With ethereal songs with lyrics that are more poetry than anything else and a genuine kindness and appreciation for the music she writes, Albany-based singer-songwriter Girl Blue is primed to take over the indie pop world.
Since she released her first EP, I Am Not A Star, in 2017, Arielle O’Keefe, 27 (the Girl behind the Blue) has seen tremendous success for her music, and rightfully so. Her unique and powerful voice and a beautiful gift for songwriting has gotten her featured on Spotify’s “New Music Friday” playlist, a feat most independent musicians can only dream of, and her music has been highlighted online, from local publications in Albany to The Huffington Post. Stevie Nicks, the queen of folk and lyricism, listened to her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” (and definitely liked it….more on that later).
But through all of her successes, O’Keefe is still taking her career one day at a time, grateful for everything that’s happened to her since I Am Not A Star. I spoke with her about her process, the artistic community she’s helped build in New York’s Capital Region, and her new single, “Lolita,” out now.
Sarah: Tell me about yourself.
Girl Blue: I’ve been making music my whole life, for as long as I can remember. I sang as a baby.. I’ve played piano since I was six, and I was writing songs when I was five.. I guess I just always knew. I started playing guitar and really writing songs when I was 11 or 12, and performing when I was 14. That’s, I guess, my story as Arielle. Girl Blue started when I moved to Albany at the end of 2014. It’s been a couple years. I wanted to separate from my name and start fresh, basically.
S: So, why Girl Blue?
GB: I had been toying it with for a long while, like as “Little Girl Blue.” That Nina Simone album was a really big part of my life growing up. I love her a lot, and I love that song a lot. Stevie Wonder has a song called “Girl Blue,” and the lyrics to both songs just really resonate with me. And I (laughs) really love the color blue…it just felt like me. Once I dropped the “little” I was like, “Yeah, I can do that.”
S: Who have been some of your biggest influences, musically?
GB: Well, I liked a lot of hip hop in my formative years, and a lot of like…not specifically folk music, but singer-songwriters. I really love Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos, and I listened to Damien Rice back in the day. What I’ve come to is that I just really like lyrics. I think it’s the storytelling. I also have a sister who’s ten years older than me. She did theatre, so when I was really young, she was in high school doing all that stuff. She was my hero. I think storytelling is what excites me, if I can look back and take anything from that. So musically, my tastes can be all over the board, but the common theme, influentially, was always people writing really wonderful poetry and really saying something.
S: And I’ve noticed that, listening to your music. It’s all great, but the lyrics really stand out. Can you walk me through your process? What gets you going as an artist?
GB: I’m a pretty quick writer. The song’s pretty much there in the first sitting. If I have to go back and do a lot, I usually won’t. It’s sort of a flash of inspiration for me. Usually I have a bunch of notes in my phone or in a journal or something, and then I’ll be playing and something will strike me in the right way.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten a little more creative and less cathartic. When I was younger, everything was very heartbreaky and personal to me. As I get older and a little more settled, and I have a little more of an even personality—like less dramatic—I can tap into, like, “OK, I have this idea, and part of me can resonate with that, but it’s about a character,” and that’s so freeing. So now, I’ve been taking a little more time to create the story rather than just vomiting out whatever’s going on in my life. It’s a little more composed, which I think is just…evolution, it’s just growth.
S: Yeah, I’m a musician too, and I’ve been playing music since I was a teenager. Looking back…I was in a band when in college with my best friend, it was just the two of us, and looking back at the songs that I wrote and that we wrote, a lot of it was pretty dramatic, a lot of really broad metaphors –
GB: That’s what it is!
S: And now I’m like, “All right, relax,” which is awesome.
GB: Yeah! I was talking about this with my boyfriend the other day, how like, when you’re young…that time period from like 14 to 24 basically…it’s such a short phase of your entire life, but it seems like it’s so dramatized. It’s so romanticized to be this like huge piece of your life because everything is so new and you feel everything, and everything from then just keeps referencing back to when you were that age. So yeah, your songs are what you hope the world will be, and where you think you are in it before you’ve been in it too much.
