Today it’s not uncommon to be self-taught because the internet is right there to provide one with all of the tools needed, but back when CD players were still all the rage, one had to obsessively listen, practice, and learn to the same record on repeat to grasp the beauty of creating one’s own music. Thanks to a determination on that level, Ariel Bui is here gracing the world with her presence and working towards not only educating the next generation of musicians but also creating a sustainable world for them to do so. With that, we talked about her October 2022 release, ‘Real & Fantasy,’ educational goals, building her dream space, and more with Ariel Bui.
Kendra: When you dropped your first record ‘Disguised As Fate’ in 2008, we were months away from one of the most historic elections in history, and since then…well, it’s been quite historical but in very different ways. It’s hard to say that in that time you haven’t been impacted by the world around you and just life in general. With that, do you think the person you were in 2008 (mentally, artistically, void of all the craziness that’s happened since 2008) could have made ‘Real & Fantasy’ or has all that’s gone on since 2008 impacted you in a way that’s impacted how you approached this record as an artist?
Ariel Bui: All that’s gone on between the release of my first record, ‘Disguised As Fate’ in 2008, and my new record, ‘Real & Fantasy’ in 2022, has certainly impacted me and how I’ve approached this record. As a person, I have learned and grown so much. ‘Real & Fantasy’ encapsulates that growth. It showcases a journey from my youth to my adulthood, learning to accept the person I was becoming and have become. I interweave themes of that same person I was then into a place of healing and liberation that is simultaneously hampered by the realities and restraints of adulthood, human relationships, and the world at large. As an artist, I have learned and grown so much. I have gained so much more experience in recording and performing. I have learned what I prefer the process to be like in the studio and how to advocate for myself as a female artist.
With ‘Disguised As Fate,’ I was learning how to record music for the first time. Some of the recordings were done in a professional studio, but many of the recordings were done in very lo-fi home recording settings, which would be the case for not only my first record but the next two– ‘To Haiti, With Love’ (2011) and ‘Niche EP’ (2013) – which can only be found on Bandcamp currently.
Between 2008 and 2022 a whole lot certainly has happened! 20 years have passed since I wrote many of the songs on my first record. In 2009, I graduated from college with a music degree during an economic crisis and decided not to go to grad school, gaining more student loan debt without the guarantee of a job. I instead pursued a path toward sustainability and off-grid building to address climate justice. That was until the calling towards music landed me in Nashville where friend Dylan Ethier, who helped record ‘Disguised As Fate,’ recorded my third record, ‘Niche EP.’ It wasn’t until recording ‘Niche EP’ that I discovered live, analog recording was my most authentic style of recording, which was how my 2016 self-titled release and my fifth and latest release ‘Real & Fantasy’ were recorded–analog at The Bomb Shelter.
Since the Obama election you referred to, we traversed to a more dystopian world of the Trump era, the rise of white supremacist groups amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo era, a pandemic, countless natural disasters, and the rise of Asian hate. Now, we have faced the overturning of Roe v Wade, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, book bans and criminalization of teachers, attacks on voter rights, and more. It is impossible to separate all of that from my life as a person and as an artist. I have subtly spun such themes in and out of my songs.
All of this makes me think of a song, “How It Should Be,” that was on both my first record, ‘Disguised As Fate’, and my last, Self-Titled, record. The song is singing from my past self to my future self, acknowledging that they are the same person, yet different people, simultaneously. The two different versions of the song, the home recordings where I was sick and under-resourced, and the professionally-produced versions, give a nod to the fact that I’m the same person, yet, I am also a new person—forever interconnected but always growing, changing and evolving.
Kendra: So the video for “Real & Fantasy” features you and an array of wonderful musicians doing what y’all do best in a studio. I know for “Sixteen” you went out and shot at the beach. What made you want to go back to basics for this video?
Ariel Bui: We filmed the video for “Real & Fantasy” during the recording of the album at The Bomb Shelter back in 2021, over a year before we shot the video for the single, “Sixteen.” I wanted to capture the magic of the studio and make the most of the occasion by capturing us all together. It was nerve-racking to be on camera the very first day of recording and getting settled in with all the musicians, but it was also really fun.
