With a discerning ear for electric guitar tone and a touch on the instrument that is bordering on a Federer-esque blend of grace and power, Ariel Posen is one of the most exciting guitar players around.
These past few months have seen the Canadian artist put the finishing touches on his latest solo LP, Headway, alongside all the other things that keep him busy besides travelling.
“I feel fortunate,“ he says. “I'm doing not anything differently then I was before, other than playing shows. I was already shooting a lot of content, producing and recording for folks from home, teaching and of course, writing and working on my own material.“
Like many sheltering-in-place artists, Posen has taken to Patreon to maintain the connection with his fanbase, sharing tips, techniques, and exclusive material. “I really wanted it to be engaging and collaborative and I think its definitely been that so far.“
Headway came together soon after the release of How Long (2019) before the pandemic, before Patreon and Zoom became so important to our lives.
Posen wanted to pick up where he left off, but having the opportunity to perform the material before recording changed things. This, he says, is how you get to know the material, and over time and some road miles a tour can change a song.
“I wasn't actively looking to change my sound but you can't help it when you're at it for a while that your ear and my brain evolve and change,“ he says. “You hear things and are inspired by different things, so they all come out to play while maintaining who you are.“
Posen might be have a digital sit-down with MusicRadar to talk about the 10 albums that changed his life, but with Headway scheduled for a 5th March release, we spoke to him about his writing process, and how avoids letting the guitar playing get in the way of the song.
What tends to be the genesis of a song for you – a vocal hook or a guitar part?
“It could be either one. Nine out of 10 times it will start with a melodic hook, a chord progression or a guitar idea and then I will go from there.
“Sometimes I have a lyric in mind with a melody that I feel is strong but don't know exactly what the lyric is supposed to mean yet. If I like the melody, then I will use the lyric as a place starter just to get the wheels moving and either change it or keep it and write around it.“
One of the things that really shines in your work is how well the songs flow – sonically and melodically – is this an unconscious thing for you now?
“The sounds, the mood, the melody and the overall big picture definitely are things that I pay close attention to when recording. I'm just trying to make each song have some kind of a satisfying pay off either lyrically or musically – ideally both.
“I could say that lots of those elements are kind of subconscious now, but that doesn't mean that I'm not checking the work constantly and second guessing if something could be done better or differently.“
Have any musicians or producers you’ve worked with in recent years had a notable impact on your own approaches musically?
“Its been important to have the same core team for me on both my records. Even if I am changing my tastes, or evolving, I can rely on them to understand me, musically and as a person, and help get that vision out. It's about trust and chasing down ideas. My sound and the songs are definitely me but without the team, it'd certainly be harder to get it sounding exactly how I hear it in my head!“
Slide is an integral part of your playing and you integrate it very well into songwriting. Do you have any advice for players who would like to enhance their songs with slide parts?
“Honestly, I never write songs with the intention of fitting in slide parts or any parts for that matter. That stuff all comes at the end when I'm recording. Songwriting for me, is all about the lyrics and the melody and the arrangement. Everything after that is to taste.
“Therefore if it means that a slide solo would be nice in it, then thats a call I'll make when I'm recording, or if a real ambient intro drone is key, then you guessed it.. it's decided during the recording process. There is no wrong or right way to write a song, but for me, it comes down to those initial elements I mentioned first."
Your extended solos live are special, and there’s one in particular solo on your version of Angeline from your show in Witney last year that rightly got a lot of attention online and you posted a great video about it online where you highlight the idea of the solo as a journey, do you feel that solos can be misconstrued by some players as a competition or chops showcase?
“Yeah, for sure. I think the majority of musical communities think of improvisation as only one way compared to their heroes and if its short of that, its probably not good enough. Just like song writing, I think soloing is just as subjective. Everyone has a different voice and a different way of getting their ideas out.
“I always think it's not about what you're playing but how you're playing it. I want to try to solo the way that I would like to hear someone do it. I want to be taken on a journey with a beginning, a middle and an end. It should feel like a story. I'm always trying to get better at that as its a never-ending process.“
You’re active on Instagram and it’s obviously a great place for people to discover artists. Do you think it could and has changed the way some people enjoy music – are there some listeners who enjoy checking out clips on there might might not listen to whole albums?
“Definitely. For the young people that aren't able to go out every night and jam, do open mics and just network, I'd say its absolutely perfect for that these days. [It's] never been easier to get your name out there and to meet like-minded individuals.
“The thing about Instagram and any other social media platforms is that it's just a tool, and often, like you said, people will follow along because they saw or heard a clip that you did that they connected with, and they just to keep coming back for more. Oftentimes they will be most engaging with the same type of clip over and over again.
“I think theres a smaller percentage of people that actually are curious to look past your 'highlight reels' and actually support artists and make it translate to real life value, like coming out to shows or buying albums.
