I have to admit to being a little surprised. In her opening salvo, the first track on the new album Analog Girl In A Digital World, Arielle rails against the world’s headlong rush into technology. She yearns for the old days, before the internet, when kids amused themselves with slingshots and puzzles and if they needed to know something, they looked it up in a book. It’s not so much a rant, as a melodic reminiscence, a rueful lament that so much has been lost. But I can hardly hold down a feeling of incredulity – surely the young ‘un looking back at us from the album cover never knew that world? I have to ask – really, truly, the analog world was never her world, was it? She insists she did know it, and she misses it.
“I was very fortunate to be on the cusp – before smartphones and before the internet took over. I was born in 1990, when there were still pagers! And the smartphone, I believe, came out in 2007, as did YouTube. I would go to the library all the time, I still do. There were computers, but not the way they are now; when I started playing guitar, it was all in books. If I visited the UK I’d have to go on a payphone, and I’d need a calling card if I wanted to call home. I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience some of that time period; I got to see the change, but I didn’t get to experience it long enough. It started changing when I was around 17 or 18 years old. But a lot of people never got to experience what it’s like without that stuff. It hasn’t been that long that we’ve been relying on these objects, and we haven’t stabilised where technology lives in our society yet, and how we balance it out.”
So in spite of her misleadingly girly appearance, Arielle has completed three decades on the planet. And this is her ninth album! So it’s not just a line then, she really is an analog girl in a digital world?
“Oh, for sure. I mean, I can’t do everything in analog because it’s not entirely practical. But I’ve got my tape machine right here. It’s a four-track; it’s not what I used for the record, that would have been really difficult for me to do. But I definitely love the old school approach. If it’s impractical, and old, I probably have it and use it as much as I can! I have a typewriter! So that’s definitely very authentic to me, and something I’m very passionate about.”
I have to admit, she puts her money where her mouth is in that respect. I would characterise her sound as ‘80s retro, harking back to The Bangles, Roxette and Heart, who inhabited the poppy end of the rock spectrum. Does she think that’s a fair comparison?
“Well, definitely. I mean, before I even recorded the album, I was looking at how I wanted it to sound sonically. I tried to stay within about the mid ‘70s to about 1983. I didn’t want to get past the technology beyond that point, and the sound of the snares and the way things were mixed. So I think that’s about right.”
Nevertheless, there are some instrument sounds that had me straining my ears to identify. For instance, the up-tempo pop-rocker Peace Of Mind reminds me of The Monkees in some respects, perhaps the somewhat psychedelic outro to Pleasant Valley Sunday. There is a particular guitar sound in the short solo in the middle; I can’t work out what effects it is using, and I’m tempted to think she’s using a guitar synth. It turned out to be more old-school than I had imagined. “It’s a 12-string Rickenbacker! Because of the extra high strings, it has a very unique sound, very much like the Byrds or the Beach Boys. Tom Petty used one all the time. They’re a very specific sounding guitar that creates that kind of synth sound that’s very distinct. So yeah, that was my 12 string Rick!”
There is another section that seems to use the same sound, on the intro to the excellent and highly varied song This Is Our Intervention. To be truthful, I couldn’t even work out if it was a guitar at all, or some kind of electric piano. Arielle bursts into a gleeful grin. “Yeah, it’s the same guitar on both of those songs.”
This Is Our Intervention is one of the highlights of the album for me anyway; a storming track, spiced with tempo and rhythm changes. I mention that it comes across like a prog epic, but shorter. She warms to the praise, and credits the band. “We record all of it live; it was one take that the band was playing and all the tempo changes were happening live. So we all were watching each other and created that flow. I think that’s one of the things that’s so fun about it; we were just on the seat of our pants hoping we would slow down to the right tempo and speed up to the right tempo. So it was really, really fun.”
OK then, while we’re on the subject of alien-sounding instruments, I have to go back to Peace Of Mind again and inquire about the intro. Again, I was assuming it was a digital organ sound of some kind, because it sounds like a Celtic bagpipe, or some similar non-standard fare.
“That is an Indian harmonium! It’s very similar to a keyboard, but it’s powered by this pressure that’s created by opening and closing a kind of fan. Typically, Indian culture uses it in ragas and chants. It looks like a tiny piano about this big, (holds hands less than a yard apart), and made of wood. And then you just do this as you’re playing, (flaps one hand in a horizontal motion). And that creates a sound, I have video of us recording, there’s two of them at the same time, we call them the duelling harmoniums! When the single comes out, you’ll be able to see the video of us playing it, you can see what it looks like.” Wow, she’s not kidding. Check out the Peace Of Mind video in the link on the right; there is a short clip at about 1:30 that shows Arielle and Bill Levsey playing the harmoniums with their right hands and pumping the bellows for all they are worth with their left.
