photos by Shannon Straney
Arielle O’Keefe walks into The Hollow Bar + Kitchen with a guitar case in her hand and only blues on her mind.
She just finished a prior engagement that left her unfulfilled. The audience wasn’t familiar with her. Her music was background noise to their conversations about other things. She stepped onto the stage and dutifully set herself up for her solo act, opening for Wurliday, her name is on the inside jacket of its debut album. She knew she was coming into her own community. She stepped to the mic and apologized in advance. She was going to spend the next hour playing music the way she wanted to. She had nothing to hide.
“I’m more comfortable with the solos because that’s where I come from,” said O’Keefe. She nearly two years removed from being known as the local Spotify phenomenon with 200,000 listens in a day. The following year was seemingly hers, gracing newspaper covers, touring across the country, a CD release and a successful collab with Wurliday kept her name circulating. It’s November, and she just released a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” on YouTube. It’s a video of her sitting in the woods at night performing what appears to be a Wiccan ceremony. By appearance, it’s her, alone, doing her own thing. It’s fitting. That’s how she likes to control her career.
“I like to be able to tell stories, basically,” she said. ”For me, at this level, it’s just easier for me to do when it’s just me. And, the music I love, if someone can just get up there with a guitar or a piano and make me feel something like that, that’s very meaningful to me. That’s more meaningful to me than seeing a full band that jams out all night. Which I love, but I’ve come from hearing singers and songwriters, hearing songs. I want to hear the song.”
The Hollow crowd treats the diminutive O’Keefe “pretty tall” as she continues to play a stripped down, bluesy variation of her songs. They stand facing the stage, soaking it in.
“I Am Not a Star”
Her 2016 Just Pretend Records release of “I Am Not a Star” was her first collaboration effort with a band. It was the first time she trusted her songs, to which she said she’s protective of, with anyone else. She could do that with the help of longtime friends Jimi Woodul and Dan DeKalb of Dark Honey. The three have been friends ever since meeting in Dallas, where they lived before “life happened” and brought them together again in New York a few years ago.
DeKalb and Woodul were raised in upstate New York and O’Keefe was raised on Long Island. Coincidentally, the three moved to Dallas and during shows. They became really good friends.
O’Keefe moved to New York City to pursue her music career. The boys moved to Albany, and she would go up to visit. Before long, Albany started feeling like home.
“I just realized, after four times of visiting, that everytime I went up to Albany, all my stress was gone,” she said. She said she would dread going back to the city, “it’s an overwhelming place, and I never found community.” When she decided to move, she found an apartment, quickly signed the lease, and moved in with little else than her clothing in her guitar case.
It was during this period she wrote “I Am Not a Star.” Though the song initially sounds like an anthem for strength, O’Keefe said it was a conversation with herself. She had uprooted herself, and worried about taking a wrong step in her career. “I Am Not a Star,” was a means to psych herself up and dispel those worries. A new career path was taking shape.
Spotify placed “Fire Under Water” No. 7 on its New Music Friday playlist in late 2016. On a playlist that boasts anywhere between 50 to 80 songs, she was at a premium location for exposure. In one day, she received 200,000 plays. By the end of the week, her track was played a million times. Record labels took noticed and approached her. There was a push to have her sign a deal. She said no.
“I want to have control and have the rights over what I do,” she said. “[There were pushes made to sign right away] but that’s not really who I am. … I’m not really the type to go and grab a major label deal. I don’t know. I’m just not green anymore with the industry stuff.
In 2012, she had auditioned for Season 2 of “The Voice.” The production had taken on 120 musicians. She was sequestered into a California hotel for a month and a half before the show aired. However, teams were filled before all of the musicians auditioned, and she never appeared on television. Shortly afterwards, she was approached by Nigel Lythgoe Productions for a television project. She signed a contract without knowing the premise of the show. It would lead to her appearance on “Opening Act” in which she appeared on its first show, in which she was the opening act for Rod Stewart in front of a Caesars Palace crowd in Las Vegas.
“That whole attitude to make it nowadays, it’s just so not what people think it is,” she said. She has nothing ill to say about the television or music industry, only that she felt that in her television moment she was not true to herself. The vigorous pace and push to get something on presentable on television pulled her in many directions. “It’s so not what it’s presented to be. I got to see behind the curtain just enough to where it became unappealing to me. I don’t know, man. Anything that’s just going to shoot you up there, I don’t know. It seems too good to be true.”
O’Keefe is less concerned about whether she took the wrong step in moving away from New York City. Her self-described itch to move every year-and-a-half has been quelled. The Albany music scene has allowed her room to explore herself, and the community she couldn’t find in Gotham. The past few years have confirmed that a music career is not defined by where one lives. Instead of trying to wedge herself into the industry machine, she’s trying to “have the plan fit me a little better.” She is presently working on a new album with the help from AntiFragile Music out of New York City. She’s also started an account on Patreon, a membership platform that connects her with fans through subscriptions. It gives her the chance to share her music intimately with fans instead of throwing herself out into the empty ethos of the internet. Her next track “Lolita” is to be released Friday, March 30. Her latest work, she said, is delving deeper into herself. It will be the most vulnerable she has been with her audience, and she’s excited.
She’s also to play in Capital Records Live at Proctors on Friday, March 23 before a gig at another iconic venue, Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs next month.
“I want to build it slowly and build something that’s going to last,” she said. “I’ve been doing this since I was young. I’m a young woman, so especially a lot of people want to come in and tell me what they think that I am. At this point in my life, I’m just not really interested. I understand the idea of branding, but I kinda know who I am at this point. I’m trying to build a business.”
This article was originally published by The Spot 518. is property of Spotlight Newspapers in Albany, N.Y., and appears as a special to NYSmusic. TheSpot518 and NYSmusic work in partnership to provide readers with in-depth coverage on the local music scene in the Capital District and New York state, respectively. For more, visit TheSpot518.com.