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Arsena: Empowering Independent Artists and Impressing Michael Jordan

Our featured artist for April needs only one name: Arsena. A longtime Breedlove player, we’ve enjoyed the good fortune of watching Arsena’s sound and career develop and progress for more than a decade. Over the past two years, many of us decided to shift the trajectory of our lives. Arsena’s new single, With or Without You, which anchors an upcoming album, Metamorphosis, gives voice to our collective angst, mourns all that we have lost and abandoned, and casts a glow of optimism toward whatever’s next. We recently sat down to discuss her new album, her entrepreneurial endeavors supporting independent artists, her top three breakup songs, and that one time a gig at a heavy metal dive bar led to a standing ovation from the Michael Jordan.

Arsena on Passion and Hustle:
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. As a kid, I started little businesses—making bead jewelry and selling it, taking out people’s trash, anything to generate income. In high school, I started an organization educating my peers about social justice. I’ve always been a leader. I started college as a finance major, thinking that hustle spirit would lead me to business, but when I went to study finance and we were looking at stocks and spreadsheets, it just did not connect to my passion. I was really bored.

Discovering Herself as a Musician:
I didn’t consider myself a singer at all when I was younger. I’ve always loved music, but the people that I grew up with, my culture and background, they listened to R&B, those love songs with the vocal power and all the runs. Because I couldn’t sound like that, I just assumed singing wasn’t my thing. My first year of college, a classmate asked me to be on his mix tape. And I just thought, “Oh no, I don’t sing.” And he said, “No, you sing, you can do it.” That was first song I wrote, and my first-time recording. I fell in love with making music.

Interconnected Influences:
I was deeply influenced by Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album. I love the simplicity of Lauren’s storytelling and guitar. It was just very vulnerable and that connected with the core of who I am. And then India Arie—she also plays guitar, but incorporates her spirituality into her music and makes it commercially viable. That really spoke to me as well, because I consider myself very spiritual. I’ve had different inspirations over the years. One that’s close in age to me is Lianne La Havas, the British singer songwriter, and also VV Brown. When I think about it, I’m like, “Oh, there’s a common thread between all of these influences. They’re all black girls who play instruments.”

A Heavy Metal Dive Bar and a Standing Ovation from Michael Jordan:
When I was just getting started, I got this gig at—I’m not even going to mention the name of the place, because it’s still around here and people really like it. But it’s a dive bar that tends to book heavy metal. So, I was in a lineup of music that didn’t fit with what I did. When I went up to perform, I assumed no one was listening and didn’t really care. I was just singing. But one couple kept moving their seats closer to hear me. At the end of the night, the guy came up and asked what was the largest crowd I had ever played for. He said, “I could see you playing down at our arena, just a spotlight on you and your guitar.” I was like, “Yeah, okay, whatever.” I told him to sign up for my email list. Well, when I looked at the email, I saw that he handled the talent booking at [Bobcat] arena [now Spectrum Center]. I did an audition, and then they booked me for a private event. It wasn’t a Hornets [the Charlotte NBA team] game, but it was a Hornets event. When I finished, Michael Jordan gave me a standing ovation.

The Origins of Dear Soul Music:
After I released my first EP and achieved some success, artists started asking, “Can you help me with this? Can you help me with that? How would you figure out this? How’d you figure out that?” Sometimes, it’d be a setup. They’d invite me out for coffee and I’m thinking I made a new friend and then they whip out pen and paper and they’re like, “All right, give me all your information.” I started charging a consult fee, because this was starting to take up a lot of my time. I needed to take care of myself, pay my bills. Eventually, the consultations grew and became workshops. I decided to open up an LLC so we could be legit. That’s how Dear Soul Music started.

Don’t Call it a Label:
Some people call Dear Soul a label. If so, I’m the only artist on the label. Everyone refers to it as a label. Maybe they know something I don’t know about the future of this company, but I consider us an artist development and service company. We provide artist development workshops; we’re partnering with Breedlove on guitar lessons; we’ve been doing songwriting workshops, music production workshops, creative recovery workshops. We’re a for profit LLC, but are trying to empower artists who might not pursue music because they don’t fit the mainstream label mold. A lot of people that come to our workshops are really talented, but they might not interest a major label. A lot of them will stop pursuing music, because they think that that’s what success looks like. So, we try to empower them.

I struggled for a long time thinking of my career as a musician and Dear Soul Music as separate, but they’re not separate. They might be two different brands, but they complement each other. There is no Dear Soul without Arsena. No one’s coming to hear from someone who hasn’t accomplished anything. You can’t teach unless you have actually done something.

Being a “Sherpa” for Independent Artists:
When I released my last album in 2018, Sleep Talking, we were intentionally making something to attract record labels. I thought that if I got a record deal, I could open the door for other independent artists. The good thing about a record deal is you have a machine. You have the resources. I thought that if I could go through that process—gain the opportunities, and context, and connections—I could kind of Sherpa other artists up. I ended up getting two different major opportunities and one indie. But I was losing myself in that process and creating music that wasn’t completely authentic. I walked away from all of it. Something felt off; I said no more albums. Then the pandemic hit in 2020, and a lot started shifting. I started writing songs, and I told one of my friends, a music producer named Curt Keyz, that I wanted to do a project called the evolution of Arsena.

Her Metamorphosis:
That’s also when I decided to leave my marriage. I haven’t been really public about the divorce, but I haven’t been secretive either. Some women started reached out for support, trying to figure out how to deal with the transition, the guilt, the shame, the stigma. I really wanted to write a song to empower them. And that’s where the single With or Without You came from. I was empowering myself as well as other women—and men too—anyone concerned about taking that leap and leaving things that don’t serve you well.

 With or Without You spearheads my upcoming new album, Metamorphosis. I’ve got a crowdfunding campaign going to help support the project. We’re offering some pretty cool perks to anyone who wants to pre-order. We have the typical things—stickers, CDs, vinyl records—but we also have unique offerings like co-artist coaching sessions, house concerts, music lessons, executive producer credit, all different kinds of things. Anyone who wants to be a part of making Metamorphosis can go here.

The core of Arsena is still present on the new album, the soulful elements, the live instrumentation elements, but the content is different. With or Without You, like I said, is about my divorce and being confident in that decision. That’s new to me. The song doesn’t have any curse words, but there’s one word that’s bleeped out. That’s also new to me. Speaking more openly about my romantic life is new because I never really talked about it. On this album I’m talking about love. The songs have gone from a place of sorrow, and helping people wrestling with grief and suffering, to a place of joy, happiness, and confidence.

Her Top Three Breakup Songs of All Time:
No Scrubs, by TLC. I don’t know if that’s a breakup song. That’s a, ‘We’re breaking up before we even get together, before you even try,’ song.

Heard it All Before by Sunshine Anderson. She’s a local artist from around here.

Forget You by Cee Lo Green. It’s got a little acting in it, a little drama.

Her Relationship with Guitars:
I love guitars. I love acoustic guitars specifically, and when it comes to acoustics, I only play Breedloves. When I look at some of my favorite songs from before I even considered making music, there’s acoustic guitar on them. That sound, it’s just relaxing. It’s soothing. I always feel like I have much more room to grow, but that’s the fun thing about music. It’s a journey, and there’s always more to learn. We have a good relationship, me and guitars.