Record of the Week: Ariel Bui’s ‘Real & Fantasy’

Ariel Bui is an 11-year veteran of the Nashville indie music scene, and she’s back with her first record since her self-titled 2016 LP. It’s called Real & Fantasy, and it’s a garage rock collection of tunes composed almost entirely pre-pandemic on her electric guitar with the intention to record and perform them with a full band.

And the band that Bui assembled to record at Nashville’s Bomb Shelter studio with Grammy-nominated producer Andrija Tokic, who not only previously partnered with Bui, but Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff and many others, was wonderfully illustrative of her creative connections in this community. The lineup included two previous Americana Honors Instrumentalist of the Year nominees, Ellen Angelico on guitar and Megan Coleman on drums; Raconteurs and Dead Weather low-end master “Little” Jack Lawrence on bass; and former Record of the Week featured solo artist/Phosphorescent collaborator Jo Schornikow on all versions of keys, synth and organ.

As a self-described artist, activist and educator, Bui has been anything but still in recent years, moving some of her music lessons online through her business Melodia Studio to accommodate quarantined and locked-down students of all ages. She’s also been inspired by the young songwriters and musicians in her orbit through volunteer roles with Southern Girls Rock Camp (an annual program of Youth Empowerment Through Arts and Humanities [YEAH!]) and OZ Arts Nashville. In her new songs, she recalls fondly, and with the benefit of hindsight, her own adolescent rise through the punk-hardcore-DIY music scene in coastal Florida. These energies — and the generally overwhelming nature of social and political realities — helped to fuel Bui’s goal of arranging a chronological story arc of her own personal and musical development, as revealed through the 11 tracks on Real & Fantasy.

Listen to the album and read part of my conversation with Bui to decode some of the double-entendre — what’s real and/or fantasy? — on WNXP’s #RecordoftheWeek.

On the Record: A Q&A With Ariel Bui

Celia Gregory: Well, Ariel Bui, I’m so glad to talk to you up here. Welcome back to the station, where you’re now getting to talk about your new music.

Ariel Bui: Thank you so much for having me, Celia. It’s really good to see you again.

CG: Likewise. In pre-pandemic times we both volunteered at a different radio station, and that’s how I came to know your music, but also your work in the community. I think it bears repeating that you are an artist, but also an activist, also an educator. And yes, I stole that right from your email signature. Can you, before we even dive into the music, sort of introduce yourself as those three things and maybe what these three things mean to you now in balance in your life?

AB: Balance, I don’t if I’ve achieved that, but yes, I have this new record coming out, and so that’s kind of my musician hat. I’m a singer-songwriter. The Nashville Scene has also called me a bandleader, and I like that. I had this amazing band that played with me in the studio at the Bomb Shelter for this most recent record Real & Fantasy. But I also am an educator and I run a music school, it’s called Melodia Studio and I teach piano. We also have over a dozen other music teachers now who teach many different instruments in people’s homes, in their own home studios in Nashville and New York, and since the pandemic, online. So, Melodia studio is offering music lessons all over the world now. And as far as the activist hat, I feel like in between different album cycles and stuff, I’ll often burn out of being like, “Me, me, me, check out my song, listen to my feelings, look at my website,” all of that stuff.

I really do feel like being a musician is a service to the community and you want to make the world a better place. But it can feel really abstract when that looks like your face on a T-shirt or something. And so I really do feel deeply about different things going on in the world all the time. And that exhibits in different activist projects. In the past, I’ve volunteered with Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp and Youth Empowerment Through Arts and Humanities and OZ Arts Nashville. Right now, I think one of my biggest projects is an environmental activism project. I’m working on building a self-sustainable, off-grid, Earthship in Taos [New Mexico]. I used to work at Earthship Biotecture before I moved to Nashville. But my mind is brewing. I’ve been pretty quiet during this album cycle about all of the things going on politically. I mean, since the last regime, if you will, until now, a lot has been going on. So I’m trying to figure out how to help in that arena when it feels so overwhelming in the world right now.

