This is a story of how self-love allows you to follow your dreams.
Let me confess. I’d never heard of singer Ari Lennox prior to this interview, but after listening to the seven tracks of her Dreamville debut project, PHO (repeatedly I must say), I knew that she was someone I’d never forget. Opening with “Yuengling,” Felly’s production combined with Mez’s engineering drifts you into a trance with Ari’s sweet hums floating above the sound like a petal on water. Then she hits you like a wave, snapping you out of hypnosis into pure astonishment. No wonder J. Cole picked up this gem.
Who did these vocal cords belong to?
Images of a girl with kickass hair and a jawline to die for appeared on my screen. By initial study, Ari was captivating. I was certain she’d command any space she entered.
This is who I was set to interview? Daunting.
We met on an ordinary fall day in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City. The sidewalks uncomfortably packed with tourists, market shoppers and people watchers. Leaving the congestion (and the tang of fresh fish), I walked into Nam Son to find no table empty and Ari, dressed in a ’90s styled bomber and ripped black jeans, patiently waiting for everyone to arrive.
Before we got bogged down with the serious stuff, we kept it casual. Trying to loosen her nerves, and truthfully my own, we talked about the tragedy of the ‘Bradgelina’ breakup, real chicken in pho soup instead of that plastic shit and how Willow and Jaden Smith are the coolest kids on the planet. I joked that I never thought I’d meet someone more soft spoken than me, and suddenly, we both unwound.
Hannah Morris: What was your inspiration behind titling your debut project PHO?
Ari Lennox: My ex introduced me to a lot of things, including anime, video games, and things like that, and the food we would regularly eat was pho. I’d never had it before, but it would always taste great. Eating pho really is a cleansing experience. Since the music was also about him and that period of my life, I decided that I would name the EP PHO because it’s soulful and the food reminds me of how the EP sounds.
How do you find harmony when creating something that holds such emotional weight? I know it’s about your past relationship, but when you’re creating something that holds such an emotional toll on you, how do you find that balance so you’re not falling apart when you’re trying to write a love song?
Well, I was falling apart. At least a little bit. But, most of these sounds I created when we were still together, good and happy. So there was only one or two songs I wrote after our relationship ended. I try to be really positive about things. I can’t be angry that it’s over because it birthed so many opportunities and I’ve learned so much about myself and life, so I’m really thankful for the experience. I’m just happy I can encourage other people to look at relationships that go sour in that way. Embrace it for what it was and just know that you’re an amazing person and you’ll meet somebody who’s worthy. But let that time inspire you to get your money up and get your creativity up.
As a native of Washington D.C., do you feel like your hometown has contributed to your sound?
Definitely. Marvin Gaye, I admire his soul. I admire how vulnerable his voice is, and he definitely inspired how I write my music and how risky I am. He was just a free being.
What was it like growing up in D.C.?
I’m from Chevy Chase, and I went to Duke Ellington School of Arts, Wilson, and a few others. I was always changing schools because I just really wasn’t into it. I couldn’t stay at one for too long. And honestly, I just wasn’t a school person. I was more focused on music versus academics. I also dealt with bullying when I was younger, and I felt it was easier to just leave rather than face it or fight back. D.C. definitely toughens you up.
Ari wasn’t alone though. As the youngest girl of six siblings, she had an irrefutable support system and a full house. While her brothers and sisters went the athletic route, Ari stuck with the arts, testing the waters of the triple threat trifecta. She started out singing in her church choir, simultaneously doing ballet until age ten, and like most of us, realized it just wasn’t for her. In high school she was a member of an acting program called City at Peace. The troupe actors regularly inserted matters of racism, sexism and personal accounts into their plays. Nevertheless, she knew nothing meant more to her than music. Thank God she didn’t accept the congregation as her only audience. Ari’s pianist Jason and DJ Komari have both known her since middle and high school, respectively. Komari recalled her 11th grade talent show performance saying, “I was just sitting in the back, like wow. Her voice is unreal.” Ari’s manager Justin confessed to missing his first chance to witnessing her work. “I had a showcase at G2 Lounge at Howard University, and she was on the lineup,” he recalls. “I wasn’t even there, but I kept hearing all these great reviews. So I reached out to her to see what the hype was all about,” he shrugged, “Now we’re here!”
I listened to your first EP Ariography, and it seemed like you were caught up in the elusiveness that comes with falling in love with someone, while PHO reminds me of that unrestrained voice of sensual freedom that a lot of female artists in the early 2000s shared.
With this project, I feel like I’m being more of my honest self. Ariography was the woman that I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve always wanted true love and to be a wife, as I’m a lover of love. But it just never happened that way. When I was writing that EP, it was me fantasizing about having real love, but something that I never really experienced. With PHO, as ratchet as it is, it’s real life. It’s just me having fun with my boyfriend. Dave James and Eli Eaton produced Ariography, and it’s definitely a project I hold dear to my heart, but I’ve always felt like it was missing something that was a little bit more risky and more honest. With this new project, I feel like I’m being a bit more daring and I’m embracing who I am and what I’ve gone through.