Persuasive as she might be, I wondered whether the band were into using all this vintage stuff. It wasn’t an issue though, because it turns out the band doesn’t exist as a long-standing entity, and Arielle calls all the shots. “Just about everybody’s a session musician, which worked out well for me, because I had never met any of them. What I used to do was give fully developed demos, and people would emulate the demo tracks. But this time I hired the best musicians I could, both in Nashville and also in Austin, Texas, and I gave them very simple recordings of me and an acoustic guitar, just so they could get the chord progressions and the structure. Then we brought them in, and we recorded everything live in one day. Everybody that was on the recording are rock stars in their own right, because I asked them for a lot and they came through.”
There is one song on the album called I’d Rather Be In England, which is pretty neat coming from an American who is a self-confessed wanderer with a gypsy soul. It’s a jolly ditty that plays on folky Englishness, and even has a Celtic feel in places, also sticking in a bit of waltz, a bombastic homage to Queen the rock band, and even a blast of God Save The Queen thrown in. It’s light-hearted, but there seems to be a genuine affection for the old country too, so I wonder what the story is behind that?
“I wrote that song before the lockdown – maybe right now I would not rather be in England, with all this crazy stuff going on! But I love England. I’ve always loved England since 2008; I have been back and forth, both living there and going to school there as well as touring. I have a place there now where I was living before all this stuff, but mainly, it started off with a love of the music that came from there. I needed to know what was in the water in England to create such incredible music, and so ever since I was a teen I’ve been on adventures and looking through, not just England of course, but all throughout the UK. And making it my home! I have a band there, I have a home there and I love the feeling of history. I think I’ve been to more places in England than a lot of people who live there; I love getting in my car and just going and exploring new places. I just think it’s so magical. And in that song I have a tribute to Queen in the guitar solo and then also a lot of my American musical influences from living in the south, both in Austin and Nashville. So in the guitar solo, there’s a little bit of a duelling meeting of the countries I guess, as a tribute to everything that has influenced my music over the past few years.”
Although the album is pretty short, just about half an hour, it’s clearly very guitar-oriented. But then, the guitar is not really up-front and in-your-face either; mostly the solos are laid back and fairly laconic. Just as we’re getting used to the idea that Arielle is no shredder, the last track comes on, called Reimagine Redefine; she turns up the gain and lets rip. It was such a surprise, I wondered whether it was a guest guitarist, but no, that’s her all right. I ask her if this reluctance to show off is unusual for her material?
“No, I keep it to a minimum. It’s different live, where I’ll go off for a bit! With the recordings, I’m trying to gauge where the appropriate amount of guitar is for the song. It’s not always right to just shred, and this was a concept album that that had a whole message all the way through. If I felt like it needed an instrumental, which at times I did, I would have thrown it on there. But the thing that I always try to remember is that I’m not a guitar player first – I’m a songwriter first, then I’m a singer, and then I play guitar. And I always look to the Bonnie Raits and Eric Claptons; people like Vince Gill, who have very high abilities, but they always play what’s right for the song, even if that means, you know, people don’t necessarily know everything that they’re capable of doing. I’ve always tried to take that approach because I really don’t want to be pigeonholed as just the girl guitar player, which is very easy. But I’m still gauging what that means to me as far as what to do with my guitar.”
That’s a surprise, because a lot of the media attention that surrounds Arielle, revolves around her distinctive guitar, which she calls Two Tone. Like Brian May’s unique Red Special, which he originally built with his Dad, Arielle originally built her angular creation with a friend. The Brian May connection goes deeper though, as May suggested that she let his guitar company produce it as a commercial model, the first guitar produced by the Brian May brand that isn’t based on his own guitar. I have to ask her about it.
“Well, I was very much inspired by Brian May, who I also believe is very tasteful with when he chooses to play, and doesn’t tend to typically overplay. I had a bunch of different guitars; I had about four guitars when I was going to music school. And so having him as my favourite player, ever since I was six years old, I was like, you know, I’d really love to have my own guitar that no one else has, that’s just my own thing, like Brian and his Red Special. And I had a friend who was a luthier; he had made maybe three or four guitars in the past. And I asked him if we could do my own little custom guitar? Doesn’t have to be anything fancy? He said yeah, so he and I, we worked on this guitar for about six months. He ended up disappearing, I can’t even find the guy to this day, and it’s been over a decade now! I’ve had people look for him, and they can’t find him, but anyway, years go by and I’ve been playing this guitar. And people start kind of recognising the guitar before me, which is very funny! I have no problem with that, but I didn’t think of it as something that other people would want until I was on the road with Eric Johnson. And people were like, hey, how do I get one of your guitars? And I realised at that point, I should at least make a couple available; if someone wants one, it seems very selfish of me to not make that an option.
