Researching Arielle for this Vera Black Ambassador article was an interesting experience. Arielle is one of those musicians who seem to defy genres – although 21st century classic rock is a useful description. She has a ‘girl next door’ vibe, but she can shred a guitar with the very best – she’s even designed her own guitar – Two Tone.
She took it to meet Brian May at a book signing event when she was a teenager. They became friends, and ended up designing a guitar together – the Arielle guitar sold by Brian May guitars. Arielle went on to play a key role in May’s Queen musical and she has since worked with artists like Eric Clapton, Guns N’ Roses, Vince Gill, Nuno Bettencourt, Graham Nash, Joe Bonamassa, Heart, Eric Johnson, Joan Jett and Gregg Allman. She’s kind of a big deal.
But that doesn’t mean she has had it easy. She quickly hit a glass ceiling. She was advised by a music teacher that she ‘should just wear a skirt and push-up bra because that was the only way she would get attention.’ She felt she gave a lot of herself away when she got a record deal in terms of the way she had to dress and be. She had issues with her weight and mental health.
Arielle found herself again when she left her record label and became an independent artist. Fast forward to 2021 and the release of her Analog Girl in a Digital World album that riffs on her love of the 60’s and 70’s and her retro vibe. This was followed in 2023 by the album ‘73 with the title track being a rip-roaring fun tribute to her ‘73 Volkswagen Camper.
I arrive to meet Arielle, suitably attired in a retro shirt that looks worryingly like a lava lamp, in The Fleece in Bristol. As always with these interviews there are timing issues. The main band of the evening, When Rivers Meet, are just finishing their soundcheck, moving annoyingly easily from going through the motions to blasting out full throttle in a matter of seconds. Grace’s beautiful ‘fallen angel’ voice soars over Aaron’s slide guitar. Arielle and her band are due up next.
Arielle appears, wearing a t-shirt and relaxed cut-off skirt, her long brown hair down to her waist. It’s impossible to talk. When Rivers Meet are so loud in the empty venue that you wouldn’t hear a fog horn. Arielle seems a bit on edge, she doesn’t want me to have to wait around, but I’m quite happy to watch her soundcheck.
When Rivers Meet finish their sound check and there’s a lot of chat from bassist (and record producer) Adam Bowers about a place that apparently does fantastic burgers nearby. Grace disappears out the side door and reappears with Elles Bailey (another Vera Black Ambassador). This is a lovely surprise, but it’s a social call (Bristol is Elles’ hometown) rather than a musical collaboration.
Finally the soundchecking starts and Arielle fusses around. I instantly know she is a perfectionist. It also quickly becomes apparent that Arielle and her band are a tight unit. She has Sam Tookey on bass who is giving off effortless bassist vibes and Emma Taylor on drums who is never far away from an infectious smile. They get the sound they want for each instrument, plus Arielle has three guitars with her: Two Tone, an acoustic guitar and her brand new ‘spare’; Saban, that is rocking a wood veneer vibe rather than the striking orange and white of Two Tone.
Everything seems sorted, but Arielle wants to run through Kalypso again – the rockin’ instrumental from the ‘73 album. I’m delighted to hear it twice and Arielle is obviously in her happy place. She seems ridiculously relaxed playing that level of complexity on a guitar.
With the soundcheck completed we’re off to the green room to do the interview. It’s a bit cramped. I’m sitting a metre away from Arielle and her band mates are not much further away. They’re trying to have some down time on a sofa while I attempt to ask the right questions.
How did you first start working with Vera Black?
“I was working with photographer Rob Blackham and he suggested using a stylist and said we should work with Vera Black. So I said Okay! It kinda started from there. They work together a lot and I think they are a cool dynamic duo.” (Arielle is wearing this in the main photo at the beginning of the article.)
I was interested in how Vera’s influence fits in with Arielle’s vintage vibe.
“There is something really cool about the edginess of it and there’s where I kinda try to add some of my style with the 60’s and 70’s thing. They really have a grasp on that with all the feathers. It’s just really dynamic and whilst there’s a lot of black, there’s also a lot of colour. When we did the photo shoot there were so many clothes and items that I would never have thought to wear. I just love what it brings out. It’s nice to have an outside perspective because I think you can get stuck in a certain mindset with certain things you are comfortable with. My hat is awesome too. I have a custom two-tone Vera Black hat that matches my guitar.”
Photos from some of Arielle’s shoots styled by Vera and photographed by Rob Blackham.
I mention Elles Bailey’s comments when I interviewed her on how she gained extra self-confidence after being styled by Vera when returning to the stage after having a baby. I asked her if she found that the process gave her more confidence.
