Q&A with Ariella McManus and Nicolaas Kraster of Ariella
Tell me about your new single “Terrified.” What is it about and how does it reflect where you’re at personally and as a duo right now?
Ariella: When I first wrote the song, it wasn’t one of my favorites – which is funny because it’s grown into this meaningful, intense expression over time after Nicolaas came up with this beautiful chord progression. The song emerged from a time when we were arguing about a lot of things, and it came from an honest place. But we’re no longer there emotionally.
Nicolaas: Ariella always meant to reflect the intensity we felt for each other as a couple. I think the uncertainty the song expresses has its roots in the fact that when our relationship began, we were both in other relationships – and so we had a lot of questions about whether this was going to become a permanent thing. We’re very much in love and secure now and so this song is like looking back at a memory in a photo album. As far as the duo is concerned, while we still play with a larger ensemble on occasion, the song is reflective of the stripped-down performances that we’re focused on. We make sure we always stay true to the emotional aspect of the song.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did your original band Ari and the Alibis form in 2013? How did you develop your sound?
Ariella: I originally joined Nicolaas’ established Tampa based Cabal, which was a rumba flamenco gypsy swing band. A few years in, that group morphed into Lotus Fire, which as still rumba flamenco but had a different bass player and a violinist. It fell apart when our main performance venue closed. Everyone went their separate ways, and the two of us just started playing duo gigs together. We became the “house band” at a Spanish restaurant and incorporated flamenco with blues, jazz and English soul. We formed Ari and The Alibis after playing for a duo for a few years, adding bass, drums, a trombonist and a keyboard player. We brought all of our collective influences to the mix to create an ensemble that played funk, jazz, samba, blues, soul and rock. The band has performed throughout the U.S. and played in Canada and Scotland. Even as we’ve focused recently on the duo, the band still exists.
What prompted you to create the duo Ariella?
Nicolaas: We have always done duet gigs here and there but of course the band became popular because everyone wants a big party. We met our current agent Mark Lourie when he caught us playing a duo lounge show at the Hard Rock casino in Tampa. He saw how people were drawn to the iintimacy, and he believed that if we could connect with people here, we could do that in other venues. Mark actually liked the duo more than Ari and the Alibis! So Ariella and I set up a website and did a trial tour, playing at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, and clubs in Buffalo and Sellarsville, PA. The feedback was great, and we both enjoyed exploring what we could do in that format. Sonically, I have much more room to play with dynamics and space around her vocals. With the band, those spaces are already filled. The only drawback is having to use a loop station onstage.
Ariella: With the pandemic, the whole world has turned upside down and our plans to promote Ariella the duo and our new singles “Joy” and “Terrified” are more limited. Still we plan to keep releasing music and continue to grow our fan base however we can. Though we’ve been playing music for over a decade, the concept of Ariella is so new and we are still exploring what is possible as far as how to meet new fans and get our songs to the ears of music lovers.
I know you have worked recently with the famed Grammy winning engineer Fabrice Dupont (“Fabulous Fab”), who has recorded artists like Queen Latifah, J Lo, Andrea 3000, Shakira, Bebel Gilberto and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What has he brought to your sound and what’s it like working with him?
Ariella: Up till recently, we were longtime endorsees of Sennheiser Microphones and we performed several sets on their behalf at Sweetwater’s Gear Fest in Ft. Wayne, IN. In walks this guy who leans against a main post in our space and watches the whole set. Afterwards, he walked up to me, gave me his card, told me to contact him and walked off. My friend Christopher from Sennheiser looked at the card and told me this guy’s legit, that I should definitely reach out. The right time to do that was after we started working with our manager John Porter of Mood Indigo Entertainment. Once we had a strong team in place, we had them reach out to Fab.
Nicolaas: We were flattered that Fab wanted to work with us. The funny thing was at first we found out that he wouldn’t be free for months, but the next day, an artist he was supposed to work with had a bike accident and he opened that slot for us. (The bike rider is fine). Fab was a guest producer giving a clinic for Universal Audio on how to take tracks and make them more professional – and he used ours! He took three audio tracks from what we called the “Ghost Motel Sessions” – “Mr. Officer,” “Joy” and “Terrified” - synched them with the video and fixed them with a new mix. We hope we can work more with him in the future. Sometimes indie artists get starstruck when they work with guys who have done sessions with superstars, but our time with him allowed us to take the veil away and realize that everyone is just a person hanging out with other good people trying to make the music better.
Speaking of which, tell me about Victor Wooten, the legendary bassist who is also a huge fan of Ariella. How did he first hear about you and what have you done with him?
Ariella: We met him at Summer NAMM in 2015. It was the last day and I saw Victor in the parking lot. I was a huge fan and wanted to make him my new best friend. He was talking to another bass legend Chuck Rainey. I asked him if we could take a photo and he was very gracious. I sent him that pic on Facebook and he responded kindly. I was kind of blown away by his down to earthiness. I told him I would love to see him in Florida, and he responded that he was playing here in a few months. I brought my dad and Nicolaas and we all hung out before the show. At the end, he played “Amazing Grace” and invited me up to sing with him! We all became good friends and even got to know each other’s kids. He runs a famous 147-acre Music & Nature retreat center in Tennessee and hosts various programs for musicians of all ages throughout the year. He invited us to perform there in the main hall. He also sat in with us, which was perfect because we have always had trouble holding on to bass players! We’ve been invited back several times.
Who are your individual and collective influences?
Nicolaas: First guy I want to mention is legendary dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse, who I consider a creative genius. As far as musicians go, I love everyone from tango master Astor Piazzola and Paco de Lucia to Slash, Al Di Meola and Trey Anastasio from Phish, who I consider the best guitarist who ever lived.
Ariella: Mine are Etta James (so much power, less about notes than intention), Patsy Cline (who could make you feel every emotion), Otis Redding (who could make you ooze with emotion) and later, Amy Winehouse.
Tell me about your weekly “Tiny Den” concerts.
Ariella: We play in a tiny hallway in our house that we’ve turned into a performance space. Since the start of the lockdown and no official gigs, we have done 30-minute duo concerts. For the ffirst few months we did it twice a week, but in July we transitioned to once a week. We’re there on Facebook Live every Monday at 2 pm EST. We mostly do originals, but we pretty much play any song we know. We have also started “busking,” meaning we have opened up for tips for those who want to offer their support in that way.
Finally, I would love to hear more about Nicolaas’ line of open body guitars (Kraster Guitars).
Nicolaas: I design guitars that are then built in Asia. When I get them, I put in high end quality pickups and high-end electronics. Everything is gutted and redone. Usually the mainstream guitars built in Asia are made as cheaply as possible, but they don’t have to be. On a personal level, the guitars I build allow me play electric flamenco without a pick! Serious collectors love my line and so far my highest profile client is Andrea Sennheiser. For more information: www.krasterguitars.com.