Arum Rae emerged from the strained, socially-awkward intense competition of a music school and still managed to become a normal person. She attended Boston's Berklee College of Music—which has produced everything from classically-trained jazz bassists to Passion Pit. On her latest EP, Arum falls somewhere between those extremes—blending electronic pop's accessibilities with the experimental extremes of jazz. Previously, Arum performed under the moniker White Dress, but now she's using her given name, which means "water lily" in Latin.
She's shared a stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, B.B. King, and the Kills—and while that's a badass musical resume to have, right now it's all about her. Her new EP Warranted Queen will release on April 22, and Noisey is premiering a track off the project, the jolting "Something's Happening to Me." Though the EP is only five songs long, it is the precursor to a longer full-length that Arum has been working on with producer Sanford Livingston. Her peculiar style of linking soul and electronic has caused people to pay attention, so we talked to Arum about her music, what it's like to have a song on Nashville, and why, really, art school can suck.
It seems like Berklee is what helped launch your career as a musician. What was it like there?
Berklee was the most socially awkward place. Going to school for "art" is intense, competitive and sometimes feels completely stupid. I say stupid because art and performance are primarily about self-discovery and discipline. But, the other side to that, is that you have to learn all the tools and the language and manners of music. That for me was completely essential, because I didn't know a thing about jazz and classical theory or even that I would love theory as much as I did! So, although I nerded out on composing in the style of Bach, I was still terrified of singing in front of others for fear of criticism.
What's the most important thing you learned there?
To listen. My friends were elitist and didn't hide when they felt someone was slipping—all those guys now are either playing in the Roots, producing with Kanye, or touring with Gaga—so they were no joke. I went to Switzerland for a few weeks where that group had their own funk band that played above a club in Zurich every night and I just sat and listened. They asked me to sit in and sing a couple of times and I was quick to say no. So, although I was gaining the knowledge of music theory and education, I still had a lot of self-discovery to do, like actually learning my craft. Berklee was challenging and hard to stick with but it was good for me and where I wanted to go.
What was the original concept behind calling yourself White Dress, and why did you eventually decide to shed that?
The concept behind playing under White Dress was that I didn't want to play under my name. White Dress is somewhat of a stirring and controversial image that portrays virginity and innocence, which to me seems like it's really covering up some kind of storm.
How do you think performing as Arum Rae changes things for you, or does it?
Performing under my name hasn't changed anything. I wanted to play under White Dress but it wouldn't stick. People would still tag or reference me by my name. I can't figure it out. "White Dress" has never gotten this much attention. My name is Latin for a water lily and apparently my mom named her cat that when she was a teenager. She said she got the cat because she wanted to name it Arum, maybe that's why she had me.
It seems like you've lived all over the place when you were growing up, do you think all those different environments are part of why your sound is so disparate?
I was in Austin for about four years and it was a major musical influence on me. I came to Austin from Savannah, Georgia, where all of my friends were in metal bands or playing only Hank Sr. or David Allan Coe. Austin really opened me up creatively after hearing 'indie rock' and Texas blues. I meeting musicians and basically getting a whole new education on music, it was great. I went to 3 different high schools and my teacher in the last school helped me get in to college. He told me about Berklee, which i knew nothing about at the time. I definitely didn't think I would get in! But it worked out, and it got me out of Colorado Springs, where I was born and mostly raised.
People seem to have a hard time pinning you down genre-wise, is that something you aimed for? How do you respond when people ask you to describe your music?
I think I aimed for that when I very first started writing music, I wanted to be identified with a particular genre. But then the more musical discovery and outside influence I experienced, the more I realized i couldn't stay in any box my younger self had created! That was kind of scary, but I remember calling my Mom and saying that I was writing stuff that I didn't know what to do with. She said, "Well, do you like it? That's all that matters." Her advice really helped me move forward and try all kinds of stuff. Now I just describe my music as vocals, guitars, and beats. I've heard my songs be described as "blues pop" and "cyber soul" and those are all right by me.
You've already shared the stage with a ton of big names. Who was your favorite?
Singing backgrounds for the Kills! I found myself watching Alison throw down instead of concentrating on my part, even performing, it was the best show I've ever seen.
How did it come about that you were singing backup for them?
Singing with the Kills came about from my dear friend and backup singer Sasha Ortiz. She toured with them last year I believe. The Kills were playing Barclays Center this past January with Queens of the Stone Age and they needed another singer. I am not exactly used to singing back up so I was nervous. Doing my own music verses playing someone else's is not something that comes natural to me. The entire time we were on stage was one of my favorite moments of my life. They are both badass in their own right and watching them perform together is the sexiest damn thing I've ever seen.
That sounds awesome. Let's talk about "Something's Happening to Me." It has a very traditional funk/soul sound but there are also a lot of electronic flourishes. When did it occur to you to kind of meld these two disparate styles?
This song originally was very garage punk with just a drummer and myself on electric guitar. I showed it to Sanford Livingston, my producer, how it is now is how he added to it. He made a beat and put horns over my guitar line and I think that's what gives the nod to the funk side of things.
What inspired the song? It sounds really personal.
I had wanted out of a relationship for a long time and finally got the courage to listen to myself. There's that slight chaos from the freedom of not giving a shit at the final arrival of a long and hard decision.
What has it been like working with Sanford Livingston? How did you guys get connected?
Working with Sanford has been the best creative partnership I've ever experienced! We come from different backgrounds musically, but I love where it is that we meet. I think without him my songs would cry themselves down a gutter—he keep things up. I see our relationship lasting into future projects and we have a lot on the table right now to work on together. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather work with.
Someone else you wrote with in the past though was John Paul White of the Civil Wars. The song you guys wrote was on "Nasvhille" right?
Yeah, a friend from Atlanta told me about this guy John Paul White while I was living in Savannah a long time ago. John Paul drove over from Muscle Shoals—this was around 2006 or 2007—we got along right away. So we had some drinks, wrote a song in Latin and also wrote "If I Didn't Know Better," which is the one that ended up on "Nashville." After that, we both went our own ways. John Paul started The Civil Wars with Joy Williams and "If I Didn't Know Better" was a song that they covered. I guess several years later, Joy was approached by the "Nashville" television people to suggest a song for the show and she suggested that song, which was a very kind thing for her to do.
Did you watch the episode it appeared on?
I didn't end up seeing the episode, I haven't had a TV in years!
When's your next live show and what are your plans for touring?
We have the EP release party at Glasslands on April 21, and then I'll be touring a lot more in the Fall. We're working on a full-length record too.
Caitlin White has seen the Nashville episode that Arum's song was in, y'all. She's on Twitter — @harmonicait