The up and comer discusses her upcoming 'Retrograde' EP, the New York City club scene and creating an immersive musical world.
Purple locks rustling from the chilly New York City winter air, Ariana and the Rose settles in with a smoldering cup of coffee and fresh-baked cookies, beaming ear-to-ear as we dive into a lengthy discussion about her journey and the craft of avant-garde music. Nearly three years ago, she dropped an EP titled Head vs Heart which brimmed with hooks and a stormy calm, hinting at something unsettling bubbling underneath. In the world of pop, three years can seem like a decade. And for the newcomer, that transitory period in both time and space felt a little backward and moved in the wrong direction, especially in 2016 when things in the world seemed to parallel the underworld of the hit Netflix series "Stranger Things." But amidst such disturbing and frayed loops--much like the ultimate Trump presidency--Ariana DiLorenzo found herself and what she's made of through utter strength and resilience. On her forthcoming project, the suitably-titled Retrograde EP (out later this spring), she expands on her previous work and explores feeling separated from her life but present at the same time. "I felt like my life was in retrograde for the whole duration of the making of [this project]," she shares. "Every time I talked to someone last year, they were like 'Mercury is in retrograde.' I was like 'it's been in retrograde all year, is the entire year upside down?' I think a lot of people felt that about 2016."
"It felt like a very upside down world. I felt like I was in the Upside Down all last year. The music reflects that. 'These Ruins' and 'Supercool' were written in London. Then, 'Love You Lately' is a duet with an amazing duo RKCB. I wrote that with them in LA. And I wrote 'How Does That Make You Feel' in New York. It feels like this coming together of all these different places, and I felt like I was on a plane all the time," she expounds. "The music is an exploration of all these moments where you feel everything is in retrograde. 'Love You Lately' is about that moment in a relationship where you're like 'what is happening? Why is this happening to us? What's going on?'"
Her EP is anchored by the provocative and empowering "Supercool," the video of which features the Moxi Girls taking over the New York City streets and Lola Star's Dreamland Roller Rink out on Coney Island. "There's strength in [this song]. I had put out 'Survival of the Fittest' and 'Dirty Dancing' as a double A-side. I knew we had an EP coming out. I wanted to put my stake in the ground with the sound and perspective. This song felt like the right foot forward," she says of the track, which features heavy soul and disco influence enhanced by ghostly "ooo"s and enormous synths.
On working with the Moxi Girls Skate Team, she explains how they linked up: "They are the coolest chicks in the world. I had seen this video of them street skating in Barcelona. I was like 'this is the coolest thing I've ever seen.' I had to find them. I have an amazing team and come to them with a bunch of crazy ideas (and they're always like 'how are we going to do this on a shoestring budget?'). If you give people creative ideas that stem from what they're doing, people are really up for it. We called them about the song and wanting to make a video. They were like 'hell yes.' And that was it. We were debating putting me in skates in the video. I thought I was doing so well. I looked back at the footage and was like 'no, no, no no.' They looked genuinely cool."
As the conversation veers between discussion about her immersive Light & Space exhibit to an Off-Broadway show which completely sent her down a path to creative genius, she doesn't slow down or take a breath to pause. Her passion is only surpassed by the purple hues framing her smile and bright eyes. When left with only frank prompts from me, she isn't afraid to talking candidly about her career, crafting her new aesthetic, the importance of varied environments on her songwriting and the emotions she hopes to elicit in her work. "Your life goes in and out of phases in your life, and they are all these layers that build to getting you where you are. I like to wrap [that message] all up in amazing, brightly-colored, textured clothes. Life is gonna jolt you. You are gonna be in retrograde, but you can go out and have an amazing time," she says of the core message of her EP. When creating the new work, she initially aimed big, setting her sights on a complete visual album. Of course, her team brought her back down, but it is that drive and masterful thinking which lays the foundation for a long career. "Visuals are important. People want that now. When you have amazing artists like Beyonce putting out these incredible visuals with such a strong perspective, it makes you want to better yourself," she says. "It's inspiring to have female artists be so strong and outspoken in pop spoken. It makes you go 'I want to do that, I want to find my voice and what that means.' Last year was a very good year for female musicians owning their stuff."
