By Zach Collier
If you tuned in to Saturday Night Live three weeks ago, you may have witnessed daring performances from Grammy Award-winner Sam Smith, complete with wild set design, Sharon Stone basking on a lounger drenched in sequins, and Kim Petras popping out of Smith’s dress.
What you may not have noticed was a hooded Provo music scene alum singing alongside Smith. His name is Jacob Khalil.
Khalil moved to New York City in September of 2020. At the time, pandemic restrictions were still the norm, and shows in Utah were nearly nonexistent. “There wasn’t much going on in Utah, and I resolved that I could be doing nothing in Provo or I could be doing nothing in New York, so I made the move,” says Khalil. “My wife and I packed up our Subaru with everything we owned, and we drove to the city. A couple weeks before moving, I took this course on how to book private event gigs.”
He started using apps like Thumbtack and The Bash to find gig leads. One day while still living in Provo, he changed his zip code on Thumbtack to New York City. “I got like 100 leads instantly,” he says. “That’s what solidified the choice to move. In Utah, I was getting maybe two leads a week. So, even though I moved to New York when all the big venues were closed, there were still a ton of people getting married and throwing parties that they wanted live music for. Sure it was a little bit of a risk, but I knew that even if I didn’t get a ton of gigs, I could set up in Central Park and make $200 a day — which a few of my friends still do.”
Luckily, Khalil didn’t have to play in Central Park too much. It was helpful that he didn’t have to do it all alone, and he credits his wife and a solid community for his success. “I’m married to an awesome partner who was ready to make the journey with me, and we had a little help along the way,” he says. “We actually didn’t have a ton of money saved up. We were able to cover first and last month’s rent, and I borrowed like $500 from my dad to drive across the country. Also, our saintly Provo landlords gave us $500 for the trip out of the kindness of their hearts. I booked two gigs in Philly and New Jersey before leaving Utah, and I had a wedding gig on the calendar that covered at least a month or two of rent.”
Before the city opened back up, Khalil was getting regular work at piano bars in New Jersey and upstate New York while flying back to Utah for some gigs. Now he’s done some big shows at major clubs like Birdland, Minton’s Playhouse, and The Cutting Room. “Selling out a venue where I’ve performed my original work is always my favorite gig,” he says. “I try to do one of these every other month in the city. And I’m planning a national tour right now.”
So, how did this move to NYC lead to a gig with Sam Smith? In addition to the relentless gigs all over the city, Khalil sings in a choir every Sunday in a huge Presbyterian church on fifth avenue. “I’ve sung in choirs my whole life, so that’s a gig that just feeds my soul and gives me some great musical variety,” he says.
That choir is where he made friends with the person in charge of recommending singers to Sam Smith’s team. “We were just two baritones in a church choir doing a gig,” he says. “At that time, he had no affiliation with Sam Smith whatsoever. I think he was as surprised as I was to get the call. But I’m grateful that he trusted me enough as a musician to recommend me.”
Khalil got an email a week before the SNL gig while traveling to Houston, and he learned the music on the plane. “I attended my friend’s wedding on Sunday evening, then flew out that same night to make the the first rehearsal on Monday morning. I feel like in order to accept big opportunities, you often have to be extremely flexible and creative to make them work.”
Soon Khalil was performing a completely a cappella choral number in 4-8 part harmony with 20 other singers and Sam Smith. He says Smith and their whole team were extremely gracious and kind.
“Everything ran very efficiently, but it was intense — especially on set. I felt like with every rehearsal in NBC studios they added an additional camera!” he laughs. “By the time we were filming the live show, I think there were six cameras on us. Honestly, it was so nerve wracking during the actual live show. They had us wearing these robes with sequins on them that would always get caught on each other’s robes. I was situated right in front of Sam with my shoulder touching another singer’s shoulder. At the climax of the song, we had to separate so Sam could be seen clearly. I was so worried that my sequins would catch on to the other singer’s sequins and that we would stumble on live TV or something.” Luckily that didn’t happen. “It was truly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done as a musician. I’ll take an SNL gig any day. Any Saturday, that is.”
Even though this is quite possibly the biggest gig of Khalil’s life so far, he recognizes that he still has work to do. He’s a working musician, making a living in one of the biggest cities in the world. But there’s always more to achieve. “Here and there I’m hired to arrange stuff, sing or play piano on recordings, or work as a music director for other artists,” he says. “My passion is writing songs and performing live concerts. I’m starting to do writing sessions with artists I really believe in. If the majority of my time were to be spent in writing rooms in LA, NYC, and Nashville I would love that. No matter what though, I am a performing artist at heart. I will always have shows on my schedule. Only time will tell whether those shows will be in intimate clubs or at Radio City.”
Khalil has some advice for Provo musicians. First, musician or not, he recommends that everyone reads the following: Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill; You Are A Badass At Making Money by Jen Sincero; and The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris.
“I really think that people who ‘make it’ in the industry have a combo of three things: skill, persistence, and luck,” he says. “To be a working musician doesn’t require that much luck (if any); it’s almost all persistence and a little bit of skill or talent.” Khalil once got great advice from a voice teacher in Utah who was making more than $200k a year, had a big house, and 6 kids. “He said, ‘don’t be afraid to work harder than anyone you know.’ A ‘hard work,’ attitude can make up for almost anything you’re lacking. Take a good look in the mirror and just see what it is you’ve got to work on. It hurts to not make excuses, but I think it’s the only way we grow.”
Khalil says that if you don’t have a lot of luck, start talking to more people and you’ll get better at making friends. Making true friends just might be lead to great opportunities. Khalil also wants musicians to remember that working in music is the freelance life. “Some things are constants, like the gigs you play every week,” he says. “But other things pop up, and you’ve got to be ready them — like out of town gigs, TV appearances, or whatever. Keeping an open and creative mind goes a long way. It pays to be flexible and willing.”
His parting advice is probably his most important. “Lastly, if you feel like you’ve got to do this, then I think you should,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing to be involved in music making. Your parents, your friends, and people you meet might think you’re crazy at first. But rest assured, when you’re killing it they’ll say, ‘I knew it all along.’”
Make sure to follow Jacob Khalil on Instagram and check out his performance with Sam Smith below.