Who are your artistic inspirations?
I have so many. Amy Winehouse, Minnie Riperton, Marvin Gaye, Kanye West. Listening to Kanye introduced me to so many other artists, like Common. I knew of Common, but I didn’t really dive into him until Be and Finding Forever. Kanye stretched hands all over Common, and I just fell in love with the both of them. Kanye’s first three albums, those samples, and the artists that he had on those projects inspired me immensely. Even his song “Impossible” with Keyshia Cole, Twista and BJ The Chicago Kid. BJ was running at the end of that song, and I wanted to sound like him so badly! John Legend was also my favorite artist for a very long time. His first few albums are so dear to me, and I wanted to sound like him too. Of course Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, and Bilal are also inspirations.
How would you describe the sound and direction of PHO?
The project is vulnerable, it’s modern, it’s risky, it’s honest. It’s soulful with trap elements.
Do you have a favorite song on the project?
It’s between “Night Drive” and “GOAT.” Those songs are reminiscent of “it’s over now,” and that’s where I’m at currently so they speak to me a lot. I wrote them so fast, but I really messed with the groove and the space I was in when I wrote those songs. I owned my sadness and turned it into something cool.
I realized that I’d met a woman who reminded me of what life and love were all about. Being your truest self. As humans, we’re born impressionable. It’s in our infant nature to emulate, to follow the order we’ve customarily seen. To be a wife. To be a mother. To be a lover. Then abruptly, we face the fact that what someone else has may not be for us or, perhaps, the timing isn’t right. It’s never easy finding yourself. It’s an intimate relationship that takes a great deal of self-reflecting and patience, yet stirs a fear of understanding. But the person you can become once you discover your individuality, identifying your passion and pursuing it ferociously, is your best self. And in the case of Ari Lennox, you can sign to the record label you’ve always dreamed of.
Tell me about your experience working with Dreamville so far.
It’s like the best family you could ever have. I never experienced such a dope, fun work environment. Everyone is understanding, and no one is judgmental. We’re always cracking jokes on each other. They’re like my brothers, always going in on me, but it makes me stronger. It’s amazing because while we’re having a lot of fun we’re being very productive, and that’s what I’ve always wanted in life. I’ve worked with people in the past that just constantly want to have fun versus getting the work done, but we’re always working while having a good time. Everyone gets along despite being so different with so many layers. It’s the perfect situation.
What was your first encounter with J. Cole?
I met him in the studio while he was working on a reference track for Rihanna and tracks for his own record. There were other people working on their music too, so it was just the most productive experience I’d ever had. It was the first time I got to see how hard this man works. This was a weekend before he went on the “Forest Hills Drive Tour.” It was such a blessing to see how productive he is and how hard he works.
What are you looking forward to accomplishing in the upcoming months?
I’m looking forward to consistently doing a good job at each show. Everyone has good days and bad days, but I want to consistently do well, meet people, and make people happy while on stage. I’m looking forward to traveling and continuing to conquer my fears. I’m getting over my fear of flying right now!
What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given?
When Cole flew me out to Los Angeles over a year ago, I was really self-conscious because I felt like he was more of a conscious rapper and lyrically, I didn’t feel I would fit. I was keeping it really simple with what I was talking about, like my romance life with this guy I was with. Cole encouraged me to be myself and not worry about what anyone else had to say. With time, I started to expand into different topics and it felt really good having that encouragement to be myself.
What advice would you give to someone that’s presently where you were nearly 3 years ago?
Please don’t wait for anyone. If you happen to be in a sketchy situation, don’t let that dim your light. Keep releasing music on whatever platform you can. Try to do things you’ve never done before, and be risky with it. Try different sounds that you’ve never tried. Luckily on SoundCloud, I ran into a guy named DJ Grumble. He had these cool, soulful, modern hip-hop beats, and I just found a way to make my lyrics more relatable to people my age and even people of all ages. I feel like I found the perfect marriage of soul and modern hip-hop and R&B. I would also say to keep writing even when you can’t write anymore. Keep going. That’s something that J. Cole told me. Even when there’s nothing, just keep placing something on the paper. Be tenacious and just never give up. I think this is proof that anything can happen because I definitely did not see this coming. Even when Omen hit me up to do a collaboration, I didn’t think that Dreamville would want to sign me. Things just started happening one after the other, and and it was all just a blessing. Basically, never give up.
To be in love with the idea of love.
Often times, we long for it’s comforting presence, but aren’t sure where to find it. We seek it in strangers before we demand it of ourselves. Ari has been fortunate to have this love from the root up, having a support system that is relentless in helping her use her gift. In three years, she’s gone from yearning for a different life to embracing her own. You hear it in her music. Songs like “La La La La,” produced by Dave James, confess Ari’s past, but we hear her growth and strength in the flawless lullaby. An eclectic voice. Unwavering in its power and gentle in its release. The timing is right for Ari Lennox. Watch out BJ, her runs may give you a run for your money.
Photography: Elijah Dominique