I first ran into singer-songwriter Arum Rae at a small private concert at The Refuge in Appleton, Wisconsin. While the other bands had loud, complex setups with racks upon racks of pedals and gear, Arum Rae stood alone with her electric guitar. From the first note, she filled the room with a confident but gentle presence, pulling you deeply into an immersive emotional world of intimate raw vulnerability. This is music that makes you stop in your tracks and compels you to listen, and it is this soft but strong energy that carries through beautifully in her album “Sub Rosa.”
Released in 2017 by Secret Road Records, this album was recorded at her home in Manhattan and her friend’s studio in Brooklyn. “Sub Rosa” is Latin for “under the rose” or “what happens in secret,” a personal touch, given that Arum Rae’s own name means “water lily” in Latin. Arum Rae writes on the album that “Sub Rosa” is a “collection of past, present, and future songs” in their “extra-pure forms.” The songs are stripped away acoustic gems with minimal guitar or textural piano accompaniments, with all the focus placed on Arum Rae’s stunningly emotive vocals. Her dark and raspy voice sounds like a mix of Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone, powerfully and expressively delivering each lyric with thoughtful intensity.
In the song “War,” she opens with a spontaneously organic duet between her voice and her guitar as she weaves vocal vibrato in and out with guitar vibrato, each pursuing their own sparse melodic lines. The effect is a natural texture and an improvisatory, roots-music feeling that feels similar to Blind Willie’s “Dark was the Night.” In addition, “War” displays Arum Rae’s soulful lyric writing as she expresses the juxtaposition of the heightened state of feeling alive when you’re fighting with the exhaustion and numb feeling that getting caught up in that intensity of fighting can leave you with. One of the most beautiful things about Arum Rae’s lyrics is their subtlety. There are no obvious rhyme schemes or driving dance beats; her music is endlessly meandering. Each song is simple, purposeful and authentic.
My personal favorite song from the record, and also perhaps one of the most popular, is titled “Should I.” The song opens with gentle, rolling piano chords that later switch to sparse guitar accompaniment interspersed with small bursts of twinkling piano riffs. On this song, Arum Rae warmly sings about the rush of emotions that come with dating someone. The music video features Arum Rae walking around her apartment waiting for someone special to come over, and that feeling of nervous anticipation pulsates throughout the song.
Thus, the passionate intimacy of “Sub Rosa” is perhaps the album’s defining feature. Each song is an honest expression of emotional vulnerability. There is no overwrought sentimentality here as the album pulls you into a vibrantly expressive, intimate and very human world.