Recording an album is a special time and I’m glad we’ll have this video to remember that special time by. At the time, we didn’t know which songs would be the singles, because we hadn’t even recorded them yet! So we filmed this one, anticipating it might become a single–it turned out to be the title track of the album. After Michael Mallicote shot this video & we had recorded the whole album, I had cinematic ideas for other music videos in my head, and “Sixteen” emerged as a single among early listeners. So, we eventually headed to the beach to do something a little different for the “Sixteen” video, where the story of the song was actually set.
Kendra: Speaking of “Sixteen,” from the ‘70s vibes to the lyrics – I was hooked in an instant. I particularly liked the hook, “I may be just a little girl/ I have something to say.” I can recall how aware I was at 16, even 12, and how it often felt as if I was more responsible than the adults around me. Because of that, I don’t like to disregard those younger than me. Especially knowing that just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re wiser. With that, why do you think society has it in them that kids should be seen and not heard?
Ariel Bui: I think it’s easy to develop the perception that with life experience comes wisdom. Yet, as we grow older, we often get more jaded and weighed down by the world. I think that youth are at a really special time in their lives, where they are truly beginning to see and experience the world around them in a profound way, with fresh yet keen perspectives, with a more current knowledge of the changing world around them, and with deeper understanding, passion, and feeling than adults would often like to admit.
The world is full of “isms” that attempt to minimize the voices and experiences of “others”– age-ism is one, amongst sexism, racism, ableism, and so forth. Perhaps society views young people as incapable children, rather than fully developed human beings with legitimate viewpoints, unjaded wisdom, and strong leadership potential. I’m not quite sure why society generally believes youth should be seen and not heard, while at the same time putting the responsibility on them to be the future, to be the ones to make the world a better place, and to fix the mistakes of the older generations, all at the same time.
I believe that is why I love working with youth, because I love seeing the complete human in each person, no matter what stage they are at in their lives. I feel inspired by them and reinvigorated by them. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely have become a jaded adult who jokes about younger generations not knowing what it was like before the internet and cell phones, but once again, those are superficial things compared to the humanness and wisdom of youth. I remember the profundity of my own younger years, and my desire to be heard and respected for my own wisdom, so I try to respect that in the youth in my life.
Kendra: This is likely something you run into being that you’re an educator, teaching young people the beauty of music. Has there ever been an instance where you’ve been inspired to go home and just create after a lesson?
Ariel Bui: I teach music to students of all ages at the music school I run called Melodia Studio, and feel just as inspired teaching young students the joy of music as I do encouraging adults as well. I have been feeling especially inspired lately by my long-term students who have been with me for nearly a decade. They are now studying Bach and Mozart or learning to sing their favorite pop and rock songs while accompanying themselves on piano.
Not only is it miraculous to see that we all start as beginners and can progress so much, but I have found myself enjoying practicing the Bach Preludes and Fugues that I am teaching my students. It is helping me remember how meditative and enjoyable it is to challenge oneself to learn and play new things, just for fun. It brings me back to why I love playing piano–an instrument that I do not often write or perform on, but that I simply love to play for enjoyment and as a meditative practice.
And yes, there were also many times that I would come home from organizing and teaching at Southern Girls Rock’n’Roll Camp and Youth Empowerment Through the Arts & Humanities where I felt so inspired to go home and create– to stray from the solo-guitarist-singer-songwriter life and be in a rock band, to play a new instrument like the drums or the bass in addition to already playing guitar. My song “Sixteen” draws not only from my own experiences as a teenage girl and musician but also draws inspiration from the girls, boys, and youth I witnessed so bravely learning new instruments, collaborating, and rocking out.
As a self-taught and then classically trained musician, I feel this pressure to be perfect. But I feel inspired by the youth that I teach that it is not about being virtuosically skilled or perfect, but that it is about putting yourself out there and having fun. I know the youth are inspired by their educators, but we teaching artists are equally inspired by them.
Kendra: On top of educating and making music, you’re also an activist and focused on making the world a better place. I recently interviewed a UK singer-songwriter by the name of DiElle on my show, Crushgasm, and she noted she was jumping into the digital music space more so for the fact that it gets rid of plastic regarding physical music. What other ways can musicians help out the earth, because we all know she needs it?
