Gabriel Gordon is a NYC-based singer, songwriter and guitarist probably best known as a longtime member of Natalie Merchant’s band. But like most musicians nowadays, he also has a few other bands – the Nightshades, Light Blue Movers – as well as performing solo from time to time, both in clubs and sometimes in his own living room via Concert Window. More recently, he has started to work on music for film. Before going out on tour with Ms. Merchant last winter, he spoke to ROLL about his life and career.
How did you get started with music?
My dad’s a musician; he played guitar, so I watched him play. When I was around six, I said I wanted to play guitar too so he taught me a little scale, a few riffs, and then I lost interest again for about three years. Then when I was nine, I asked for a guitar and he bought me a one. I would sit in my room and just play.
Did you teach yourself?
My dad taught me quite a lot and I started taking lessons a couple of years after I started playing. This was in Santa Cruz, California. We moved around a lot — we lived in Santa Cruz, San Jose, moved to Times Square NYC, lived here for a year, then New Jersey, then upstate. He was a musician. He came to New York to “make it” with a wife and two kids and my mom was pregnant with my sister. So it was kind of hard.
When was this?
This is all of the ‘70s pretty much. We moved to Manhattan during the garbage strike, and my mom was from California and she had never been out here. She was like, what are we doing here? We moved back to California in 1978.
What kind of music did your dad play?
He was a solo artist. He came up in the gospel church and was doing Christian music, then decided to leave the church and be a secular blues artist. Eventually he had his own band. He’s from Mississippi and didn’t start playing guitar until he was around 18.
Are there other musicians in your family?
I have two brothers and three sisters. My dad had two boys and two girls with my mom, then got married again. My little brother is a rapper and my nephew is a bass player. That’s about it.
Where did you play when you were getting started?
When my parents got divorced, my mom brought us back to the church so I started to play there. It was like Waiting for the End of the World/Jesus freak, California, but it was cool in that they encouraged us to play music a lot, like every day. A friend from church played guitar and he was into Willie Nelson. So I would go over to his house and he had a guitar just like Willie Nelson’s with a strap that goes under it. He wanted to put a hole in his guitar like Willie too; I’m not sure how he was going to do that. So we started to learn songs together but I was more into it than him. He was more into sports and I was never interested in sports. So I kept playing and eventually moved into my dad’s house to leave the church because it was a little bit freaky. He lived in the same town, and he was back to being a hippie. So it was cool, going from Jesus freaks to hippies because they’re sort of the same in a sense. This was in Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco. When I got to high school, I joined the choir, the jazz choir, and musicals and started playing in high school bands for dances and house parties. We’d do a lot of reggae, punk, and rock covers. And I sort of started writing when I got my own band together.
When and how did you get back to New York?
In 1991, when I was 19, I moved to New York because it was a familiar thing to do in my family. I knew nobody here. There was one guy from California, a keyboard player named John Dryden, who encouraged me to move out here. He moved here a year after I arrived. And then another guy, Jesse Murphy, a bass player, had moved out here too. We would hang out and play but we were in different worlds. He was in the jazz world and I was never a jazz guy. But I started playing with John Dryden and eventually with Tony Mason and Andy Hess.
I was very lucky because my girlfriend at the time’s mother had an apartment she could stay at that used to be Morris Levy’s, that heavyweight promoter. It was his old place on Central Park West and 62nd Street, pretty fancy…. all my friends hated me. It was a doorman building, I’d walk in with my dreadlocks and hippie beads and they would say, ‘the service elevator’s over there’ and I would be like ‘No, I live here. But we eventually moved down to the Village and then we broke up and I started being a real normal New York guy. Cold-water apartment, basically.
How were you paying the rent on your cold-water apartment?
