The greatest exploits of antiquarian pop star Gabriel Bruce

Confessions of a showman

Gabriel Bruce makes a bad suit look good. And a nylon blouse. The son to a Scottish Brazilian father (“the most handsome man in the world”) and an antique dealing mother, Gabriel is 23 and a one-time model. “I did that for a bit when I needed some money,” he notes, emptying his pockets to avoid any unsightly bulges and stepping in front of the camera. There will be no awkward hunching in the glare of the lens today. Gabriel Bruce has done this before. “I’ve been around forever,” he’ll exclaim later as we discuss his music making, not how well he can clench his jaw.

Bruce is a raconteur and a showman in an age where we have none. He has a morbid fascination that manifests itself in part-time taxidermy. He’s enviably well read (citing Nabokov and Salinger as his favourite authors, and basing his new video on a dance piece by cult German choreographer Pina Bausch); possesses a wonderfully dry sense of humour; is admittedly self-conscious; and is nothing if not forthcoming with his insecurities. By the nature of his being he is a show off, and proudly so. He also does a pretty good impersonation of a fidgeting Tom Waits, a hero of his. On top of these many colourful virtues, Gabriel Bruce is also the one-preacher-owner of ‘Love In Arms’, his debut solo album: part vaudeville show-stopper/part graveyard hymnbook. “The record is made up of love, loss, some death, the coming and going, the gore and the grime. All the good stuff,” he says. It’s delivered, with no small amount of theatrical grandeur, by Gabriel’s distinctive, not-so-secret weapon: his voice.

Gabriel has been singing ever since his voice broke and opened up a part for him in the school choir. Armed with a baritone burr, he joined his classmates as they travelled to France one summer, singing for their supper in Burgundy. Choirboys don’t make for great frontmen, but that was fine by Gabriel – he didn’t like the sound of his voice anyway. When he returned home he formed a school band, evidently with the wrong singer.

“The first time I had to sing was at a school concert,” he says. “God, this is so indie, but I was playing guitar in a school band and we were doing a Futureheads song and we started playing the opening riff.” Gabriel begins to sing the intro to ‘Decent Days And Decent Nights’. “The singer just got complete stage fright and walked off stage, and so I just had to sing the song. For some reason I had the compulsion. I knew I wasn’t going to play the riff one more time and leave, so that was the first time I ever sang in front of anyone. It was terrifying.”

I ask him if his first performance was a successful one.

“Oh, well, you know what these things are like,” he says, “the sound is never good at those things.”

Seven years on, Gabriel is still not bowled over by the sound of his own singing. “I would listen to a lot of other singers who sang in my register and then try on their idiosyncrasies and see how they looked on me,” he explains. “I find that’s still what I do today – there’s a shame that I have and I’m afraid to show what the raw thing is. You become, I guess, like an actor, imitating people.”

How alarmingly frank from a young musician carving out his place in pop music’s over-ploughed, 60-year-old landscape. What he’s meant to say, as unbelievable as it is, is, “I just do my thing and don’t pay attention to anyone else,” or, “people say I sound like x, but I don’t hear that at all.” People say that Gabriel Bruce sounds like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, and they’re right.

“David Bowie is the best singer ever,” he reliably informs me. “If he was a synthesiser that you could buy it would be the synthesiser that I’d have.” Harry Belafonte, Stax soul singer William Bell, Cohen and Tom Waits are on Gabriel’s list of greats he’s tried to imitate, Iggy Pop is “one of the better ones” and Dylan’s melodies provided him with his music schooling when he was 16. “But they’re so muddled and many that hopefully it becomes a new vehicle.”

“There is even a deep insecurity at the heart of what I’m doing now, though,” he notes. “One of my biggest faults is the ambition I put on different projects. I just want everything to sound incredible, but the problem is you end up looking a little bit silly when no one is looking at you and you’re being so ostentatious – if anyone does catch a glimpse at it, it can come across as a little pretentious.”

