In a song from 2017 called "Pine Trees," Gabriel Black sounds completely defeated: "It's been a year since I fucked, hour since I came / Only fuck with myself, I don't care I'm fuckin' lame." Many artists wear depression and self-loathing like a badge of honor, but when Black opens up about adversity there is no pride involved.
We first covered Gabriel Black in 2017, but up until last month he'd never publicly shown his face. It's kind of ironic, since he's a guy willing to go on the record and matter-of-factly describe his most embarrassing moments. With the "dead yet" video, Gabriel Black appeared in front of the camera for the first time, abandoning the cartoon character that has acted in his place for several years. For fans who have been following Black since the start, it was a satisfying reveal, and for Black, it marks the beginning of a new phase.
After spending much of his adult life struggling to find inner peace and a viable career in music, Gabriel Black seems to be in a pretty good place. He's signed to RCA Records, in a relationship, living in his own spot in Los Angeles, and making the best music of his young career so far. Everything is starting to fall into place.
Black says he feels like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders, but don't expect his perspective to change overnight. The content in Gabriel Black's music may be inspired by the harsh circumstances up until this point, but even when things are looking up, Black will likely find some toxic inspiration to draw from. "I like to bitch, and I like to complain," he says. "I like to feel bad for myself, you know?"
Up until now, we've only known you as this cartoon character, but you recently dropped the "Dead Yet" video, and for the first time, you showed your face. How are you feeling?
I feel really fucking good, man. Like a weight's been lifted off my shoulders. I'm also paranoid, but I've been feeling really good, man. I'm excited.
When did that cartoon character first come up?
I started drawing the character, I guess, to put out "Sad Boy" about two years ago—something like that.
I was living at my mom's house and I had shaved my head a few months before, and I started doodling one day and that guy came about. I've always been a big Tim Burton fan, so I think it was a little based off of his style. Actually, I have the picture on my wall, the original one. It's the character standing on a graveyard with a city on the side. I'm looking at it right now.
I was just fucking around, and I was like, "This should be something to go with my music." I didn't necessarily know at that point that that was going to be the identity, I just knew that it was cool. And when I started to think about actually putting shit out I was working with my boy Brendan who lives in New York. I would send him the drawings for the first "Sad Boy" video, and he made it move. Then somehow it became my full identity.
I felt bad for my fans, because I wasn't being fully honest with them about myself. It felt like there was a wall up between me and them.
Last time we talked, you mentioned that the drawing eventually started to feel like it was holding you back. When did you start feeling that?
I probably started thinking that around this time last year. At that point, Brendan and I were both getting tired of doing the animations—it's a lot of drawing, a lot of just time to make it move. We were probably doing it the wrong way, honestly. I've talked to animators since, and they're like, "This is not how you would go about doing this."
But it had its own style, you know? It looked cool. It looked cut out of a scrapbook and pasted, walking across the screen. I didn't think there was anything else like that. But after a while, me and him got tired of it. We were kind of like, "This isn't it anymore. Something needs to change." And I fought with that. I wanted to cut the cartoon, but I got mixed reviews. The inner circle of my team wanted me to keep it because they thought the payoff would be bigger in the end.
That's a lot of the reason why it stayed, honestly. Over time, I kept getting more and more frustrated with it. I kind of started to hate it. It made me feel trapped, like I wanted to just be a regular person online. I was sick of being a cartoon character. I also felt bad for my fans, because I wasn't being fully honest with them about myself. It felt like there was a wall up between me and them.
Going back even further, what was the initial reason for not wanting to throw yourself into the spotlight or put yourself out there?
I was talking about really personal shit. Like, I talk about jerking off in songs. I talk about darker moments in my life, things that are kind of embarrassing. If this doesn't work out, those are not things that I necessarily want to be associated with me.
So there was that, and then also the fact that I just thought it was cool. I thought I was doing something different as an artist, and it was a unique way to present myself and my art, and hopefully gain some attention from the world.
