this really interesting, strange architecture in this really beautiful space. I brought a couple musician friends with me, and we just started improvising in the space. I had recently gotten this loop pedal that I got kind of obsessed with, and I wrote a couple songs in this massive gallery space there.
That residency was kind of the real birth of the project. I wrote a couple songs that were on my first record there, and that was kind of the very first vision for this project and where I wanted to go with it. It’s just been developing over a long period of time—kind of forever.
What’s songwriting and/or composition process like?
I’ve always kind of had both angles. My GABI project is not notated most of the time; it’s off the page, and it’s more collaborative, and a lot of it comes from improvisation and really personal places. It’s a way for me to explore the performance side of myself.
Then I also have this other side of myself where I compose notated music in a more concert setting. They feel kind of like different projects, but they also feed each other, and I feel like they’re coming together more and more. It’s something that I’ve just been juggling for the past 10 years, and they really inform each other, but I feel like they bring out different sides of myself. I feel like my artistic process and visions are different, and the outcome is quite different. It’s really fun to do both. I was making my first album while I was writing my first opera, actually, and I didn’t mean for it to happen that way, but they were both kind of due at the same time. It was really fun, because they were such different outlets but they also really influenced each other.
I’m continuing to do that right now: I’m actually studying composition at the moment, which is a fascinating new journey, while putting out this new album. I didn’t plan for them to overlap, but they are.
Where are you studying composition?
I’m actually at Yale getting my MM, Master’s of Music. So I’m actually in New Haven at the moment—hello!
Hi from New York!
I’m gonna be in New York in two days! I’m still going back and forth a lot; it’s really close. It’s interesting to bounce between the worlds a little bit.
What’s the difference between your project GABI and you, Gabrielle Herbst?
That’s a hard question! That’s something that I’m working on figuring out. I kind of differentiated the names so that I had as much freedom as I wanted in taking on different disguises and exploring some parts of myself. It’s literally my name–my nickname and my full name. I feel like both really are expressions of myself.
The easiest way to describe it is that a lot of my GABI music is composed in a different style, in the sense that it’s mostly not notated. I’ll write the songs, then find musicians that I feel an affinity with; then I’ll collaborate with them and direct them in coming up with parts that I like that work with the songs in a more songwriting format.
Often I work with electronics in the GABI project—I do in my other work as well, [but] it’s sort of different. The GABI project feels more like a short-form, not notated, off-the-page project, which is really liberating. I can also explore myself as a performer, and how I wanna connect with audiences in different ways as a singer.
And then my Gabrielle Herbst work is more of a notated process, where I’m controlling the outcome of the music more by notating every single aspect of the piece for larger ensemble works or chamber music. It’s really hard to say, because I think they have a lot of overlapping features. When I go by my full name, the work is more in a classical format—so more in a concert setting. With my GABI stuff, it can translate across more venues and more communities, and that I find really exciting, because I feel like these worlds feel extremely small and insular sometimes. It’s just nice to feel like you’re reaching out and connecting with more people.
You’ve spoken in the past about making classical music more accessible. How you do that through GABI?
Some people are really dabbling in different genres and worlds, but I still feel like the worlds are quite separate. I’m really interested in writing operas—that’s one of my main interests—and I would love to see new opera get more visibility and reach more people and have more cultural interaction. That’s something that I’m personally working on at the moment. I think the work really suffers when it just becomes about itself and not about communicating with a larger audience.
You’ve referred to the two projects as “separate” but “increasingly coming together.” How does your background in opera and classical music play into writing pop music?
I have consistent identity crises; I’m having one as we speak. I haven’t really ever fit into either world that much. The classical world will call me “pop,” and then the pop world often is like, “That is not pop at all, that’s super weird and experimental,” even if it doesn’t sound experimental to me.
I’m not really great at understanding where I fit in genre-wise. I kind of just make what I want to hear and try to stay true to that as much as possible. I sort of don’t worry or think much about how it’s going to be classified or how people are going to read into it, and I’m trying more than ever to stay true to the artistic purpose and intent […] and not [worry] about what boxes I’m checking or anything like that. Certain people in the classical world don’t take me seriously because I have a pop side, and vice versa.
Can you tell me about the upcoming GABI album?
This album was a long time in the making. I started it in 2015, actually, soon after my first record came out. I started compiling songs—really stripped-down, very personal, intense drafts of songs—and they just kind of slowly developed over time. There were a lot of life and career changes happening at that time, so it was an interesting transformative time for me for a couple of years, and a really good time to be creating a new sound.
I worked by myself for quite a long time, and then slowly started bringing people into the world with me. It took awhile to find the right people to work on the project. Once we did, we started to reign everything in and focus the album and make it into what it is now. I also developed a new live band situation that plays a huge role in the record as well. The arrangement that is the strongest throughout the album is for harp and bass clarinet, which are played by two of my best friends, so it’s been this really lovely community working on the record—and really fulfilling in that way. We play together in this very intuitive, mind-reading sort of way. It was about making a record with friends and people that you love, and not doing it for the outcome but for the process.
What’s coming next?
Really excited about the release show, and I’m touring with Mutual Benefit. We’re doing a full U.S. tour in the winter. I’m really aching to get out on the road; it’s been a while and I miss it a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing how this world evolves; it’s about to come out in two weeks, so I feel like I’m giving birth to a child. I’m really hoping that it speaks to people and it can make people feel something positive.