Gabriel Rios: New York state of mind


Ghent's adopted son returns from New York and performs at Vooruit this month

Home and away

A few months ago, singer Gabriel Rios, 36, returned to his adopted home town of Ghent after a three-year stay in New York – time spent writing songs, performing in tiny clubs and metamorphosing from a pop star into a singer-songwriter. We spoke to Rios when he still lived in the States to figure out why he abandoned his successful Flemish career to start anew in a city where no one is waiting for another singer-songwriter.

One cool Thursday evening several months ago, Gabriel Rios was getting ready for an intimate gig at a teeny, Lower Eastside bar. Strumming a few chords, he self-assuredly looked down at the faces in front of him. He was ready to win over these New Yorkers with the pop music with a twist that had drawn thousands of fans to his festival concerts in Flanders and made him the darling of the local press.

Before him were a dozen people at best. They were attentive in the way that most bar crowds are – softly talking and surreptitiously checking their phones. In the middle of the first song, a handful of patrons rose from their seats in front of the barely raised cramped stage. Obliterating the band from sight, they put their coats on grindingly slowly. Rios glanced at the drummer to his left and grinned.

This was one of the reasons he had moved from Ghent to New York: to feel again what it was like to write and perform music when he wasn’t preceded by two golden albums and a reputation as a Latin heartthrob. “Writing songs when you don’t have that pressure around you of who you’re supposed to be is cool,” Rios told me a week after the performance. “It feels like the world isn’t waiting for your album.”

As Rios’ band members lit cigarettes outside after the set, two high-heeled Flemings with a lot of hair strutted over to strike up a conversation. Rios managed a tepid smile, duly putting his arms around the young women when they pulled out their phones to take a photo. Staring down at the bright lights of Allen Street, he looked pensive.  

The price of success

When he was just 17, Rios fell in love with a Flemish exchange student who was staying in his home town of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Rather than do as most young Puerto Ricans did and leave for college in the States, he shredded his admission letter from Syracuse University and followed his girlfriend to Ghent. 

While completing a fine arts degree at a local school, he fronted a couple of early bands, eventually drawing the attention of Jo Bogaert, the producer behind the massive 1980s hit “Pump Up the Jam”. Backed by the producer, Rios soon established a successful solo career. From 2004, he released album after album to rave reviews from the Flemish press, drawing ever-bigger crowds at concerts and summer festivals in France, Spain and the Netherlands with his radio-friendly Latin-infused pop.

With success, a slow creep of restlessness also set in. Increasingly, Rios felt a disconnect between his popular album tracks, which required him to perform with a band, and the stripped-down songs he actually wanted to write. “Can I play for half an hour by myself, or do I need these seven or eight people behind me?” he would wonder. 

“That’s not who I am”

Epiphany struck when he sold out the Vorst Nationaal concert hall in Brussels two nights in a row in 2007. Seconds before the curtain went up, something started itching. Having lived in Flanders for more than 10 years, Rios didn’t want to amuse the audience in the guise of a suave Latin entertainer, which felt like both a pose and a straitjacket.

I got nervous because I thought: ‘Do I have to do this from now on?’

- Gabriel Rios

“I realised immediately: ‘That’s not who I am,’” he says, looking back. “I realised that I had successfully portrayed an image that people were buying tickets to come and see. I got nervous because I thought: ‘Do I have to do this from now on?’”

In the following weeks, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he had hit a dead end. He became convinced that he would never be able to write new songs in Spanish while living between the pastures and cows in the Ghent suburbs of De Pinte.

What followed was a one-year creative crisis punctuated by several attempts at reinvention. He travelled to LA to record an album with Beastie Boys producer Money Mark, which he shelved after two weeks, deciding it didn’t sound like the album he had had in mind. Soon after, he dismissed the band that had long backed him up during festival performances.

In another attempt to jump-start his tours, he hit the theatre circuit to play intimate sets with jazz virtuoso Jeff Neve and percussionist Kobe Proesmans. These acoustic sessions led to his fourth album, The Dangerous Return, in which his trademark summery, computer-driven tunes made way for edgy pop songs spiralling out into rock, big band and jazz.

Finally, he decided a physical move would help him shed the shell of the artist he no longer was. So after 15 years, he moved from Flanders to start afresh in New York (as a Puerto Rican, he had an American passport), moving in with his then girlfriend, model and actress Delfine Bafort.

Rios crashed and burned. His relationship with Bafort ended after just a couple of months in the city. In the three years he spent in New York, there were no breakthroughs in the local music industry – no record deals, no album releases, no breakout performances. His only income sprang from a bimonthly residency at Rockwood Music Hall, with audience members kicking in chump change after performances. 

