ARUM RAE IN NEW YORK, JULY 2016. PHOTOS: MARK DAVIS.
New York-based singer-songwriter Arum Rae says she’s “compelled” to make music. This impulse is palpable; her songs are soulful and yearning. She’s raw, peeled open at the seams, but in total command of her voice. This, her jazzy edge, and voracious attitude towards touring has landed her esteemed gigs with Gary Clark Jr., the Kills, and the late blues legend B.B. King. She wasn’t always confident in her abilities, though. When she applied to the Berklee College of Music, she didn’t write songs or play guitar. Later, when she began making her own music (she released her first track in 2004) she wouldn’t play under her own name, and instead took on the moniker White Dress.
“I didn’t have anything to hide behind,” she tells us of shedding White Dress. “I got over the shy indulgence and just thought it was better and more personable [to use my own name]. I’m a personable person, so acting like I’m not was not working. I used to scrutinize myself so badly,” she continues. “I would never listen to my old stuff, and just be like, ‘You’re such a failure. You fucking suck.’ But I never stopped working. Now, I feel it’s not so much that it’s good or bad; I just kept working and doing it. I know how hard it is. It might suck, but I think it’s cool.”
This Friday, Rae will release an EP titled Loners (Secret Road Records). Here, we’re pleased to premiere “Heaven,” its final track. When we sat down with Rae over breakfast in New York, she told us the personal story behind the song and recalled her musical beginnings.
HALEY WEISS: Why did you choose to name the EP Loners? Have you frequently felt like a loner in life?
ARUM RAE: Most definitely. The name I like because I feel like although it is the word loners, it’s inclusive to other people because I don’t know anybody who hasn’t felt like a loner at one period, or lonely. I’m an independent person in general, so it’s not out of fear or insecurity; it’s just that I like being on my own clock too.
WEISS: Have you always been that way?
RAE: Yes—very much so.
WEISS: So touring and being on the road must be a good fit for you.
RAE: Yeah, it’s definitely a sense of freedom. The quality of life is a little different on the road, so that part is hard, but I like the traveling and I also like that you don’t have to commit, in the sense that you’re leaving the next day. Something about that is really comforting to me.
WEISS: Can you tell me about the origin of “Heaven”?
RAE: I wrote the song with this guy that reminds me of Mick Jagger—his name is James T. Hall—and he was telling me about his experience knowing someone with addiction who really had a hard time living in this world. I was singing that song then, and this is when I was living in Savannah, Georgia, and then I kind of put it away because it was this old song and I didn’t know how much relevance it had. It came back really strongly into my life because I lost my brother to the same thing two and a half years ago. A month after he passed I was opening for B.B. King in Providence and it was to the day, and I was obviously feeling a need to express how crazy it was, so I told the audience. It was this big theater but it was so intimate and I felt like they were very communicative with me during the set. I was like, “Yeah, you guys, I lost my brother a month ago today,” and I played that song. It was therapeutic for me but I think it was also so important for them. Afterward I had a line for 40 minutes of people wanting to talk, or just say hi, but a lot of them were sharing their experiences of loss in different tragic ways. I thought it was really beautiful because it opened up a sense of communication for all of us. So then it became really a part of everything and I haven’t ever released it. We’re releasing it in that stripped down way because what else are we going to do, put a big band on it?
WEISS: Does it get any easier to perform?
RAE: It’s almost like I would feel guilty if it got easier. Singing something like that, there’s one point where I always lose myself in it, but if I go into it feeling like, “Oh, this song again,” I feel like I should check myself. That’s not okay. Toward the end, yeah, it’s always hard; stuff like that I don’t think ever gets easier.
WEISS: As that song is an older one, are most of the songs on the EP ones you’ve been working on for a long time? When did they come together?
RAE: “Loners” I wrote at the end last summer, and the same with “Wasn’t My Time.” “War” is something I’ve been working on for years and I finally finished it in the studio last October. It started when we went to war with—well, when we invaded Iraq. It would just sit around and come back, but I didn’t know how to write this chorus so I was messing with it in the studio and found it’s voice; I feel like it found it’s own life, so that one is pretty new as well. Some of them take for freaking ever. I don’t know how to say when you know it’s done, you just know.
WEISS: Have you always written lyrics? Do you remember the first song you wrote?
RAE: It’s called “Revolution.” I was really big into the Black Panther [movement], civil rights in general, and political justice. That was my thing in college. All of the girls, there was an all woman concert, and they all sang it at the end of the show together. It was cool. [laughs]
WEISS: Do you still make songs that are politically motivated?
RAE: “War” is, but it’s such a fine line because you don’t want to be preachy. When I hear stuff like that I turn it off. I would like to be able to just write things like, referencing “Imagine” is a joke, but like “Imagine” or “What a Wonderful World.” Those are such human songs. Lately I haven’t been concentrating in that direction but that’s a way I could go, like more of a lullaby or a passing thought, and that would be the way I think to speak about the world.
WEISS: What made you choose Berklee College of Music and what was your focus there?