Ariel Bui: I want to start by saying that I do believe governments and corporations should be held accountable for environmental stewardship and policies because they create the structures in which we all rely on. We place such a great deal of personal responsibility on individuals for saving the planet, and though I am 100% a believer in personal responsibility and direct action toward making the world a better place, I do believe things like regulating the creation and use of single-use plastics, regulating emissions, or providing policies that allow for sustainable housing and transportation, for example, are needed on a grander scale.
Currently, I am pursuing my long-time goal of building a self-sustainable, off-grid, Earthship-inspired, small studio in Taos, New Mexico. My goal is to have a space where I can retreat to from the city and remember what it’s like to be non-reliant on the grid, to feel inspired by nature and connect more deeply to my creative soul, to inspire and educate others about off-grid living, and if the climate crisis really hits the fan, a space where I can live without having to rely on the grid.
I truly wish governments and policies would make it easier for more of us to live and work in sustainable buildings such as these, without having to go renegade and do it in wildly rural places where building codes are less inhibitive. My Earthship-inspired studio will passively heat and cool itself using physics (rather than electricity), will be built largely with recycled and natural materials, catch and filter rainwater, reuse and recycle that water for multiple uses, treat its own sewage (rather than have the sewage overflow into natural water sources), grow food, and rely on solar and wind power. Not to mention, its rounded walls built from tires and dirt, will be very sound-proofed, with great acoustics.
There are so many different ways that musicians and others can try to be more environmentally conscious, but I really wish we could all live and work in buildings that are just so much more self-sufficient, less reliant on fossil fuels and grid power.
Kendra: Time for a side note: With Thanksgiving being right around the corner I’d love to know what artist’s discography are you most thankful for?
Ariel Bui: There are so many artists that I am grateful for, but I would have to say, if I could only pick one, Fiona Apple is an artist whose discography I am extremely thankful for. When her first record, ‘Tidal,’ came out, I was in elementary school. Her single, “Criminal,” was an MTV sensation and very influential. It remains, to this day, my karaoke go-to.
Yet, it was her sophomore album, ‘When the Pawn…,’ which came out when I was in 7th grade, that was particularly impactful on me. Her erratic live performance on late-night TV of “Fast As You Can” had me hooked. I asked for the CD for Christmas and would listen obsessively to it, listening to all the layers in the lyrics and production, singing along, and recording myself to analyze how to become a better singer. Her honest anguish, beautiful attention to detail, and her openness about her trauma journey spoke to my own childhood trauma experience. In a time before the #MeToo era, she helped me feel less alone, and truly artistically inspired.
I am inspired by her slow and steady approach to making records, valuing quality over quantity. I have become accustomed to the years of anticipation between her records, particularly when the original Jon Brion productions of ‘Extraordinary Machine’ were shelved (but leaked and fan-girl-style-pirated by me for the brief moments they would pop up on the internet) before the reproduction of it was released.
Infinite gratitude to her yet again for releasing ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ at the onset and height of the pandemic and lockdown. It was the perfect timing and hit in just the right way. She recorded it at home, and we were all home, needing to get through the hard times. ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ (mixed with Tiger King) really got me through the beginning of the pandemic.
I am also grateful to her for being vocal about acknowledging the Indigenous Lands that we live on. As you refer to Thanksgiving coming up, I want to express gratitude to the original stewards of the land we live on and want to acknowledge the indigenous communities that are still fighting for climate justice, social and racial justice, or just fighting for basic survival and sovereignty today.
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘Real & Fantasy’ out now, what’s on the horizon as we head closer to 2023?
Ariel Bui: That is a great question. The major debate now is whether to submit to festivals and book tours for 2023, covid, and inflation-willing. If anyone reading out there is open to help with booking and touring, please reach out, because I could certainly use the support.
The other consideration is whether to try and finish the next steps of my self-sustainable, off-grid studio build and host a hands-on sustainable building workshop. And of course, to keep growing my music school, Melodia Studio. Or all of the above?
Any updates will be on my website, so stay tuned.