An American musician (or any musician for that matter) impressing a room full of French people is not an easy feat, a remark I heard more than once after I first saw Arum Rae perform. I ventured to Le Poisson Rouge to photograph Lou Doillon, who I had recently interviewed for a feature. I arrived an hour early and sat on the stage listening to chatter echo throughout the room. A few people approached me and attempted to engage in conversation, but walked away after I had to ask them to speak slowly despite a decade of French classes, stumbling over Je suis désolé, mon français est très médiocre. Very quietly Arum walked into the spotlight with only her electric guitar. As she began to play, the crowd persisted in boisterous conversation, ignoring her, as audiences in smaller New York City venues often do during an opening act. But everyone fell completely silent when she opened her mouth.
A self-described soul singer/songwriter, soul being the operative word, Arum Rae—whose name aptly translates to water lily in Latin—emotes with such powerful, exquisite tones, such vulnerability, such emotional honesty that she can transform even the most aloof audience into a transfixed one. Silly as it sounds, I put down my camera halfway through the first song because it didn’t feel like a performance, but rather an intimate moment that shouldn’t be exploited by my lens. Her entire set was one continuous intimate moment. Arum later told me when I asked if there were any consistent lyrical motifs in her music, “I want you, why don’t you want me back…finding a million different ways to say that.” It can’t get more intimate than that.
After seeing her perform live, as well as listening to her recorded output, it is clear that Arum is not only genre-defying, she shatters genre entirely and pieces the fragments back together in songs that are complex amalgamations of soul, blues, rock, and jazz. This is reflected further by the disparate acts for whom she’s opened and with whom she’s toured: BB King, Gary Clark Jr., The Kills, Willie Nelson, Dan Auerbach, and her ultimate favorite, Rodriguez.
I am both exhilarated and confounded by her undefinable sound, so I sat down with her to find out what drives the creation of these distinct compositions. We discussed her background, her process, her long-term goals, and most memorably, her thwarted aspiration of becoming a Laker Girl.
Where are you from?
Originally, Colorado Springs.
When did you begin performing? At what age/where?
I first sang on stage when I was 4 years old. At a Christian private school. It was a Christmas song.
Tell me a little about your background and anything significant that informed you as an artist and performer? Or anything specific that prompted you to start writing and performing?
I wanted to be a Laker Girl. Like Paula Abdul. But my choir teacher from my third high school got me a scholarship to a private music college. So I sang at Berklee College of Music and danced at Boston Conservatory. Throughout that time, I learned music theory and began teaching myself guitar, which led to writing my own songs. It quickly swallowed me up. I was in love and writing songs changed everything. It gave me a purpose and direction.
When did you move to NYC and what brought you here?
I originally moved to NYC January 1, 2013. It has always been my dream to live here. The walking, the people, architecture, the art. The culture of eating out with company and hopefully having inspiring conversations. And the pace, I love the pace. I also like the seasons and being out in all elements. And the fashion of course.
How long have you been working on your current music project?
Depends, some of the songs I started almost ten years ago, some I wrote last year and one I just finished in the studio… it’s a constant revolving door of work, really.
Are there any specific themes you tend to grapple with in your music? Any lyrical motifs?
I want you, why don’t you want me back… finding a million different ways to say that basically. Other than that, no not really.
Could you talk a little bit about your writing process?
Yeah, sometimes it’s melody and other times it’s lyrics first. Or it comes together in my head while having a conversation with a friend. The holes just float around throughout the day or week or month… then fill themselves almost. That’s a great feeling. Otherwise I write with friends who help hold my hand and encourage the song through to completion. Lately it’s hard for me to sit and finish a song… I need the presence of another person or audience.
Could you tell me one strange, unique, and/or unexpected thing about you?
I will not ever go skydiving. I have zero interest or need to conquer a very natural fear of heights.
What bands/musicians past and/or present inspire you?
Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Rodriguez, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Etta James, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, James Blake, Bon Iver, Catpower, Dustin O’Halloran, Nils Frahm, The Roots, Outkast, J-Dilla.
Who outside of the realm of music has influenced you? Artists? Writers? Philosophers?
Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Samuel Beckett, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Shakespeare, Frida Kahlo.
Tell us a little bit about your label? It was created specifically for you? What brought that about?
Secret Road was my publisher and licensing team. I was talking to a few indie labels about my next studio album (last year) and Secret Road put up their hand and said they wanted to release it. I love Daniel Higbee, who was head of the film and television licensing division at the time, and is now overseeing the label. He and I have a special relationship and I feel he really understands me and my music and is basically my number one supporter! It’s a blessing for me, truly.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Opening for Rodriguez every night in beautiful theatres across Canada and the States. Sitting side-stage with his daughter and son-in-law and watching him perform some of my favorite songs ever…that was surreal and beautiful.
Do you have a city or venue where you particularly love performing?
Montréal, Massey Hall in Toronto, and New York City. I want to play Carnegie Hall.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career, or the elements that have been hardest to deal with/navigate?
My biggest challenge is just being a writer. It’s hard as f**k!
What is your primary career goal for the next year? What would you like to have accomplished by the end of 2017?
To have my full length album out, fall in love and quit the music industry. Just kidding, I hate love.
Arum’s EP “Loners” now available on 10″ vinyl on her website and at retailers nationwide!