CG: Well, here here. And thank you for describing all of your projects, because you’re a busy bee. But it doesn’t seem to me that you wear busy with a badge of honor. You just are involved. You’re connected. I read a really revealing, wonderful piece about you in The East Nashvillian a number of years ago about your pretty traumatic childhood and moving around a lot. What does sense of place and community mean to you now, this many years later?

AB: Thank you for bringing that up and asking that. It is really interesting being a public person and sharing really private parts of your journey. But as an artist, I almost feel like it’s hard to separate those things, because the honest answer of who I am has a lot to do with my life. I did move around a lot and I did have a very traumatic childhood. And Nashville is a place that I’ve lived longer than anywhere else. I lived for a few months or a year at a time when I was a kid. And I remember wanting to break that cycle. When I got to Nashville 11 years ago I said, “Whenever things get tough, I’m going to stick it out and not just get that knee-jerk reaction to start over somewhere new.” And so having built a home, like an actual home in a place intentionally, has been a really healing process for me.

This Nashville community is especially dear to me because there are so many creative people, so much stuff going on here, so many kinds of music. And there are people who are passionate about permaculture and farming and environmentalism. Whatever it is that you’re into, it’s here, too, and it’s precious. There is a collaborative environment here even though everybody’s busy. I mean, I’m not the only one who’s wearing many hats – that’s a very normal thing in the creative economy here, people are just hustling, juggling many different creative projects as well as self-employment jobs or owning businesses. And yet people always find a way to help each other out and lift each other up in this way that I find really inspiring. I’m really glad to be a part of that.

CG: To the point of some of your childhood and adolescence, the first couple songs on this record, Real & Fantasy, go back to that place, right? Your teenage years. How did you find your voice to go back to that time? These are really vivid descriptions of being a lot younger.

AB: A lot younger. You know, I think there were a bunch of different circumstances that happened kind of all around that time that did really bring me back to that place of being a young person. In 2018, I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my very first record [Disguised As Fate]. It wasn’t like a big album release or anything like that, but I wanted to reprint some CDs, do a little shout-out to this record I had made and written when I was a teenager. So reflecting back on that as well as working with these teenage youth who are making their own rock and roll and exploring their own voices — Queens of Noise, Lindsy Lomis and Robin August and Imani Miles and all of these very inspiring young people — it reminded me of a time when I was actually very deep and the music was complex and honoring that.

Then, when I was approached by the label Audio Network, I had just come back from our very first cousins-only reunion, which happened to be in Florida, where I grew up in the music scene. So I was feeling very nostalgic for growing up by the beach. I’ve lived all over, but middle school, high school, college I was in Florida. And so this cousin reunion happened and I even ran into an ex, some old crushes, and they were also musicians from this scene. And actually the label was connected to me by an old friend from that music scene, as well. We were all teenagers together making music in a small town, a small county which is a cluster of beachside towns.

I kicked [the album] off with that. It was almost like I wanted to shout out to my friends who have been with me from the beginning, who were there when I was 15-, 16-years-old, playing shows in the middle of American Legion halls with hardcore bands. I was flashing back to who I was then and kind of speaking to how powerful young people are, how powerful women are, and how important it is to take us seriously and listen to what we have to say.

CG: I was actually going to ask about your track listing and your placement. Is that something you obsess over? How long have you been compiling these songs?

AB: I do obsess over song order. The debate: do you kick it off with the single or do you slow roll it in? In 2019 I had a meeting that was very Nashville, when the Audio Network A&R rep asked, “Are you a country and Western songwriter?” They listened back to my [2016] record after that meeting and asked me if I could write more songs like my rock and roll single, “Appraisal.” And so I said, “Oooh, now I have a prompt.” I kind of had writer’s block before that. He asked, “Can you write a female alt-indie rock record?” And I was like, “That sounds fun. Can I? Let me see what I can do about that.”

