R.Ariel's career trajectory has been an unusual one. The Phoenix native spent her earliest years as a musician in the conventional singer-songwriter mode, before shifting toward a more electronic approach that earned the approval of no less an authority than Brian Eno.
Her September-released This World rattles and hums with ambient textures, pushing the strummy fare of her first two releases in a grimily expressive, cinematic direction.
"I always loved hip-hop and beat making," says the artist known offstage as Rachel Crocker. "As I gained more confidence and momentum with music, that's when I realized I could do whatever I want. It's really just the limitations you put on yourself."
Ariel credits her creative growth, which includes writing and photography, to the inspiration and support of her mother, who was a writer. Her mother's death shook her to the core. Music seeped into that broken place.
"I wasn't sleeping very much, and I had a guitar. I was up all night, so I would spend hours and hours and hours fingerpicking different chords," she says. "As I progressed I realize I liked sounds in general and how the world works sonically, so I started messing around with loop pedals and electronic drums."
After a couple of tours, Ariel played last year's Noise Fest UK, where curator Brian Eno chose her for the fest's Best New Creative, saying her music "sounds like what nostalgia feels like."
"That really gave me a huge boost of confidence to be able to do what I want," she says. "I think when I stopped caring so much how people felt about it, and became more focused on what I'm making and on what I want to make, it became a lot easier."
It was that same spirit which drove the making of This World. The 10-track album ranges from the minimalist instrumental "Coffee," which sounds like a church organ heard through neighboring walls and early morning fog, to the insistent "Your Whole Life," which echoes like a dripping faucet ratcheted into a club beat as Ariel's gossamer, dissipating plea to "stay dear" is lost in the city's steady thrum.
This World arrives just over four months after her still dreamy but far more conventional third album, Changer, which had a reverberating late-night sway reminiscent of Mazzy Star. Its successor more clearly evokes Beth Orton's shimmery electro-folk, with breathy vocals that melt into the music and are as much on tone as words.
Ariel has also published a combination memoir/meditation, In North America. Among its many topics is mass incarceration, a subject that hits close to home.
"Almost everyone in my family has been incarcerated at some point, and I've also been incarcerated before," she says. "The system is so flawed. But people don't get to hear about it from the perspective of how it feels to see someone you love so dearly, trapped in a cage."
For her own part, Ariel refuses to be chained physically or stylistically. "I just came to realize it doesn't matter," she says. "Do I love what I'm doing? Am I happy with myself? If I am, move forward, if not, then change it."