“That is the conundrum of social media as an artist and its different for everybody. I think its just important to find what works for you to showcase yourself and promote yourself but work on your craft and 'real life' components as much as you can to make sure they actually back up all your videos.“
You’ve obviously developed your own distinct style but in terms of the albums and players that have impacted you the most, do you still hear the influence of some of them in your work now?
“I think its hard not for all of us to wear our influences on our sleeves. I've always said it's important to identify your heroes and be inspired, but at some point it's even more important to leave them at the end of the hall and keep moving forward without them.
“It's easy to sound like other people but its tough to sound like you. It is all about recording yourself and playing for yourself, keeping it honest and genuine. Eventually you will find whatever it is that makes you have your own sound, even if it was inspired by all of your heroes.“
And now, to those heroes, starting with a certain blues player from Dallas, Texas, who changed everything...
1. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Couldn't Stand The Weather (1984)
“I'll still never forget the day that I first heard Scuttle Buttin for the first time. The fluidity, the attack, the aggression, the creativity, the excitement. It absolutely melted my mind. I was in a time in my life where I was still young and unmotivated to take steps in moving forward on the guitar.
“Once I heard that and listened to the entire album, it made me rethink everything about guitar and music itself and I realised how much work I had to do. It didn't feel like work though because it inspired me so greatly. I still feel like I haven't picked my head up.“
2. D'Angelo – Voodoo (2000)
“Once I started getting into this record I don't think I listened to anything else for a good number of months. I made sure to let it play while I was in the car, out for a walk, doing work in the house, it was just always playing. I wanting to subconsciously take in as much as I possibly could.
“This album is a masterclass in so many things, and other than the obvious legendary grooves on this record, I really started to pay attention to vocal stacks and arrangements. Coming from being a big Beatles fan and loving their harmonies, I never realized how beautiful it could be while being so complex and nasty sounding.“
3. Donny Hathaway – Live (1972)
“I don't even know where to start with this record. The songs, the playing, the performance and the CROWD is on fire. Every time I listen to this album I feel like I'm right there in the middle of it. Its so exciting to listen to a band absolutely crushing it while the crowd responds exactly like you the listener, are responding with headphones on years later.“
4. Jaco Pastorius – Jaco Pastorius (1976)
“I started getting into different instrumentalists when I was younger and Jaco's first record was the catalyst for that. As a guitar playing who is used to guitar players leading bands, taking solos, making so many moments, it was crazy to hear a bass player doing it.
“Yeah, I was hip to Victor Wooten, and all of the amazing modern day bass heroes but something about Jaco's musicality and innovation inspired me greatly to be as good of a musician and band leader as I could be.“
5. The Beatles – The Beatles Anthology Series (1995-96)
“I've gone on record saying that the Beatles are probably my biggest influence, and its true. I had a really hard time trying to pick one album because they're all so different and all so important. To be honest, I first started listening to the Beatles when they put out the Beatles Anthology.
“I've put this down because it literally had all the highlights and more from the beginning till the end. My faves will always be Rubber Soul, Revolver and Abbey Road, but like I said, there is so many important songs through their timeline and I felt like I didn't leave anything out by putting this compilation down!“
6. Robben Ford & The Blue Line – Handful Of Blues (1995)
“Similarly to how I felt when I first heard SRV, I felt the same when I first started listen to Robben. This record specifically had not only so many amazing guitar moments and solos but I really love the songs on it. People always talk about Robben's playing but they don't say nearly as much about his tasty singing and vocal delivery. This record is the total package.“
7. Doyle Bramhall II – Welcome (2001)
“Again, it comes down not only to the guitar playing, but the singing and the songs are inspiring and moving. I remember first seeing "Green Light Girl" on the Crossroads fest concert vid, and then realized there were so many other songs that I connected with on the album, if not more than GLG. Another masterclass in guitar playing, tone, songs, singing, rhythm section. Nothing is out of place.“
8. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
“Always have been a lover of hip-hop and I know I'm not alone on this album. I appreciated this record from afar for the first few months and it wasn't until I got to see Kendrick live in Australia, I then dug in deep.
“The influences, the sounds, the playing, and the overall frame that this album falls into is like no other and really set such a high standard. I also really like 'Damn' and maybe even spent more time with that record but it all start with this one for me and I keep returning to it every couple of months.“
Harry Manx & Kevin Breit – In Good We Trust (2007)
“These two fellow Canadian slingers have been putting out all kinds of amazing music out individually and together. Something about this record immediately drew me in when I first heard it.
“Harry and Kevin are such different players and singers but together, complement each other so nicely. Some of my favourite guitar solos ever are on this record. This album was a gigantic influence on my slide playing when I was younger.“
10. Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
“From the first time I ever heard Lover, You Should've Come Over I was hooked forever. I feel every ounce of sadness, happiness, and any other emotion that just drips when Jeff would sing. The entire album is a masterpiece and should be displayed in a museum if there was ever such a thing for music.“
- Ariel Posen's new solo album, Headway, is out on 5 March 2021. Pre-order it now.