A couple of weeks ago I was walking through Grand Central Station, rushing to get somewhere for some reason by some time before I had to go somewhere else for something more.
Then I heard it. Coming from one of the hallways was an absolutely haunting version of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” as New York a song as has ever been written. I walked toward the sound, almost instinctively, and saw a scruffy man sitting behind a keyboard.
Enter: Gabriel Aldort.
I stood and listened for, oh, 10 more minutes, and—without exaggeration—I could not have been happier. It was one of those moments where the sounds merged with the setting, and all I wanted to do was absorb it all.
Alas, I had to leave—but not without getting the business card of one Gabriel Aldort, New York City street musician and a man loaded with talent.
Here, Gabriel talks Manhattan, playing in 30-degree cold, homeless sex proposals and why he likes John Oates more than the mayor. You can visit his website here.
Gabriel Aldort, hit it at the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So I stumbled upon you a few days ago, walking through Grand Central Station, playing Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters. I know so little about your background, so I’ll ask straight up: How did you get here? What’s your path—musical? Geographic?
GABRIEL ALDORT: I was born in Chicago, and grew up in Topanga, California, which is where my dad started teaching me piano on our old funky upright at the age of six. I went through a handful of teachers through the years, but never really took it seriously. I guess when I got to the point where I could entertain people with my playing and singing, I realized it was a talent I wanted to continue to develop—which I did through my formative years on the west coast. Fast forward to 1988, we had moved coasts to Northport, Long Island. A lot happened that year—I went into my senior year at a new high school, I got my first paying gig playing a baby grand at a Japanese restaurant. It was also the year my dad introduced me to New Orleans Blues, the style that would later come to define me as a player. I finished high school, sampled college, then at 23 left home for Atlanta to work at a music store.
Down there I hooked up with a great Jazz piano teacher, and caught up on some of the theory I’d blown off over the years. Some 3 1/2 years later, in 1999, I was back in New York, and shortly after, I moved into Manhattan and got a job at Manny’s Music on 48th Street, selling keyboards. A couple years later I started working as a manager of a blues club, Terra Blues. I also started working for YAMAHA as a trainer of music technology. In 2008 I met my future fiancée, Jennifer, at the club. In the spring of 2010 I finally got up the nerve to audition for Music Under New York, and thankfully got chosen to participate. (Right around that same time I started working with HAI, (Hospital Audiences Inc.) performing in care facilities.). For MUNY, I started playing in the subway three times a week, which I still do today; always in the morning for the commuters. This was a huge breakthrough for me musically, and spiritually. Later that year I left the blues club, turned 40 and got cast as a voice actor on a Turkish television show. On March 31, 2011, we welcomed our son Leon into the world. At the end of 2011 I finally started writing my own material. I’m going into the studio at the end of this month to record my first CD! My path musically is to continue to develop my music and performance, and to write some great songs. We plan on staying in New York City for at least a couple more years, after that … who knows?
J.P.: You’ve clearly played a lot of public places in the city. It strikes me as a rough gig. People walking by, oftentimes paying you no mind, ignoring you. What is the experience like, playing a subway station or a park?
G.A.: I find the experience of playing in public places very liberating as an artist. Before I started performing in the subway, I always had a certain level of performance anxiety. This quickly dissipated when I started playing for thousands of strangers. I think because I finally learned to start performing for myself … from myself, instead of being concerned with how the audience perceived me. It took a long time for me to figure this out.
J.P.: I’m sure you’ve probably dreamed of playing MSG or the Staples Center, a stage, a piano, 50,000 screaming fans. Do you view this as a path to your dream? Or is this who you are—a street performer? A guy playing wherever there are people?
G.A.: The idea of performing for thousands of people seems like a dream at this point. I have fallen in love with performing in and around the subway, as well as all the parties and events I’ve booked over the years. Now with the songwriting component in my life, as well as a basic passion for life, I just dig performing anywhere. I think it’s because as I continue to blossom as a musician, just the simple concept of expressing myself through music is enough. So yeah, an arena, a subway platform, a living room—it all works for me.
J.P.: Highlight of your musical existence? Lowest moment?
G.A.: The highlight of my musical existence would be when I played with Stevie Wonder at Manny’s Music. He came in on a Sunday when I was working, and while another salesman was helping him, I started playing one of his more obscure songs, “As if You Read My Mind” from the “Hotter than July” album. A couple seconds later, I feel this hand on my shoulder … it was Stevie. He leaned over and said, “That’s real good, but you got the left hand all wrong.” He then proceeded to show me the correct syncopation of the left hand notes, after which we played the song together; him on the right, me on the left, while he sang it into my right ear. Heaven …
The low point would be … Hmm, probably most of the times I was asked to sit in, and wasn’t comfortable with the key the song was called in (cue the performance anxiety …).
J.P.: I’m fascinated: What are you thinking while you’re playing. I mean, literally: you’re in Grand Central. It’s cold and drafty. People are rushing by. A homeless man smells like tuna. You’re singing a Billy Joel song for the 8,532th time in your life. What is running through your head?
