A lot of kids grow up with visions of pop stardom, but Ariana DiLorenzo wasn’t initially planning on a career as a musician. After penning a few songs for other artists, though, the drama devotee (she did theater in college and at 13 acted in a musical based on the American Girl dolls) realized, “Oh, this is something I could do.”
Enter Ariana and the Rose, DiLorenzo’s musical project specializing in lyrically sincere, sonically enveloping synth-pop. Following the release of her visually arresting clip for “Love You Lately” (a breakup duet featuring some all-too-real lyrics), Billboard is premiering her Retrograde EP in full below (it drops Friday, March 24).
Last week at SXSW, Billboard sat down with Ariana to talk about everything from why it’s easier to share emotions with strangers to her ambitious plan for a futuristic dance party/concert that will touch down in New York City this fall. (Pro tip: If you get the chance, check out Ariana and the Rose live — she’s a dynamic stage presence.)
How did Ariana and the Rose begin?
I started in theater but had been writing music on the side just for fun as an outlet. I had been writing for some other people and I had gotten a cut for an artist on a dance label. That was the first time I thought, “Oh, this is something I could do.” I was at NYU at the time and even in my senior year, I started to write more, and I put a band together and said, “I’m going to start my own project.” And still write for other people, but I wanted to see how it would go and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It changes, morphs and grows. It’s really a solo project: I’m Ariana and the Rose and I’m supported by a band on stage. My goal is the same now as it was then – to have my own project and also be able to write for others. I like being able to do both. It keeps things interesting — it’s exciting to be able to work on other people’s stuff and it influences yours. With EDM acts coming through, it’s changed the way top liners do things and it’s opened doors. It’s nice to be able to dip out of your world and into others’ as a writer.
But you started out focusing on acting?
I was an actor for a long time, I got cast in an off Broadway show when I was 13. It was a show based on the American Girl dolls, I was cast as Molly, the World War II doll. I did a tap dance! I had an agent and manager and was auditioning all the time — when you’re that age you don’t realize how difficult it is to have an agent and manager. I was excited to be working but not in the same way I would be now. I love performing and being with other people. When I started with music, the through-line was performance. I get my fix with that.
Where do you draw inspiration for your songs? Like “Supercool,” where does that come from?
The lyric is about a girl that’s a party girl and she’s on the fritz. Everyone knows those people, where you’re like, “I don’t know how your life hasn’t completely unraveled.” But they’re also so fabulous — they’re these creatures who completely command a room but potentially are about to have a breakdown. The song is this combination of a lot of people I know, this interesting character. But ultimately the thought “she’s super, super cool” just came from me talking out loud. I take things from my personal life and adapt them to feel more heightened, have a bit more drama. “Supercool” is a real person that I know, but —
Does she know it’s about her?
No, she doesn’t know the song is about her, though I love her very much. But she’s not quite as extreme as the song is. It’s heightened. And also it’s not her — it’s her plus a lot of other people. I don’t think anyone is quite that simple or easy to pin down. I love the contradiction of someone being fabulous and a mess.
A song like “These Ruins” is deeply personal, it’s about a breakup. I had written that song a long time ago, and then we reworked the production to sit in this similar sonic landscape to everything. I had gone through a breakup and wasn’t sure what to say about it in the moment. Sometimes when you’re in the thick of it, you feel crazy. That song was months afterward when I finally had some hindsight on that, it was written as an imaginary conversation. “Love You Lately” is a duet with L.A.-based duo RKCB. Casey [Barth] had started to sing the hook of “I guess I don’t love you lately” over and over again. We both identified with that feeling; neither one of us was in that moment going through it, but that’s such a thing where you’re in a relationship with someone and you’re like “This isn’t it anymore.” But you don’t know how to leave or you don’t want to leave yet.
When you’re writing about personal things like breakups, do you ever feel reticent about getting that personal?
