Gabe Brenner is fifteen minutes late to lunch and thirty years late to the music scene. This is not to say his ethereal take on smooth R&B is 80's rehash — rather that we could've used him back then. He might have rescued the sax from Careless Whisper era George Michael. No matter. He's here now and he's quickly making up for lost time.
Very quickly, in fact. He uploaded his first batch of songs under the name Pastel a little over a year ago, just as he graduated from the Orange County School of the Arts. One of these songs, the deliriously minimal "Ode to a Toughened Woman" almost instantly caught the attention of music blog Crack in the Road. "It was just a birthday present for my mom. I honestly didn't think much would come of it," Gabe explains.
This support from a prominent music blog lead Gabe to start sending songs off to various record labels. Manimal Vinyl, the label that broke Warpaint and brought you Bat for Lashes, was the first to respond. "We met at some faux-French cafe," he remembers, "I think we talked about Sky Ferreira."
Fast forward a month later and "Hold Me," the first official single from Pastel, is released via Impose. Press play and let the soft weight of Gabe's vocals, multi-tracked into a solo choir, wash over you. That intro conjures images of a young man singing his heart out to an old soul record, deep into the early morning. And then that first bass drum hits, hard and resonant, followed by a chattering, this high timbre percussion tapping out a clickety rhythm.
Here is where Pastel's influences diverge from anything you've likely heard. "My sisters were heavily involved in the Tahitian dance scene," he tells me, "The music was always on. In the house, at rehearsals, at competitions." That chattering is the to'here, an indigenous Tahitian drum made from a hollowed out log — or in this case, a laptop keyboard and Apple's Logic.
"I didn't even realize I was doing it," Gabe recalls, "I walked into a Tahitian restaurant and they were playing the [traditional] music and I was like 'Oh my God, that's Hold Me!'"
A resident of Buena Park, Pastel is something of an anomaly among the Orange County music scene — mainly because he doesn't belong to it. He didn't start in the garage, he wasn't doing pay to play at the House of Blues. He started on Garageband and soundcloud was his performance space. This may be as formative to his sound as old soul music or Tahitian percussion. "I think a physical scene can tend to produce bands that all kind of sound the same," he reasons, "If I had to identify a scene it'd probably be the internet."
It's fitting — Gabe strikes me as the internet incarnate. Not in a hyperactive, porny sort of way; more in the sense that his interests and influences are so vast, so expansive, they defy any sort of categorization. He pulls from every scene and somehow moves to the edge instead of the middle — with his latest haircut, pastel curls, looking directly transplanted from the head of St. Vincent, or his ability to speak on anything from Tahitian percussion to Adele to FKA Twigs, or just the fact that he knows exactly what he wants on his banh mi.
Is this the future of local music: broken out of the garage and the area code, virtually unbound by physical space — a scene per kid?
Take a listen to Pastel's latest single "Sweeter Conversations" and you might certainly hope so. It's musical butter, so smooth and rich, with Gabe's understated vocal delivery anchoring tentative sax licks. And of course there's the to'here, tapping out rhythms with immaculate precision.
At the moment, Pastel is in musical limbo. "The label is being pretty vague about a release date," he says regarding his upcoming EP, "It's sort of difficult because I'm so anxious for people to hear it." He recently finalized the track list so an announcement is on the horizon.
In the meantime, you can hold yourself over with "Hold Me" and "Sweeter Conversations," as well as lessons in Tahitian percussion. You'll want to be ready for when Pastel breaks that scene wide open.