G.A.: When I’m playing, most of the time I’m in the zone, because I’ve learned that if the performance isn’t sincere and doesn’t come from deep inside, people can somehow sniff out the insincerity. I try to play every song as though it’s the best version I’ve ever done. My mind inevitably will drift from time to time to the circus in my head, but I notice that if I’m not fully engaged with my performance, my tips diminish. I always dig, however, just people watching. Ah, the characters …
J.P.: I interviewed Travis Warren, the lead singer of Blind Melon, and he railed against American Idol … saying “singers need to struggle and ride for hours on buses and the like.” Do you agree? And when you see some mediocre talent like Justin Bieber or Jojo making millions, do you burn?
G.A.: I used to be a lot more judgmental about performers, or people in general. I’m settling more into the idea/belief that everyone has their respective paths, and who am I to judge them for their successes or failures. Time brings to light all things, and this life can be a long and interesting one. I guess the bottom line is, if you feel like someone who’s not as talented as yourself is reaping success, then what are you gonna do about it? This subject (as well as the general state of the music industry today), to me has multiple branches; unfortunately way to many to get into here. I will say this, though: The music industry has always had a history of producing material which mirrors the times … sad to say, but these days, times aren’t so hot.
On a brighter note, though, with the advent of the Internet there’s never been a better time or better tools for an artist to promote their material.
J.P.: You have a view of New York City that many people lack—and certainly a viewpoint. What do you see? What can you tell me about New York’s makeup that people perhaps miss?
G.A.: I think New York City is on the cusp of the evolutionary scale. The highest diversity of culture in the smallest square footage—how can one not be inspired by that? It’s also is a recipe for tremendous stress as well.
It creates a kind of emotional callus, but I think that’s why New Yorkers have the reputation that we do. We’re all thrown on top of each other and expected to just deal with it. I think this develops an exceptional trait in all New Yorkers—survival.
Over the years, I’ve heard various New York City residents complain about tourists. I’m always quick to point out the wonderment that one experiences when they go to any major foreign city for the first time. I keep that in mind when I’m strolling through Times Square and seeing the looks on these tourists faces as they navigate New York City for the first time.
J.P.: According to your website, Your first CD, Thanks for Today, is about to come out. What was this process like for you? Where did you record it? How long did it take? Was it an expensive project? And, besides selling it out of your case, what do you hope to do with it?
G.A.: I’m recording my first CD in the studio next week, and I’m super excited about it. I found a great engineer/producer, and after auditioning a couple studios, I settled on Pyramid. I just love their funky old Baldwin grand, as well as the vibe of the place in general; it suits my style. I’ve got 10 hours to record as many songs as I can, just me and a piano. I guess we’ll all find out how it turned out in February.
J.P.: It’s 15 degrees, dark, gray, people aren’t feeling the music and you’ve made $2. Are you ever thinking, “fuck this—I’m gonna do [blank]?”
G.A.: I actually love the environmental challenges! Schlepping my cart through the snow, sitting on my hands after every song because there’s a grate above me blowing down freezing air. I still love it! It’s all part of the challenge. I’m an optimist, though, so I’m always looking for the good in every situation. Oddly enough, during those trying times, I get what I would call, “sympathy tips.”
J.P.: Why do you think people respond so powerfully to music? I mean, technically, it’s just sound entering our ears. What’s the magic?
G.A.: Well, besides the fact that we’re all homo sapiens, the only other thing that EVERY human being on the planet has in common is our love of music. Whether it be dark and loud or soft and tranquil, everybody digs music. Music is all about frequencies, like the radio. Some people dig the frequencies you’re transmitting on, others might wanna change the channel. Psychologically I think it taps into something primal, something that’s hard to quantify. It helps us to express ourselves in ways that only music can. It helps us relate to people in a way that’s more easily digestible. I mean, you can talk to somebody till you’re blue in the face about an issue you’re passionate about, and they still might not get it; but convey it through music … and you could just sneak it in there. Once again, another vast topic of discussion for another time.
• Five favorite performers of all time: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Elton John, Dr. John.
• Would you rather cut out your tongue or spend the next three years watching an endless video re-run of Styx’s Mr Roboto video?: Definitely the Mr. Roboto video, I’ve found my tongue to be a great asset.
• Rank in order: Michael Bloomberg, Rex Ryan, Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest, Celine Dion, John Oates, Meatloaf (the singer), meatloaf (the food), new socks: John Oates, Michael Bloomberg, Celine Dion, Meatloaf, (the singer), Dick Clark, meatloaf (the food), new socks, Ryan Seacrest, Rex Ryan.
• Most overrated and underrated instrument: Most overrated, the Kazoo, most underrated, The Zeusaphone.
• Five amazing things to do in your hometown of Topanga, California: Hiking, relaxing, trap door spider hunting, skateboarding, hitchhiking.
• Worst bathrooms in New York City?: It’s been my experience that the worst bathrooms are usually in the hottest clubs.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: I’ve hit some some pretty bad turbulence over the years, (Grew up with a Mom for a flight attendant), but never so bad that I thought we were going down.
• More likely conspiracy: The US government planned 9/11, Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill JFK or Michael Jordan retired for gambling debts?: Oswald didn’t kill JFK.
• Strangest thing you’ve ever had someone say to you during a performance?: A homeless woman at Grand Central offered to make love to me.
• What’s your best joke?: Guy walks into a bar with a giraffe and they both proceed to get wasted. The giraffe passes out on the floor, and as the guy is stumbling toward the door the bartender says, “Hey man, you can’t leave that lyin’ there,” to which the man replies, “That’s not a Lion, that’s a giraffe!”