And it worked. I wouldn't have gotten signed [to RCA Records] without that. I'm pretty proud of my songwriting abilities, but the cartoon was a large portion of that. It attracted the type of attention that we got at first. It did its job, it presented me to the world in a unique way. It also hid me for a little while and let me grow on my own. It let me figure out a little bit more about who I was without having to be in the public eye. Not to say that I am now, because I'm still really nothing. But you know what I mean.
The cartoon served its purpose, and I will always keep it as something. We have an animated web series coming out, with the cartoon and some other characters. And I'll still post pictures of the cartoon, and it'll probably be the visuals for my shows and stuff like that. But it was time to grow.
I talk about darker moments in my life, Things that are kind of embarrassing. If this doesn't work out, those are not things that I necessarily want to be associated with me.
It feels like a step forward just because of this reveal, but "Dead Yet" also feels like a bigger song. Do you see this new phase coming with a clear change in the music?
Yes. 100%. More collaborative, for sure. Most of the ideas still start at home, but they were brought to producers at a less finished stage, so they could put more onto it. There are also other artists on the project. My last EP didn't have any features. This one is at least going to have three, maybe four. It's larger sounding, it's professionally mixed, professionally mastered.
I think "Dead Yet" is my favorite song of yours, and it's doing well. Did you know that was a special song when you made it?
Bro, at first, I was going to give the song to Phem. I didn't even know if I was going to have a verse on it or anything. I wrote the song with her at my house.
I was going to give it to her, and I thought it was my first step at like, going into other peoples' worlds. At that time I was producing a few songs for my friend Pollari as well, so I thought I was just going to start producing for people more, help write and whatever. But then it was a little too far from her sound, so I decided to put it out, and then Euphoria got ahold of it.
The song was the song before anyone touched it. Me and her, that was the song. We just wrote it at my house one day, and I produced a demo. And then we brought it to Cisco Adler, and he made the colors pop, made it bigger, faster. Cisco brought it to life. And we had our friend Martin Estrada play a bunch on the guitar that was added to it, and before it came out, we all knew this was something. It was anthemic. And I think a few of my songs are anthemic—like "Sad Boy"—but this was executed better, and a bit more mature. Calling myself a sad boy is a little immature, and I've realized that. But saying "I'm not dead yet" could be a fucking bumper sticker.
Who were the main influences that you think shaped the music you make?
I mean, definitely my favorites growing up were Kanye, Cudi, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Those were my favorites. But I definitely listen to a lot of My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, the kind of bigger pop-punk emo acts. Green Day, that type of shit. I listened to a lot of that, and then also Nirvana. My mom put me on to Marvin Gaye when I was really young. Honestly, my mom put me on all of it. She showed me Nirvana, she showed me the Chili Peppers, she showed me Marvin Gaye. That's how I found out about shit when I was really young, and all that played a role.
Now that you're signed to a major label, do you feel any pressure to polish your sound more or change things you're doing?
No, man. Honestly, the label has been so cool about. Maybe it's because they're just waiting for me to do something on my own and make it pop, but they allow me to do whatever I want. They tell me what songs they don't like and what they do, but no one's telling me I need to do more of this or that.
I think overall, they respect me as an artist and I'm not just some pop vessel in their eyes. I really care about being considered an artist. I think a lot of the shit that is made now is not art. It's just regurgitation.
I've pushed things into a more clean, bright-sounding world and I think that comes from working with other producers. A lot of the producers in LA do do more of that polished-sounding, poppier stuff. I've embraced it, at least for this project. Mentally, I'm happier.
I was very alone and isolated for a while, and signing didn't make it any better. I felt removed from some of the people that I was friends with, because they didn't necessarily see the same validation. I moved out from the kids I was living with, got my own place. I put myself in my own cage, you know? That's why I have a song called "Crystal Cage." I have a BMW outside, and I have my own apartment in LA at 24. For a lot of people, that's a dream. It was isolating, because not everyone had the same thing, and I removed myself from people a little bit, and I felt guilty sometimes.
I remember I would get to the train stop in Bushwick, and I would think about jumping in front of a train.
You tweeted, "I hope my music inspires you to never give up, even when it's darkest." What were those dark times like for you, and were also making music throughout that time?
