As their name suggests, Gabriels are blessed with the voice of an angel. It belongs to Jacob Lusk, a 35-year-old gospel singer with the power to break your heart with a mere vocal quiver. On Angels & Queens, the LA-based trio’s forthcoming debut album, he channels Nina Simone and Billie Holiday as he wrings every drop of emotion from the group’s songs of love and loss. Numbered among their ever-growing army of fans is Elton John, who called last year’s EP Love and Hate in a Different Time “one of the most seminal records I’ve heard in the last 10 years”.
Lusk’s soaring vocals provide the perfect complement for the rich blend of electronics and orchestration created by his bandmates, British producer Ryan Hope and Armenian-American instrumentalist Ari Balouzian. The three have been close since meeting in 2015 – a fact which they still find surprising. “We’re very different,” says Lusk, when we meet at a restaurant near his home in downtown Los Angeles. He wears YSL glasses and a Dodgers baseball jersey with the logo picked out in sequins. It’s a wardrobe choice Elton would surely approve of. “I’m this chubby Black guy from Compton, Ryan’s from Sunderland and Ari’s a classically trained musician who grew up in Glendale,” he says. “We’re three very different people with very different personalities, but there are more things that make us alike than make us different. When we write, we find that common thread. Then the songs just come.”
Lusk had already been honing his voice for decades when he first met Hope and Balouzian. He was singing in a choir while still at nursery school, although attending Bishop Carl Stewart’s Emmanuel Temple church proved intimidating for a child with dreams of singing gospel. “Our pastor’s sons were famous musicians so the best musicians and the best singers in the world came through,” he remembers. Rapture Stewart was Grammy-nominated for his work on Aaliyah’s “Rock The Boat”, while his brother Nisan is one of hip-hop’s most sought-after drummers after working with the likes of Missy Elliott, Sean “P Diddy” Combs and Timbaland. In comparison, the young Lusk was still a beginner. “When I was a kid it was kind of like, ‘He’s OK, he’s not all that!’ I didn’t really know how to use my instrument.”
Lusk sought out opportunities to sing outside of church. In 2007 he discovered a Craigslist advert looking for backing singers for an unnamed hip-hop artist. It turned out to be Nate Dogg, the G-Funk icon whose soulful contributions to classic hits like Warren G’s “Regulate” earned him the nickname the “King of Hooks”. Lusk soon earned a place in Nate Dogg’s gospel choir, InNate Praise, and the pair bonded one night after Lusk missed the last train home. “He invited me to stay and shared some of his life stories,” says Lusk. “He told me about Tupac and Biggie and how he wrote songs, and our relationship got stronger after that.” Luck then started writing with him for other artists, calling the experience his “formal intro to the music industry”. That came to a sad end after Nate Dogg suffered a severe stroke in December 2007. He died of heart failure in 2011, at the age of 41.
That same year, Lusk was thrust into the limelight when he competed on talent show American Idol. While his performances of classics like Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” won him thousands of fans, he also ended up on the receiving end of all sorts of unwelcome attention. On social media he was frequently accused of appearing rude or pompous, and one critic from TVLine.com described his attitude as “stank”. “There were a lot of things on Idol that I’m just now kind of unpacking,” says Lusk, taking a sip of water. “It was a very pleasant experience, but there were also a lot of traumatic things that happened too. I’m working through some of that stuff now. The industry was cruel, and the world was cruel then. The stuff that people would say about me on the internet they could never say now.”
Hope and Balouzian weren’t aware of Lusk’s reality show history when they first met him. Then, Luck was directing his aunt’s church choir for an advert the pair were producing. When additional parts were required, Hope and Balouzian tracked down Lusk at a church service. “They hadn’t heard me sing at this point, they just knew I directed the choir,” recalls Lusk. “I sang the soprano part, the mezzo soprano part, the baritone part, the tenor part and the alto part. I was just rattling off all the parts and they were like, what the...?”
Taken aback by Lusk’s incredible vocal ability, Hope invited him and Balouzian out to a house in Palm Desert, California so the three could work on music together. Their breakthrough came when Hope directed a 2018 video series for Prada, soundtracked by their own track “Loyalty”. After that they spent several concentrated weeks writing together during the pandemic, before decamping to Hollywood’s historic Conway Recording Studios to finish the album with Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé producer Sounwave. “We had a similar process with him where we locked in for 12 days straight or something like that,” says Lusk. “It was a good vibe.”
There they put the finishing touches to an album of real emotional depth. Title track “Angels and Queens”, Lusk says, was inspired by a sympathetic look at the life of the world’s first Black supermodel, Donyale Luna. A muse to Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini, she was just 33 when she died of a heroin overdose. “She kind of had a rap for not being the greatest person,” he explains, “But then you realise that everyone is just trying to figure it out just like we are, they’re just under a different microscope. Imagine if somebody had a camera in front of you at your worst point. They want love, they want a relationship, they want companionship, they want all those things that we want too.”
There’s a thread of loss that runs through the album. Heart-wrenching ballad “If You Only Knew” was written immediately after Lusk received a phone call during a session to tell him that his godsister, who had been struggling with addiction, had been found dead in their apartment. “Ari and Ryan said we should just leave, and I was like, ‘Ain’t nothing I can do. Me going over there ain’t gonna do nothin’,” remembers Lusk. “So we wrote the song, which is about a person singing from the other side. We’ve all experienced loss during this process. I lost a friend. I lost somebody I was dating, as well. My uncle jumped off a building. Ryan’s mom passed, she had cancer. Ari lost his grandmother. If I were to pass, I would hope that my people would be able to think of me and smile, and that’s really where the song comes from.”
The seven-track record being released this week is billed as part one of Angels & Queens, with a second instalment set to arrive in March next year. Lusk says the next chapter, which they’ve already recorded, “may be a little more fun. It’s the other part of the story.” Before that they’re due to return to the UK for shows in Glasgow, Manchester and London next month, shortly after completing a week-long residency supporting Harry Styles in Austin, Texas. Unlike Elton, Lusk isn’t sure whether Styles is a fan yet or not – although surely that’s just a matter of time. “I don’t want to lie to you,” says Lusk with a grin. “I don’t know how it happened, I’m just glad that it did. Hopefully me and Harry become friends, you know?”
‘Angels & Queens’ by Gabriels will be released on 30 September