“So a friend of mine and I, we were going to make one guitar a month by hand and then sell them, probably for a pretty high price point, because they’d be really rare if we only made 12 a year. But what actually ended up happening was that I was having lunch with my old buddy Brian May when I was touring the UK, about three or four years ago. I filled him in on my new adventure about how I was going to build the guitars, and he’s like, well, why doesn’t Brian May guitars just put it out for you? So it was his idea, and I was in awe and trying to play it cool! It’s not a signature in the sense that it’s an identical replica of mine; it’s a guitar that has my name but it’s actually a guitar that we created together. It’s what he and I believe were the best aspects of my guitar that then come together with his. So I’m pretty proud of the guitar, it’s very nice; there are things about it that I believe are much better than my guitar, like the neck is very, really nice and the only neck like it right now. I have ten prototypes of my guitar and for the past 13 years I’ve been trying to decode what is so magical about mine, which was created by you know, two amateurs.”
Right, so now I need to talk about Joe Bonamassa, who always seems to come up these days, when talking to any reasonably blues-based guitarist. In fact the first time I heard of Arielle was when I reviewed Joe’s Guitar Man movie documentary, and she sang the final song over the closing credits, a cover of Guitar Man by American soft-rockers Bread. I’m quite keen to know Arielle got to be doing a song with Joe Bonamassa, but it turns out she is long-time friends with Joe’s Producer Kevin Shirley, who often collaborates with Arielle’s former Manager. The Bonamassa documentary has been in the pipeline for several years, and through this tenuous connection, Arielle was invited in the early days of the project to perform the song. By happy coincidence, she is also a huge fan of Bread and their celebrated singer/songwriter, David Gates, even though Bread’s last album was released in 1977; Gates recorded a handful of solo albums over the next few years, but apart from a one-off album in the ‘90s, has been silent since 1981.
“Well, it actually happened a long while ago, three, four years ago. I’m obsessed with Bread, so I was pretty excited to do that, and I recorded the acoustic guitar at home then I just sang over it. Then about a year later, I got a phone call from Kevin Shirley and he said, Hey, I’m in Nashville today; can you come down to Blackbird studios? Thankfully I wasn’t working on anything in that moment, so I went and got to meet Joe and talk about everything. I don’t even think he knew it was the title track at the time. I got to play some of his guitars, he played my guitar Two Tone, and then I got to watch them record it live. It was really cool to see. So they were playing on my track that I sent them, and I got to watch the whole thing.”
I have to say, Arielle is pretty cool and laid-back. She casually drops into conversation, references to touring and collaborating with Eric Johnson, having lunch with Brian May, jamming on Joe Bonamassa’s guitars and being friends with Kevin Shirley. But the only time I see her star-struck, grinning her broad American smile, is when she starts talking about the octogenarian Gates.
“It was so neat! Kevin Shirley sent me an email from David Gates, because of course, we needed to get approval from him. And he wrote back, and I was like, (eyes wide, hands clasped below her face), David Gates! It’s cool, because you can see my name in the credits, ‘sung by Arielle,’ and then it says, ‘David Gates,’ and our names are together! It’s pretty exciting for me!”
I reckon it’s pretty cool for David Gates too. So there is just one other subject we need to cover, which involves Arielle’s environmental credentials. She is not averse to a bit of green activism, having been involved in protesting the dolphin slaughter at Taiji amongst other things, but her new project is to grow tonewood, which is a blanket term that covers various types of wood used for making musical instruments. She calls her ever-growing copse Tonewood Forest. “I am learning how to sprout them from seed; all of my trees are grown from seeds that I buy online and grow here. I start them in my house hydroponically, and then plant them outside. So I’ve been trying to work on that and get it bigger because it’s very time consuming and very difficult to grow these exotic trees, some of which are highly endangered because of how much we consume for musical instruments, as well as furniture and everything else. But that’s been my other project, my non-profit for trees.”
For some reason, I find the idea of a woodland full of musical instrument trees impressively compelling. I observe that her garden is literally full of guitar trees? She replies simply, “Yes!” I wonder if there’s anything she hasn’t done, so I ask if I have missed anything I was really supposed to talk about. After a moment of reflection, she seems content. “Those are those are the three topics that I wanted to be sure to cover: the trees, the guitar and the album. Yeah.”