I talk about this with songwriters all the time — there’s a weird comfortability you start to have with strangers or people you just met. You have to walk into a room [with songwriters] and say “hi, nice to meet you, please throw up your feelings onto me.” Sometimes it’s easier to tell strangers those things. It’s the equivalent of sitting at a bar and meeting someone and both of you tell your life stories — not that I’ve had that happened, but like in a movie scene. It’s a muscle you have to develop. It’s a skill to be comfortable with yourself and make other people feel comfortable. Some days are better than others. Some days you don’t have anything, other days you’re like “I have all the things.” It depends on where you’re at, learning to listen and not being hard on yourself if it’s not the day.
How did you settle on your sound – why synths versus rock or folk or something else?
I started in a singer-songwriter place. It’s definitely evolved into a honed synth, indie synth sound. But I love singer-songwriter stuff, I love artists like Kate Bush — everything about her is so good. And her melodies are so theater, and she was never confined by genre, which I think is the coolest. It’s just her — that’s what drives the line through it.
Early on, when I was sitting down to define a sound, I thought, “That’s important, I need people to be able to hear a sonic palette and think ‘that sounds like Ariana and the Rose.'” But as I grow more confident in the fact that I’ve established that in some way, I feel more comfortable going away from it, too. I just love the sound of synths. I love artists like Robyn and Goldfrapp, strong female figures who have done something different. Goldfrapp has all the blues influences and grooves in her stuff and Robyn is more dance, her second incarnation is underground dance. I think I just listened to that stuff and loved it and loved making it. I love those synth bass lines.
Do you have plans for a full-length album?
I have music to be putting out after the EP, and I’m always writing. I’d like to have the project have enough groundswell that people want a full length. I also feel like the more I put out the more I learn what resonates with everyone. I try to be responsive with an audience. I think that’s the joy of playing shows and social media. I’m writing a lot and when it feels like a body of work that makes sense, I’ll put it together as an album.
The debut album seems less important these days. You can be around for a few years with singles or EPs and no one blinks if you haven’t done a proper album.
I love bands. I came from that world, and I’ve changed my thinking on that. People soak up content so much, whether it’s a song or video, and I want to make sure everything I release is building a world — visually, sonically, whatever — not because you feel like you have to [release something]. It’s important people learn more about you every time you release something. That’s my goal. To expand on a world for people to walk into and be, “I feel like I know Ariana and the Rose better.”
What do you have coming up?
I recently developed a show called Light and Space, it’s an immersive event. We did the first one last May in London with Red Bull Music, a combination of immersive music, live show and a party. I never thought when I went into music I would pull from theater but I’m inspired by my theater friends. The whole thing is based off the ’80s disco scene: Danceteria and Paradise Garage. But instead of making it a throwback, we wanted it to be a futuristic disco. It’s about making things seem worldly and like you’re on another planet, but with the same ethos as when people went to clubs to dance — not bottle service clubs, but the fun times clubs.
I feel like the bottle service thing is becoming less popular — people want to dance.
The weekly parties, nightlife personalities are coming back, like Ladyfag (in New York City). People want that now. They want a nightlife home, in a way, and I felt like no one was doing that in live music just yet with a band, so Light and Space is my version of that. It’s a party, first and foremost. It’s woven with elements of theater. The whole event is built so that the moment you step inside, you feel like you’re not on earth anymore. There’s something heightened about it — it’s alien or magic, whatever word resonates with you. We have these creatures that are dancers that interact with you. We had a glitter bar so everyone could get into it, and then the show happens and we collaborate with DJs at the beginning and end. My hope is if the event grows, we could collaborate with other bands. It could be a place for people to go to have a home outside of normal venues.
Do you see Ariana and the Rose as yourself or an alter ego?
I call the project Ariana and the Rose because I wanted it to encompass more than me. More literally, it’s the band, but that extends. Everyone I works with jokes, “Am I the Rose?” It’s a joke but there’s truth to it. It can be people you work with or even the audience — without them you don’t have anything, who are you making it for? I feel like it’s becoming more of an alter ego to me, Ariana DiLorenzo. That’s fun, I feel l can take bigger risks for some reason. As you separate your personal self from her, she can do things I wouldn’t. She’s throwing a party filled with glitter and craziness. I’m like [in feigned exhausted voice] “Oh my God, we’re going out Friday night?” It gives you a freedom because you take your own ego out of it because this other person is doing it.