“Absolutely! It’s funny actually. Vera had these flags as background on one of the shoots and she said ‘Hey, you should wear these jeans and these shoes and no shirt!’ Which is super risque for me (Arielle laughs at the memory, her eyes widening as if remembering the shock of the suggestion). That photo is on a full page of Classic Rock magazine. I never thought that would be a thing! I said to Vera that I wanted to go for alluring and sexy without being over the top and she managed to find a way.
“I also told her that I want something I would functionally use. I don’t do a ton of jewellery because it gets caught in things on stage. So we found a good balance that I can replicate without having an amazing stylist with me. Any time I want to look extra, extra cool I talk to Vera and tell her that ‘I want this to be epic’! And so many of the photos I did with her are the ones that people bring up and say ‘What was that outfit? It’s so cool!’”
(The photo of Arielle with flags and not much else.)
I discuss the difficulties she has experienced with her image and mental health and ask her if she feels in a good place at the moment.
“Yeah, in a lot of ways, better than ever. It’s funny, because they are sitting right here, but the band is really strong and this takes so much pressure off me. I never worry about them, the only things I worry about are the things I really can’t control. 85% of my brain is willing things to not go wrong!
“There are so many things that can happen out of my control. Even brand new strings can break, the power sometimes gets weird and makes noises. I worry a lot because we are the opening act of this tour so I can’t have as much help as I need to not have that amount of pressure. So I am stressed out all the time. When I’m not working here I’m fixing gear, trying to make all of it better, because when it is right, it is just so amazing.
“I’ve learned a lot of what I need to have in order to feel okay, but emotionally I’m feeling really good. Maybe worrying about gear is actually stopping me from going into a dark place I dunno.” She laughs. “That sounds kinda creepy. I’m better, I’m doing okay. Thanks for asking.”
(Photo by Rob Blackham, styled by Vera, taken soon after this interview.)
Arielle and the guitar geeks
I change tack and move on to the way people in the often unforgiving guitar-led Facebook groups seem to have nothing but respect for Arielle.
“Yeah, I think in some ways I’m really spoilt because I am so like the girl next door, but I’m also like a rock guitar chick. I think that balance has made people nicer because they see me as a human, versus just some person they are only judging based on my abilities.
“There is one percent of people who say something like ‘You ho!’ or something critical like ‘Yeah, it’s okay but blah blah is better’. But it’s unusual. It’s often attention seeking, whether or not the person knows it. I had one guy who said something like ‘You should just put your tits out and do that instead because you would get more attention, because you’re not good enough to stand there and play without that.’
“I try to just say something nice when people are mean. So I said something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry you think that. If you don’t like the music that I do, that’s okay, but I wish you the best’. The guy replied saying ‘I’m really sorry. I am just going through a hard time at the moment’!
“If it’s really bad I’ll just try to get rid of it. Not because of me, but because other people will try to protect me and I don’t want that either. But I am very spoilt. If there is an interview in something like Guitar Player magazine, people who are not in my fanbase will destroy anything I have to say! But in my own little bubble and in similar bubbles I am okay.”
People with far better musical knowledge than me have praised Arielle’s vocal range as well as her guitar skills. I was interested in whether she writes songs to showcase either or both of her skills. The track The way you look at me from the ‘73 album seems to do both on one beautiful song.
“I don’t think about it in terms of separating the voice or guitar, but I write for a moment in a performance. I used to just write what I thought were strong songs and put the strongest songs on the album. But I realised during a live show that I was missing certain tempos or faster moments, or times when I just wanted people to have an emotional break. All my songs were deep and intense and I could feel it in the room.
“So I wrote certain songs, like ‘73 which is not deep at all. It’s something you can bang your head to, it’s fun to play. Once in a while I’ll do something that’s more about a vibe. You can tell which ones they are, some are slow; it doesn’t have a strong feeling in there, it’s not super deep. But I don’t write to show off guitar, that’s just not what I do.”
Do you get a lot of guitar geek questions when you are on tour?
“Some people are really observant. I do a lot of hybrid picking so I’ll hold the pick in my thumb and forefinger and also pick with my fingers, probably three quarters of the time. People bring that up, which I think is really observant. A lot of people ask about my guitars because they look unique.
“Some people will ask what gear I use, which pedals and that sort of thing. I always tell them I just use the amp, which is why I am loud! And this surprises lots of people. I like it when people ask. It means they are paying attention. Or more importantly, it means they like it.
How is Saban bedding in?
Saban and Two Tone are not that different as literally every piece of Two Tone was taken apart to create Saban. This is the second prototype I have with this guitar builder Andy Guyton. He’s the guy who took apart Brian May’s Red Special guitar and rebuilt it to try to get a replica. So it is almost identical, apart from the colour, but also the tuning. It is tuned a full step up which is like having a capo on the second fret. This is because I was playing the songs I wanted in E that I didn’t think would fit my voice very well. I think the electric guitar sounds better in E. So there are a couple of differences in the way the stacks are to make that happen, because there is a lot of tension on a guitar to be tuned that high. Other than that they are really similar. We even took apart the pick ups that are in Two Tone to match it.