RAE: I was a crazy kid. I was at my third high school and my teacher took me under his wing and he got me a scholarship to the summer program at Berklee, and I didn’t know what Berklee was or anything, but I was like, “Boston? Amazing. Berklee? Sure.” I went for singing and fell in love. I took a year off between high school and college and worked to save money, and then went out there for college. I don’t know what type of school you went to but art school, it’s kind of controversial. I think your teachers give you tools but after that it’s nobody’s business what you do with them and your expression. I feel like I really got a lot of the tools but I chose to go for business instead of anything else because I just really needed to dig and find myself on my own. So I went for business with a vocal scholarship.
WEISS: Where are you originally from?
RAE: I’m originally from Colorado. I went to a different school almost every year. The high schools, I got kicked out of one, moved to another… I was just wild and bored as shit in school.
WEISS: When did you come to New York?
RAE: I came in 2013, for two years basically, and then after my brother—my family is now in Virginia—I went back to Virginia for a year to veer off from the city. I just came back in January.
WEISS: Does it feel different now that you’ve returned?
RAE: Yeah. It feels more like home.
WEISS: When you were in Virginia with your family, was that a time when you were writing?
RAE: Almost every song I’ve written that no one else has heard has probably been about that scenario in one way or another because it was so brutal. I felt like I had post-traumatic stress. It was really hard because I was in charge, with the doctors and everybody, so I only know how I dealt with it by looking back. In the present time you think you’re dealing with something, but you’re not really identifying how you are dealing with it. Here in New York, I was depressed and weird and that’s not really my character to be a sad, depressive person. I knew I needed to be by my family and got a log cabin there and was 40 minutes from my mom—they have a cow farm there. I was also thinking of maybe living in L.A. or Nashville so I traveled to those places several times last year to write, to get out of myself, and came to New York a lot to see which place was really home. I would go back there and I don’t know, I just drew a lot of strength being around my family, being around the cows and the country. Then, it’s like it did its job and I was ready to go again. But it was pivotal for me to do; it recharged me on every level.
WEISS: How early on in life did you realize that you could sing? Was music important in your household growing up?
RAE: No—we weren’t really allowed to listen to music when I was a kid. My parents were in this weird fundamental Christian church. But, I went to a Christian school for kindergarten and first grade, and in kindergarten they put me on stage to sing “Little Town of Bethlehem.” After that I went to a different school every year but I always ended up in music and dance. I was so nervous, terrified, and had stage fright. When I would sing a solo I would always swallow in the middle of a note, every time. It was so embarrassing but for some reason I was always put there and found myself there.
WEISS: How did you end up playing with B.B. King?
RAE: My booking agent, he was just always looking for things and that was an opportunity because I played with Gary Clark Jr. a lot, so we’re all kind of in the same little circle. Gary played with B.B., he had these shows, and he needed somebody. He knew what was going on in my family life so it was really great timing, like, “Get back out there and stay up.”
WEISS: Were you intimidated?
RAE: With Gary, we were all great friends in Austin. He used to come into the studio when I was recording; I used to record under the name White Dress. He used to come into the studio listening sessions we were doing and vice versa. I always felt intimated by his guitar playing because it’s godly. I look up to him very, very much. And then B.B., I usually don’t meet the people that are way up here [holds hand up high]. He was very kind but he was just over it. We were sitting backstage together, talking, and on stage he looks like he enjoys it so much with that smile. He gets off stage and I was like, “It was a beautiful show. Do you enjoy it?” He was like, “No!” [laughs] I asked, “Why are you doing it?” He said [in a high pitched voice], “Because I need the money!” I was like, “I hear ya.”
WEISS: I read that you performed in mental hospitals. How did that happen?
RAE: I used to play anywhere and everywhere that I could. In Virginia and Georgia, I used to volunteer. One of the places that I volunteered at were old folks homes and mental hospitals. There were two mental hospitals I would go to. This one woman at one would totally make fun of me while I was singing. I will never forget her. She was in the back of the room, mocking me as I sang. [laughs] Oh, man, and it’s hard not to take that stuff personally. She was being a caricature of me and I had to agree with her because it was just so freaky, funny, and kind of on point. The other one I performed at, they were very calm, loving, and kind. Music does a lot for people. Another place was a cancer ward for kids in Georgia; that was intense as shit but again, you bring in the rattlers and stuff and their parents are like, “They haven’t lit up like this in a week.” It’s very real.
WEISS: How long have you been working on the full-length album and does it feel different than Loners?
RAE: Loners is really part of the album. It includes a couple of things that won’t be on the record. Really, we just wanted to get started. We have all of this material we’re sitting on while the record is still being finished. Nowadays, it’s so different—there’s the EP, single, record—but a record means a lot to me. To the rest of the world, it doesn’t seem like that. Loners and the album are definitely cut from the same cloth and I’m excited for the album just for continuity, putting them all together, because I think the songs really complement each other. For the record coming, I feel like there are a lot of beautiful things on it and this EP is cool but it’s just a taste or something—there’s so much more.
LONERS WILL BE RELEASED THIS FRIDAY, JULY 15 VIA SECRET ROAD RECORDS AND THIS WEDNESDAY AND FRIDAY, RAE WILL SHOWCASE THE EP AT THE DJANGO AT THE ROXY HOTEL. HER FULL-LENGTH ALBUM IS SET TO COME OUT IN EARLY 2017. FOR MORE ON ARUM RAE, VISIT HER FACEBOOK.