Gabriel Rios: Stripped to the essence
Belgium’s favourite Latin singer from Ghent decided to leave it all behind, his warm Spanish-American sounds, his electro-pop, his big band set up, in fact, his entire country. After three years of soul searching and songwriting in New York, Gabriel Rios is back with a new album, and a complete new, stripped-back sound.
Born in Puerto Rico, Rios moved to Belgium when he was 17 years old. Eight years later he released his first solo album Ghostboy with hit single Broad Daylight, followed by two more studio albums in-cluding Angelhead in 2007. Combining Latin, funk, electronic sounds and pop, his songs stormed the Flemish hit lists and he played all the big festivals. Now, on the brink of releasing his fourth album, This Marauder’s Midnight, Rios has reinvented his music, using just cello, bass, guitar and his voice.
“After my second record I had a mini crisis where I felt like I didn’t want to be doing this, being on a stage with a big band,” Rios confesses. “The entertainment factor of what I was doing was tiring me.” Although he brought out a third album in the meantime, The Dangerous Return in 2010, the feeling that he wanted to do something else didn’t go away. “I was starting to get really attracted by playing solo concerts and I realised I didn’t have the kind of material where you can just play in front of people on your own,” Rios continues: “I realised this was the music that really moved me.”
A new city, a new sound
To follow his new-found passion, he decided to leave his hometown of Ghent behind and moved to New York. “It really is a live music city; people are catching bands all the time and going to find music all the time, which is really different from Belgium,” he says. “It was a place where you needed no reservation and you can just start playing.” Rios ended up in a local café bar called the Rockwood Music Hall. Writing during the day and trying out his songs live in the evening, this tiny venue became the cata-lyst for his new music direction. “I wrote the songs completely by myself. That was kind of the point I had to prove: that I can do it on my own first.”
Stripped down music
While in New York, he met musical duo Ruben Samama and Amber Docters van Leeuwen, both, as it happened, originally from the Netherlands. “Ruben is really a multi-talented dude, he is a young guy who writes songs himself, is also a virtuoso jazz bass player with a classical background and he produces,” Rios recounts. “I knew immediately that I wanted this guy to take over as a producer because he can make decisions very quickly and get things done very quickly, and also we were on the same page creatively. I didn’t have to explain anything.”
With Samama on bass, his wife Docters van Leeuwen on cello and Rios on guitar, the trio rehearsed the songs in New York as he was writing them. Soon Rios realised this combination was the perfect ingredient for his new album. “They both have this aesthetic of not putting things in there if they don’t mean something,” Rios explains. “The album is very sparse and very minimal. In the beginning we tried out piano, drums, guitar and we got rid of everything. One day when we were just playing in the house, the three of us, we realised we could make a whole record with that palette of sounds, with the three instruments.”
An unconventional release
After three years Rios returned to Belgium with his new repertoire. Instead of putting them together in an album, he decided to release the songs one by one over a whole year. “I’ve always wanted to do it, release a song each month. I just didn’t have the occasion yet to do this,” he says, talking about this peculiar way of putting out his music. “It was much more fun to do it this way, less stress.”
Over the course of 2014, a new song of Rios appeared online every month, ahead of his upcoming album release this spring. Although all the songs were finished, he found it very comforting to be able to break in the final ones a little more, just as he did with the earlier material he had rehearsed while in New York. “There is something about playing songs to people, that really shapes the song. Even if the structure is there, the lyrics are there, playing them a lot before you record them makes you more comfortable with them,” he says.
At first, Rios was apprehensive that his new sound would not go down as well as his more commercial pop songs, but it turned out this wasn’t the case at all. “We had a lot of connection with audiences who apparently were not aware that this is what they wanted, it is almost as if we found it out together. We realised we wanted to do this, in a very simple, minimalist way and people responded to that very well.”
Winning over the audience
To keep the pure feeling of his music alive in the album, all songs were recorded as live, instead of each instrument separately. This fleshed out set-up is also now his standard arrangement for concerts, steering him away from his earlier work when he played with a full band. “When you start off at the beginning, your first two records, you are doing everything you can to squeeze everything into a record,” Rios explains. “Maybe because I am older, I am trying to leave everything out that doesn’t really have to do with the song.”
Recently, Rios played as the opener for Stromae, a Belgian singer-songwriter with songs that mix hip-hop with electronic music. “He just wanted us to play in front of him. He is very courageous, he doesn’t care if it is a whole different vibe or style,” Rios says. “The fact that we are so different, it made us stand out. People actually listened, we were so happy with his audience. I was really surprised, I thought it would be very hard, but there was a lot of silence.”
A song gone viral
One song that really stands out on the upcoming record is Gold. After the online re-lease last year, the song was picked up by a Norwegian radio station where it went viral and became a hit. Rios explains how the song really captures the album: “It is a song about song writing, about finding a song that is going to connect with people, and the only way to do that is to admit you also want to hear it yourself.” He continues. “Gold did better than any of my other singles, ever. I am excited that it is happening with this kind of music because it seems more original to me than whatever I have done before.”
The title of the album sounds strangely familiar compared to that of hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest from 1993, Midnight Marauders. Although Rios explains there is no real relation between the records, he loves their music and was inspired by the title. He used a version of it for a fictional short story which ended up as a little booklet in the special edition of Rios’s album.
“I don’t really remember if the title came first or the story, but I had this story, an old gothic story that takes place in Paris,” he begins. “It is about a thief and it is midnight, it alludes to the fact that he is going to get caught. It is 12 o’clock in his life, and the one who thought he would never get caught, gets caught. It had something really lonely and that is why I think it suits the record. It is a solitary record.”
As for the release of This Marauder’s Midnight, Rios has a European tour lined up, starting in Germany at the end of this month. “We are planning to go everywhere and start from the beginning, which is just really playing for people and seeing if we can gather enough of an audience,” he concludes: “I think that is my favourite part, to tell you the truth.”
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