San Francisco singer Ariel B. is facing the pandemic that has shut down the Bay Area with a heart full of song. Her video for “Keep On (Quarantine Style),” a song she recorded with Grammy winning producer Narada Michael Walden, opens with her walking down the deserted streets of the Mission district. The song’s rhythm suggests the beating of a distressed heart, one that’s soothed by Walden’s tranquil keyboard fills and B.’s stirring vocals. She gently sings, “Sometimes it’s hard to sleep at night, worried about some fears inside…” before sliding smoothly into the uplifting chorus: “I just keep, keep, keep on.” It’s a vital sentiment for these trying times, delivered with a winning combination of apprehension and faith. The singer’s godmother, Kellie Seringer, and a couple of her best friends filmed the video on their iPhones, capturing the reality of an empty city and the hope created by the optimistic lyric.
Although she's well known on the local club scene for her dynamic performances, her work with Walden was poised to catapult her onto the national stage. Then everything shut down.
"We have a lot of things we've been working on, in various stages of completion," B. said, "but we have to abide by social distancing guidelines, so it's harder to get things done."
B. grew up in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood, dreaming of a singing career. She studied classical music and opera at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, but was more moved by popular music.
"I enjoyed the discipline of the classical world that my teacher Todd Wedge introduced me to; for me, music is more about feeling and expressing emotion," B. said. She took piano lessons when she was younger, but it was through singing that she best expressed herself. "I studied my favorite artists and read the liner notes of my favorite albums. Whitney Houston was the one I most admired. I remember seeing Narada Michael Walden's production credits on her records. I always dreamed about working with him."
A few years later, B. was singing in a cover band, honing her live performance and getting serious about songwriting. She borrowed a rhythm track from YouTube's library of instrumentals and constructed "Often Wonder," a melisma-drenched song of heartbreak, that showed off her rich alto, smooth harmonies and jazzy phrasing. When she played it for Allen, he said he was going to send it to Narada. The next day, Allen called her. "Narada wants to meet you."
"I was working a full time day job but, later that week he had me back in the studio, polishing up a more produced version," B. said. "He played the song on the piano and I sang along. He had a mic on the piano and me. We got the vocals down and then did another session, with musicians playing bass, guitar and drums. He asked me, 'What will bring the best out of you, as a vocalist?' I told him, 'I love being around bands. I was in choir in middle school, high school and college. I'm not about being a solo person. I like to see how everything comes together.' After he got the band down, he added a bit of computerization, for a modern effect."
Although things have slowed down, B. keeps busy. She has acoustic versions of the songs she's going to release on her Soundcloud page. She's also working on a Christmas album with producer Jeff Weber and honing her songwriting skills.
"I work from a place of pure emotion, based on heartbreak, something I have a lot of experience with," B. says. "I also write happier stuff. I write all the time, but sometimes I take a break, if I feel like I'm in my head too much. I work with Lil Rece, who sends me instrumental tracks and sometimes they inspire me. A lot of songs are just floating in space. You just need to get into a place where you can hear them, but I have to feel them deeply. If you want to evoke emotion in someone else, you have to feel it yourself. I work hard on the first words in a song. A good lyric is important, like the first line of a good novel, the hook before the musical hook."