“Saban is brand new, only 3 weeks old, and Two Tone is 16 years old so it’s got some breaking in to do. But I don’t have to change the way I play when I pick it up and this is the first time in my life I have ever had that luxury, so they are very close.
(Photo of Arielle playing Saban on tour with When Rivers Meet.)
The '73 album
“It’s been good! People seem to be enjoying it. I’ve gotten sort of a split opinion on it. Some people; my fans, say it is the best thing I’ve done yet. The people who are not familiar with me often say it is not as up tempo as they like. Which is kinda surprising, because I think there is a lot of rocking going on in there.
“I just didn’t want every song to sound the same and to be the same tempo, the same energy, the same story. Because I get bored and I just don’t think as a songwriter that’s the best I can do. This might be the duality of the girl next door and the rock star again. It is really hard for people to understand that both can happen and it’s okay.
“I always think of Billy Joel. He has this split. He can be a bad ass New York dude and the rocker guy and he has the sweet Piano Man song. I feel like it was what people did in the 60’s and 70’s. Queen was like that, and the Beatles. They all did different things. But for some reason some people have a hard time understanding that both of them are me, and they can switch within a few minutes.”
While researching Arielle I had discovered her Not For Profit Tonewood Forest, so I was keen to find out more.
“The ToneWood Forest started when I realised how old the trees were when we cut them down to make an instrument. I freaked out when I heard they were 110 or 120 years old because I was thinking – who is replanting them? It’s hard to equate how many guitars you get from one tree, especially because most people have multiple woods. I have two woods on mine. One is ebony, one of the most endangered trees in the whole world. But selling the Arielle Guitar means the cause of at least 20-25 trees to be cut down which is horrifying and upsetting.
I realised that I wanted to have a way to give back and make sure we are replanting the trees, so hopefully people in 120 years time can use and enjoy them. We’ve just bought 20 acres just outside Nashville. We just grow native trees so we’re planting a lot of maple and alder, birch, maybe ash in Nashville. We use maple a lot and so do Fender. We also have a plot of land here in the UK and Nicuagua, Hawaii, Maui and Belize as well.
(Photos shows Arielle at one of the Tonewood Forest plots)
What’s it like supporting When Rivers Meet?
“It’s been really nice. I’m sort of the opening act, but they are giving me 45 minutes. They have been so thoughtful and conscious of us. They put on a great show every single time and people leave all pumped up that they got to see them. They are making a lot of people happy. I have really enjoyed it. I feel really lucky that they invited us on this tour.
What's next for you?
On June 4th there is a James Burton benefit show for his charity and Brian May asked me to play the show. They are about to announce the main people but Brian May, Van Morrison and Albert Lee have been announced so far. We’re all playing James Burton stuff so that should be really good.
(Photo from the rehearsals for the James Burton benefit show)
“When I go back to the US I’m going to be working on two new albums. One is going to be a broken down version of my current album. We’re going to do it with harps, bring in different instruments and we’re just going to play it live and record it direct to vinyl. And in the fall I’m doing another album, and we are working on a tour for the second week of October.”
Which rock stars drink sherry before a gig?
When I return to the performance area of the venue after finishing my chat with Arielle, I find I have intruded on the When Rivers Meet – VIP Meet and Greet session. There are about 20 guests chatting with Grace and Aaron while drinking sherry – which is apparently the WRM’s preferred pre-show tipple. I’ve never attended a meet and greet event and I have to say that the punters are getting value for money here. Grace and Aaron exude genuine friendliness.
To cut a long story short I end up staying to see Grace and Aaron perform two beautiful songs with Aaron on acoustic guitar and Grace singing. Their voices harmonise, they gaze into each other’s eyes and it’s ridiculously romantic.
After it’s over I go to apologise for crashing their event and end up having a chat and my photo taken with them. They truly are the friendliest rock stars in business (and yes, I was very good and didn’t steal any of the sherry!).
Arielle’s live performance
It’s showtime and the venue looks pretty full already. Arielle lets her band start the show before appearing on stage to blast out the infectious ‘73. She’s wearing a gold waistcoat, platform boots and she’s swinging her long hair as she makes Two Tone sing. Emma Taylor on drums is lost in the rhythm (she also provides backing vocals) and Sam Tookey’s bass is flawless.
A couple push their way into a space beside me and the woman turns to her partner and says “Aww, she’s cute!” Twenty seconds later this turns into “Hey! She can really play.” The girl next door has blasted onto the stage with a super cool guitar and the crowd know they are in for something special. Everything about the sound is crisp and clean. Two Tone lives up to its name, not just from its colour, but from Arielle’s playing: she can switch from precise and beautiful to full on gnarly rock n roll within a song.