“Sixteen” was the first song I wrote. I remember being in my kitchen with my electric guitar unplugged, the guitar I got after my last record that I wrote and that has helped with the rock and roll vibe. And I wrote a majority of the songs around that time, all before the pandemic. It was a really fun process, actually, to have that discipline to say, “Oh, there are other people who are interested in my songwriting and I’m turning them in and they’re liking them and I’m getting immediate feedback.” It gave me the discipline to write every couple of days. I wrote seven songs, then the pandemic happened and I kind of stopped. So I pulled a couple of old songs that I’d written around 2016, 2017 and fit [those songs] in with the seven that I wrote for this project. And then I wrote one song after the pandemic. And that was [closing track] “Make It Through Another Day.”

But the song order, I decided it is mostly chronological of how I wrote them, but also of my life. It’s like a snapshot of my timeline, going from youth until present day. It starts with “Sixteen” and then I lightened it up with “Young Love.” I was like, “Alright, what is it like to write a pop song? What have I observed about pop songs?” Very colloquial, simple rhyming lyrics, you know, almost to the point where I’m embarrassed to put it out. I’m like, “I swear, you guys, I did it on purpose.” To be really as simple as possible.

CG: You feel like you have to defend it?

AB: To myself, maybe. I don’t know. But there’s this concept that rolls through this album, starting with youth, and then it’s like, “OK, we can have all these crushes or dreams or whatever. But then what about taxes? What about delving deeper into the more adult subjects of sexuality and whether your sexuality is known to yourself and also compatible with someone else’s? And what about relationships that don’t fall within cis[gender], hetero-normative, monogamous, very limited structures? How do you navigate that, you know, with the people around you?” So there’s this kind of like sexual awakening that happens but also is hampered by reality and the constructs of daily living.

And there’s also another song that I am like, “Oh God, I’m going to put it out there. And people’s moms are going to hear this. My rock camp kids are going to hear this.”

CG: I think I know which one you’re talking about. Tell us, though, I don’t want to assume.

AB: Yeah, it’s “Bond.” I mean, it is very vulnerable to put something like that out there. Disclaimer, I’m not personally into that. I personally would not want to lick anybody’s shoe.

I’d lick the spit right off your shoe
And do exactly what you told me to
If you could prove your love was true
I’d be your baby girl, daddy
I could tie you up in chains
Or have you any other way
But the only way I’ll stay
Is if you love me every day


CG: On record here. [Laughs] But it’s part of the concept, right?

AB: It’s part of the concept. Andrija, the producer, he thought it was the last song that I wrote because it’s so out there. But it was the first song that I wrote when I brought my electric guitar and amp home from Eastside Music Supply. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have an electric guitar, and I feel like such a bad-ass.” With the distortion and the reverb and stuff, it made me feel like I could say anything. And so I did. In the past have been a very storytelling songwriter. And so to have a song that is kind of a character…

CG: It’s not about you. It could be somebody else that’s listening to this.

AB: Absolutely. And also, I feel like the joy of making art is that things are metaphors. I like taking images or a phrase and going, “This has so many layers of meaning.”  

CG: I was listening to this song “Bond” and it’s so sexy. But it was also like a “spooky season” feeling to me, walking around my neighborhood here before Halloween in Nashville. And then you move to “Gray Area” and it feels expansive, like you’re on a road trip or something. That felt like an artful decision to put those next to each other, which is why I asked about the track listing. I had no idea it was also chronological.

AB: They’re mostly chronological. “Bond” was written in 2016. So that one is falls outside of the actual chronological order. But I figured with “Working out the Kinks,” I was like, let’s put the kinky song after that one. So much of navigating relationship, you know, we can utilize the metaphor of kink or whatever. But so much of relationship has to do with communication and sometimes navigating those needs and boundaries, literal long distance. You can feel like you’re on the same page, but sometimes with people that you’re close with, you can also feel like you’re in a different universe. Like “I’m trying to talk to you but I don’t know if we’re hearing each other.”

And in the world of BDSM or whatever, there’s so much communication that goes on. I think that is so important. Even though I’m not in that community, I find a lot of really great parallels to what we should all be doing in our relationships. A high level of communication, discussing needs and boundaries. So “Gray Area” was kind of about how we navigate our feelings in relationships, but it was also like the gray area in your mind. In the second verse it’s “Where’s my mind? It’s talking, it’s talking, it’s talking and talking,” and kind of trying to find this meditative state.

