A brief history of New York DIY duo Oliver Kalb and Gabrielle Smith.
Gabrielle Smith of Gabby’s World (formerly known as Ó and Eskimeaux) and Oliver Kalb of Bellows have occupied the same musical orbit as far back as they can remember. Both New York City natives, they attended the same high school several years apart and later connected through a shared group of friends that blossomed into a now-dissolved DIY music collective.
Now both eclectic songwriters whose “poetic bedroom pop” traverses the ambient and the Auto-Tuned, Smith and Kalb began their romantic and working relationship in 2010. The following year—with Smith’s diaphanous sixth self-release, Two Mountains, and Kalb’s folksy full-length debut, As If to Say I Hate Daylight—marked their first appearances on each other’s recordings. They have been working together ever since. Their latest co-produced efforts, Bellows’s The Rose Gardener and Gabby’s Beast on Beast, share a pop sensibility that belies themes of creative self-doubt and dissatisfaction.
Currently, Smith and Kalb are on the road, touring these bittersweet releases side-by-side. Ian Cory of Lamniformes, who plays drums for both projects, spoke to them about their personal history, collaborative process, and deceptively delicate songwriting.
What were your first impressions of one another?
Oliver Kalb: We went to the same high school at different times. I had this job at a video rental store in Park Slope called Reel Life, and I gave [Gabby] a free video one time, but we didn’t really know each other [then].
Gabby Smith: I thought that you were a punk, and a silly party boy. We had this hang once called “PartyTron,” where we [and our friends] stayed up until the sunrise, and you played some joke songs that I thought were so awesome.
Oliver: That was when I was 16. It [felt] safer to write a cool melody with stupid joke lyrics, so I wouldn’t have to be responsible for a real emotion.
Gabby: It turns out that you’re actually not a party boy, and you’re very shy.
Oliver: I had an idea that [Gabby] was impossibly “with it” and in this mysterious DIY world that was impenetrable. Eventually, you meet [the] real person and realize nobody’s that mystical.
When did you start playing music together?
Oliver: Gabby was recording Two Mountains when we started dating, and I started recording As If to Say I Hate Daylight in response. It was the first time I’d seen somebody accomplishing self-recording in a way that seemed accessible, so I used the same types of materials and tried to do it myself. You were on that first Bellows record a lot.
Gabby: At the time, I was really allergic to guitars. Felix [Walworth, of Told Slant] and Oliver and I [started a] band called Southern Belle as a joke, to see what it felt like to play my songs as rock versions. But it quickly felt really, really good, and we started doing it all the time.
Oliver: The fact that presenting the Eskimeaux songs as a rock band seemed like a joke at the time shows how different the context for the projects [was] in their early years. You were more hooked up with ambient and noise people [than I was]. The fact that you were writing songs was something you almost wanted to obscure behind experimental production.
What do you admire most about each other, musically?
Oliver: Gabby has this uncanny sense of harmony. We did a Gabby’s World rehearsal while [Gabby] wasn’t there, and I was trying to sing [her] songs in the same register. So I put the Auto-Tune pedal on, because it’s an easier way to not sound insane when I’m singing in falsetto. I [had] locked the Auto-Tune pedal to E to sing “When I Felt Giving,” and I didn’t realize how many times the key changes in that song. I have knowledge in music theory that [can] lock me to rules, and you audaciously break those rules, in ways that create compositions that feel so far beyond something I would come up with.
Gabby: What I really admire in your songwriting is your knowledge of how you’re breaking the rules when you do it. In “Thick Skin,” the bridge goes up a half-step, which I would never do because it sounds like it’s totally in the wrong key. It just [sounds] very chaotic if you don’t know what’s happening, and I didn’t know what was happening until I started playing bass on this tour. The keyboard parts [I usually play] are so bare-bones that it’s just muscle memory.
Oliver: I felt that way singing your songs. I realized you’re trilling all the time. I don’t have that finesse as a singer.
Gabby: Greta [Kline, of Frankie Cosmos] always makes fun of me for doing that. She’ll hear a melody for a Jewish prayer, and be like, “Oh, it’s like a Gabby’s World song!”
Oliver: [Because] Jewish prayers often have constantly changing notes in patterns that don’t seem to make sense.
What have you learned about each other’s songwriting by playing in each other’s bands?
Gabby: With Oliver’s music, because there are 97 tracks on every one of his songs, he will intimately know these parts of songs that I don’t even notice. It’s been interesting learning what you think are the core elements of your songs.
Oliver: [My] most recent discovery was the melodies being so complicated. I feel like your songs have changed a lot for me since I started playing guitar on them. For years, I was only playing synth, and I have limited chops as a synth player.
Gabby: It’s funny that we relegate each other to our most limited instrument. I suck at piano.
