Gregory Nalbone Turns Up The ’Summer Heat’
In the last couple of years, Gregory Nalbone has been playing to sold-out audiences at The Duplex and the Metropolitan Room. However, Nalbone's singing career began after many years working as a model, and many years of study before overcoming his fear of live performing. In July, Nalbone will play The Duplex for four Wednesdays, beginning July 10.
Nalbone is a native of tiny Robbinsville, outside of Trenton, New Jersey. He has made Manhattan his home for the last twenty years or so. EDGE spoke with him in his cozy, classically decorated East Village apartment, which he calls "the best thing that ever happened to me."
Retreated to his fantasy world
EDGE: What was growing up like for you?
Gregory Nalbone: Well, my mother died when I was eleven so that kind of put a damper on my childhood. I lived with my brother and my father and we all kind of regressed in our own way. We’d shut ourselves down, if you will. I wasn’t excelling in school sports, although I was a diver and a swimmer. But because I didn’t tap into what I really wanted to be doing, I retreated into my fantasy world, which always involved performing.
Before my mother died, she taught me how to play the piano a little. That was my first musical experience, listening to her play piano and playing alongside her. After she died, I tried to take what she taught me and expand it on my own. I wasn’t very good, but sitting at that piano, I could feel the momentum of something inside me screaming to come out.
But I didn’t want anyone to know, so when nobody was home I attempted to sing. It opened that emotional blockage. But as soon as I heard my Dad’s car pulling up in the driveway, I got this panic and ran to do something else. It was my little secret.
EDGE: Is that what brought you to New York, wanting to perform?
Gregory Nalbone: I went to two years of community college for photography. Then I got accepted at the School of Visual Arts. While I was there, I started to model for the other students and eventually started getting all these pictures together. Somebody told me to bring them to this agency, and I ended up dropping out of college and doing some modeling. I think I learned the technical aspects of photography, but I was having a hard time with another artist telling me what my vision should be as an artist. It just wasn’t meshing. It just wasn’t resonating as ’I love this.’ But I’m still pretty good and would love to have a published book of photographs someday.
EDGE: So how did the singing come about?
Gregory Nalbone: That fire in me was still alive. As afraid as I was, I forced myself to audition for a singing teacher, and I became addicted. I worked with Annie Lennox’s teacher, I worked with Cyndi Lauper’s teacher, I worked with some very good teachers out there. It satiated that desire to sing while I was in class but I really did lack the courage and confidence to take it one step further and sing in front of people. I worked as a bartender, a go-go boy, and a model, and I paid for my very expensive singing classes every week for many years until I got to my last teacher, David Schaefer. He said to me, ’I will work with you on one condition. You must make a commitment to me that you will not stay in this class for another ten years. You will sing for people. If you don’t, there is nothing I can do for you.’ So that was the daunting plan.
Fear of performing
EDGE: So you put off your dream for many years because of your fear.
Gregory Nalbone: It was a handicapping fear. What happened was, David knew of a piano bar on the Upper East Side, the Mediterranean, and every Monday night there would be some kind of show. One week Jesse Luttrell was singing there and Rachel Kaufman was playing. David made a deal with Rachel that if he could bring some of his students, he would sit in and play for them. When that night came, I got out of the cab, and I heard Jesse’s voice out on the street. My heart started beating as I got closer and closer. And I looked in and it was filled with people. And I thought, ’Are you kidding me? I can’t do this!’
So I started walking away and was hailing a taxi. I started to get in and I felt a tap on my shoulder, and it was David. He was not going to let me go home. He said I could go inside and sit down but would not have to sing. I remember sitting in there frozen, terror like I cannot describe, watching all these people sing. Eventually, Jesse came over to the table with his microphone asked me my name. Then he said, ’Do you all want to hear Gregory sing?’ People cheered and I got up. It was my last walk, like Dead Man Walking.
I remember the song was ’Rocket Man’ and I had never sung with a microphone before. My choice was the temporary sting of a worse-case scenario of people booing me or laughing at me and telling me to sit down. Or I could go back home and live with the fact that I gave up my opportunity to do something I wanted to do my entire life. In that moment, the singing came out like liquid. And I was asked to sing a second and a third song. My teacher told me afterwards that it was what I was meant to be doing. So I went back there for a few months. Then Richard Skipper started his thing at the Iguana and I sang there for a year. Then I did my first three shows at the Duplex, and I sold out each time.
Own PR person
EDGE: You know, this doesn’t usually happen in cabaret. I’m impressed with how many people come to your shows.
Gregory Nalbone: I work at a bar and have a huge following there, and I have a fan base on Facebook. I’ve tried to utilize marketing the image, but letting that get attention so people can come see what I have to offer. My goal is to not have to do that, that my talent is the thing that will get attention and not the shirtless photo of me. But in the meantime, if it gets people interested or sells tickets, or makes people ask, ’He sings?’ Well, that’s what I’m going to do. So I’ve become my own PR person. Because of all the years I’ve spent in New York being a good person and being considerate and respectful of people I’ve come across, when I started to come out as a singer, a lot of people-journalists, promoters, photographers-were willing to come on board and help support and promote me as a singer. It gave me a lot of exposure and allowed people to see me in a new way. I think that’s where the audiences came from.
EDGE: Has the bartending helped you as a performer?