Specifically, Gabriel is referring to his previous band, the mock-metal Loverman, who you might have heard of, but probably haven’t. Gabriel is under no illusion that they’re a generation’s grossly overlooked outfit. They did in fact enjoy more success than most, releasing a single and mini album on Young And Lost Club Records, which at the time had the support of Universal Music. The mini album, ‘Human Nurture’, featured ‘Barb’; a darkly eerie, Trent Reznor-ish track that Gabriel still stands by, so much so that he considered, for a second, including it on ‘Love In Arms’. Loverman’s real success was in their ambition, though, that took them all the way to Los Angeles to record ‘Human Nurture’ with Atticus Ross, who went on to win an Academy Award for his Social Network score (a collaboration with, funnily enough, Trent Reznor), and Joe Barresi, engineer and producer to The Melvins, Tool and Queens of The Stone Age. “At that time I didn’t have much love for British music,” says Gabriel. “All the music I was listening to had come from the States, like Sonic Youth and Minor Threat and Butthole Surfers… Nirvana, of course…”

Gabriel liked being in a band. “I feel a lot more vulnerable now,” he says. “When there’s four of you being looked at it’s easier to hide yourself, but I get confused by how much of myself I’m happy to show. The way I see it, I want to carry on making records, and when I think of people who’ve inspired me the most, they’ve generally been solo artists, so I guess in my more confident moments I’m like, ‘fuck it, I want people to have a record collection that is like, Bruce Springsteen, PJ Harvey, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Gabriel Bruce!’ But sometimes I’m unsure if that’s a reasonable expectation to put upon myself.”

I try the ‘but it must be so much more satisfying’ trick that people who work on their own are no doubt sick of hearing. Gabriel responds with a sullen, “I’m yet to feel satisfied at all.

“There was a sense of relief when I finished the record,” he concedes, “but it’s taken such a long time to get it out [when we first interviewed Gabriel he was just finishing the mixing process, last October], and you can’t stay still when you’re creating art – like, if you feel comfortable that’s the moment it starts to dry up – the tap always needs to be running – so if I was satisfied that would be the end of it for me.”

‘Love In Arms’ is instantly recognisable as a pop record, from a young man who spent his childhood listening to The Supremes and Annie Lennox with his mother. Gabriel had run to Woolworths the day ‘Song 2’ was released (“a seminal moment”) and became hooked on The Melvins and America’s DIY scene of the ’80s, but he’d also bought ‘The Immaculate Collection’ on the same day he bought his first single: ‘Trouble’ by Shampoo.

His debut album is frequently – and impressively – as accessible as, say, The Killers (the dramatic outpouring of ‘Dark Lights Shine Loud’, that has Gabriel declaring himself a boogieman ripe for flames and pitchforks to the fanfare of trumpets; the ’80s stadium pomp of ‘Honey Honey’; ‘Car’s Not Leaving’, which sounds how Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ would if huffed and bellowed by an undertaker), but it’s not without its more sombre moments either. ‘Sleep Paralysis’ – Gabriel’s debut single of 2011 – remains a minimal, organ-lead sermon that gently preaches the woes of night terrors, specifically waking up locked in your own skin. ‘El Musgo’ is even slower and ultimately sadder as it slumps to a tale of unrequited love. The same goes for ‘All That I Have’.

“It’s not really a party record,” says Gabriel. “I’d like it to be, but it’s more cinematic, so it’s better for a train journey. Each song is like a scene to me, so put it on your headphones and walk around and feel self important, like I do.”

Gabriel would buy David Bowie if he were a synthesiser, but it feels like the Thin White Duke’s lasting impression is something greater than a singing style. Pop music isn’t what it was in Bowie’s day, X Factor-fied, void of concept and more often than not gleefully dumb.