Hard-knock life

In Flanders, Rios had a manager, publicist, record label and several booking agents; in New York, he had to hustle his music like any would-be singer-songwriter – a turn of events he struggled to adapt to. 

“I lack this drive to go to places, network with people, talk to people and bullshit,” he told me, running his hand through his thick, pitch-black hair. The times he tried it, even his voice sounded weird. “It’s like dancing to techno, I don’t know how to move to that,” he said. “And I think it’s too late; I’m too old to start.”

In fact, his Flemish career is the only thing standing between Rios and the hard-knock life of aspiring artists in New York. Rios never cut all ties, regularly taking the eight-hour flight back to perform, to stay for four days, or even just a weekend. “I go whenever I have a couple of shows that pay well,” he said. “Because that’ll guarantee me a couple more months of living here.”

When New Yorkers ask Rios what he does for a living, he explains he’s a Puerto Rican musician who used to live in Belgium. If they press on, he adds that his career in Europe allows him to pay his bills in the US. But he won’t be vulgar about it. “I never tell them that it went really well and that I’m really proud of it,” he says. “I don’t play that card on people.”

Even Rios’ band members didn’t know the exact details of his parallel European career. Dustin Kaufman, his drummer, was embarrassed to admit his ignorance. “Yeah, I should probably look that up,” he said. “I know he was the man, right?”

Work in progress

But after his arrival in New York, Rios’ attitude to success became bigger isn’t better. If he could write a couple of really good songs, make a living performing them and have enough of an audience to tour a little, he would be a happy man. 

I like being alone, but I’m sometimes lonely in ways that I don’t like

- Gabriel Rios

“I don’t know what ‘making it’ really means,” he said, perched on a rock in a park a couple of blocks from his apartment. “If you convert what you’re doing into a brand, into a catchphrase, it usually tends to plateau, and you ride that thing.”

Wearing a scruffy leather jacket, faded jeans and brown Converse sneakers, he absent-mindedly looked at the Sunday hustle and bustle of the park. Only his dark brown Giorgio Armani sunglasses hinted at his former pop-star cool. He took them off quickly.

In his second year in the city, Rios gradually began to reconsider the idea of landing a record deal or finding a US agent to represent him. When his manager invited industry people to his Rockwood gigs, he felt uncomfortable performing new songs, which still felt like works in progress. Eventually he just gave up on the idea of a breakthrough, deciding that creating songs for his new album was enough.

Rios’ life in New York was anything but rock’n’roll. He boxed three times a week and often went to his bass player’s house to rehearse, but mostly he spent a lot of time closeted in his apartment – watching documentaries, playing guitar, trying to write songs in his little black Moleskin notebook.

With few things to ground him in terms of a job or other commitments, he fashioned his own routines. In the apartment that he shares with a roommate, he allowed himself to do only eight things: watch movies, play the guitar, read a book, cook, skip rope, shower, sleep and go to the bathroom.

“I’m a compulsive wreck,” he admitted. “That thing of wanting to be busy all the time to not have to face emptiness, to not have to face silence is huge. Living by yourself in New York – I’m lonely. I feel that. I like being alone but, at the same time, I’m sometimes lonely in ways that I don’t like.” 

A new appreciation

All things considered, Rios doesn’t regret making the transatlantic leap. When he walks around the noisy, jam-packed streets of Chinatown, he feels like he’s where he needs to be. That happiness derives in large part from being one in eight million. “It makes me really nervous to be a ‘somebody’,” he said, “because a ‘somebody’ means that you’re gonna be constricted; there is an image of who that ‘somebody’ is.”

On the night of the performance at Rockwood, several Flemings were in the audience. When Rios prefaced a song about moving to New York with the confession that he lived in a Belgian city called Ghent for 15 years, a handful of audience members cheered. No coincidence – tourists visiting from Flanders and Flemings who live in the tri-state area often show up to Rios’ New York gigs.

But those fans were never hurdles to his artistic rebirth, maddening reminders of the sound he had gradually let go off. “It’s not like they’re chanting like: ‘play this song, play that song,” he noted, emphasising that it was the Latin performer image, not the fans, that he wanted to get away from.

Instead, roughing it in the city seems to have instilled in Rios a new appreciation for his Flemish audience. “From living here and looking back, it becomes clearer what I have there,” he said, his voice sinking to a whisper. “I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to lose that at all.”

April 30, 20.00
Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 23, Ghent

Gabriel Rios on success at home and abroad: “Living in New York and looking back, it becomes clearer what I have in Flanders.”

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