“Hello, my name really is Mozart,” says songwriter Mozart Gabriel—son of designer Patricia Michaels and artist Tony Abeyta, but I’m only gonna mention that part once.
Gabriel (Navajo and Taos Pueblo) is back in New Mexico for a brief stint after COVID-19 forced him to leave Barcelona, Spain, where he’d been attending the BAU Design College of Barcelona over the past two years. He’s contracted COVID-19 twice in recent months (once post-vax), and is considering this time at home to be a bit of a breather. Gabriel was born in Santa Fe, raised in Taos and moved with his family to Venice, Italy, New York and Boston as a kid. He studied film and animation in Vancouver and art in Chicago, then moved to Nashville to make music videos and write songs. In 2018, he moved to Barcelona, which he now considers to be a de facto home base. There, he says, he feels most at home and most creative.
“I was going through a lot of drinking—I’ve been sober now for about a year and nine months—and it was starting to feel very difficult being a Native American in the US and having to constantly explain who I am,” he tells SFR. “When I got to Barcelona, nobody gave a shit. I got to really know who I was, I got to just accept and love myself, and that made it easier for me to be sober, to come back to my family.”
Even when he was studying to become a filmmaker and stop-motion animator, Gabriel had always been a bedroom guitar player and full-time music appreciator. But after attending an open mic event in Barcelona at which a buddy urged him to play one of his own songs, something clicked.
“I played the song ‘Hold Back,’ which is on my [upcoming] album, and the minute I sang that song, I was nervous, but it’s about me not holding back and the things that have prevented me from doing the things I want to do,” Gabriel says. “I’d never played music in front of people before, but everyone really liked it and there was this crazy instant gratification. Everybody gathered around and told me, ‘I want to play with you.’”
Seduced by sweet lady pop-punk, Gabriel would form what he calls a rock band (though his pop and punk influence are on full display) with fellow expatriates from Venezuela, New Zealand and the UK. He’d play at open mics almost nightly for the next year, writing songs in the mornings with bandmates, trying out material live and, “living and breathing music as much as we could.”
“The more I got to be vulnerable,” Gabriel explains, “the less I felt alone.”
Something about the music soothed him, he says, and helped form a more cohesive sense of self.
“When you’re growing up on a rez, you have a hard time,” he says. “I had a hard time, anyway, finding my identity.”
That discovery, Gabriel explains, helped him implement traditional vocal techniques into his more contemporary sound. The beats of his childhood powwows and gatherings play a part, too. He was always about pop—Enrique Iglesias, Pixies and Joan Jett, for example—but something about the driving rhythms and intense vocalizations of tribal music translates well to rock, he says.
“Take the Maori and their Haka,” he says. “The energy that’s inside you is thrown out, and that’s what I do with my punk.”
Said punk has already started trickling out, with the song “Operate” officially released. Oh, it’s late-’90s punk/emo, alright, with a driving bassline, chugging riffs and Gabriel wailing loud and proud. Unexpected, however, is a wah’d-out solo that feels more straightforward rock. Simple but powerful vocal harmonies seal the deal. It’s kind of like if Machine Gun Kelly weren’t the twee watered-down ghost of emotional lyricism wrapped in a fashion punk guise—Gabriel achieves a stripped down rock authenticity that can only come from, as he puts it, “living life.”
With the rest of the album Eager Within the fire dropping in November, Gabriel has his eyes set on a return to Nashville and now seems endearingly impatient. Getting these songs out is an important milestone for his personal growth, but also the culmination of years of work, self-doubt and, ultimately, hopefully, redemption.
“For the last year, I’ve been able to write sober and happy, though I was terrified,” he says of the forthcoming full-length. “Am I dependent on depression? Heartbreak? Alcohol? You’re not going to understand if you don’t release it to people. It’s exposure. It’s vulnerability. It’s the funny thing about being Native in punk—look at the influences, like the mohawk, and standing up to government. You want to know where that all started? Right here in the homeland.”