Check out our full Q&A session below, and don't forget to stream/download the psychedelic dreamscape "Love You Lately," too:
What is your favorite shot in the "Supercool" music video?
There's a really great shot where we were in a roller disco. Lola Star had this rink at Coney Island and now has it in Prospect Park. Lola and the Moxi Girls are friends. The skating community is super tight. Everyone is lovely. We were meant to shoot in New York over three days. Every day we were shooting, it was supposed to rain. Michelle, one of the Moxi Girls, said to me "well, Lola is having a roller disco, and it's a David Bowie night, do you want to go shoot?" We were like "yes, of course." That couldn't have been better. That night, it happened to pour the rain. My favorite shot is in the roller rink where one of the skaters, Indi, has her leg out and she's bopping to the music. It comes at the end of the song after the bridge. That's what I want people to feel like when they listen to this. There's another shot of them all skating down Mulberry Street. It's so New York. I wanted four strong women who are really good at what they do and feel empowered.
How did "These Ruins" come together? That melody is so haunting and cool.
I actually wrote that melody first. I just sat down at the piano. The song is in 6/8, so it has this sort of waltz feeling. I had started singing that melody that is a chromatic scale that goes down. Then, a lyric came around that and I found the chords. I built that verse out. I kind of left the song alone and forgot about it. I had initially wrote that part in New York. Several months later, I was in London and doing a writing session with two other writers. We were going back and forth about ideas. I said "well, I sort of started this idea and I'm not sure what to do with it." I played them that and they were like "oh, that's something." I had this lyric of "we came unhinged." Then, one of them was like "yeah, it's like this love in ruins." The song stemmed from there. It was all written on a piano. When it came time to produce it, I really wanted a soundscape to it, rather than just a piano. I wanted it to feel eerie and strange.
What inspired the song?
I had just broken up with someone. It was one of those scenarios where you kind of almost don't wanna break up--you're just sitting there and watch this whole thing fall down. That was the idea that you are in the ruins. The whole metaphor was about this relationship that is crumbling and you are sitting in the middle of it and watch in slow motion. That's what it felt like at the time. You want it so bad to be OK but you can't help it.
If you could a video for another song what would it be?
I don't know if we'll get to do this, but I had this idea for "These Ruins": a ballerina in all black dancing to the song in the Tube in London. There's something about the architecture. It's so beautiful. All the tubes are circular. I thought maybe doing a time lapse with all these people and the dancer in the middle. It's that idea how life passes you by and is so consistent. Every time I've ever had a broken heart, I've always thought "it's amazing that life just goes on." You're sitting there like "I'm dying but I have to go to work today." The ballerina is falling apart but the world is still going.
Do you have to have a piano to write?
Whenever I go into sessions, if someone plays an instrument, I'm always like "oh, you play, I don't want to play," because I write so often on piano. If I write alone, it's always on piano. But recently, I have a few different kinds of synths I play with, which is basically piano, as well. Sonically, it allows me to get out of a piano sound. Sometimes, when you are working with synths or arpeggiators, which I have a lot of '80s vibes in my music, I like to start with a sound that's interesting. Sometimes, I feel limited by the piano. It's like anything. I have friends who play guitar and sometimes they're like I don't want to do this on guitar, I'm sick of guitar, don't want to even look at one." You just want something different. Most of my stuff, though, is on piano.
What was the journey like between your two EPs?
I've evolved as an artist so much since then. After I put that EP ['Head vs Heart'] out, I really took some time to really write and find my sound and figure out what I wanted to say. I'm really proud of that EP and what that did. But I knew that I wanted to make something that felt more holistic and like it had a more honed direction. During the last couple years, I've really been writing. I moved to England. Now, I'm sort of between New York and London. It's really amazing. That's really influenced my sound and songwriting. I wanted to become a better songwriter. Now that 'Retrograde' has come together, it felt like the right time. I know very distinctly what I want to put out into the world.
Your overall aesthetic is very different, too. How did that develop?