I mean, really the darkest part of my life was before I moved to LA. I've lived for a little bit in New York, and a little in Philadelphia. And those were the darkest parts of my life. I remember I would get to the train stop in Bushwick, and I would think about jumping in front of a train.
At that point, I was working in the night life scene in New York—I was a club promoter, and I had just quit my job at Urban Outfitters. Music just wasn't going anywhere, and that was my passion. I was in a really bad place.
A couple of my friends came to visit and told me to move in with them, but when I got to Philly it wasn't any better. I was working for my friend's dad's restaurant. Everyone around me was doing shit, you know? They were either like finishing up school, getting jobs, or doing respectable shit and making their families proud. They were in relationships and had money coming in and all that type of shit. And I was doing nothing, man. I was in my room, I hadn't had a girl in my life in years at that point.
I had gone through a lot of depression, I lost all my fucking testosterone—I had ED. I couldn't get excited about anything. I was always afraid to make a move on a girl, because I was afraid I wouldn't get up. It was really depressing. I felt like a background character in my own life, and it sucked.
I came from a place where I was super good in school, I got over 2000 on the SATs—I was smart. I could have done shit with my life, and I felt like I destroyed it by following music. But I had no plans to change that. And I'm not the best person, bro. I have a huge ego. I think I'm better than people. I think I'm destined for shit. I know that that's not the PC way to be nowadays, and it's not the right way to be. I'm very split. Sometimes I'll be like, everyone can do this, everyone can accomplish their dreams. Other times, I'll be like, "That's not true at all. You're meant to take over the world, or you're not." So when nothing was going right in my life, I felt really like I was worthless.
What did you do to get out of that low point?
I really fucking destroyed me as a person, as a human. That's where a lot of that music came from the last project. Eventually, my mom and her boyfriend were like, "You need to send shit to people in LA and see what's good." So I got in touch with some people and they invited me in for a meeting, because I told them I had other meetings—I lied and said I had other shit to do in LA.
When I got there, they tried to backpedal and be like, "Forget it." And I was like, "Don't fuck with my time, man. I'm busy." Which was the complete opposite of the truth. They later told me that me giving him shit was what made them want to meet. That day I finished that "Freedom" song with Brenton Duvall and they sent it to Benny Blanco, because they were connected to Benny.
Benny liked it, and they were like, "You need to come back to LA." I decided to not go back to Philly, and I started sleeping on my friend's couch in Burbank for six months. We had a falling out and then I moved up to where my mom had moved, which was south of the Bay, like Monterey. She was renting a one-bedroom little house a few blocks from the beach. It was awesome and that's where all the music started to really happen. Then I went back to LA and got linked up with iLoveMakonnen. And Makonnen and his assistant Faisal started managing me for a week.
It's definitely highs and lows—there are waves. I'll still feel really down. I'm obsessed with this sh*t to a toxic level,
Eventually they were like, "We don't have the time or energy for this." It was a bummer because he was cool and I still have so much respect for Makonnen. We don't talk at all anymore, but I do have respect for him. His whole plan from the first night I met him was to get Lil Peep on "Sad Boy." They were friends, so he was like, "Yeah, I'm going to get Peep on 'Sad Boy.'" I eventually saw Peep one day at Rolling Loud in the Bay Area. I was like, "Yo, Makonnen told me he was going to link us," and he kind of just brushed me off. I was like, "Well, that's not going to happen." Then I found my new team, and we just started pushing shit out there. It started to work.
It's definitely highs and lows—there are waves. I'll still feel really down. I'm obsessed with this shit to a toxic level, where it hurts my relationships, and I'm not even that proactive about shit. I should be out there networking, but I'd rather just lay in my room. I piss on all my happiness, which is a lyric in one of the songs, and I'm not changing that. I like to bitch, and I like to complain, and I like to feel bad for myself, you know?
But on the other hand, I also am hopeful, I do try hard. It's a lot of contradictions, but that's what makes people human, right?
Yeah. Don't you think that kind of drives your music, too? It's real, and everyone's like that.
Yeah, exactly. I don't know, I'm just telling you everything. It's a little scatter-brained, but I'm just trying to convey it all, man.
