Scene & Heard

Ariel Rubin lets the music pull her in

Local singer-songwriter Ariel Rubin.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Local singer-songwriter Ariel Rubin.

Ariel Rubin remembers a teacher who saw what path she was headed down early on and decided to give her what he considered sage advice.

“My favorite high school teacher, in grade 12, sat me down and said, ‘I see you’re doing well with music. I just want to warn you that musicians become drug-addicted and suicidal. Their lives fall apart. Don’t do it. Do something better with your life,’ ” she says. “And then I had other people — my music teacher, my parents — who were like, ‘This music is amazing. Do music!’ ”

Not that Rubin, who moved to Boston 2½ years ago from her native Victoria, British Columbia, needed to be dissuaded, mind you. She was already skeptical enough. Her parents were involved in the arts — her father being a musician, her mother an actress, director, and teacher — and she had witnessed their struggles.


“Being a kid growing up either on or around the stage, I had a conflicted relationship about performing,” Rubin says recently over breakfast in Cambridge, not far from her home in Somerville. “I’ve seen a lot of people do it from the viewpoint of getting something from it and seeing how challenging that can be to your self of sense. On a fairly conscious level as a teenager, I was wary of that. My only rebellion as a teenager was not pursuing music.”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It’s heartening, then, to realize that at 31, Rubin has finally arrived as a solo artist forged in the fire of a new sound and a new band. After her debut as an acoustic singer-songwriter in 2010, she’s now the leader of Ariel + the Undertow, a lean ensemble that skews more rock than folk. Rubin and her band will celebrate their new self-titled album with a performance at Church on Feb. 8. (They also have shows at Great Scott on Feb. 12 and at the Middle East Upstairs on Feb. 28.)

Rubin was immersed in jazz in high school, but shelved those dreams in service of something more stable. She moved to Toronto, studied photography, and apprenticed with photographers. In her mid-20s, after chasing a persistent desire to be successful — “I’ve always been a Type A kind of person who pushes as hard as I can” — she suffered a three-year bout of chronic fatigue syndrome. It was so intense that sometimes she could barely lift her head.

Living in a small cottage behind her parents’ home, she recuperated and revisited music. Except this time there was no pressure to produce anything, no expectation that the songs would lead anywhere. Around that time she also bought a ukulele while visiting her grandmother in Hawaii and fell in love with the instrument, for both its simplicity and the sweetness of its tone. Nearly 40 songs poured out of her within three months, laying the foundation for her 2010 self-titled debut.

That album, driven by ukulele, could be described as chamber-folk, but its follow-up burns with a fiery intensity. Rubin had started to explore that aesthetic on “Big Spoon,” an EP from 2011, but when it came time to make another full-length, she and producer Mike Davidson were wide open to inspiration.


“We knew that we wanted to push it into a definitive rock direction, but that’s not what we ended up with,” Davidson says. “The guiding force behind the production style was a fair amount of electronic-sounding instrumentation, which is typically inorganic, but by blending it with organic aspects of her voice and songwriting — it gives the record an overall sense of otherworldliness.”

Particularly for a sophomore album, “Ariel + the Undertow” is a bold declaration of independence, from both her previous sound and the hard times that dogged her so relentlessly. It opens with “Kindness From Strangers,” whose first 35 seconds feature Rubin’s voice unaccompanied and resolute:

Oh, Marilyn, Virginia, and Sylvia, too

So bold with such beauty, so filled with the blues

I’ve idolized and fantasized and got down there, too

But no matter what happens, I won’t follow you

That would be Marilyn Monroe, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath, all tragic characters whom Rubin vows she won’t become.

With her troubles seemingly behind her, Rubin is measured about her initial decision to avoid making music. Isn’t she glad she didn’t take that high-school teacher’s advice?

“Yeah, but I’m also glad that I did,” she says. “If I had been doing this at 17 years old, I wouldn’t have been able to approach it with balance and realize how to properly care for myself. In the long run that will let me do this longer and be happier.”

Bonus tracks


Glenn Yoder, who, in addition to being a talented songwriter and singer, happens to work at, is celebrating the release of his sophomore solo record, “Javelina.” (You can hear and buy the album at With his new band, the Western States, in tow, Yoder plays at Lizard Lounge on Saturday. The music starts at 9:15 . . . Betsy Siggins, executive director of the New England Folk Music Archives, and the Charles River Valley Boys, a popular local bluegrass band in the ’60s, are the recipients of this year’s BBU Heritage Awards, presented by the Boston Bluegrass Union. The awards, which salute individuals “who have made substantial contributions to furthering bluegrass music in New England,” will be given out at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Feb. 15-17, at the Sheraton Framingham.

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.