I got a job at Electric Lady Studios, starting at the bottom. I was sweeping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms. Then I finally got to be the night phone guy, the night receptionist. So I would sweep or whatever and just check out whatever people were doing there. It was amazing. My first day on the job was Peter Gabriel’s release party for Us. The boss was a big stoner; she said go get the bong, fill up the bong and if you see Peter, don’t ask him for an autograph. It was great. So I had about a couple of years of that and then this band came in — the Soup Dragons — and they needed a guitar player. And the assistant engineer on the session was putting together a new band. I got the gig and I got Tony Mason on the gig. We toured Europe and the States and Canada for a year and then I went back to the job. But I had a little taste of the road.
What was your first band?
The first band was The Gabriel Gordon Band; we played at the Bitter End every Monday night after Gordon Gaines.
Yes, only my stuff and stuff I co-wrote with the guys. We did that for a few years and then we made our first record in 1998. I had just gotten the job with Natalie Merchant so the money I was making with her I was able to sink into recording our own record.
How did that connection come about?
That was through Electric Lady and my buddy Jason Darling. When I was the receptionist, Jason got the janitor job. I was really pissed because for two weeks before, there was no janitor and the boss said I needed to do that too. I said she should pay me extra and she said no, you get free studio time. But then Jason got the job and she hired him at a higher rate than I was getting paid so I was pissed! But we became really close friends very quickly. A friend that he went to high school with up in Catskill NY was working in Natalie’s studio and knew she was looking for a guitar player. Jason is also a guitar player and his friend didn’t recommend Jason but he recommended me so that caused some tension between Jason and me. But I handed him off a gig with this other singer that I had been playing with so I could play with Natalie. I got the audition and did pretty well and when I was leaving, I. just stopped to tell her I sing as well. So she said come up, took me out to dinner and hired me. The first gig was Saturday Night Live…1998. So Tuesday I auditioned and Saturday was the first gig.
And you’ve been on every tour and every record with Natalie ever since?
Looking at the two of you, you wouldn’t think it would be such a perfect fit.
Yeah, there’s a lot of nonverbal communication happening. Sometimes we’ll both make the same mistake at the same time — it’s great.
What do you like most about her music?
The lyrics are great and her performance style and her stage presence can make a potentially very tense situation just very casual and loose. She can tear down the fourth wall immediately. She’s talented at just giving people what they want and I’ve learned a lot from watching her over the years and am still learning.
Tell me about your other bands and projects.
I’m working on my own record now that has Tony Mason, Andy Hess, Shawn Pelton and George Laks on it. Natalie sang on a tune, and Meshell Ndegeocello sang on another one. I’m really proud of it and I’m close to getting a label that wants to put it out. I’m also launching a Kickstarter campaign for it on June 21. These days are so different than it used to be. You go to a label now and they say, ‘so what’s your marketing plan and how much money do you have to spend?’ It’s completely diametrically opposed to how it used to be.
There’s another band called Light Blue Movers – myself, Jonathan Levy on bass, Adrian Harpham on drums, and Deron Johnson on keyboards — and we all live in NY, except for Deron, who lives in LA. He played on my third record Gypsy Living with Andy and Tony many years ago. We always kept in touch and wrote songs together after that. He moved to NY for about a year and a half, and he invited me over one day and said he wanted to do like Caves of Narnia kind of music, like the ‘70s. We called our band Narnia at the beginning and then realized that we would probably get sued because it’s trademarked. Adrian and Deron knew each other and we did a gig together, it was the last gig at Zebulon before it closed. Zebulon was this club over in Brooklyn owned by two French guys. It was pretty cool, like Brooklyn’s answer to Nublu, basically. It just closed two years ago after being there for about ten years. They had bands from West Africa, India, Mongolia — it was like world music. We played the second-to-last gig there and then one other gig at Shapeshifter Lounge. Then last summer, we decided to do a gig in LA and have it filmed. Deron lives in LA and I was doing a tour there so we just bought tickets, booked the gig, hired a film crew, and somehow put together. That record’s just about done, we’re just finishing it. That’s how you do it now; you just finish the record and then work on your business plan. It’s still ok, there’s so much more freedom in doing it that way, you’re not getting anyone’s opinions, it’s just up to us.
