Twenty-three-year-old Ariel Alexis is a multi-hyphenate. Hearing her breeze through her projects, past and present, feels like being in a speeding car: She appeared in a Lifetime movie in 2013; she’s a medical scribe applying to physician’s assistant programs; she runs a lifestyle blog — and don’t forget that she’s a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist who snagged a record deal her sophomore year of college.
The record came about after Alexis performed in a talent showcase in 2012; she released her debut EP, A Flightless Bird, the following spring. It’s a four-song introduction to a crystal-clear voice, bubbly lyrics, and bare-bones accompaniment — and a downtempo offering split evenly between sweet love songs and cautionary tales of bad boyfriends. “I like having a simplistic approach where I can really sing and my voice can be the focus,” she tells the Voice.
The Grapevine, Texas, native is ready to galvanize and break molds with her gentle folk-pop sound, which will be on display this week when she plays Bushwick Public House for the first time. With her folksy take, she may draw comparisons to “carefree black girl” artists — breezy, whimsical, and unapologetically happy — from Corinne Bailey Rae, whose confessional lyrics and laid-back acoustic stylings Alexis calls an inspiration, to Lianne La Havas, who pulls from similar influences but explores more harmonies and distortion. Alexis, who, according to high school friend Twila Mulflur, has “always been pretty fearless,” stands to join these cheery, driven ranks. “I’ve always wanted to use my creative work as a platform to show everybody — but especially girls, and definitely girls of color — that you can do whatever you want, no matter what box people are trying to put you in,” she says.
She knows a bit about escaping from boxes, too. Music wasn’t supposed to be Alexis’s primary vocation. Though she started piano lessons as a child, her parents emphasized soccer, hoping it would pay for college. (It did: Alexis was recruited for Vassar’s team.) Between matches, she taught herself guitar and voice, picking out her favorite songs and posting covers on SoundCloud. Her rendition of Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You” is surprisingly mature and heartfelt, her vocals coasting over a minimalist guitar. She kept strumming through college, where she majored in neuroscience and behavior. (Her cat is named Pontes, after the pontes grisei caudolenticulares portion of the brain.)
Now a Bronx resident, Alexis is ramping up gigs around the city. Fresh off a performance at Piano’s, she’s preparing for the show at Bushwick Public. Nick Murphy, the founder of the space, calls hers an “intriguing sound and personality. It’s exactly what we’re looking for: people who are experimenting, people who are [still] polishing.”
Meanwhile, Alexis says, “I’ve always wanted to play in a coffeehouse.” Maybe she’ll sing the intimate “All You Are,” a sweet confession of love to a crush who doesn’t pay her much attention; a ballad with just a trio of keys, guitar, and drums, it’s ripe for swaying or slow-dancing. Or, the EP’s “Sarah,” which was written for and about a friend in a bad relationship, and is an audience favorite. The first line lays it out: “Not knowing how to be apart/Sarah walks away with a broken heart.” It has a bouncy melody and a pointed message: Do not allow men to treat you badly.
Alexis openly admits that she’s still growing in her own right, particularly when it comes to her lyrics. For instance, she’s figuring out how to write about loving and believing in yourself no matter what — even when you’re the odd one out. “I can still distinctly remember being in kindergarten, coming home from school and asking my mom, ‘Why am I not white like everyone else?’ ” she says. “I’m really proud, like all Texans are, but it was hard growing up black in a mostly white suburb. That was a lot of what sparked my using writing as an outlet.” She likes platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, which she says help women of color embrace the ways in which they buck racial stereotypes or differ from their white peers. “I feel like that was a huge thing that was missing for me growing up. I didn’t know anything about my hair or how great being a black woman is, because I didn’t see any.”
Not that race is front and center in her songs. “My approach to race has always been more of a ‘show not speak’ approach. Like, ‘Oh, this girl is making music that isn’t necessarily traditional “black music,” and she’s breaking down stereotypes and preconceived notions that way.’ ” Of the “carefree black girl” label, she says, “I think [it’s] a good term…. It’s definitely something I have to grow into. I’m still on this journey to figure out who I am.”