I appreciate it. You're getting way more honest than most artists are willing to.
I hope. I think that's the thing about my music that drew people in originally. It was the honesty and just saying whatever I felt. I'm happy, I want to be more of that person outside of just the music, too. Now that I'm a real person and it's not a cartoon.
You are so brutally honest, it's almost weird to think that you were hiding behind a character.
Yeah, 100% dude. At first, I was nervous about it. I remember I was at my dad's place. We played a song at my sister's boyfriend's house at their fucking Christmas party, and it talks about fucking jerking off or whatever. And I'm just sitting there like, "Oh, Jesus Christ." Now I'm kind of like, "Fuck it."
I've always been honest with people, but this was different because it's my career choice, you know? And I think people judge you more on that type of shit. I'm super up, like I'm too loud. I need to shut up most of the time. If I'm at a party, I'm always the dude in the corner, never the center of attention. But if you just get me alone, I'll tell you every fucking thing about my life.
I want to talk a little bit about the "Dead Yet" music video. That was your first time on camera, right?
This is the first real video I've actually ever done. I love this video, man. Liv and I—Liv is Phem—wrote it, together one night just at her crib. Her brother who works in film a little bit came over and gave us some ideas and then we wrote up a little treatment or whatever, sent it to my manager. Hunter's the director of the video. He's done a lot of really dope shit. But I think this might have been his biggest music video that he's directed or whatever, and sent it over to him. The original idea was for the whole video to be me and her sitting on a couch in a field in Montana with 100 horses running past us, and then all the horses get shot, and they all die around us.
The horse is the symbol of the West, and freedom, and free spirit. So free spirits getting killed, while me and her are just there, watching, unfazed by it. That was the original idea, and they were like, "We really can't do that." But I still wanted horses, and we got horses. And it was really sick. It was my favorite thing I think I've ever done and I definitely want to do more videos.
If I'm at a party, I'm always the dude in the corner, never the center of attention. But if you just get me alone, I'll tell you every f*cking thing about my life.
Are you going to be in all your music videos now?
Yeah, I think I'm just going to be in all of them now. It was fun, and I grew up wanting to watch music videos to see the artists that I liked. As a kid, I would watch music videos to see what artists looked like and how they interacted with the world. Even with someone like Lil Peep more recently, what really drew me in was his look, and the way he acted and shit like that.
Have you ever performed a live show, is that something that you want to do? And when can we get you on a No Ceilings lineup?
Bro, I'm pretty sure I'm coming to the one on the 26th. [Editor's note: we've since confirmed that Gabriel Black will be performing at No Ceilings in NYC on September 26] I am practicing tonight with the guy who is probably going to be my guitarist for the show. The only thing stopping me is like if I feel like I'm not up to par, but I am going to push myself. It's time, man. It's fucking time. I hope I'm not a letdown.
So you've never performed before?
I did a showcase at the Bitter End near NYU, but I'm pretty much brand new at this shit.
That's exciting. Anything else coming up that you can or want to talk about?
I mean, the EP. It's like an eight or nine-song EP, I think. Kind of like a short album, to be honest. But we're calling it an EP, and then hopefully that web series that I'm working on should be pretty close to done. That's was the preview that we were watching in the "Dead Yet" video.
Then just more music, man. I'm trying to work with more producers, more artists, more writers. I want to do a real ass writing camp somewhere for my album. I have a little studio that the label helped me build near Lake Tahoe that I think will probably be the destination for that. So I'm going to hope to bring some cool producers and writers and friends out there. I want to eventually go to Alaska and do that type of shit.
That would be amazing. Thank you opening up about everything, especially the dark stuff. I feel like those times are common among artists but not always talked about. What would you tell somebody that is maybe at that point you were at in the darkest moment, trying to figure out what to do?
So this goes back to something I said earlier—I think certain people are meant to make shit happen, but you can determine if you're that person or not. You know what I mean? You can never give up. You need to just keep persevering. And if you do it right and you're lucky, it will happen. So if it is really dark, find a way to turn on the fucking lights, you know?