By Brian Tucker
Humility in the face of talent is endearing. Charlotte, North Carolina singer-songwriter-musician Arsena Schroeder’s has been performing for five years, has an EP under her belt, and was on American Idol for two rounds in 2012. Her advice to new musicians?
“I’d encourage them to create freely and face their fears head on. Hard as it may be, try not to compare yourself to others,” Schroeder said. “Your path is unique to you and you alone.”
The latter comes from experience. At twenty-three, Schroeder is a solo acoustic performer in the vein of Corinne Bailey Rae, turned down a scholarship for graduate school to pursue music. Two weeks before graduating from Pfeiffer University she visited the college chapel to get some clarity on what to do with her life. She came away wanting music to be more than a hobby.
“I took my guitar and planned to just play, be quiet, listen, meditate, and get some clarity on what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t see how I could make a living out of it so I pursued grad school,” Schroeder said. “I told myself, if I got through admission interviews and was accepted, I’d take that as a sign to go.”
After being accepted she couldn’t shake playing music. Uneasiness lingered after enrolling and going through school orientation. Schroeder ultimately decided grad school was not what she wanted.
“I guess in total, it took me about a half year to decide and commit. I just never showed up to school ever again. And I was terrified by my decision.”
American Idol happened during this period of indecision about grad school. She cites the experience as empowering, pushing her to finding her identity as an artist.
“It was my first endeavor once I decided I wanted music to be my profession.”
She’s been singing since a young age but playing an instrument didn’t happen until college, sophomore year. Mostly self-taught, Schroeder learned by watching a tutorial DVD and a few private lessons. For shows she plays acoustic guitar and sometimes uses a guitalele – half classical guitar and half ukulele. But her voice is her favorite instrument, noting that singing came natural growing up.
“Because it was more common, something everyone around me did – at church, at school, at home, on the playground. I had a lot more exposure to singing than playing an instrument. When I did learn to play an instrument, while it was foreign to me, there was still something about it that just clicked. I had my first gig after only playing a few months.”
Though most of her musical memories are from elementary school via a music teacher with varied tastes (The Beatles, Earth, Wind & Fire), her mom was no slouch either. Music around the house ranged from gospel and jazz to Phil Collins and Elton John.
“Or things that weren’t necessarily ‘black culture.’ I think in those moments I was encouraged to seek out different types of music although most of the kids around me listened to Hip Hop and R&B. So in secret, I’d listen to rock, country, pop, or punk, just because I wanted the exposure.”
Today, Schroeder’s songs have their own personalities bolstered by a voice nuanced with soul, sass, and tenderness, whether on the accidental studio-born reggae texture of “My Heart Cries Out,” on the somber tone of “Beauty for Ashes” inspired by lines from Bible verse Isaiah 61:3, or a new song called “Words Just Won’t Do” that’s about her husband.
“I don’t believe I could pursue music full-time without Stephen supporting me. He sacrifices everyday so I can. They say behind every great man is a great woman, is it possible the reverse is just as true too? I think so.”
More with Arsena Schroeder
The material for Abundantly was a few years old before you recorded.
Schroeder: All the songs on the Abundantly EP, with the exception of “I Don’t Want” were songs written early in my music journey. Honestly, at the time, being older didn’t help expedite the recording process. It was my first self-produced project and I was really clueless about how I wanted to produce them. I decided it’d be best to just have fun and whatever came of it was what came of it.
Did “My Heart Cries Out” always have reggae atmosphere or did it begin as an acoustic soul song?
Schroeder: Great question. The truth is that “My Heart Cries Out” was never written to be reggae. It started out as an acoustic song I envisioned highly percussive. My studio guitarist, Brandon Snow, came up with this really fun reggae feel for it that I found liberating. Since we were really digging it, I decided that’s the way the recording should be but I never perform it that way for my solo sets.
Are you involved in music therapy at all, as volunteer or a professional?
Schroeder: No, I’m not. Funny thing, my graduate degree would have been in counseling. When I was offered a specialization in play therapy I tried hard to see if the program would let me specialize in music therapy instead, but that wasn’t an option. I’d totally be down to explore it though.
How long before finding your voice, your singing personality?
Schroeder: Vocally, finding my own voice and singing personality probably took the first two decades of my life. I had all these internal and external ideas of what I should sound like, but one day I finally decided to turn out all the lights in the house and sing however I wanted to. Even if it wasn’t with good diction or within the genre people assume I should sing. From there, I found my own sound and began to work and perfect it. I think it’s important to sound and sing what’s natural to you. It feels better that way.
What’s your first musical memory, the first song you recall being struct by?
Schroeder: Most of my early musical memories were in elementary school. I had the best music teacher in the world. But personally, the first song I canremember biting me was “Unbreak My Heart” by Toni Braxton. I’m not sure why and it’s so embarrassing, but I remember even as a child being blown away by the vocal arrangement and range. I remember trying to sing every part.
I cannot remember the first time I performed for an audience. As a child, I did all types of performances – plays, commercials, dance competitions, pageants, concerts, and more. Things I didn’t realize at the time were probably preparing me to be a performing singer-songwriter. Things don’t feel much different. There’s this unexplainable euphoria that comes with each performance.
What’s your favorite part of performing?
Schroeder: I think my favorite part or my “sweet spot” is when I’mreallyexpressing myself and people really connect with what I’m creating in that moment. I hear a lot of artists who prefer not to see their audience, but I feel a total disconnect when I cannot see the audience. I like being able to see them. It allows be to gauge rather we are all on the same page or not. So, both are equally important to me – expressing myself andconnecting with the audience while on stage. I don’t like experiencing one without the other.
What did you take away from the experience of American Idol?
Schroeder: My experience with American Idol was in 2012. I actually only made it two rounds but I walked away from the experience empowered and ready to find my identity as an artist rather than follow pop culture. I wasn’t in college at the time. That was during my whole “Should I Go to Grad School” phase. So it was good timing because it was my first endeavor once I decided I wanted music to be my profession.
“Beauty for Ashes,” where did it began as a song idea?
Schroeder: “Beauty for Ashes” is a song I wrote after only playing guitar a couple of months. It’s a really simple three chord song that’s evolved since the recording. I read a scripture in Jeremiah one day about “beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning” and I thought it was something I should never forget. So I put it into a melody for the sake of not wanting to forget it. Instantly, my own words began to flow in after that.
“Manna” is sassy and fun.
Schroeder: It is fun to play live! I wrote that song impromptu while playing a set at a coffee shop. They asked me to play Christian music only so when I ran out of material, I’d just sing my prayers out loud and make a song of it. “Manna” was one of those prayers.
I’m curious what musicians think about adding a ‘faith’ label to genres of music. Is it pointless or even unfair?
Schroeder: For me, I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it’s stifling. As artists we are always growing and evolving. Putting us in a box, especially religious ones, limits our reach, influence and creativity. I think true faith can’t be measured in mere words or labels, but in the lives we lead when the song is over. But I don’t mind faith questions. I like those!