`It’s frustrating when you realize there are so many other people trying to do what you’re doing," says singer-songwriter Ariel Dixon about MySpace. "And you wonder who’s going to make it because only 20 percent of it is that good." A mere 18 years old, the Pennington School senior sees MySpace as the networking tool that functions as her one-stop record label. For having only played live since September, 2007, she’s already a regular at KatManDu’s Wednesday night acoustic showcase, one of the area’s premier showcases for singer-songwriters. Dixon also plays consistent gigs at numerous venues between Philadelphia and New York City, including Spike Hill Pub in Brooklyn, 169 Bar in Manhattan, and Triumph Microbrewery in Old City, Philadelphia. On Monday, April 21, she’ll appear at World Cafe Live – Upstairs in Philadelphia, which features an ongoing lineup of emerging musicians.
Dixon has posted five tracks on www.myspace.com/arieldixonmusic, recorded at QB Digital, the recording studio run by Lance Reichert, who is also the sound engineer at KatManDu and the producer of its weekly acoustic showcase. Reichert says he originally created the night to bring in a young crowd at early hours (the showcase runs from 6 to 11 p.m.): "I tried this two years ago but MySpace was too undeveloped then. I was putting a lot of listings on boards for neighborhood kids to play. I called it the `Little Breakfast Club.’" These days, Ariel and singer-songwriters like her have helped change all that.
In an interview at Starbucks’ in MarketFair the Pennington resident says she appreciates the serendipity of the KatManDu gigs. "There’s always some kind of crowd there. It’s all I can ask for just starting off. Through Lance, I’ve found a few fans who will come out to different shows at different venues." At KatManDu Dixon has also met someone who does booking for emerging musicians and has good contacts in the area and Los Angeles. "In fact," says Dixon, "she knows the Hotel Cafe in LA which is the `zone’ for singer/songwriters. It’s the best place I can imagine playing."
Reichert is working with Dixon to flesh out new dimensions for her skeletal song structures, providing seasoned options on tempo and arrangement. "Lance does great work with sound. I finally got to hear myself accompanied by fretless bass and Norah Jones-type drums for the first time. It was another whole level – like listening to a different person, someone who I’d really enjoy listening to." In fact, Dixon is so pleased with her new sonic real estate, she says, "I’m also trying to put together a three-piece with friends who play."
Reichert, who listens to a constant stream of up-and-coming singer-songwriters, says Dixon stands out in a remarkable way due to the depth of her lyrics and the finesse of her songwriting structure. "I listen to a lot of artists and there’s something she has with the maturity, despite being so young." As an example, he cites some lyrics from Dixon’s MySpace track, "Ripcord": "I’m willing to risk it and pull the ripcord. They run in circles like children do. I swear I’m different. I swear I’ll never change you." "How did she come up with that?" Reichert ponders.
Dixon’s current collection of MySpace tracks convey a hauntingly pure sincerity and sublime sweetness, each framed in fading color Polaroids. They effortlessly channel an urgency and immediacy few artists capture without years of maturation. Dixon says her favorite tracks are constantly revolving, but she is particularly proud of the current "Untitled," soon to be added to her MySpace offerings, with lyrics that again tap into the theme of vulnerability – "This love is always ready for goodbye."
Dixon says she feels "Untitled" is "set up the best in terms of the song’s structure. I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always written poetry. Even if I haven’t had a chance to feel as deeply into a situation as much as someone who’s older, I think the same root feeling is there; whether it is about love or life or getting older. I’ve never worried about whether or not I know it well enough because I haven’t lived long enough. As long as it’s happening to me then I write about whatever’s on my mind."
Speaking with the confidence of a 25-year-old, the Lisa Loeb clone is quick to credit the constant support of her family. "My parents drive me to gigs all over and give advice about making good decisions in managing my career. My sister Leah is my best friend. She recently graduated as a theater major [from Ursinus College in ontgomery County, PA] and we’re always doing something artistic."
Dixon grew up in the historic Cadwalder Park neighborhood of Trenton. Her father, Dallas Dixon, founded the nearby Fisher Prep Charter School, where he is an administrator and teaches. In 1984, he married Princeton Public Affairs Group lobbyist Sonia Del Gado. "I’m half Puerto Rican," says Dixon, "but unfortunately not fluent in Spanish. However, I can understand quite a bit more than I speak." The family moved to Pennington in the 2001 after the death of her uncle. Rallying together, her father located a home big enough to compensate her widowed aunt, two cousins, and immediate family.
Dixon says her musical instincts rapidly sharpened "after my 13-year-old-punk phase. I realized my brain is creative and I could put guitar chords together based on how they sound." With the help of guitar lessons, she has also developed a unique finger picking percussive style. "I don’t know how I developed it or where the rhythm came from. I learned `Blackbird’ and my fingers just knew where they should land and pick. I have callouses because I don’t have any fingernails – I bite my nails. It doesn’t seem to matter though."
After consuming a lifetime who’s-who of ’60s music influences from "my ex-hippie father," her tastes are now decidedly 21st century indie. Her top favorites include Tristan Merryman and Jason Mraz. "My friends want to send Tristan my demos. I met Jason Mraz after a show as an adoring fan." Other influential artists include Rachel Yamagata, Ani De Franco, and Matt Nathanson. "Rachel’s lyrics are the best out there, nobody does what she does better," says Dixon.
Roughly the age of Hannah Montana’s Miley Cyrus, Dixon speaks candidly about commercial music, wondering how Cyrus can "put on that wig and costume and have the split personality; it doesn’t make sense. I heard a song and it was the same chords as `Sunglasses at Night’ from the `80s. It’s been so long, nobody will recognize it!"
While a date with the Jonas Brothers would be a considerable upgrade (for those of you who don’t watch the Disney Channel, the Jonases are a pop-rock band from Wyckoff, NJ, made up of three brothers who have appeared on Hannah Montana and will appear in their own Disney series in September), Dixon bestows her ultimate praise for chart-topper Sara Bareilles. "Sarah deserves it. She busted her ass after six years and has gotten to open at Madison Square Garden for Maroon 5. I have one of her first CDs from when she was selling them from her apartment."
Music is far from the only focus in Ariel’s life. After graduating in May, recording and gigging this summer, she’ll matriculate in August to USC or "Southern Cal as they call it out there," says Dixon. "I’m undeclared – I know that’s like a bad TV show title on the Fox Family Channel! I’m not under any pressure. I’m going to explore and figure out my interests while pursuing music at the same time. I have plenty of time to see where things lead."
When she’s not wielding her guitar, she’s wielding a bat as a member of Pennington’s softball team, though she admits, "I hate the competitive thing, I hate the pressure. But we have great girls and a nice time together. I’ve been doing it since I was 14, and I’m not going to quit now. It’s just the games drag over two hours. Having to stretch a two-hour set at a recent gig is much more enjoyable."
"I think that’s what I like about the singer/songwriter scene, that it’s a lot more intimate. People really care what they’re listening to when they go. Meeting people after shows makes the scene even more exciting than the music itself. I’ll also never forget my first request a fan made – `California’ – it was the biggest thrill yet."
Ariel Dixon, acoustic showcase, Wednesdays, April 16 and 23, KatManDu, Waterfront Park, Trenton. www.katmandutrenton.com or www.myspace.com/arieldixonmusic. 609-393-7300.