Ethereal electronic outfit GABI is the brainchild of composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Gabrielle Herbst, a woman who surely deserves the long-winded title. Her musical journey started deep in the forest of the Berkshires with a steady diet of Bob Dylan and gamelan music. As a young child, she joined her ethnomusicologist father for an extended stay in Indonesia to study Balinese dance. On the Herbst property stood a barn housing no animals — save some poodles — as it was reserved for rehearsals and performance work.
“It was an interesting childhood, for sure,” she says. After studying voice and composition at Bard College and diligently self-educating with her loop pedals, Herbst now prepares for the release of her debut album. Sympathy starts as a hot skillet-skating pad of butter but drips down into something infinitely more complex.
GABI is like a Princess and the Pea–style mattress, constructed of layers and layers of chiffon, looped vocals, soft pink light glowing. There’s marimba, violin, bass, and synth, but mostly it’s Herbst’s voice as it peels back each delicate film. On first listen, GABI sounds like Julianna Barwick’s long-lost sister who spent her childhood sipping yerba mate and marathoning The Craft. That isn’t exactly on par with Herbst’s early history.
“I almost took it for granted — I thought it was normal that I was constantly hearing music from around the world, blasting in our house,” she said. Herbst grew up playing classical piano and clarinet, and singing. “We went to lots of concerts growing up….I slept through most of the performances, honestly, but music kinda seeped into my brain.”
It definitely does seem like some mystic osmosis was at play when Herbst’s musical mind coalesced. Songwriting, she explains, is a longstanding effort of hers, one she started as a little kid with her dad. She continued in a slightly crude, freeform way for a long while. Herbst groped around different identities during college, as most are wont to do. Among the more curious was her stint in a metal band.
“It wasn’t really my thing,” she says, laughing. “I was the weird one in the metal band that plays the shruti box — a little drone instrument — and sang. I knew I wanted to be doing my own thing, so that was short-lived. My own [vision] for music was quite different.”
Although Herbst didn’t exactly find her niche in the headbanging community, she certainly had an open-minded go, collecting tidbits from a vast spread of disciplines. “It became really clear to me in college that I just really wanted to focus on composing and singing together. As one vision, the two went hand-in-hand for me,” she says. “I quit the clarinet and made this really clear break. It felt like I had really found my own musical voice in my own voice.”
Her voice does indeed propel GABI as the key element lifting each song from its mortal beginnings to a transcendent sound experience. Acting as fuel for that propeller, though, is her trusty loop pedal, which she continues to spend a lot of time fiddling with in her Prospect Heights living room. “I started experimenting with the loop pedal at Bard — I really fell in love with the majesty of it and how I could create giant worlds by myself,” she says. “That set me up a lot for the project as it is now. It’s amazing how such simple electronics can make really grandiose gestures.”
Sympathy extended an elegant, satin-gloved hand to listeners, beckoning them into the world Herbst started quietly constructing almost ten years ago. It’s a world where the Northern Lights rush across the sky regardless of current coordinates and classically composed horn-tinged waves crash over themselves. The nine tracks stitch together in a sublime configuration sure to elevate the listener, even if the trip ends, sadly, after only an hour.
Daniel Lopatin co-produced the effort after signing GABI to his Software Recording Co. label. Herbst says she can remember exactly where she was when she first heard of his fluttering interest in her demos: a particularly bumpy cab ride home from her waitressing gig in Chelsea at 2 a.m. Before meeting, the two corresponded via email. “I could just tell he completely understood my vision,” she says.
Like most long-developing projects, Sympathy has seen its own series of growth spurts, all stemming from the seeds first sown at Bard. “I feel like I’ve had this vision for quite a long time,” Herbst says. “It’s been brewing. I feel like the studio really helped bring that vision into reality. [Working with my collaborators] was a blessing and we were all on the same page — they really understood what I was going for. I’m really happy with how the album turned out, and I feel like it stayed really true to the ultimate vision I had for it.”
Sympathy drops April 7 on Software Recording Co. GABI play April 6 at Rough Trade. The record release party is April 22 at Le Poisson Rouge.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 2, 2015