A tall, blonde woman in a denim sundress stops in front of Café Mueller on the way to her car. She leans to one side to rest, and her gaze, hidden behind sunglasses and a wide smile, travels over the heads of a captivated audience. Onstage, a petite songstress with a thick crop of dark brown hair leads a band. She sways from side to side — a movement as languid as the words she sings.
If I did, If I did what I had before/ If I’d only washed up shore/ I’d still have more.
If I knew, if I knew what I had to do/ To read the signs of caution by the seaside.
Arielle LaGuette holds her ukulele snug between her arm and bosom — her right hand, steady as she brushes the four strings over which she lays her voice. The tall, blonde woman leaves to tell her friend about the talented singer she heard during her outing — and who could blame her? It’s not everyday you hear a set of pipes like that emitting from an HEB — even in the Live Music Capital of the World. The audience claps at the closing of “Caution by the Seaside,” the lead single song off LaGuette’s self-titled debut EP, released January 2016. The sun falls a bit lower on this warm Sunday. The crowd at the bar continues to hum, and LaGuette moves onto the next song in her set.
A week earlier, and 20 degrees cooler, LaGuette sits in the chair across from me in our corner of Flightpath Coffeehouse on Duval Street, explaining to me the tale behind “Caution by the Seaside.”
“He and I are still good friends,” she divulged. “But I was really heartbroken, and I realized the whole song is just about kind of getting into things and not seeing, I guess — not being cautious. But that’s what love is, right? Love is for the brave. It’s a risky thing to put yourself out there.”
She sips on tea as we talk. Some people are off-putting in their quirkiness. Cuteness can sometimes be abrasive if wielded improperly and with too much force, but LaGuette is effortless in her appeal. She is quirky, and she has jokes, but there is also a certain matter-of-factness to her that balances out any nonsense. A multifaceted performer with eggs in music, theater and comedy baskets, LaGuette has no reason to put on airs when it comes to songwriting. The Houston-born artist writes about human connection — as a communications graduate, it’s what she knows; as a people-person, it’s what she loves. She picked up the ukulele during her time at the University of North Texas. A resident assistant (RA) in the school’s “music dorm,” Bruce Hall, LaGuette is a friend-taught musician. She started out covering Ingrid Michaelson — a voice, one might argue, of which LaGuette’s is a darker, sturdier roast. Like many before her, it wasn’t until her first big breakup that she began to write her own material. Her first song she wrote in one sitting while home from college during spring break. She doesn’t play the song anymore, and she doesn’t remember its name. What she does remember is probing her friends with one question: When is it going to feel better? Time answered, slowly, and she was met with one last predicament. “A lot of my love, I felt like, what am I going to do with all this love that I have?” Countless songs later, that was answered, too.
After graduating from UNT, LaGuette did what any young grad would do, and she packed up her things, climbed into her “really sh*tty Pontiac Sunfire,” and drove 18 hours straight from Denton, Texas to Orlando, Florida to try to get a gig working side-by-side with her best friend at Disney World. Not only did she not get the gig, her friend was offered a feature film opportunity in Mexico a month and a half into her move, and had to leave immediately. LaGuette stayed put, got a job, and found a nice Moroccan man on Craigslist to fill the roommate void.
“We would just smoke his hookah and play music in our living room,” she says. “You never know what a Craigslist roommate is going to turn out to be.”
This newfound friendship was just one of many happenstances she experienced during her one-year stint in Orlando — another was her affinity for Disney World’s short-lived “American Idol Experience” theme-park show, an attraction she frequented enough to the point where the producers knew her name. “They’d say, ‘What are you singing today, Arielle,’” she chimed. Perhaps the most pleasant of surprises during her time in the Sunshine State came when LaGuette received a message from a fellow musician interested in collaborating. Low and behold, the faceless messenger was Flock of Seagulls guitarist Joe Rodriguez. Her first experience recording in an actual studio took place at his home in Lake Mary, Florida, where the two put down her first single, “What Love Should Be.” While she expresses the utmost gratefulness for Rodriquez’s believing in her so early on in her songwriting career, she says she can’t get into the mindset of who she was at that age.
“When I listen to [‘What Love Should Be’], and I know I should look at everything I’ve done like a learning experience, but I listen to it, and I sound so young,” she says. “And it’s not necessarily the genre of what I am liking right now. But I love that song, and I still play that song at my shows.”
LaGuette stuck around long enough to eventually perform live with Rodriguez and she even recorded an EP with him, but that collaboration was put on pause by her return to Austin. Orlando, LaGuette says, wasn’t who she was. But she found a friend in fellow-musician Kaela Kahn who proposed the two live together upon Kahn’s move to Austin. Live together, they did, and LaGuette was introduced to her future guitarist in Kahn’s boyfriend, Jordan Burchill. The chips fell where they did, and about a year and a half later, Laguette released her first EP with the help of Burchill, Alex Browne, Anthony Corsaro and producer and sound engineer Matt Meli. The four-song EP was recorded at Austin’s Orb Recording Studios.
“We knocked it out in literally four hours,” LaGuette says. “That’s what I love about how it turned out, because it was quick and it was natural.”
Today, a glass half full of Rosé sits at LaGuette’s feet, which are perched up in a pair of silver booties. Her act, judging from this performance alone, is 85/15 music and stand-up. In some cases, this could pose a problem, because some musicians are just musicians. LaGuette, however, doubles as an improv actress at The New Movement Theater on the weekends, and it shines through.
The singer and her band are almost a third of the way into their set, having just played three originals, one Spiral Staircase cover, and one cover of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” by Tame Impala, when the band and sit-in guitarist Matthew Muehling make their way off the stage and LaGuette moves onto her solo act. As the sun sinks lower, its light is refracted through a stained-glass water fountain sitting just outside the cafe. Onstage, LaGuette’s face is washed out by the light, her features gone — a pair of spherical sunglasses remains all that is distinguishable, the rest of the band eating near the bar. The crowd rambles on as LaGuette sings a familiar line. Of the four-song EP, LaGuette’s favorite, “Easing Your Heart,” was inspired by the Disney Pixar movie, “Inside Out,” was recorded in one take and is the second to last song in her set at Cafe Mueller.
“This has been so fun — and early,” LaGuette laughs. “I love being able to do things after the show.”
A small blonde woman who has sat steadfast at the table next to mine since LaGuette’s opening song, getting up only to take pictures from different vantage points, remains seated and smiling up at the singer through her last number, “What Love Should Be.” The show’s final thank you’s are delivered, and the woman continues to look on as her daughter unstraps her ukelele and gets to packing up. The performance was one of no assumptions. It was a simple transaction of emotion through melody, one person to another — exactly the way LaGuette would have it.
“I authentically want there to be a connection made in the room,” she says. “Whether that’s me and one person in the audience, whether it’s me and the audience as a whole, whether it’s me and my bandmates, whether it’s two people in the audience and I’m the background music … what a cool room to be a part of, and to add an energy to that wasn’t there before.”