GABI, the namesake of Gabrielle Herbst’s genre-crossing explorations, released her first album Sympathy in April. Classically trained with a background in experimental music, she creates landscapes out of silence and acoustic and electronic sounds for her ethereal voice to explore. In our conversation, she shared her experience growing up with an ethnomusicologist father, how environment affects the music she composes, and her thoughts on emotion in music. Don’t miss her upcoming appearance at Great Scott on Wednesday.
Foundwaves: Your father is an ethnomusicologist. Besides probably having access to a sizeable record collection, how did your father’s background impact your own musical development?
Music was always playing in my house as a child. Music from India, Bali, Ireland, all over the world, but besides being an ethnomusicologist my father is an amazing singer. He would sing and play guitar for me when I was growing up and also sing me to sleep at night. He taught me a lot about breath, how to sing from coming out of your back, and a kind of mysticism in music. My dad has always been my first mentor in music and he taught me to love and practise creating music as almost a religion. I’m very indebted to him.
Foundwaves: This week you’re playing at Great Scott, a beloved dive-y indie rock venue in Allston. Unless you had a secret high school punk band that hasn’t made it into your bio, it sounds like until recently your performing experience was in classical venues where audiences typically sit still and silent. What has it been like playing in noisier and less predictable environments? Does it change how you perform your music live?
Well, truth be told I was in a pretty gnarly band at the beginning of college but yes that one didn’t quite make it into the bio. It’s true that most of my experience has been performing in a concert venue setting where people are both quiet and seated. Honestly, I love playing both kinds of shows. The unpredictable nature of more casual venues, the spontaneity, the rawness. I find that with this project I feed off the energy of the audience and I let myself go into the music more than I ever have in a concert hall. I appreciate the possibility for deep connection with an audience in a raucous intimate setting.
Foundwaves: Can you describe the process of composing Fleece? What was the initial impetus and how did it develop from there?
Fleece was written for a specific person actually. Somebody that’s closest to my heart. I wrote it in one sitting, at my keyboard, in my little bedroom in Brooklyn. It just came out as just feeling, that took shape through sound and I knew it was exactly how I wanted it to be. Later, after recording it in the studio I added layers of complexity, through harmonies, electronics and horns to flesh out the piece, but I would say it was an impulsive gesture that really just captured a moment and a feeling and gift that I wanted to give this person.
Foundwaves: After growing up in Western Mass and then attending Bard, both relatively rural places, you’re now based in Brooklyn. Do you feel like being in a city environment has changed the music you’re writing now?
I definitely think that living in the city has influenced the work I make. Perhaps the architecture and dynamic fast paced nature of the city has propelled my impulse to use more electronics. There are elements of my mindset in the city that have found their way into my music, but I also feel like my music builds imaginary spaces that I wish I lived in–large open spaces. Tranquil, raw spaces, emotional spaces. I think my work transports me and I take comfort in that.
Foundwaves: There is an ongoing philosophical debate over how emotion is perceived in music. One side argues that music intrinsically embodies an emotion, while the other side feels that music itself cannot be emotional, but rather draws out an emotional response from the listener. Or put more simply, can music make us sad or do we just recognize that it is sad? How would you describe how you experience emotion in music? Is it different when you’re listening to music versus when you’re performing it?
There is this same debate as to whether minor chords are sad and major chords are happy and why we perceive them as such. It’s socially learned that minor chords depict sadness and major chords happiness and this viewpoint to me is very one dimensional. I’m interested in creating emotional depth in my music and making minor chords happy–emotions are, after all, a combination of learned societal feelings and complicated inner workings of the soul. I think that music is not intrinsically emotional but that it is a way to access and communicate emotions. Music is not just music–music is the person writing the music, singing the music, listening to the music. Music, for me at least is a portal to access emotional territory that is beyond words and literal meaning, it is intimate and it is raw. When I listen to music I hear my own stories in other peoples music, I relate, sympathize, I feel like I’m not alone. When I’m creating and performing my music, I rise above myself and my own emotions, I transcend my ego and get to live only in the sounds. It is a very emotional place, but I feel free because I feel like I’m leaving behind my calculating mind.
Foundwaves: We’re not confirming or denying anything, but if we had access to a time machine that would allow you to go back in time to one single point in history, what period would you choose and which musicians would you make sure to see perform live while you were there?
I would want to be transported back to the 30’s and hear Billy Holiday sing in a small jazz club.
Foundwaves: Lastly, in your next life, what will you be reincarnated as?
A wild horse.