“But there is always a place in pop music for genuine emotion and art,” Gabriel insists. “It’s a tough word that, ‘art’, when you think about it, because it sounds very pompous to call something art. Y’know, Adele is undeniably a pop star, but there’s something very real and quite raw about her, and that’s refreshing and there’s no reason why that can’t be the case. Pop music can be Tinchy Stryder, but it can also be Adele or Metronomy, who are a hugely sophisticated pop band. What else would you call it?”

Gabriel would love for his music to be considered pop, “although I guess that would mean that it would have to be popular,” he laughs. He says that he was most aware of how idiosyncratic ‘Love In Arms’ needed to be – “a statement about how I want to progress as an artist” – and that ‘Car’s Not Leaving’ and ‘All That I Have’ became the record’s early goalposts, which basically meant that he could do whatever he pleased and it would happily fall between the glossy freeway anthem of one and the heartfelt piano ballad of the other. “I’m allowed to do that,” he says, “because I’m a solo artist and there’s no one to say that I can’t.”

‘Love In Arms’ ends no less theatrically than it begins, with a violent waltz called ‘Sermon On The Mount’, by which time ‘All That I Have’ has checked The Bible, ‘Dark Lights Shine Loud’ has blazed with God-fearing melodrama and Gabriel’s whole vocal delivery has been that of an unstable, wild preacher man. (Loverman’s debut single was also called ‘Crucifixion’).

“It’s just because I grew up in the western world and so much of our art and culture is entrenched in religion,” he says. “It’s unavoidable. I have a problem with organised religion. I think it’s really bad, but I think it’s a very rich culture to explore.

“The question of why we are alive is on there, which is the question we all ask. I guess there’s the question of God. I watched this amazing documentary that talked about the fact that the problem is it’s too regional. I mean, the universe is so massive and there’s really no reason why in this tiny corner there would be anything. And if God created the earth and the heavens in one day, the heavens is a lot bigger, so surely earth is a smaller accomplishment.”

With God invariably comes death, and so the Grim Reaper looms large over Gabriel’s work too, perhaps not surprisingly when his walls at home are strewn with dead creatures he himself has framed. Road-kill and sundried frogs.

“Understanding that you’re going to die is the only way of knowing you’re alive,” he reasons, “and that’s such a horrible thing to try to get your head around.” He pauses. “Erm… no… sorry… it’s hard for me to talk about really.” For the first and only time today, Gabriel would rather leave a topic of conversation there.

I first noticed that Gabriel Bruce makes a bad suit look good, and a nylon blouse, in the top room of a pub in April. Flanked by two synchronised backing singers (Sybilla and Phoebe) and a man at a laptop called George Cassavetes, what started as an awkward side step soon erupted into erratic and exaggerated gesturing. Gabriel contorted his body as the drums dropped on ‘Sleep Paralysis’, stomped his feet to the sleazy disco of ‘Zoe’ and snatched at the air through ‘Dark Lights Shine Loud’. He repeatedly swept his hair out of his eyes and implored us to heed his evangelical advice – a crazed Count of gothic pop. He sat at the piano for ‘All That I Need’ and leapt from it to perform what will be his next single, the brassy ‘Perfect Weather’. A cabaret star from some forgotten time, he laid on an incredible show in committing to the role.

I’ve seen Gabriel repeat this trick twice since, and it wasn’t a fluke. Sybilla and Phoebe are just as much onside, mirroring each other’s glittery makeup and wearing matching frills whether it be on a festival main stage or a grotty, damp basement. It’s a package deal, and it works so well because of how brazenly (and consistently) it’s delivered.

“It’s a show,” says Gabriel. “And one for the whole family. I’d love more dancers and set pieces and skits, whatever. I’d do that whole thing. I like to entertain people. In the studio I’m a little more introspective and considered, maybe, but when you’re performing and you’re standing in the corner of the room shouting ‘look and me, look at me’, when people turn to look you’d better be entertaining, because otherwise why did you shout at them?

