By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Prior to Arie's "discovery" by the major-label world, she had built a word-of-mouth following from her shows throughout the southeast United States and in London. When she first picked up the guitar, she was attending the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she planned to study for a career in jewelry-making. Over time, she began to focus on live performance rather than academics, becoming a regular at well-known music spots such as the Yin-Yang Coffeeshop in Atlanta. In 1997, Arie independently released a compilation CD as part of the Atlanta-based artists' collective/ label, Groovement/Earthseed, which she helped co-found. Arie first drew the attention of Motown Records through Universal Music Group talent scout Reen Nalli, who saw her perform in 1998 at the Lilith Fair in Nashville. Shortly after those shows, Nalli introduced her to Motown president Kedar Massenberg. The label head recognized the promise of Arie's raw talent and signed her to a deal that granted artistic autonomy.
Arie didn't squander that opportunity. Acoustic Soulis an impressive debut effort that allows her soulful voice to shine over a tasteful blend of her acoustic guitar playing, live instrumentation and hip-hop production techniques. The stripped-down nature of the record's sound gives the disc a feel that's more organic than that of most of the processed cheese passing for R&B today. To get this down-home rootsy blues feel, Arie chose to work with longtime friends rather than use people suggested to her by industry folk. She co-produced and co-wrote the album with Blue Miller, Mark Batson, Bob Powers and Carlos "Six July" Broady, who is known for his production work on the Ghostface Killah classic Supreme Clientele.
"A lot of the people I used are people that I knew. I co-produced everything," Arie says. "Carlos mostly does hip-hop stuff, but he is also a musician, a keyboard player. A lot of people I met, they didn't understand what I was about musically. A lot of producers said, 'We'll get her somebody to come in and play guitar.' I don't play guitar great or perfect, but I played the style that the song called for because I wrote the song. So when they would say things like that, I knew that they didn't understand where I was coming from at all. I just ended up picking my friends, and they helped me to execute my ideas."
The collaborations give the record a fuller sound; they also turn tracks like the inspiring "Strength, Courage, and Wisdom," the celebratory "Brown Skin" and the wah-wah-heavy "Promises" into songs that will make you want to dance, even if you aren't down with the message-oriented lyrics.
Deeply personal in nature -- Arie describes her most autobiographical song, "Back to the Middle," as "the struggle of a young Libra woman trying to find the middle ground" -- Acoustic Soul is the work of a woman who sees herself as both coming out of the singer-songwriter tradition and continuing the legacy of soul music. She makes folk music that falls somewhere between the two. This embrace of both styles is evident on "Interlude," in which Arie name-checks everyone from Karen Carpenter and Donnie Hathaway to Minnie Riperton and Miles Davis in a freestyle, Hall-of-Fame-type list of artists who have inspired her. Those freestyles, along with a tribute to her idol, "Wonderful (Stevie Wonder Dedication)," were some of the last tracks she recorded for Acoustic Soul. The production process, which took over a year and a half, gave her some perspective on what her favorite artists went through in creating their art.
"After recording my album, I learned a lesson about humility and what it means to be grateful. After everything I've been through and everything that I have, I think it is important to remember where I come from."
Although she respects her musical mentors, the singer bristles when writers try to conveniently place her in the category that is often used to describe such artists as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and D'Angelo. She feels what she is doing not just a rehash of '70s soul music.
"Everybody is using that 'neo-soul' term," she says. "I disagree with it, because I think it carries a certain connotation that it is like a reinterpretation of something. I don't think that's what I do. I hear things that sound like Al Green -- to me, that's neo-soul -- but I feel like in my heart, I come from a more authentic place. My mother is from Detroit, and she had a band at the same time as Stevie Wonder. They were the same age; they knew each other. Motown knew my mother, they wanted to sign her, so I truly feel I'm a child of that legacy. I don't feel like I'm copying; I feel like I am a part of it. My whole family sings and plays instruments, so I don't feel like I have to copy the blues to know what it is. I think it is in my blood."
In addition to a bloodline to the Motor City and the musical South, the singer also has Denver roots. She attended Rangeview High School in Aurora, and her father, Ralph Simpson -- who used to play for the Denver Nuggets -- and her sisters still live in the area. It was her father who gave her the name India, in homage to Mahatma Gandhi, because of the proximity of her birthdate to that of the renowned leader. Arie's performance at the Pepsi Center this week will mark the first time she has performed in Denver in front of family and friends with whom she grew up.