It is no exaggeration to say that the music field is over saturated with singer-songwriters trying to make a name for themselves. From the ranks of anti-folk rising stars like Regina Spector and Chris Garneau, to acoustic songstress mainstays like Alanis Morisette or Tori Amos, singer-songwriters from every shade and flavor of the musical spectrum have exploded onto the music scene, shirking over-produced record labels and offering an increasingly eclectic body of work.
I recently had the opportunity of sitting down with singer-songwriter, Beth Arentsen, a veteran of the music businiess, to discuss the launch of her first solo album Sap and her upcoming performance at the LGBT Community Center in New York City. While her music is far from ground-breaking or avant-garde, the songstress weaves together a touching and deeply personal tapestry in a nostalgic swell of whimsy, poetry, and personal narrative.
I was first introduced to Arentsen, when Bil sent me a request to interview a singer-songwriter who was coming to my neck of the woods for a performance at the LGBT Community Center. I am relatively new to this whole media/press world, having never taken a journalism course or had any real journalistic experience (aside from heading a small gender studies 'zine in college). This would mark my first interview. I was nervous. I didn't know what to expect, especially with the ridiculous behavior of celebrities nowadays, I was ready for an ego-maniacal "musical artist" to come trouncing through my door expecting to be treated like a goddess and offering only the crudest of insight for my piece.
Arentsen was nothing like I expected her to be. Beth walked into the quaint New York coffee shop dressed down in jeans and a smile. She didn't stink of celebrity self-importance or artist ego (which is surprising considering how she has rubbed elbows with fame before, being former roommates with a certain "infamous gay celebrity blogger" *hint hint* and former classmate and friend of Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters). Rather, she spoke of her newfound sense of stability with her husband Rick, and home in New Jersey by the ocean, which has always been a constant source of inspiration for her. Her childhood was filled with many hours sailing with her father out on the open water. This sense of wanderlust and adventure makes itself quite evident in her music.
Arentsen is perhaps more widely known for her work, headlining with the electro-jazz-funk group, P1. Soon after starting her music career, Arentsen was signed by a record label and matched with the instrumentalists which would eventually form the group P1. While she greatly enjoyed her time working with P1 and their electro-funk sound, which was dramatically different to her early piano-based acoustic sound she developed playing in New York's East Village while at NYU, Arentsen eventually felt moved to create a solo work which got back to her roots as a songwriter.
"We created two great albums. And to be honest, we gave the label our two albums, we fulfilled our responsibilities. We never stopped; P1 is still out there, it's still a force. But we did stop touring so we could follow our solo projects.
"So I grabbed some friends who have always been playing with me, and we created this quirky little trio. And it's just easy for me. I don't need to be in the studio. I don't need any gimmicks or walrus sounds or pro tools. I just grabbed friends and went into the studio and laid down very acoustically, and very honestly, the ideas I had for my album."
It is this acoustic and honest sound that distinguishes Arensten's album from her previous work with P1. The layered and rich acoustical style which permeate the songs in Sap reflects at a deeper, more contemplative tone than her previous work with P1. I will have to say that the style utilized with each of the songs can at times make it difficult to distinguish songs from each other. But where Arentsen's music really shines is in her storytelling.
"Penelope," inspired by a local folk tale of Arentsen's childhood home on the Jersey shore, evokes a haunting tale of Penelope Stout, a Dutch settler woman, who after becoming shipwrecked and washing up onto the Jersey shore, was attacked by native inhabitants. Legend tells that she managed to find shelter in the safety of a hollow tree and was able to nurse herself back to health, and would go on to become a progenitor of the new settlers in the early settlements of America. Arentsen takes different shards of Penelope Stout's story of adversity, self-reliance, and survival and weaves a musical mystery which unfolds as the song unwinds.
The finale song of Arentsen's album, "Conquistadora" is her most poignant. A simple piano introduction eases into an atypically fragile shade to Arentsen's voice, which tends to be smokier in her other songs on the album. Arentsen's song resonates with a deep bittersweet sorrow and a release of emotion and in the end peace.
"I really love 'Conquistadora,'... because it is about going home and about really searching for what you want out of life and where you think you should be, even when everyone is telling you they think you should be. And that's what this solo album is about to me. Everyone was telling me, 'Stick with P1, it's an indie label distributed by Warner. This is great, keep performing the shows.' But I really had to stop and take stock, and create the music I'm feeling right now. And when I think of 'Conquistadora' it is also the last song I wrote and recorded on this album. It always keeps me centered... I really feel it... that I made the right decisions... That it's really important to stay real and true to yourself."
Beth describes "Conquistadora" as a bridge to her new work, which is still being constructed. Many of the songs on Sap were written during her early and mid-twenties. It will be interesting to see how her sound and lyrical style will evolve as she enters a new area in her life. Arentsen says she looks to create an edgier sound with her new album. If you are interested in hearing some of her new songs she's got cooking, try and make her performance at the NYC LGBT Community Center, where she plans to debut several new songs; including one about her relationship with said famous gay celebrity gossip columnist. Oooh the intrigue.