“When you get these guys, who are like, ‘oh don’t look and me, I hate it, I hate it, I just want to play my music’, well go and play your music in your bedroom, don’t go into a room with 400 people in it, turn on microphones and amplifiers and then get pissed off when people look at you.”

Watching Gabriel perform highlights just how few live acts have any ‘act’ in them at all. I ask him if he thinks there are too few showmen in rock and pop and he notes that “Kindness is one of the best people out there making music right now. When I heard his album I was green with envy.” An old friend and recent tour mate, Fred Macpherson of London band Spector, is, for Gabriel’s money, “a wonderful raconteur performing some of the best stand up comedy around. And brave stuff, too.” Fred has also “been around forever”. He and Gabriel, along with once toyed with the idea of a new project, which currently still stands at just a name.

“There are genuinely shy people,” says Gabriel, “but for some it’s just a different act. To pretend that you’re unaware of the audience is as much an act as playing up to them. I just prefer to do my act. I’m a performer and I’m going to perform for you. I’m still getting used to how I’m going to perform in this situation,” he says, gesturing at us talking over a tape recorder. “Maybe I should be more like Tom Waits.” And with that Gabriel slips into his fidgeting Tom Waits, which really is very good.

At the time of our meeting, ‘Love In Arms’ had been completed and ready for release for the best part of a whole year. Three days after I had left Gabriel in the pub to dine with his flatmate, I heard that this month’s belated release date could now be pushed back to the New Year. I wasn’t too surprised. Throughout our interview Gabriel had expressed one overriding worry now that his debut album was finally to be released – that nobody was going to get to hear it.

“No one knows who I am, which is a bit of a problem,” he said. “I don’t want to bad mouth my label, but I could talk all night about the failures of the music industry and how disillusioned I’ve become, and so quickly. I really thought if I wrote good songs and I performed them well enough then that was my job, but I’ve found out that that isn’t my job, it’s a lot more than that. I’ve got to do a lot more and be a lot better at promoting myself, and I just don’t understand how to do it or have the inclination to do it. I care about people and I love talking to people, but I don’t want to be on Facebook and Twitter and on the Internet. It’s a waste of energy to me. It’s hard for me to understand why I should be doing those things, but it’s the day and age. I’m coming into this like a young dinosaur who doesn’t understand how the climate works and I have this sense of impending extinction and I just don’t know what to do.”

As a young man whose first two jobs were hanging chandeliers and selling antique books on the Portobello Road Market, Gabriel is not a 23 year old in love with technology like so many others. Rather than putting himself out there with a Tumblr feed and an Instagram account, he’s tried to retain a certain degree of privacy leading up to his album’s release. “… and it’s impossible,” he says. “We’re never going to have another Ziggy Stardust, because Ziggy Stardust can’t have Twitter, and you can’t idolise someone who’s posting photos of their hotel room or their lovely breakfast that’s been made for them. That’s something that I just don’t care about. I don’t care about the view from the yacht. I’d rather suspend my disbelief and be in love with the myth, because there’s not enough fantasy in the world anymore, and it’s a shame.

“But I do want people to hear the album,” he reiterates. “I want them to download it illegally. It’ll just be embarrassing if I have a mediafire file that hasn’t been download once, like, if I leak it myself and no one downloaded it – how embarrassing would that be?” he roars with laughter. “So please download it illegally, and then buy it if you like it and want the physical thing. The artwork is lovely, but just listen to the fucking thing.”

“It’s as good a record as anyone could make today,” he says, “and it’s definitely the best record I could make at the time. I mean, I’m sure plenty of people won’t like it when they hear it, but I want them to have the opportunity to not like me.”

“What do you think they wouldn’t like,” I ask.

“Oh, y’know,” he says. “I’m a very egotistical, self-obsessed, drunken bastard, really, who thinks too much with his dick and then instead of apologising feels sorry for himself.”

All the great entertainers are.