S: So, what’s one of your favorite songs that you’ve written?
GB: Probably my favorite right now is the one that I just wrote. I’m still exploring it. So that’s a brand-new song called “Heavy Heart.”
S: Oh, you posted something on Instagram with—
GB: —with Jimi (from Dark Honey), yeah. I’m hoping to record that soon.
S: Speaking of Dark Honey, though, and other local musicians, I know that you record with Just Pretend Records. Can you tell me about being a part of that, and being a part of this whole local musician collective?
GB: Definitely. Just Pretend Records is Jimi Woodul and Dan DeKalb, from Dark Honey. We’ve all been really good friends for eight years now. So they basically decided that instead of paying for studio time—after they’d done an album in a studio—they decided to start collecting gear and learning, which is what we’ve been doing. We’re recording in our apartment (laughs). My last EP was made in Dan’s bedroom. It’s very DIY, but it’s very cool that you can do that now.
S: What do you like about being a local musician, specifically in Albany?
GB: It’s surprising, because I lived in the city before this, and I went for music and all that, but I never really found community. But when I came up here, I sort of already had it because I knew Dan and Jimi already, but I then proceeded to find it in a really unexpected way. I had no idea. I didn’t even plan on staying up here, but it just happened. It’s been so awesome. This could be a hub for creative people, it’s just on us to keep building that up. So especially like with relationships with Chromoscope Pictures and Kiki Vassilakis and anyone creative trying to do anything, it’s like…because there’s sort of a select group of people doing it, it’s easier for us to help each other out. It’s not so overwhelming, and maybe we don’t have all the opportunity that the city has, but we can create more specific opportunities for ourselves by helping each other out. It makes it all so much more fulfilling to just have good people that you believe in and enjoy working with. They’re right there, and you’re all working towards the same goal.
S: One thing I wanted to ask you about is the “Dreams” cover…can you tell me about that whole process?
GB: It was supposed to be a much simpler thing than it turned out to be. I’d been doing a cover of it for a while, but then I ended up just scrapping that and producing this whole new thing. Originally, I was going to do a very simple video with Chromoscope of me just sitting in the woods playing guitar and singing, but then…the day before [the shoot], I was like, “I think I want to do this whole witch thing,” and so we pulled it off in 24 hours. It was just one night in the woods. And then we put it out on Friday the 13th. We got on New Music Friday with that, and it did pretty well on Spotify. It was super fun. They’re so easy to work with, Chromoscope. We were there till one in the morning, but I could’ve kept going.
S: But Stevie Nicks had to listen to it.
GB: Oh, yes. So to put out a cover song, you’re allowed to do that, but if you want to do a video, then that’s like a sync of the original. It was strange because I’d just started working with this new company to do publishing administration for me, and they work really closely with this publishing company called Cobalt. They went and got it cleared [through Cobalt], but for the video, the artist had to sign off on it. It took a little while, but I did get word that Stevie Nicks saw the video and okayed it.
S: How did that make you feel?
GB: It was wild! You can’t really fathom that. I mean, who’s not a fan? I, especially in the last couple of years, have been really into Rumours again. It’s not fathomable. It was very, very cool. I know it was cool for the Chromoscope boys too. And it makes me so happy, because whatever press we get, they got all of it too. It just makes me feel good.
S: That’s awesome. So tell me about “Lolita.”
GB: It’s the first single off the new album I will eventually have coming out this year,and it sort of broke a writer’s block for me. It was interesting because I had just had the I Am Not A Star EP come out, and I was kind of living my life and taking that in. A lot of things changed after the EP came out. I was out watching some band with my friend in Vermont and my friend, in the middle of the music, just turned to me and whispered in my ear, “Do you think that you’re fearless with your music?” And it just came totally out of nowhere, but it hit me really hard. And I said, “No, I think I’m honest, but I don’t think I’m necessarily fearless.” And that just kind of stuck with me and started this whole exploration of what fearlessness would even look like coming from me, because it’s not going to be a bunch of like…atonal weirdness, or an army of didgeridoos or anything.
