March 13, 2012

Loving to play creative roles: Musician and Content Strategist Ariel Bolles

Ariel Bolles playing with Anais Mitchell and Rachel Ries
at the
The Living Room in New York City. Photograph by Aurélie Coudière

Ariel Bolles is a burgeoning freelance content strategist. In addition to this, she pursues music. She toggles between these two disciplines, which are distinct but share a mutual purpose and sensibility. Here Ariel relates her thoughts about the two worlds (and more) she engages:

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Where are you from? What do you do for a living?
I’ve lived in Chicago for a little over 7 years now. I went to college here, I’ve worked many different jobs, mostly in the service industry and retail, but more recently I’ve been building up my résumé as a freelance editor. Now I have a freelance position as a content strategist. My background: I was born in Maine, grew up in Charlotte, Vermont. I miss New England.

Rachel Ries’ going away show at the Hideout in Chicago.
Photograph by Jenn Kangas

In addition to being a burgeoning freelance content strategist, 
you’re a musician. How did you get involved with making music?
What instrument do you play and what kind of music
do you make?
I’ve been making music for as long as I can remember—everyone in my immediate family is a musician. I grew up singing with my parents, tried to take piano lessons and gave up pretty quick, then settled on playing various brass instruments in middle and high school. A lot of my musical life has been a result of people handing me instruments to play—in high school I learned trombone and euphonium because my band teacher told me I should. I started playing upright bass after my two older brothers and I formed a band nine years ago. I felt weird just singing backup, so I asked if I could try out my brother Tyler’s bass. He moved over to banjo, and luckily the songs were all in C or G so I was able to thump along on mostly open strings until I got the hang of it. The band only lasted a few years, but eventually I bought my own bass, moved to Chicago, and joined some bands—a tin-pan alley/old-timey/country-ish band called Bakelite 78 (they’re based out of Seattle now); Rachel Ries, a wonderful indie-folk singer-songwriter who moved to NYC last year; Eiren Caffall, another lovely songwriter who writes haunting, jangly tunes. I also just started playing with a local Patsy Cline cover band called the Weepin’ Willows.

How do you manage your quality of life being both involved
on interactive design projects and your musical projects?
Many of the musicians I know have day jobs. Before pursuing editing and content strategy, I was a floral designer. I loved the physical work, but it was artistically and emotionally draining, to the point where I hardly had any energy for practicing bass and playing shows. I never realized how exhausting it was until I quit and started trying other things—now that I’m working on content strategy in interactive design, I’m seeing parallels between my work and playing bass. I’m breaking things down to their elements, which is sort of what you have to do as a bassist—find the root to the song, back it up. I sound like a hippie now, and I don’t think I even answered the question.

What is your statement about being an artist?
I’ve never thought about it so generally like this. I’ve always just played music because I like doing it; I don’t necessarily identify as an “artist,” because I just love playing and singing along. Anyone can do it.

Ariel Bolles’ notes which she brought to Germany. She said, “Yes, my scribbles are so lazy I don’t even distinguish between major and minor chords.”
Photograph by Ariel Bolles

What is your approach to making an idea,
like a musical composition, and getting it real?
It depends on the band, but I rely on collaboration with bandmates a lot to realize ideas. Usually the songwriter (Eiren, Rachel) will present a new song, and I’ll just play along and find a part that fits. Harmonies work the same way, trial and error. I like getting suggestions from bandmates about what to play or sing, too, because often it’s a part I wouldn’t have thought of myself.

What tools do you use to work on your ideas
and make them grow?
For a long time I hardly ever took notes and would just try to remember everything I was supposed to play and sing. I’m not sure why I did that—now that I use my own mangled notation system I have an easier time with lyrics and chord changes and whatnot. I still try to learn things by ear because they stick better that way, but I like to have back-up on stage in case I get lost. All I need is a Sharpie and a piece of paper.

Do you have recommendations for software/web-based tools
to use for collaboration and getting things done?
Rachel has recorded many simple demos for me on the internal mic on her laptop and emailed them over—that’s priceless. Does that count as software? Google Calendars are great for scheduling practices and shows with busy groups of people. And I recently downloaded a bass tuner on my smartphone, which beats the hell out of my clip-on bass tuner that’s held together with part of a guitar string. Probably wouldn’t be much help during a show, though.

How does time factor into your making?
I’m a procrastinator, so time constraints motivate me.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Music work or work work?
Music: connecting with other musicians and playing shows are equal for being most rewarding. This summer I played with Rachel at Pritzker Pavilion in front of thousands of people—it was pretty exhilarating. And traveling, too. I love going out on tour, even if it means you’re only in a city for a few hours. Last spring, I got to tour in Germany and Switzerland as a ringer with my friend’s band, The Amida Bourbon Project, from Vermont. It was a great way to see Europe for the first time.

Work: Getting to have a say in how something is written, or how a page works or looks, is very rewarding. I’m relatively new to content strategy, but I’ve learned a ton over the past couple months, thanks to my talented and supportive coworkers.

Is there a part of your work that is particularly trying
and how do you deal with it?
The most trying part of my job is sitting at a desk, staring at a computer for hours on end. It can get tedious. I try to break it up by taking short walks to clear my head and give my eyes a break.

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?
Even though I’m not a florist anymore, I still read a few different flower blogs regularly, which keeps me connected to that world without the cost of buying real flowers (SAIPUA is a classic, and The Flower Appreciation Society is a new favorite). Also, the house I rent has a ramshackle backyard that I’m looking forward to coaxing some veggies and flowers out of again this summer. And knitting. I’m a very methodical knitter—I’ve made the same hat a dozen times, in different colors.

What are some of your influences and sources of inspiration?
A couple of my good friends thought I might make a decent content strategist, which is how I ended up doing what I do now. I’m so grateful to them for that. More close to home, my brothers let me be in a band with them, which started me off playing bass, which has become a huge part of my life. My parents surrounded us with music growing up and made it so that I now get sentimental any time I hear Emmylou Harris or CSNY. Also, randomly, this blog inspires my inner stickler: AFTER DEADLINE.

What’s your advice to people who aspire to make something,
a song, a piece of writing—anything?
Just sit down and do it. I sabotage myself all the time by turning on the TV to catch up on Real Housewi—er, Mad Men, and getting sidetracked, but then when I finally block out the distractions, I can be productive. Is that obvious? This is my first interview.

• • •

Read more Interviews that include: Ryan Evans of Rand Media Group and Bitesize PR / Designer, Front-end Developer and Illustrator Jan Cavan / Mari Sheibley, Lead Designer at foursquare / Illustrator Laura Barnard / Design Collaborative Quite Strong / More

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