For Ariel Posen, after years of sideman and studio work, putting a record out with his own name on it was a long time coming.
And if Ariel felt like he had something to prove as a solo artist, he proved it with How Long. Released this past winter, the album is an unimposing yet seamless product of genuine songwriting and impeccable guitar playing.
As a guitarist, Ariel has developed an immaculate take on blues-inspired lead playing that has all the confidence of a virtuoso but the command of an experienced composer. His honeyed slides and trumpet-like string bends all come in service to the mellow vibes of his record.
While How Long is his first solo album, Ariel explains to Q104.3 New York's QN'A that he took his time developing as singer and songwriter. That patience is reflected in the album's spruce vocals and shrewd lyrics.
The stories in the songs on How Long aren't crises of the self; Ariel comes off as someone who knows who he is and is growing but comfortable with himself.
How Long is a perfect nighttime album, with its introspective tone and lack of melodrama. Like a flannel shirt, Ariel's voice is sturdy, soft and warm. But his delivery is humble when singing about loss and heartache, as though he's more a passionate observer than an aggrieved victim, resigned to adapt to the way the world is turning.
He says that, as an album, How Long takes a particular interest in the passage of time and the reflection that comes with perspective. And despite the album's sense of patience, Ariel isn't taking his time pressing forward in this new challenge in his career.
After touring for most of the first six months of 2019, Ariel called me following a writing session for How Long's follow-up, a record he's already been working on for a year.
Read Ariel Posen's QN'A below.
The song "How Long" is really a gem. Can you give me an idea of how that one came together?
Yeah. It's funny because it was written initially without any kind of story or idea in mind. And once we kind of latched on to a couple of lines, it became clear that we were just kind of writing a song a lot about reflection, and thinking about your own situations in your life and certain times in your life that maybe you had to crawl out of a bit or it took a while to break out of.
When you're in that kind of phase, sometimes it's kind of hard to break out of it. So it's a mixture of kind of being in a rut and a mixture of trying to get out of that rut, and then once you have gotten out of it, just looking back. In fact a few songs on the album, it wasn't intentional, but there's this underlying theme of reflecting and time on the album. And that song is a big part of that.
Your vocals all fit seamlessly with your music; am I correct in assuming you tend to write music first?
I'm usually a music-first type of composer, but oftentimes maybe I'll just kind of have a line, a lyric that kind of sets up...that I don't know what it refers to. It's just totally random and it makes sense. But usually it's a music first idea.
You're pretty well known as a guitarist, but How Long seems to show that you're an experienced songwriter, too. Can you tell me a bit about your career before you made this record?
Well, I grew up on songs and bands. Like a lot of people know me as a guitar player. In fact, most people know me as a guitar player. And I was brought up as like on The Beatles and bands and the guitar being used as something in an ensemble rather than guitar heroes.
And like I didn't grow up listening to guitar players or anything. So I made most of my living playing guitar for hire, like as a session musician, as a hired gun with artists with bands, doing sessions, traveling around.
When I first started playing music professionally, the way I started getting gigs was I just rented my own van and I was playing just like obscure covers and stuff like that, but kind of lit the fire for carving out a musical identity for myself. I always really enjoyed doing that. Then I just got so busy with being a hired gun that that's what I fully committed to doing. And then I just found myself.
People for years would always asked me when I would be doing my own thing and I'd always just kind of push it to the side and go, I don't know. One day. And in my head I would kind of be like, probably never. I'm not going to do this. And then I just found myself with the time and I was in the mental head space and I... In fact the guy that I wrote with today is the same guy that produced my album and co-wrote a couple of songs on it and I was like, 'You know what, let's let's do some writing.' And we started getting this collection of songs and I was already starting to tour under my own name then and it just was the right time. And was just like, 'Hey, let's just do this album. Just keep moving forward.'
Have you been a singer, too, for a long time or is that a more recent thing?
I've been singing for about 16 years. I'm not trained in any way. I've just been doing it a long time and I'm still figuring it out. But I'm at a point where I think I have control of how I need to sing to sound like myself. And now honestly I can't sing and not sound like myself. I just kind of have what I do. I'm not a flashy singer, but I just... I'm an honest singer and I just go for what I can. I don't overreach my capability.
In terms of my range, I'm actually more of a bass, not like an alto or tenor... I think I do have a wide range, but I just sound better in a comfortable, middle-ground range.
You really sound like yourself.
Your slide playing is really refreshing. Not a lot of people play slide these days, and most of the time it's really just used for solos. But you use the slide in a really musical way to bring out chord tones and melody. How did that become part of your sound as a guitarist?
Yeah, I mean, thank you. I've been seriously playing slide for about 12 years. And I just kind of got into it and it just kind of spoke to me. Something about it. I was just drawn to the sound of it and qualities that you can get from playing that way. And I just never looked back.
It was just an honest way to play and the more time I spent with it, the more comfortable I got with it. And also with singing and playing, I would never say that I've nailed anything. I'm always trying to get better. I'm always trying to get further with the instruments that I'm playing or whatever I'm doing and improve. But yeah. I love it.
You said to took your time figuring out what your sound was going to be as a solo artist. This is going to sound punny, but how long would you say How Long was in the works?
I, from the first song that was written until I started recording, it was a year. And then once we started recording, it was about 10 months until the album came out. So it was about, give or take, it was close to two years before the album came out.
What are your plans going forward?
Oh, it's been a very busy year. I have effectively just been on the road from the beginning of January until [June] and now I'm just doing a few ... festivals and stuff like that this summer. But I've been writing for a new record already for a year.
So I'm looking towards the next record already. Hopefully with me doing some more touring in the fall. I'll be back in the states for some shows and then yeah.