It's a really similar journey to what the music has been. I took a step back and said "I don't want to do anything." I had been touring so much in 2014, which was amazing, and I wanted to start from scratch. The visuals really followed the music. As soon as I started making music that I thought "this is so exciting," I had all of these inspirations for visuals. I was putting together mood boards. I still work like that. The visuals evolved from there. I got really interested in dark glam. The music felt that way; it has a darkness to it. But there's something really fun about it, as well. It's kind of like a really bad-good night out. Maybe you did something you shouldn't have but it was so fun! Everything stemmed from '70s art, and then, it moved into the whole ethos of the project--which is seen in the shows now and Light & Space, the immersive event I started.
You mention '70s art. What are some of your inspirations?
I really got into late-70s, early-80s club culture, like Danceteria and Paradise Garage. I think Tim Curry has a song called "Paradise Garage" [he does, listen here]. That time in New York, going out was such a different thing than what it is now. People went to the same place every Friday and you had friends you saw every Friday. It was almost like home away from home. It was this culture that really embraced everyone. Nobody was too weird or too out there. The were no lines. It was just this is where everyone came home to party. People were able to be free. I don't even know if we are able to be like that now. So, I wanted to make a world people could move into. That's the biggest shift. I wanted to make it less about me and my face and more about an experience. I'm constantly thinking of ways to make people feel.
How did your Light & Space experience begin?
Well, I started in theatre and grew up in New York. I went to NYU for college. While I was there, I became part of a whole devised theatre scene in downtown New York with all these venues like The Kitchen and amazing companies like The Team. They were doing this kind of theatre I hadn't seen which wasn't linear or about a fourth wall. It was meant to make you feel uncomfortable and challenge the audience. Several years later, Sleep No More happened. I had sort of thought to myself "this is something people want." That's changing. I felt people wanted this for music, too. A concert is so engaging to begin with, but I thought "is there a way we can meld the two together?" That's how the whole idea started. The ethos of the show is all about that New York/Danceteria vibe and creating a place for people to come home to now. But it's set in my cosmic/disco/futuristic/party aesthetic. That's a better way you can take music in. It's not about linear story; it's about a full-on experience and feeling.
How did you design the experience?
We did the first one [last] May in London. It's called Light & Space because I use projections and literal light and space. We had these 360 cosmic projections which were the same projections we used in a video of mine called "Survival of the Fittest." It's taking the creativity from the videos and then expanding into a space. You are greeted by different performers depending on the event. At the London one, one girl was this amazing riff on a Jane Fonda workout tape. She met you and you had to walk down. It was all about separating people and getting them out of their comfort zone. They were in a more open space to meet new people. You are more likely to talk to someone if you are standing on your own and both kind of having this unique experience with a girl who is doing jumping jacks in front of you and asking you to join.
Then, we had other things; there are little stations like a glitter bar. We asked everyone to wear white to this event because it was all about projections. We had a station for those not wanting to wear white and not feeling like they were into it. It was really amazing to watch and see them come off the street and out of their coats and see them shift. When you are in a room full of people that are excited and engaging in something, that makes you want to engage, too. We also had a room where you thought it was a toilet but when you opened it, there was this unbelievable vogue-er. The whole room was covered in gold fabric. He would just vogue and hand you this elixir drink. I thought to myself "no one is going to find out about this, it's going to be this little secret." And there was a line to get in. It's a great problem to have, though, to make this world and have people really want to get lost in it. At the core, there is live music. The band plays before and then after. The whole thing is centered around partying but partying with all these other things happening around you. You aren't just standing at a club partying. You're interacting with people you've never met.
I'm in the process of making the next one. Knowing people are willing to go where you take them, I'm going to push it even more.
How different is the next one going to be?
I can tell you it's going to be something but by the time it happens, it'll be slightly different. The first time around, we were more literal about being other-worldly and in a space disco. This time, I'm playing around more with senses and saying "instead of actually having projections of stars, what can we do that plays with sense and makes people feel like they're on another planet?" What's the color of the room? What's the temperature of the room? What are the kinds of movement and actors? I'm looking at making them less human and you don't know what they are. Maybe these A-I kinds of things. I want to make something that has a darker art to it. That's fun to get lost in. I'm trying to make it grander.
What are these concept meetings like? Do you use storyboards?
Well, I have an amazing team I work with. So, I don't do all this by myself. I work with an unbelievable lighting designer. The two of us have built this show together. I have folders and folders on my computer of visuals and how I see different things, like moods and color schemes. We start with my live show and break it down by colors and what the mood is of each song and how we want that to translate. I like to take the concepts of what the show will be and expand them before and after.