Gregory Nalbone: Without a doubt. That is a stage for me. Every patron, every friend that comes to the bar becomes another opportunity for improv, to try my humor, to start a conversation, to interject one-liners, to be witty, to be sarcastic, and to bounce back and forth with the unknown-you don’t know what’s going to come back at you. What a way to exercise that stagecraft muscle!
Since I’ve started performing on stage, I realize that I’m performing more as a bartender.
EDGE: In what way has the modeling helped your performing, and maybe hindered it?
Gregory Nalbone: Well, modeling is acting for me. It’s becoming a character, it’s expressing a photographer’s concept. You have to be confident and comfortable in your own skin and with your appearance. When you’re in a room of a hundred people and they’re looking at you from every angle, your confidence has to be a physical confidence. It prepared me to be comfortable with myself in order to stand in front of a room of people. [Laughs]
And, it has given me so much material to make fun of myself. I don’t take it that seriously, I love to laugh at myself and some of my photos. People might have a preconceived idea of how I might be based on a photo. I love to break that stereotype. As for the second part of your question, there are probably a lot of people who think there isn’t a lot to me and don’t want to invest their time in finding out, or they don’t want to ruin the fantasy of this brooding-what did you call me?
EDGE: Brooding soap opera villain.
Gregory Nalbone: [Laughs] Right! Maybe somebody doesn’t want to hear the sensitive tears and joy that come out of me. It might intensify the fantasy for some people and it might not. I think I might have to work a little harder to try to show people that there’s more than meets the eye.
Staying in shape
EDGE: Is it scarier for you to take off your clothes in front of the camera or for you to perform live in front of an audience?
Gregory Nalbone: Hands down, performing. [Laughs] Posing for the camera is like riding a bike for me, a bike with a lens. The day that I get nervous taking my clothes off in front of a camera, there would be something wrong with me! I was a body model, underwear and fitness. That’s what you did.
EDGE: What is your routine to stay in shape?
Gregory Nalbone: It’s diet, dedication, discipline, and technique. It’s become an integral part of my life for my emotional well-being as well as for healthy lifestyle reasons and aesthetics. It’s a routine that is ingrained in my life. I’m very disciplined and regimented when it comes to it. I don’t like everything about my body. There are always things I want to change. I look in the mirror and if I think something is lacking, that’s what I work on that day.
EDGE: Do you have a food weakness?
Gregory Nalbone: Yes, pizza and ice cream. And salt. Crackers, chips, pretzels. I give myself one day a week when I let myself completely indulge, usually Mondays.
Choosing a song
EDGE: How do you choose a song?
Gregory Nalbone: Sometimes that’s the hard part of the show, finding the material that moves me and that I can apply to something relevant to my life so I can talk about it to an audience. It has to touch upon something emotionally within me that I can ignite with my own passion. It has to resonate deeply.
EDGE: Where do you want to go with this?
Gregory Nalbone: Part of my dream, I have already fulfilled. I have overcome my fear and I never thought in this lifetime it would happen. But I want more. I’m always challenging myself. I want to do a dance song, I want to do a CD. I want my stuff to be available for people to buy and download. I had a small taste of being in the studio with a recording project that didn’t work out. I loved being in the studio. That was always part of the fantasy in my mind, and it was a wonderful experience. I want to do it again under better conditions. I’m also curious about being in a show, perhaps a musical. Or maybe in a very upscale hotel or maybe Vegas. I want other facets of my expression as a singer.
EDGE: Do you think the world has changed enough that an out gay male can succeed in this business?
Gregory Nalbone: I do. Growing up and as a young adult, it took me a very long time to become comfortable. A true mark of that comfort is that I can get up and talk about myself and not edit like I did for so many years. If I celebrate who I am-my joys, my pains, my heartaches-that is what people will respond to, not my sexual orientation.
I can’t pretend to be someone that I’m not; I made that deal with myself. Just getting up on a stage and having my father in the audience and expressing things that he never knew about me, that I was always too afraid to say, and having him hug me and say how proud he is of me. There is a wider acceptance right now than there ever was. If you are comfortable with yourself and you love yourself, you command respect.
EDGE: What’s the toughest part of this business for you right now?
Gregory Nalbone: Not having enough money. Producing my own shows. I don’t have a backer or investor, and I do it on a bartender’s salary and while living alone in New York City.
EDGE: And you get crowds!
Gregory Nalbone: But I spend too much money because I want the shows to be big and good. I would be living in a recording studio, I would have music videos out and CDs out, but I don’t have the means right now. Plus, you need the time to create. Considering, though, I’m doing well. But I’d love to be singing every night. But at the Duplex, I can at least sing once a week for a month.
EDGE: What can we expect from the ’Summer Heat’ show?
Gregory Nalbone: Some of my signature songs and some well-known standards infused with a sexy edge. I want it to be a little sexier, so I’m taking the opportunity to tell a few stories about my life in New York as a model and running around with my shirt off. It’s not going to be G-rated in terms of what I talk about. My life in New York has been very unconventional and interesting. And I’ll be doing a song that I wrote. And lots of beautiful ballads.
Gregory Nalbone will be at the Duplex on Wednesdays in July, the 10th, 17th, 24th, and 31st. Check www.theduplex.com for exact times and www.gregorynalbonemusic.com to learn more about the singer.