“When I See You Again” is one of my favorite songs from the record for a couple of reasons. I’m a nerd about analog recording, and I really love the live aspect of it. At the Bomb Shelter with Andrija, that’s something that we have done together in the past. And so we had the whole band playing the bed tracks, you know the jargon for it, the main track before overdubbing other stuff. We did it all live together at the same time, and I was so vibed out with them that we kept the whole vocal track. It’s all original and I know it because the other stuff you cut and paste vocal takes, “Oh you could get this better” or whatever. I just know from the behind the scenes that this is the live take. We felt it together.

Also, I really wanted to make a whole surf rock record. You know, we’re talking about like my youth in Florida. And I was thinking about rock bands that I was really into, and they were kind of like punk — I’m bad with genre names, but like surf punk, monster punk.

CG: You know it when you hear it.

AB: Yeah, lots of reverb.

CG: I love that. Clearly, so much reflection went into this, looking backwards and then experiencing in real-time some of these things. I also love knowing that you had this prompt, like you understood the assignment. It’s a great rock record. It’s grimy like garage rock in parts. But thirdly, I didn’t know that you’ve never really composed on an electric guitar prior to now. So a lot of firsts happening on this record.

AB: Yeah, a lot of firsts! I had maybe bought the electric guitar before I recorded my last record at the Bomb Shelter, but I had written all of it on an acoustic. Honestly, I am not a gearhead. There are a lot of gearheads in the world.

CG: Definitely a lot in Nashville. It’s so intimidating.

AB: Oh my God, right?! So intimidating. Even as a musician and especially as a female musician, if you’re not a gearhead and you walk into one of those kinds of situations – or even as a DJ, I’m not necessarily like, “Oh, the first pressing is the best pressing of this very obscure record.” I’m not a gearhead in that way either. But for the longest time, I was solo and I also didn’t like to have to deal with EQ’ing. I just really liked the fact that you could pick up an acoustic guitar and it always sounds good. It’s minimal and it’s very efficient. And especially when you don’t have rock bands around you, you can make a lot of really full songs on an acoustic guitar.

Writing these songs was a fun challenge because I’d always thought listening to rock music that the lead rhythm guitarist actually has very simple parts most of the time, and it’s the band that fleshes it out. Whereas when you’re a solo guitarist/singer-songwriter, you have to try to flesh that out, whether it’s with your lyrics or with some complex guitar parts.

After the last record, I did then experience bringing bands on stage with these amazing session players. And I realized my acoustic guitar, I could never hear it. I would always get some kind of weird feedback issue. And so I decided then, if I’m going to be playing on stage with a band, an electric guitar is the way to go and it is so much fun.

CG: Something that just came to mind, with you traditionally composing on an acoustic instrument and also teaching piano, it seems like it’s a simplified life. This is like your house off-the-grid in Taos. But you can also amps-to-11 crazy busy life, get your hands in a bunch of different places and enrich your community here in Nashville. You don’t have to pick a lane, right?

AB: Yeah. I feel like I don’t have to pick a lane and I don’t want to pick a lane and I just can’t.

CG: So it’s decided. You can’t and you don’t have to.

AB: Yeah, I feel like I juggle them, though. I’m like, “Well at least maybe I should limit myself to like three major projects at once or something like that.”

CG: But somebody’s going to hear this and recruit you for something next. That’s how it works.

AB: It is how it works. It kind of snowballs. Like, once you do a thing all of a sudden it’s ten things. But gosh, I’m grateful. There have been times where I got really low and down with that imposter syndrome or just burnout or the state of the world or whatever. But whenever I am a little bit better, I remember how grateful I should be because this was the dream. And it takes a long time to build this dream.

You know, I used to work six jobs. To get to the place where my main two things for the most part are running a music education small business and teaching, and doing music — that was the dream. I was nannying and babysitting and substitute teaching at a preschool and waitressing and all of the stuff. It was like so many things to build up to this. I just have to remind my own self to be so grateful that I have been able to do this. Because so many people give up along the way because it’s really hard.