“Every time I look into your eyes, it’s like fire under water” Arielle O’Keefe sings on her runaway hit “Fire Under Water” from her album I Am Not A Star.
The record is full of these evocative lyrics that elicit all types of memories. The song opens with the clap of a snare, and a pulsating low synth bass, and an atmospheric keyboard riff which disappears as O’Keefe’s singular voice recalls “Yes I remember how I met you, but we will not talk about it, reminiscing’s what we left behind” and the vocals double as she says “to get where we are now, to get where we are now.”
The doubling of the voice and lyric packing extra punch to help this scene sink in before moving right along to another singular recollection of “those young and stunning strangers” as there is a building swell of a far off synth that becomes apparent as another doubled voice and lyric emerge: “I had a song called danger, I had a song called danger.” A clean guitar riff enters like a ripple as she goes on to sing, “now I’m swimming in nothing,” before the powerful chorus emerges.
These lyrics paint a picture that allow the imagination to run wild, as it fills in its own details propelled by O’Keefe’s evocative yet mysterious storytelling. This kind of portraiture and attention to detail in the elements of production are the signature of this album at large.
This record may be entitled I Am Not A Star, yet within days of the release it was featured on Spotify’s official “New Music Friday” playlist where the single “Fire Under Water” was immediately placed seventh. After its first day on the chart it reached more than 200,000 plays. After a week, more than 1,000,000.
So where did Girl Blue come from?
Well, literally she comes from Bay Shore, Long Island, where she spent her early years before moving to Dallas at age 15. She moved to New York City at age 22, where she split her time between nannying and ghost writing for Universal and Warner/Chappell before landing in Albany, which she has called home for the past two years.
But the name, the concept–this comes originally from O’Keefe’s obsession with Nina Simone’s record Little Girl Blue, and Stevie Wonder’s song “Girl Blue.” She says, “ ‘Girl Blue’ was one of those tunes that I heard and immediately went ‘Yeah, he’s talking to me there.’ But on a larger scale I think for me the name represents this sort of paying homage to the music—to remember those who have influenced me and touched me, and to work on my art in a way that respects the tradition they are a part of. I think all music comes from blue.”
These songs pay homage to a number of artists like the pulsating bass and storytelling of “Fire Under Water” that calls to mind Paul Simon, or the gentle vocals of “Call Me Home” that conjure Joni Mitchell.
A single clean electric guitar with a bit of reverb and delay opens “Call Me Home.” A somber but relaxing mood ensues before O’Keefe’s voice comes in and describes the “morning after nauseous half disasters . . . the calm is not so quiet in my head.” The pace of the lyrics is more spaced out than some of the other tunes as she continues, “it says you drink too much, you’re not in love with anyone,” and wraps it up with “you’ll never say the things you never said.”
Who can argue with that? A synth with an almost distorted flute like sound soars above and the song evolves. “Guilt tripping over homeless works of art,” she sings as a solid bass presence enters and she laments being “lost, lost, lost brother” and disappears as she declares “but I’ll be fine when I find my way home.”
The second verse begins with the same lyrics as the first, and the orchestration follows suit as she comes out with images like “naiveté is such a fuzzy friend,” and claims she is not sad but that she “just mistook the beginning for the end.” This time as she refrains “I got lost, lost, lost brother,” she is doubled by a much higher voice in the mix effectively deepening the solemnity of the mood.
Yet again, she declares she’ll be fine when she finds her way home. There is a short break for ambient sustained guitar notes that sound vaguely vocal, and fades away as she begins her final stanza with “Look . . . sometimes love is the reflection of a building in the water on a night when everybody stays at home.” Another guitar part, that evokes the sound of a music box in a still room, enters and she continues to think “and sometimes love’s a puddled puzzle piece obsolete and soggy but becomes a whole new picture on its own.”
The solemn mood somehow becomes turned upside down as she approaches the climax, up with “I know love will be the answer to my wandering, maybe I got lost so I could find you. I think I got lost so I could find you.” A bass vocal fills in the remaining space beneath the texture and vocal harmonies uplifting as a Bach chorale enter as she proclaims “when the world is more than you can shoulder, you come and find me, you can call me home . . . Come and find me, call me home.” The same guitar that began the song is all that is left, and you hear her release a heavy breath, as all of this emotional weight at last settles.
Then again, O’Keefe can take it from an emotionally hardcore gentleness to that throaty belting that brings out a little bit of Etta James, or Alanis Morissette like in the title track “I Am Not A Star,” with its steady driving kick, snare, kick, snare, electric guitar, hi hat, vocal, synth bass, and doubled vocals with, “I am bleeding from a hole I can not find,” and “rock and roll has stole my head.”
But perhaps even more important than the famous artists she pays tribute to is the younger version of O’Keefe, before she was Girl Blue, that wrote this record. She says “these songs were written from 2013-2015, spanning ages 22 to 24 for me. In some ways, I feel like a completely different person from the girl who wrote these songs, but I recognize who she was and how it all led to where I am now. I learned and changed a lot even just from the process of recording the songs. It was an important part of me growing up and moving past the place I was in when I wrote them.”
And the recording process itself is unique for a hit record. She got her songs together and says she “brought them to my two friends and collaborators, Jimi Woodul and Dan DeKalb (both from the band One Red Martian). We basically took a week off of work, holed up in Dan’s apartment, and got our foundation down. Jimi ended up taking the lead with adding production to the songs, he had a really unique perspective to add to what was already there, and we collaborated from there to get the songs to their final state. Some of them stayed pretty true to the initial demos I brought in, others radically changed. It was my first real collaboration for my own music where I wasn’t calling all the shots with an engineer, and that was hard at first but ultimately so rewarding. I firmly believe that I would not be as proud of the EP if it weren’t for that element of close collaboration.”
Going from a record that was produced with minimal forces in a home studio to performing with a live band is a notable transition that has become part of her ongoing story. She says it’s “taking some trial and error to find the right balance between how much you’re replicating the album vs. how to bring a little bit more to the table for a higher energy live show. We have played around with a lot of sample triggering and ended up using less of that because, well, sometimes live instruments just sound better. I think when it’s all said and done I want to retain some effects that we use on the album, some reminders of the feel, but in general really take the live show above and beyond. You have more flexibility musically when everyone’s playing a real instrument. And there’s nothing better than loving someone’s record and then watching their live show blow it out of the water, which is what we aim to do.”
The live band has a performance set for November 22nd at Rockwood Music Hall in the East Village of New York City, and O’Keefe is in talks with some big players in the industry looking to get a feel for who she is and what her team looks like, but no commitments have been made yet except her own commitment to focus on the music and “plan for a follow up full length album.” She says, “I have a theme and some ideas floating around that I’m anxious to take some time to really explore. Other than that, my plan is to gig, and gig, and gig some more. And then gig some more. And oh yeah, gig.”
O’Keefe’s claim “I Am Not A Star” is starting to appear less as self-deprecation and more as a gentle state of denial.