By: Patrick O’Heffernan
(Los Angeles) The past doesn’t define you, nor does it make you who you are. These are the words and the definitive core of the musician/artist/provocateur ARI, whose past is complex and painful but also exultant. Regardless of bygone fears and refuges, she will not let her past tunnel vision either her life or her music. Instead, she uses it to inform it. The result is not just music, but a music/artform that makes her one of the most interesting performers on the music scene today.
With a voice that ranges from childlike to ancient crone, a music structure that elides format boundaries and yet stays engrossing and entertaining, and a visual presentation both on stage and in video that is a performance art in itself, ARI is at once alien and comfortably familiar as she emerges with the promise of being a game changer.
Toronto-born LA-based ARI (a stage name she took as part of her public career) studied psychology in college and was a competitive figure skater. She had no interest in music – actually, in her own words, she was running away from music. She decided to study psychology to understand why her family was “messed up” and why she had such an anxiety-filled childhood. She even considered sport psychology as a window into herself. But the answers to her questions were more often in front of a microphone than in a book.
“I became a psych major so I could figure out what the hell was wrong with me,” she says. “I actively avoided music because of previous experiences I’ve had. But, I ended up in the music building.”
The sound, video and art that she incubated in the music building was healing, unapologetic, unbound by genres, and sonically and visually unique while completely relevant to virtually any audience. Emerging with that sound and art was a new persona, ARI, that she calls a “fresh tableau…more me than I’ve ever been…the musical identity that I’ve been working towards my whole life.”
That identity, the one ARI presents on stage and on camera and in the recording studio is a duality of the familiar and the alien. Her debut album, appropriately called (or perhaps ironically called) Tunnel Vision, unfurls a dual identity in a voice and a form that defies categorization but delivers messages that can be simultaneously healing and uncomfortable. This is ARI’s skill – the ability to transform herself into an ethereal being that is nothing like the rest of us and yet resonates closely with all of us. ARI’s music, art, writing, and performance is familiar while strange, putting us at ease while provoking us to think, Yoko Ono-like, beyond our boxes.
“I feel fierce” she explains when asked where the duality of alien and familiar comes from, “ but I feel playful and free. I feel like an outcast, but I’m part of bigger group. I want my art to convey that duality.”
The name “ARI” signals her ferocity and playfulness. In Nordic, it means “eagle”; in Hebrew, it means “lion”. On stage she is both, playing with costume, lights, smoke and sound to create an atmosphere that takes us out of the venue, away from the clinking bar and the buzzing doorway. We hear ferocious music from a beautiful alien creature who makes us think about things we were not prepared for, like human trafficking and cancer. But it is OK because as we enter this otherworld she has created on the stage we discover that she is us. We came for the music; if we pay attention, we will leave with an epiphany.
ARI’s first major release of her creative duality is the album Tunnel Vision, which opens with “Teachers”, a stiletto-sharp song that impales the sexual double standard with her urgent catch-in-your throat voice. “Boys brag about how many sexual encounters they have, while girls – well, if they are asked how many they have had, “ she notes, “ they are criticized for too many or not enough. There should be only one standard. Stop slamming women for doing what we do.” According to ARI, ” being sexual is not dirty. It’s an expression of love.”
The video for “Teachers” is a potent statement of what girls have to go through just to be themselves. Every man, every boyfriend, every father should watch it. ARI’s message, expressed in a style that is both feminine and tough, makes you think about everyday events you never noticed before. She sings, “I’m stronger, I’m wiser” over the images of a young girl shedding her innocent guise and becoming herself, ”a dirty girl downtown”, who, in the end, is just a girl being herself.
ARI goes deeper with “Pretty Little Villains”, pointing us to the human trafficking in girls in our cities, even in our neighborhoods. Inspired by a news report of a young girl captured and sold for sex in a hotel near her in Toronto, ARI could not help but feel her pain. “ I cannot understand how someone could do that for 10 minutes of weird pleasure,” she says of the story that drove her to write “Pretty Little Villains”. The video is unforgettable performance art, shot in one take in her bathtub.
The determination she shows in “Pretty Little Villains” runs through the title track, “Tunnel Vision”, especially in the not-for-radio-lyrics version, in which she proclaims her independence while she tells us she just wants to fall in love again – another duality. Set to electronic drum beats that scaffold her eerie voice, it showcases her skill with music, electronics, production and ability to erase genre lines. It is a perfect prelude to the urgent message she delivers later in “Spit Me Out”, introduced by a heart beat and set off with drum pads as her seductive voice turned childlike by keyboard chimes drives the message home .
“Tunnel Vision is a personal diary of mine, my repression vomited on a record,” ARI explains of the deeply personal nature of the album’s songs like “Time Machine”, which chronicles the cancer developing in a close friend. The “Time Machine” video takes her to the edge of a building, holds us breathless as she contemplates a jump to end it all and then steps back. She sings that she “wants to turn back time for you” to a time before the cancer, and then she jumps, plunging feet first in heavy boots into water, and then disappears, putting a final period on another arresting piece of performance art.
When we talked she had recently returned from Istanbul, having gone through the Ataturk Airport only days before it was attacked by terrorists. She was also in Cyprus during another bombing, very close to her. The thought of her proximity to terror was unsettling. “I am a bit of a utopian”, she says, “but a realist too.” However, the intrusion of reality did not dampen her enthusiasm for the next album, now in the final stages of production, which she promised will be much lighter. “In Tunnel Vision I got my dark matter out,” she says. The next album went much faster and is more fun.”
Fun is good. But even in a fun party dance song like “Tiny Bubbles” on Tunnel Vision, ARI is tuned to the human condition.“ I want to add something to the world”, she says about her “pop with a message.” She knows her music can be healing because it helped heal her. “The most rewarding thing I do is make music that is relevant to people,” she says. “After ‘Time Machine’ I received a flood of letters and posts and emails from people telling me they felt I understood them. I want my music to help, to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Still early in her career ARI is demonstrating the prolific output that often marks a genius. She produced the emotionally exhausting Tunnel Vision in a fairly rapid nine months, is about ready to release album number 2, and is already thinking about a darker album number 3- all while she travels and performs. But most important, she is succeeding in her drive to create music and art that makes a difference, that is relevant to people’s lives. As she expands her footprint in live music, video and perhaps into art spaces like LACMA, I think ARI will continue to ignite and energize thoughtful, healing conversations – the kind we need right now to remind us that our past does not define who we are.
Tunnel Vision is available on iTunes and Spotify