“Lolita” was the first song I wrote after that happened, where I was kind of daring myself to be really brave. It’s a really personal song; I’m really proud of it. I never like to make things too specific because I think everyone can tie into it in their own way…but I think it’s mostly about what it is to be a young woman, trying to grow up and deal with your sexuality and deal with these conflicting messages of like, you know, women and young girls’ sexualities being totally objectified and then at the same time, it’s taboo [to be sexual]. It’s like you’re exploited, but you’re not supposed to explore it. I think it’s a really good start to the album because it’s where I’ve come from, it’s about how I got to where I am writing these songs now. I think I’ve shown a lot of growth since the last stuff.
S: So how do you think you’ve grown since you released I Am Not A Star then?
GB: I wrote the first EP from ages 22 to 24, and I feel like—I’ve heard this from a lot of women—but at 25, a veil kind of lifts, and I definitely felt that. I don’t know that men feel it too, but around 25 something starts to shift. I felt like I was becoming an adult, actually. So that’s come with a lot of discipline and a lot of really knowing myself. Like I was talking about earlier, songwriting becomes more than just vomit, it becomes an art form. I can look back and be like, “This is the work of my life,” and that’s really awesome. I feel that with these songs. They’re a lot more intentional. It’s a lot more storytelling, it’s not just like a diary entry coming out. S: I also wanted to ask, a lot of your music has blown up, so how has that felt, to see your work be on the first page of Spotify, on “New Music Friday”?
GB: It’s been wild! And it’s so surreal because it’s the internet, so my life is still my life, but there are just people out there that I can’t see and have no contact with that know what I’m doing, which is very cool. It doesn’t feel totally real, but I’ve seen it at live shows. I’ve, for the first time, had people travel several hours to come see me, or be like, “I have your songs on my playlist and that’s why I came.” It’s massive. It was really, really unexpected, and I feel like I was not prepared for that, but it’s been just a huge, huge, huge blessing. Making music and then feeling validated, that’s what it all is, and it’s impossible otherwise. I would lose my mind otherwise.
S: So what would you say is your ultimate goal as a musician?
GB: I used to have much bigger goals when I was younger, and I’ve learned now to only look at the thing directly in front of me. I have goals, like I want to make a great living as a songwriter, as a performer, because I love doing it, but I try to just manage one thing at a time. I’d really just like to put this album out, and build up a brand. I want to do some cool stuff with merchandise and clothing, and just continue to put out my own albums and hopefully work myself into a place where I’m writing for other people. Just something sustainable.
S: Do you have any advice for singers and songwriters, especially women?
GB: It’s very hard. (laughs) It’s very, very hard. Especially nowadays. It’s hard to have any idea…to maintain your integrity. It’s hard to know how to push certain parts of your personality, or your body. But it’s also a really, really great time for women to be making music. I co-produce all my music and I record it, and I go out there with all my gear and I do my thing, and I feel totally respected by my male peers. I don’t know if that’s the case for everybody, but I don’t feel like that would be the case if I were doing this 10 years ago, or maybe even 5 years ago. I feel generally really safe and comfortable and respected, so that’s a really wonderful thing. Don’t be afraid to go out there and do everything that you need to do. I would say, you know, it is a discipline. It’s something I do every day, and I’ve let go of these like, giant dreams…not that I’ve let go of them, but I’ve understood that the journey is what’s important.
When I was younger, I was very set on where I needed to be and wasn’t there yet, so now I’d say that I’ve learned to just enjoy every day, because that’s the fun of it. You’re never really going to feel like you’re “there,” especially with music, because if you’re someone who writes songs, you’re not sane, you’re not well-adjusted (laughs). Even when you find some measure of success, you’re still going to feel like a loser in a lot of ways, so enjoy the day-to-day and try to learn how to not feel like a loser every day. That might be weird advice, but to sum it up, I guess it’s about getting better at what you do. It’s about learning about yourself, that’s why you write songs. Let that be the focus—not having it play somewhere, not having it blow up—that’ll come if your heart is in the right place.