Oliver: Now I’m playing guitar, which I’m much more comfortable on, so I can use my playing to [actually] serve the song.
Gabby: I feel the same way about bass. I’ve hit my stride and can start adding flair.
Oliver: That’s the fun thing about touring with a set of songs. You lock into a groove and then can take chances.
What do you bring to each other’s work?
Oliver: The song that most shows Gabby’s role in Bellows is “Count ’Em Down.” Your layers of harmonies—transition[al] moments where there’s a million of your voice announcing each new part. The Bellows albums would feel a lot more conventional if they didn’t have so much choir buzzing going on under things, which give it this ethereal, Martian sound. The quintessential Bellows sound is for there to be a droning harmonium with many of Gabby[‘s voice] panned to each side that create a bedrock.
Gabby: You bring levity to my songs. I have a tendency to go down a dark hole with my production.
Oliver: Beast on Beast is a dark album, but I sensed that there was a pop album in it also. Bringing that to life while honoring the drama of the subject matter was something I was thinking about.
Those records aren’t often talked about in those dark terms.
Oliver: A lot of people read [my] record as light, but it’s an album about misanthropy and an inability to trust anyone. Because the lyrical content was about feeling like my life was ruined and not moving anywhere, there’s a light, airy musical quality that collides with this dark void. That was a musical tension I was trying to create, but a lot of casual listeners [just] hear that it’s musically airier.
Gabby: I think that there’s a tendency for art to provide people with what they need. Maybe because this is a cultural, political moment where people are feeling overwhelmed by how many shitty things are happening, there’s a desire to seek solace in art.
Oliver: We also live in a time where there’s almost no real levity in pop music. We’ve talked about the Weeknd singing all these songs like, “I’m surrounded by naked women and I’m so sad.” The dominant voice in pop music seems to be one of, “I have everything but it’s not good enough.” People have been trained to find levity in things with dark themes, because dark themes are almost obligatory now in pop music.
Gabby: A song without conflict is not good. Even the best love songs that are completely devotional toe the line between being saccharine and dark.
Oliver: I believe that there’s true levity in some music, but I think we pull from a musical ethic that comes out of contemporary pop. This moment is [about] amplifying the darkness but using tropical house beats that [create] a dissonance. That’s at play in our music as well.
How do you find a balance between collaborating and maintaining your own vision?
Gabby: I think of all of my songs as beautiful [and] sad or whatever. “WTF” was a very intense point of tension. I envisioned it as this sensitive song, and the band envisioned it as a hair-metal song. I was very pissed in band practice, like, “You’re ruining my song!” [But I got] kind of into it, so I wanted to see what it felt like to acquiesce to that vibe. And it is the current version of that song.
I think that there’s still somewhere bouncing around inside me the allergy to guitars, [that] snobbishness. But when I let myself go, I find that what my collaborators bring to the table is what I want, deep down.
Oliver: I try to be as ego-less as possible. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at understanding that opening albums up to other people actually makes them much better.
There was a synth part in “In Silence” that comes at the end of the instrumental break that I was resistant to. It was really over the top, like maybe it was cheapening the song, but I ended up keeping it. My bandmates loved it and I didn’t, but I could see there was something I wasn’t hearing.
Why do you reference each other’s songs, and what do you think it adds to the material?
Oliver: As bands go on, you form a bit of a mythology around your life and your albums. “The Tower” is about looking back on a long journey that you’ve had with someone and [being reminded] that it wasn’t a meaningless journey going nowhere, which is sometimes how touring and being a working musician feels. In that first verse, I’m hearing [“WTF”]. We hadn’t toured in a while and I heard it in [the] background [somehow], and I realized that this is [an] awesome, beautiful thing that I’m involved in, and there’s a power in making my life about art. So that song uses an actual moment of hearing Gabby’s song as the jumping-off place for an important realization.
Gabby: I think that because Oliver and I are in a relationship and tour together twice as often because we’re doing both projects, there’s a certain amount of communication that gets taken for granted or doesn’t exist. Even [when] I’m not referencing a Bellows song, I often will reference conversations we had where I didn’t feel that I said the right thing. The song is the moment to actually communicate what I was trying to say.
Oliver: Tour isn’t conducive to constantly being open about every single feeling. Songs can become a way of catching up with emotions that may have gone unexplored at the time, because life is chaotic and you can’t always be self-searching.
Gabby: Songwriting is like picking a pearl out—a feeling that’s been calcified. Those moments that are referential to Bellows are [about] things [in our relationship] that don’t feel relevant enough to have another conversation or conflict about, but that need to be aired in an artistic way.
Have you noticed any differences between Bellows and Gabby’s World fans?
Gabby: I think Bellows fans tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and Gabby’s World fans are more secretive about their sadness.