Then there’s another band called the Nightshades. It’s myself, Jonathan Levy on bass, and Aaron Johnston on drums. I had booked a bunch of gigs for myself to play these new songs that I wrote about a year and a half ago and one of those gigs happened to be with Aaron and Jonathan. We had this chemistry and were improvising a lot – it was great. So we played some more gigs and Aaron had us every Tuesday night in February at Nublu. It’s super brand new — improvising on stage and recording it, then we go back in to the studio and compose songs from what we had just made up onstage. I had never really done that before. It was a nice approach. We’re almost done with an EP, we’ve got seven songs and the plan for that is just to finish it and get that out in Europe.
Why not here?
With most of this stuff we’re shooting for Europe. We’re not necessarily ignoring the States, but it’s easier to get attention in Europe. I’ve spent a lot of time there; I lived over there from 2001 to 2008. I was living in France, but I was also in Italy and Germany and Sweden and Switzerland. I was touring and playing with different bands. I was still with Natalie, but she took a long hiatus when she had her daughter. And even when I was still working with her, there would be periods of six months when she wasn’t working so I’d go over to Europe, putting out records and touring, by myself but also with a band based out of Hamburg called Soulounge. They asked me to play on a record and open up for them and it was a great opportunity. I had toured in Germany with different bands, but I never did it on my own and it was great. I got to sell records, get them on the radio and support life for a couple of years just by playing with them.
Europe seems to be so open to all kinds of music.
So many great American musicians went over there and somehow the audiences are more attentive. At that time, there was more money happening there and people still really valued music. It’s not that we don’t value it here, but at this point it’s just expected that you kind of give your music away. It’s still more old school over there.
Is that still true?
I think it’s still that way, especially in Germany. People still buy CDs. I haven’t toured my own stuff in Japan, but that’s now the biggest market in the world. Even though their population is like half of ours, they buy more music than we do. It’s like an honor thing, I need to pay for this. You wouldn’t go to a restaurant and expect to eat for free. But that’s how the system is set up here and I’m guilty of it too.
Are you now based in the States?
It was magical to leave the country and then look at it with a different perspective. It’s easier to appreciate things since I came back. I came back for about six months, then ended up going back for a year. And then in 2009, I moved back to New York. This was right when the economic crash was happening, so we were getting paid the same amount for gigs as we were 20 years ago, typical. I’m very happy to be back, but I also want to go back to Europe to work there or at least tour here or there.
I really enjoyed watching you play in your living room on my computer.
Yeah, at home concerts I couldn’t believe it existed. It’s called Concert Window and they’re on Allen Street but I never actually met them, I was in touch with somebody on the phone once and they just have this application where you can play live – it’s basically like Skype that a bunch of people can watch and it’s a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun doing them.
They get a cut of what people contribute?
They get 30 percent, the rest goes straight to the artist. Anybody can do it, a stand-up comedian can do it, people can do it for teaching music or preaching or anything. It’s amazing because you’re at home, yet you can feel that people are watching and you can interact with messages. I’m not so great at that because sometimes I get distracted by reading the stuff. There’s another company called Space Bar and they do kind of the same concept but you can stream a gig, say at Rockwood, but not video, just audio. I love that and it’s just a great time. I did it in Mexico but the connection wasn’t so great but it was still fun. I was trying to lie in the hammock and play the guitar. You just go to their website. You can probably have it look or sound better but you can test it out, do a little recording to make sure the lighting is right, different angles look better.
Have you been also playing in the clubs?
I haven’t played so many live shows of my own recently, mostly I have been in the studio and finishing these records, those three different projects. Typically, on a live show I’ll put in a cover or two, but it’s a little more just for myself. Oh I love this song, I just learned it and I’m going to play it.
I really like the Jeff Buckley songs you do.