Arielle shows off her range, playing songs with different tempos across the rock n roll, blues, country and folk genres. It even includes a lively cover of You wreck me by Tom Petty. Her voice gets its moments in the spotlight earning her the comments of “That was beauuuutiful!” and “I’m so glad we got here early”, from the woman beside me.
Arielle also has lots of chat for the crowd. Her appealing chuckle as she hams up her accent when talking about living in Nashville, or returning to her roots for the blues of Texas has everyone smiling.
She quickly switches between Two Tone, Saban and her acoustic guitar between songs, but just as she feared there is a technical issue. She plugs in a new guitar and thrums it, but nothing happens. The band continues to play the song’s opening loop as she fiddles with the power cord. The crowd has time to look at each other. It’s getting awkward. Then the power returns and without missing a beat Arielle teaches the stupid power cord a lesson, riffing straight into the song. Emma is grinning on drums, and so is the audience. It is a classy response.
The crowd are bouncing nicely by the time Arielle reaches her last song – the instrumental Kalypso from the ‘73 album. She really lets rip and the crowd loves it.
“Oh my fucking god she can play!” the woman next to me screeches. Arielle has gone from the girl next door to rock queen in a 45 minute set, while playing most genres in between. She may be hard to classify, but she is ridiculously talented.
Brian May is quoted as saying “Her musicianship is a clear indication she has been here before” and Arielle does look as if she has already enjoyed a previous life as a musician – no doubt it in the ‘60’s and 70’s!
I make my way towards the merch table after her set, but there’s no way I can get to her before When Rivers Meet take to the stage. She has a crowd of people wanting to talk and buy signed CDs. I end up having to wait for some time after the end of the gig to get my own CD as her merch table is packed again. Perhaps helped by her blistering solo in Testify, one of the When Rivers Meet encores – a lovely touch that the crowd really enjoyed.
I eventually find her looking a little tired, but happy. My only complaint about my whole experience is that she didn’t compliment me on my lava lamp shirt!
All about Arielle
Arielle shares a lot about herself and her work on her social media feeds and in her newsletter (where you get free music instantly after signing up) so do check it out. She also provided a ‘virtual access’ pass to her tour so people around the world could follow the experience that I was briefly a part of.
If, like me, you’ve become intrigued by the concept of designing your own guitar here’s an article that gives background on how Arielle and Brian got together with technical information about the designs and builds.
Buying the Arielle look
Arielle wears a number of different pieces from the Vera Black collection. In this photo she is wearing the Gold Pharaoh beaded hair clip. We also sell similar items as earrings like the Black Gold earring set shown in the carousel below. She is using our Vera Black guitar straps in a few of the photos in this article. And she is wearing our Raven Black Onyx beaded necklace. While her gambler hat was designed just for her, you can find similar style hats in our online shop and a couple of them are shown below.
The When Rivers Meet live experience
I can sum up the When Rivers Meet show with two words: Mischief and fun.
It starts the moment they hit the stage. I need to know what burger Adam Bowers the bassist had because he springs with energy. He bounces all around the stage behind the star duo, sharing little quips and nods with the rest of the band. The drummer James Fox is knocking merry hell out of the skins while Grace and Aaron pour out their distinctive sound with huge grins on their faces.
I saw When Rivers Meet last year after interviewing Troy Redfern (they have excellent taste in support acts) when they were finding their feet after a surge in popularity. They were the cutest rock couple in town and had the audience quietly urging them on. Now they have a confident swagger; although they exude mischief rather than arrogance. But the real highpoint is the way the crowd feel included in the fun. Everyone is smiling; we’re part of the party, not just watching the performance.
They play 19 songs, including the encore. They stop mid-set to add in a song, seemingly at the demand of Adam. Aaron plays a variety of styles on different guitars including his ‘cigar box’ guitar and (in my opinion) is never better than when he plays slide. Grace plays her electric violin and mandolin, but it’s her beautiful rock voice that always stands out. They blast it out, they harmonise, they briefly slow it down for their duet Talking in my sleep and create a genuine warm and fuzzy moment together. Before hitting us with more blues-laced rock n roll.
There is lots of chat. Grace heckles the crowd halfway through for being quiet between the songs. She’s rewarded with good-natured backchat for the rest of the show. They finish with I want your Love which includes the perfect section for the crowd to sing along. Of course we do. We continue to sing after the band finally put their instruments down. Grace can’t help but return to the front of the stage to conduct us.
Eventually they leave the stage. But not very far. They join the crowd chatting, posing for photos and signing merch. The crowd becomes part of the band’s family. They are certainly welcome to drop in for sherry at mine at any time, as long as Adam brings the burgers!
You can catch up with When Rivers Meet on all the socials. You can find all the details on their web page here. They have also just announced the release date for their next album Aces are High (8th Sept) which you can pre-order at their online shop here.