How long did it take to build the first immersion?
For the first one, we really didn't know if anyone was going to like it. I was petrified no one was going to show up. But we were at capacity. We had a line out front. We are taking more time with this new one. So, it'll be a year in between them. Once you do it one time, you realize it was something people are really loving. I wanted to take the time to build it right, and once it's up, we can do them in residency or do them in multiple cities. My goal is to go back and forth with them; do one in New York and one In London every few months.
When you wrote the first couple songs for your new EP, did you know immediately it was time to put together a project?
I had been in the studio for basically a year, and "Supercool" came at the tail end of it all. That was all done in London with a producer called Tom Fuller. He's amazing. He really helped me redefine my sound. It was also really cold in London, so I wanted to go to LA for awhile. But I started to be back in the states more and writing more. Over the summer, it felt like I had a group of songs which really represented where I was. That's ultimately why I named the EP; it felt like I was coming out of this weird time in my life. The EP feels like the end of my retrograde.
How does environment shape you and your music?
Well, I grew up here, and my whole personality formed around the city. I talk fast and say what I think. I do my best to put it into my music. I always envy and admire singers who write the way they speak, like Alanis Morissette and 'Jagged Little Pill.' I remember being a teenager and listening to that and being like "this woman is so mad." But she just wrote it how she said it. I'd like to think that being from New York that is a priority. It's a city where you really are with people all the time. You are people watching. It's about connectivity and an energy. That's influenced my music. Then, moving to London influenced me again. At this point, I'm really lucky to have layers in terms of how I've developed and what is exciting to me. When I moved there, it opened my world up, mainly with sounds and textures and production. London was the first time I came in the room with my demos and my sounds. I took ownership of it. It made me feel excited. When you feel that way, you push yourself more and do things you wouldn't have done. The live scene there, too, is really inspiring. I fell in love with music in such a different way in London.
Can you discuss your theatre background a little more? How did that send you down this path?
I started in theatre when I was 13. I did an Off-Broadway show, which was really fun. It was based on the American Girl dolls. I went to a performing arts high school. When I was 17 or 18, I was about to quit. I didn't know what I was doing. I was acting but I didn't know why or how. I was really lucky to be working all through high school. I realize now what a gift that was. I got cast in a show called "The House of Bernarda Alba," which is a crazy show about five sisters and their mother and how the mother shuts them away. It was this unbelievably risky show for a high school to put on. I got cast by this teacher who ended up being the reason I do this. He didn't know me at all and was like "I'm putting her in this." The show was half in Spanish and fiery and passionate. I played a crazy girl. After that, I knew this was it. I was in shows at NYU, but that show inspired me the most. It's what I feel when I'm onstage with my band.
You are often described as being "avant-garde." What does that tearm mean to you, and what is your placement in that world?
There are people far more avant-garde than I. I'm really influenced by artists like Bjork and others who really pushed the boundaries. Honestly, there's an artist heart in what I do, and I'd like to think that comes through. The music is ultimately pop music and about something that can be accessible and allows people to have an experience with it. I don't want to make something that feels highbrow or lowbrow. I want it to feel like it is for everyone, but your audience is smart. You don't have to make things digestible for people. You can make what you believe in, and they will go there with you. I try to push myself as far as I can with ideas and creativity--knowing that if you do that, authentically, your audience will follow. In the pop world, it means not straight ahead. We are doing things that are slightly left. I have purple hair and I put glitter on my face everywhere. But more than that, I've been really fortunate to study and know some amazing artist, whether that is playwrights or performers or songwriters, and I take all that really seriously.
How are you preparing for your first SXSW show?
I've never been to Austin either. I'm ready to eat barbecue anything. I haven't played in the states in a really long time. The whole set is going to be new. I'm putting all that together now. It's all songs from the EP, which haven't been performed live except for "Supercool." The band and I are going into rehearsal now. You are either on a big stage and get to have some cool production or you're on a teeny little stage and you get nothing. Ultimately, I'm making the best show we can with nothing. You've got to be able to pull people in without all the bells and whistles. If you get those at a festival like that, I'll use them.
Check out Ariana & the Rose's full touring schedule on her official website.
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