In the fall of 2011, Ariel Bui came to a crossroads in her life. After graduating from college, she had foregone her passion for music to spend nearly two years building and educating others about sustainable, green-friendly, self-sufficient homes in Baja, Mexico, and in the desert outside Taos, N.M. An impetuous marriage proposal brought her to Toronto, Canada, where she recognized her mistake immediately. Brokenhearted, frustrated, and busted, she headed south to her father’s house near Dallas to contemplate her next move. On the way, she took a detour.
“My friend Dylan Ethier is a sound engineer, and I worked with him in college on my first album,” Bui says. “He was living in Nashville, so I stopped for a visit, and he threw a party for me to teach people about sustainable housing. There were all these musicians here, and I really liked the vibe. I didn’t think I could move to a city after living off the grid, but I really loved Nashville.”
Six years after choosing the road to Nashville, Bui is a successful small business owner, a local radio personality, and a wellknown member of Nashville’s indie music scene, with her 2016 self-released album garnering praise from many national media outlets. Her accomplishments might be unexpected based upon first impressions.
“For people who don’t know me well, I come off as super bubbly,” Bui says. “I kind of sound like a Valley Girl to some people, which I hate and really don’t understand. Someone from the Lonesome Highway blog asked me recently, ‘Your personality is so upbeat, but your music is so dark. Do you feel like music is your way of expressing things that you can’t express otherwise?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely!’ ”
Much of the darkness found in Bui’s music was born from genuine trauma. Her family’s arrival in the U.S. began with the end of the Vietnam War. Her grandmother worked as a nurse in the U.S. Army Dispensary in Saigon, and with assistance from the U.S. Catholic Conference, she and her husband, along with their seven children, were given safe passage from the country just hours before the fall of Saigon to Communist forces. Bui’s mother experienced an even more harrowing escape in a small boat in the middle of the night. She was eventually rescued from the South China Sea by a U.S warship.
Her parents met and married while attending college in Texas, but shortly after Bui’s birth, her mother was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Her mother’s mental health problems and the eventual divorce of her parents led to Bui and her brother being in constant upheaval, as they bounced from one extended family member to another.
“It was a very traumatic childhood,” she says. “I went to five schools in one year. I witnessed violence and experienced sexual violence as a child. We ended up in foster care at one point. My brother and I were separated for a few years. By the time I was in seventh grade, I had tried to commit suicide. There were so many hard times; if it wasn’t for music we’d be dead. When there were fights or arguments in the house, my brother and I would just listen to music.”
By the time Bui was in high school, her life found some stability. Settling in Brevard County, Florida, with her father, she lived a dual existence throughout her high school years and into college — ambitious honor student by day and indie rock musician by night.
“I’d tell my dad I was having a slumber party at a friend’s house, and I’d be in a van with the band, doing my homework on my way to a gig,” she says. “That’s when I learned to write songs, perform live, record an album, book and promote shows, and do everything DIY.”
After graduating from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., with a music degree in voice and piano, Bui’s career took a hard left turn into environmental activism — an adventure that eventually led to a chance detour and the rebirth of her music career. Although her move to Nashville put her back on a musical path, she never expected overnight success. Instead, she set her sights on proving the adage that Nashville is a “five-year town.”
In 2012, Bui cofounded Melodia Studio as a co-op, teaching piano and other instruments, which she operates from her home in Germantown. She also began working with Youth Empowerment through Arts and Humanities (YEAH!), teaching empowerment and teamwork through music at the Southern Girls Rock Camps and the Tennessee Teens Rock Camps. In June 2016, she debuted on the Nashville airwaves via the community-based, freeform radio station WXNA-FM. Her Monday morning show, Hello Hooray, provides a showcase for local community activists and causes.
Bui also quickly plugged herself into the local indie rock and DIY music scene. “It was Jem Cohen and Jeff Pettit from Fond Object that helped me get started in Nashville,” she says. “I started playing shows at Fond Object, and they really heard more than the Americana side of what I was doing. Jem said to me once, ‘You’re weird and dark, Ariel, embrace it.’ Performing at Fond Object really made me feel like I could be myself and be appreciated for all of the experience I had.”
The connections Bui made through the local indie scene eventually led to the recording and release of her 2016 self-titled album. Produced, engineered, and mixed by Andrija Tokic at The Bomb Shelter studio in East Nashville, the record is a showcase for her dark and witty slices of impressionistic autobiography, along with her chameleon-like ability to shift between pop genres — transforming effortlessly from forlorn Americana to smoky rock eclecticism at will.
“My life feels surreal to me now because everything I came here to do is happening,” Bui says. “My music is my ultimate activism. I’m not singing overtly political songs, but I see creating music as a way of paying it forward.
“From the biggest artists to the local bands that only lasted for two weeks before they broke up, they all worked really hard to get their music to my ears, and in my darkest hours, music was the only thing I had,” she continues. “I constantly remind myself the reason why I work so hard is because music is a healing thing. It’s healing for me to create it and hopefully, it’s healing for other people to hear it.”