“Lover, You Should Have Come Over, “ that song kills me. I think it took a couple of years to kind of get it and be able to sing it. I didn’t know him but I’m friends with a bass player and drummer who used to be in his band and we still keep in touch. That was a huge loss. I used to play at Sine when I was first doing my own gigs, at the same time he was, but I always had to work the nights he was playing, I tried to go to his gigs but just never made it. I hadn’t really checked his stuff out, just heard that he was so great, thought I’d just see him later. It’s a shame when they leave too soon. I remember when I was getting into Jeff before he died, I shared some music with my dad and he said he was really a fan of Tim.
Tim Buckley, you don’t hear that name too often anymore.
Izzy Young, who had the Folklore Center in the Village, is about 90 now and lives in Stockholm. Sweden now. He left NY in 1973 because it was too commercial; he went to Stockholm and started the Folklore Center there. I lived in Stockholm from October 2008 to August 2009. My girlfriend at the time, her mother lived across the street from Izzy’s place so I’d always walk by it. Finally six weeks before leaving, I walked in and said hi. He said, ‘do you want to do a gig?’ He had never heard my music, but he gave me a gig, then wanted to give me most of the money. He was like a really amazing soul. He wrote and hung out with Kerouac, said he liked to drink too much. He introduced me by saying, ‘I haven’t heard this guy play but just like Tim Buckley, he came in and I hadn’t heard him but gave him a gig.’ That was memorable, we had him over for dinner once and he told all these stories, such an amazing character and a great poet too. He does a newsletter and always has some poetry in there. I think he’s online now too.
Where are you living now?
I live in Brooklyn. I was toying with the idea of moving to LA recently but just realized that I can just go out there and work and then come back here. I’ve been wanting to do stuff in film and that’s where it’s happening. I just go out every six weeks or so for a couple of weeks.
Do you have film experience?
A little bit, but the friends that I have are pretty much set up. They’ve been working towards it for years, putting music in films — trailers and film incidental music. It’s great because you can see a piece of video and it could be someone walking down a gravel road and if it’s happy music then you’re going to know that it’s funny, but if it’s dark you know that something bad is coming. You can totally affect people’s heads with music.
Do you have a writing process?
No, just when I get inspired I’ll document it somehow, a little note, or grab the guitar or maybe the phone and put the recorder thing on, just to document the initial idea.
Typically I write the music first. Some songs just come like a bolt of lightning — everything at once or all the lyrics or the melody — it’s always different. But lately I’ve been collaborating with more people so that opens up a lot of possibility for things that you wouldn’t think of yourself. But it’s always fun to just lock myself in a room and say I’m going to write now. Sometimes you listen to it back and it’s terrible. But sometimes it’s great! I’m not so disciplined with that, it’s more like when inspiration hits I’ll find time for it. But it’s best to just be open to it and give yourself the certain space that you need to be creative.
Do you have a home studio?
No, not really. I never really got into doing engineering. I had the opportunity working at Electric Lady, but I thought I’d just answer the phones and hang out with the producers. The other guys can do the heavy lifting. It would be impossible to do gigs and also be on call as an assistant engineer, so I would just have a set shift. I’m not a great engineer, there’s other people who are better.
I’m going to put out my record, which will be my sixth. There’s Light Blue Movers, the Nightshades, a lot of other projects, writing with different people, working with several other singers, including a woman named Amatus –she’s really good — and another singer named Netta, I played on her record. It’s time to really be creative and not worry about the dreams I used to have. Time to just be happy every day!
Gabe Gordon has launched a Pledge Music campaign to promote his latest CD, Mr. Miller, titled in tribute to groundbreaking writer Henry Miller. Visit his site HERE to order and listen to a few samples.
Check out Gabriel Gordon live!
Gabe Gordon Solo Acoustic: Bar Lunatico, Sept. 23, 8-11pm
For more about Gabriel Gordon, visit:
Featured image: Gabriel Gordon by Catherine Sebastian/CSP Images
Kay Cordtz has been fascinated by music and musicians since elementary school when she ran home from school every day to watch American Bandstand. Since then, she has been a newspaper reporter, political spokeswoman, government science writer and freelance chronicler of local music scenes during a 30+-year career. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism