Gracious, friendly, and quick to give credit to her devoted fans, Icon For Hire’s pink-haired, hard-rocking frontwoman Ariel Bloomer sat down with me for a phone interview at Python Studio in Epsom on Tuesday afternoon to discuss music moguls, modern culture, and her band’s third album, You Can’t Kill Us. I didn’t know quite what to expect from the woman behind such hard-hitting and fiercely emotional songs such as Get Well (from 2011’s Scripted) and Counting On Hearts (from 2013’s Icon For Hire), so I was surprised when the call connected and I was cheerfully greeted like an old and expected friend. Eloquently spoken and as passionate in real-life as she is in her music, Ariel didn’t mince words about her struggles with self-love, her criticism of the restrictions on artistic freedom in the music industry, or the intellectual love affair she has with each and every fan.
So, your third album just came out!
Yeah! For sure!
Last week, or the week before, right?
Yeah, uh-huh, about a week and a half ago.
And it’s “You Can’t Kill Us”, that’s the title, correct? And it came out as an Indie release, you guys broke away from Tooth and Nail Record, right?
Mmm-hmm. That’s right.
So this new-year has seen some real changes for Icon For Hire, not just in that but also in that you recently said goodbye to member, Adam Kronshagen.
Despite not yet being a household name, Icon has managed to come back swinging against odds that have proven insurmountable to bigger-name bands. How do you feel about that?
(Laughs) Oh, well, that’s a very gracious way to look at it. We feel so honored to have that fan base that has made it all possible. You know, we can’t take any credit for the fact that we were able to go independent and not drown in the process. Really, we have to give all our fans the love and gratitude for that, because they really kept us afloat. And there was definitely that moment – a couple moments – of uncertainty where we didn’t know if we would be able to continue without the label. If we were just going to have to stop and get “real jobs” like so many of our musician friends have had to do throughout the years. We were one of the lucky ones, I guess, that our fans are making this work for us, and we’re really optimistic about the future that being an independent band can become more of a sustainable thing for more and more artists in this industry. And we’re really hopeful about that.
So, you’re planning to stay independent? You’re not looking for a new label?
We’re not actively looking and we’re really enjoying being independent, so we’re not going to cross that option off the list forever, but we don’t see any reason, as of this moment, to partner with a label. We’re pretty happy with the way things are going.
So, there was definitely a stylistic difference between your first album, Scripted, and your second album, Self-Titled. And then again, between Self-Titled and You Can’t Kill Us. Was it a risk for you to make such changes so early into your musical careers? Do you plan to keep mixing it up, or do you think you’ve found Icon’s definitive sound?
Well, that’s an interesting question. As the creator myself, I know I don’t have an objective viewpoint but for me it didn’t feel like we’d made intentional stylistic changes. It just felt like, “okay, we did this, and now we’re gonna try this, and now we’re really feeling this” so it all felt very organic from album to album.
With this latest one, we really did try to hone in more on what our fans love about Icon For Hire and we really tried to pay attention to what they were asking from us. And, in asking questions and talking with so many of them, we kind of got to know what it was about the previous records that they enjoyed. So we did focus on that a little bit more with this album, instead of trying to be super innovating and reinvent ourselves. We didn’t want to do that because we wanted to give the fans that backed our album on Kickstarter the kind of music that they had been wanting us to make. We felt like we owed them that. It worked out great in that we also enjoyed everything we made and the fans seem to be enjoying it as well. In that way, it was a win-win.
Your albums – especially this last one – felt, as you said, very organic. All of your records follow a very clear narrative, one that’s almost biographical. You definitely take listeners and fans on a very personal journey of mental health and self-acceptance. You never shy away from speaking candidly of personal pain, or of criticizing the glorification of mental illness in the mainstream. Would you consider your music a form of protest or activism in that regard?
It’s possible. I don’t consciously view it that way, art-making is primarily self-expression and that’s the approach I generally tend to take when writing lyrics. So mostly it’s just therapy, it’s venting, it’s getting out my views on things, and I guess it could be seen as that, but it’s not our primary focus. But yeah, everything you mentioned is close to our hearts and we definitely want our lyrics to inspire our listeners to go further in their own self-healing journey. I think so many of us, myself included, have obstacles in our paths that they’re overcoming, and everyday challenged. Life sucks for a lot of us so I have to be very intentional about not getting sucked into that, and not just victimizing, not numbing-out with stupid crap, and not trying to detach from my own life problems, but staying present.
Writing helps me do that. Sitting down at the piano, and putting it all into words is very healing for myself and I know a lot of other artists for whom that’s kind of why they got into this in the first place.
And would you say that’s your biggest creative influence? Just living the life you live and making the music that you make, what most drives your song-writing and music-making?
I think I write most of the songs for my fourteen-year-old self. I try to make music that she would have appreciated hearing, or maybe would have needed to hear at that time. I was really miserable as a kid, I really hated my life, all my friends were kind of in that same world with me, and we used music to go further down that road of self-loathing and hating our lives.
So I try to make music that doesn’t cover up life’s problems but also maybe provides a different way of looking at things, rather than just, as you mentioned, glorifying the issue.
So, and I found this online, you first album, Scripted, made it to number five as a Christian record. Was that an intentional goal, or did it take you by surprise?
Yes! (laughs) It took us by surprise and it was not intentional. Unfortunately, that was a side-effect of being with a record label that had multiple artists in the Christian genre, that our band got lumped in with that. That was never our intention and we actually requested several times that Tooth and Nail not market us in the Christian Rock genre. But they didn’t listen because they knew that they could make more money there, and they did.
Did your following albums receive similar ideological acclaim, or was that a sort of one-time weird marketing happenstance?
I don’t think our albums have a lot of spiritual; undertones, by any means. Just that if you’re associated with a certain record label that has influence in a certain market that you’re album will unfortunately be marketed there as well, regardless of your personal preferences or spiritual beliefs.
Earlier, you said that with the way your life had been and the way that you write songs, in every album there is a criticism of, but also a tenderness towards people who are going through struggles and that with the rising trend of romanticizing sickness, that you aren’t interested in “comparing scars” as you’ve put it or measuring pain like it’s a competition. Do you feel that you’ve received more positive or negative reaction to your no-bullshit attitude towards such a sensitive and culturalized topic?
Interesting question. I don’t think that we’ve received any critical criticism from the general music industry, I don’t think anyone really cares. I think we’ve gotten enough positive response from our fans, and I think we attract the type of listener that is also dealing with issues and who also wants to, as our songs says, “get well”.
I’m sure we’ve also lost listeners for that, but I never hear from them, so I’m not aware of them, but I’m sure they’re out there. (laughs)
And, again, you’re new album just in the first week and a half, has been very successful, and it was very successful in its Kickstarter campaign raising 127,000 dollars against a 2,016 dollar goal.
Yeah, it was awesome! We were stoked!
And you said that, right now, you guys are into being independent and you’re not looking for another label, but where do you see the future of Icon For Hire going for you? Where do you think you’re going to take it, next?
Well, that’s honestly what gets us the most excited, sometimes. Seeing this really successful model that we were able to participate in by crowd-funding our album, having our fans support us, and we would love to be able to continue in that direction and kind of skip the middle man. We feel really fortunate that we are a band in this digital time where there are no gatekeepers, or the gatekeepers aren’t as necessary as they used to be. Because we’re very aware that fifteen years ago, we could not have marketed our own album this way. We couldn’t have had direct fan-artist contact. Then, you needed a label to get your music out there, and now you don’t need that! So, as long as we can keep doing what we love and making music, we’re really going to try and do this.
Long term, we’re really gonna try and crack the code on how this all works and continue on this path, and then maybe be able to teach it to other young artists. We hate to see younger musicians getting screwed by labels. That’s our story, and it’s such a cliché story in this industry. So if we can figure out a way to have some continued success doing it by ourselves – just us and our fans – then we’d love to take that back to other musicians and show them how it’s done. hopefully kind of replicate this so we can all screw the labels like we want to! To just do it totally, genuinely, making the music we love without having some guy in a suit telling you what is or isn’t gonna sell.
Speaking of guys in suits, your song, Now You Know, was one of the first songs that came out this year, as new material and from an EP. That song had a very clear message about how women are viewed in the industry and especially in the rock genre. What was the story behind that song?
That song came because I went to a Revolver Magazine’s Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock tour that came through Nashville. Some of my friends were on it, and my friends are great and I had a great time that night, but it also really got me thinking about how unfortunate for us it is that oftentimes for female-fronted rock bands to get attention in the industry we have to all kind of stick together and market it like a night of female-fronted rock, because that’s gonna bring out, for example, all the perverts (laughs) but also the great fans, ironically.
It’s so strange to me, female-fronted bands share fans and people do treat it like it’s its own genre, when it’s not. And it’s not like that for, like if you had a chick drummer, that won’t change the sound as literally and as obviously as the voice going into it. But it was weird to be attending this event that was so clearly about “the hottest chicks in rock” and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I wrote this song as a response to that tour. It just got my brain firing, I guess.
Icon for hire has certainly broken the mold of typical rock, and even in that imaginary genre of “chick” rock. In Scripted, it was very straight instrumental rock, but you started changing it up in Self-Titled mixing other genres in and sort of prototyping a new sound. Was that always something you wanted to try, or was it something that just kind of happened?
In scripted, we were brand new to creating an album, we’d never done it before, and we were on the label, so we weren’t in a position to do something super innovative. We had to do what the label wanted us to do. And they didn’t affect us lyrically, too much, but stylistically, it was safe in 2010 to do a certain kind of album. And we’re proud of it, but it wasn’t super mold-breaking. Our music is very heavily influenced by hip-hop and pop music and a lot of that comes from our guitarist, Shawn Jump, who just became really proficient at Protools as time went on. We learned that in this industry, if you want to do something with your creative mark on it, you have to learn how to do it yourself. And that’s going to be the quickest way to get your creative viewpoint out there, rather than trying to explain it to another artist or go through your record label, where they pick the producer and you have to approve them or not.
If you just produce your own music, then you can make it sound like whatever you want it to sound like. So Shawn just really buckled down and learned. And the more that his skill-set expanded, the more he learned how to produce, the more we were able to play around with sound, and not just have him playing strictly guitar.
So that’s more that made our sound grow in the pop direction. Honestly, the better he gets at producing, the more the pop sound will expand and we’ll have to add really heavy riffs just to keep our rock fans happy, and to keep ourselves happy. We really love the rock sound!
For a writer, every song is like their baby, but what would you say that your very favorite song off the new album has been?
I think its Happy Hurts, because it just makes my soul feel like myself when I listen to it. I wrote it when I was in Sweden this past winter – it was actually in Sweden where I picked the album name, You Can’t Kill Us, and that was kind of a significant time as well – and it was a very special moment for me. I was sitting on my cousin’s bed and I was struggling with, “hey, I’m half way across the world and in my home country with people that I love, and yet I’m still dealing with all my internal demons.”
You can fly across the world, and your demons will follow you there. So, all that back-and-forth, all that struggle you hear lyrically in Happy Hurts was just very genuine. I wasn’t trying to write a song, I was just trying to write something for me. That’s probably why it feels so personal to me, because it was just very pure as it came out.
Unafraid and unashamed of her personal demons, Ariel Bloomer opens her heart to the world through her music and demands that each and every listener face themselves.Unlike other bands, Icon For Hire does not tell us that it’s all going to be okay. They will not condescend to us, or trivialize our pain. They force us to acknowledge our shortcomings; they take our hands and look us in the eyes and they say, “Yes, you’re broken. Yes, you’re scared. Yes, it would be easy to give in.” And then they ask us not to. They ask us to stitch our bleeding hearts, pick up all our broken pieces and fight. Their music is the sound of the blood on our hands as we scratch and claw and dig ourselves back up from the pits of our own self-hatred. It will always be easy to quit. It will always be easy to run. It will always be easy to build up our walls and beat back our emotions and pretend we don’t feel that hollow ache in our hearts as we take the path of least resistance.
But that will never make us happy. And it will never set us free.
Icon For Hire holds a mirror to each and every listener, reflecting upon us our fears and insecurities and all the scars our skin can’t show. And they ask us to love ourselves. To love each other. To take a chance. To forgive. To fight with everything we have for everything we are.
They ask us to Get Well. They demand that we Make A Move.