She stands before the microphone the picture of unwavering confidence, sinuously fitted into a scarlet dress; her hair turned from wispy chestnut to a pin-straight, deep black. Gina Royale on stage at New York City’s famous Duplex downtown cabaret for two separate shows over two crucial months of her burgeoning career; one in the relative chill of an early-April, Manhattan night, the other in the steaming bustle of late June. During the first, she introduces her new band, bassist Graham Orbe, Liam Kerekes on drums, and musical partner Emily Case on guitar and vocals. The second, once again with the same band—this time a few months of shows tighter—is Royale’s CD launch party for her newest collection of songs titled Brain Waves.
Royale giggles between numbers, introducing each with short anecdotes of their origins, then looks to the band for a count-in, and it is there; pure and strong, effortlessly filling the room; her emotive, chilling voice takes over. It lifts and tumbles through songs about hurt and confusion, joy and loss. She owns these songs; they are like morsels of her psyche and the voice leads us through her journey. The audience takes a moment following the codas to exhale. Then there is a hoot or a whispered, “Wow”, followed by rousing applause; as the morsels are released back to her. And she giggles again; her smile as infectious as her natural instrument.
The maturation of Royale and her combo is stark. A year or so ago she was a determined but soft-spoken high school kid with big ideas and a handful of catchy songs co-produced by her dad and manager, Andrew Rajeckas, a fine songwriter and pianist in his own right. Back then she talked about school plays, petty jealousies, and snide nods to ex-boyfriends. Now, a year into her studies in the Pop Music Program at William Paterson University, having received praise for a music video for her stirring ballad, “Walk Without Gravity,” that increased interest from record companies, and a series of seminal gigs both solo and with the band, she is beginning to ease into tell-tale traces of defiance, a razor-sharp directive, and an appreciation for all that the music has afforded her.
Only moments before, backstage, the members of the band, excruciatingly young with just enough green to allow for snickering and feigned shyness, flop on couches and make passing remarks on the size of the crowd and the minor troubles with the sound check. In the middle of it all, like a port in a storm, is Royale, petite and cautiously energetic. Despite a modicum of brashness and a wry sensuality, she calmly addresses the whirlwind of the past few months.
“I was definitely more comfortable in the studio this time around,” she says, acutely aware of her bandmates leaning in to hear. “And I like my music a little more this time too, not that I didn’t like the songs on my first record, Heir, but I think Brain Waves has more personal meaning to me.”
How so? I must ask.
“I’m a pretty passive person mostly, so the last time I sat back and allowed my producer [Rob Freeman] and my dad to come up with ideas and direction, which was the right thing to do because all I had were the songs and my piano. I had no experience arranging or producing. So, in the end, it sounded little too poppy for my personal taste. Don’t get me wrong, they did a great job, but this time around I was more engaged and had discussions on the sound and direction of the songs.”
This means being more comfortable in the themes of her songs, which, according to Royale has sparked some maternal concern. “My mom wishes I’d write happier songs,” she smiles. “But I’m confident in facing the sadder themes, because I know I’m not a depressed person normally, I’m just inspired lyrically to express the sadder side of myself. I think if I attempted a happy song it would just come out cheesy.”
There is nothing “cheesy” about Brain Waves, and yet even with Royale’s protestations, there is still a palpable pop sensibility to all the “sadder themes”. The title track, played delicately on ukulele, is an adorable paean to loyalty, in love and friendship. “You’re still here…” she sings sweetly, “You’re still here…” as she dreams of what that means by song’s end; “There’s a masterpiece in your complexity now.” On the other side of the emotional spectrum are the aforementioned “darker” songs like “You Don’t Want Me” or the aptly titled “Mean Song” with its dire warning, “…look for the clues/‘Cause they all point to you.”
The collection’s strongest songs are “Battle Cry” and “Let’s Just Kiss”, the former a powerfully combative rocker that snarls with the best of them; “I’m breaking through the boundaries/You haven’t seen the last of me,” she sings with a wink at empowerment and a fist-pump of vengeance. “And this is my battle cry/And it is war tonight.” The epic resonance of the latter, a wonderfully arranged and emotionally-charged ballad, far exceeds the years of experience for such a young performer who now insists on writing a song about physical intimacy that mocks our limited language and ham-fisted gestures. It resounds as personal confession and social commentary. “Let’s just kiss/Just two lips/A kiss does all the talking, when you’re clueless/Let’s just kiss/Savor the bliss/Before I say something that takes away from this.”
When Royale and the band played this song in early April, the room was stone silent; the players deeply focused on their instruments—the singer, eyes closed and hands sweeping adroitly over the keys, throwing her every fiber into the phrasing. The applause was effusive, as if the crowd was suddenly released from the lyrical plot she cleverly devised to share. And in many ways, the band too could feel the release.
“If you listen to the record and then you listen to the band play these songs, it’s completely different,” guitarist Emily Case told me backstage in June. “We get to put our own spin on everything; Graham has put his own thing into the bass part and Liam has added quote a bit to the live drum parts. It works!”
“Since I predominately play jazz, I’ve been able to add a jazzy edge to the songs,” cites Liam Kerekes, as bassist Graham Orbe, who calls himself, “a jazz nerd”, adds, “I think the mutual experience of being in the same music program has created a bond between us.”
“I like everything they bring to the table, because I know them personally,” Gina adds. “I trust their instincts because I know they’ve taken the time and effort to put their flavors into a song.”
It is clearly evident that Royale revels in the camaraderie of her fellow musicians and remains humble with a keen understanding of the road that lies ahead, but there is a tone to her answers these days that transcends the goal-orientated teenaged dreamer I spoke to in the studio as she recorded her debut in the autumn of 2014. Slowly, but surely, this is now a seasoned professional poised to lead a band through a 45-minute set of her songs on a renowned Greenwich Village stage.
When she finally does take the stage on that steamy June night there is a polish to Royale’s performance that was absent last year, or even in April. Supported ably by like-minded artists, she works the crowd during songs, where before she would keep a steady eye on her fingers as they crossed the piano keys. She strikes a seductive sideways glance and interacts with her bandmates, crucially bringing the audience in when needed.
The band works effortlessly through the split between both of her albums, as if she is acutely aware of the building blocks of these mini-dramas she has put to music, how she grew up and into them, and how they are there to keep her steady. And as they venture boldly into the new material, as promised, it sounds rawer than the disc I was sent a few weeks before its release. There are chugging, distorted guitar rhythms from Case crossing over the steadily whimsical piano accompaniment from Royale, balanced on the jazzy backbeat of Kerekes and a tasteful bottom end from Orbe.
Through maturation of experience and the amity of a like-minded musical ensemble, Gina Royale is off and running into the next phase of her career. The evolution of the young woman as an artist has begun.
Gina Royale will be playing at Bar Anticipation in Lake Como, NJ on Oct. 8, the Fall Festival in Allentown, NJ on Oct. 9, and Mexicali Live in Teaneck, NJ on Nov. 30. For more information, go to ginaroyale.com.