MusicMusic Features

Arsena Schroeder Opens Up With Intimate Concert Series

Unplugged and empowered

Arsena Schroeder. (Photo by Andrea Orr/LevelUpCLT)

At 17, Arsena Schroeder was catapulted into the fast-paced world of high finance. By her sophomore year at Pfeiffer University, she had served five internships with finance companies, including a stint on Capitol Hill. Schroeder was at the seat of America’s economic power, with a lucrative career laid out before her, but something wasn’t right.

“I was bored out of my mind,” Schroeder says. “A lot of what I learned has helped me be successful, but at the time it wasn’t relevant to me.”

Today Schroeder is grateful that she took a 180-degree turn in her career track, abandoning her high-profile scholarship programs to embrace making and promoting music. As a singer and songwriter, she’s earned acclaim for her warm soulful pop, hushed confessional songs that radiate strength and compassion.

As an entrepreneur, Schroeder launched Dear Soul Music Company, which draws on her business training to help independent artists like herself to self-promote effectively while maintaining a sane work/life balance. As a promoter, Schroeder founded the Unplugged + Live Concert Series, which brings musicians and fans together in stress-free settings that foster listening and communication.

It’s in her role as a promoter that Schroeder presents the Unplugged + Live: Virtual Music Festival in partnership with live entertainment promotion company Jazz N Soul Music. The concert series, sponsored by the Arts & Science Council (ASC) Culture Blocks program, features two shows, one on April 9 and the other on June 11, streaming live from Jazz N Soul Music’s south Charlotte performance venue The Cube.

Schroeder hosts and performs in the April 9 Unplugged + Live Festival, which boasts live full-band performances by two Charlotte acts, R&B vocalist and songwriter Tamra Simone and soul jazz fusion band Menastree, along with video submissions by other artists.

“From Unplugged + Live I hope that people get a chance to unwind, to really unplug from the chaos of life,” Schroeder says. “I want everyone to leave refreshed.”

From high finance to musical inspiration

Love of music came relatively late to Schroeder, because until college, her priorities lay elsewhere. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she was raised by a single mother. Money was often tight, and Schroeder’s childhood was punctuated by periods of homelessness.

“Being an only child made me want to step up and help out,” Schroeder remembers. She was constantly finding ways to bring in money to pay the bills.

Schroeder believes this resilience in the face of hardship fostered the entrepreneurial spirit she later embraced. In 1996, Schroeder and her mother moved to Charlotte, where Schroeder proved an exceptional student. She attended high school at the Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in west Charlotte, where she studied biotechnology.

When it came time to attend Pfeiffer College in Misenheimer, North Carolina, Schroeder made her first career pivot. She qualified for a number of scholarships, including the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Charities, totaling a half million dollars. She decided to follow the scholarship opportunities for a full-ride studying finance.

“I thought it was perfect — business, finance,” Schroeder recalls. “I wanted to make sure that I could provide for myself.”

Arsena Schroeder
During her sophomore year of college, Arsena Schroeder bought a guitar and taught herself to play so she could accompany herself. (Photo by Andrea Orr/LevelUpCLT)

As her interest in finance waned, her passion for music grew. The seed was planted late in freshman year when a classmate asked Schroeder to sing on his mixtape. She composed a verse for the song, marking her first brush with songwriting.

In sophomore year, Schroeder bought a guitar and taught herself to play so she could accompany herself. By that time Schroeder decided to pursue music, never expecting it to be a full-time job. She graduated with degrees in sociology and communications, the first member of her family to earn an undergraduate degree.   Fresh out of college, Schroeder started playing the local and regional scenes.

“Starting out my inspiration was anybody who looked like me,” Schroeder offers, “and anybody who created music that wasn’t the typical music that women who looked like me created.”

One daunting hurdle for the young musician was that she sang with quiet passion, a style she says wasn’t popular in Black culture or in Schroeder’s community at the time. She also liked to accompany herself with picked and strummed guitar.

“I love the sound of acoustic guitar,” she says. “It is my first love.” Finally, Schroeder found inspiration in two contemporary artists. More that a decade after it was released, Schroeder discovered Lauryn Hill’s live acoustic EP MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 and was transfixed. Listening to Hill’s voice, guitar and vulnerable storytelling, Schroeder felt she too could be a singer-songwriter, one who drew on folk, soul and personal narratives. “I remember listening to it and thinking, ‘If this is what it’s like, I can see myself doing that.’”

Schroeder was also entranced with India Arie — how Arie infused her sound with her spirituality, and the folk elements she incorporated into her vocals.

“These two, in the beginning, made me think I had a space in the music world.”

In 2012, Schroeder released her first recording. The EP Abundantly consisted of four songs Schroeder wrote during her college days and was produced by fellow Pfeiffer alumni Brandon Snow. At the time, Schroeder considered herself a Christian artist who sang Christian-inspired music.

“Without a doubt, my music is dipped, bathed, and soaked in my faith,” Schroeder told Breedlove Music in a 2013 interview. (She subsequently signed an endorsement deal with Breedlove guitars that concluded a few years ago.) Today, Schroeder no longer wishes to box her music into the Christian category. She’s grown in her spiritual journey, she offers, and therefore finds the label too rigid.

Arsena Schroeder
Arsena Schroeder. (Photo by Andrea Orr/LevelUpCLT)

“I have a wider range of beliefs,” she says. “Now that I’m older, I don’t enjoy the traditions and oppression that come with that.”

That said, Schroeder maintains there is a distinct inspirational element in her music, fueled in part by her songwriting process, which she describes as an open diary. Schroeder, who teaches songwriting, acknowledges there are many approaches to the craft, but the one that works for her is processing or sharing her life experience in song. It’s as if the artist opens the listener’s heart by opening their own.

“Any song you hear [of mine], you’re pretty much hearing all my business.”   

Celebrity scrutiny

With the full support of her husband Stephen, whom she met in college and married soon after graduation, Schroeder toured up and down the East Coast in support of Abundantly. In 2014, she released her first full-length album, For My Artist Child. For the debut collection, Schroeder expanded her instrumental prowess to keyboards and the guitalele — half-guitar, half-ukulele.

“It’s a vintage instrument,” she says, “Half the strings are steel and half the strings are [nylon]. It creates a really cool Hawaiian sound.”

A single from the album, “Manna,” drew attention, as did a shimmering cover of Bob Marley’s “Turn You Lights Down Low.” In 2016 and 2017, Schroeder followed For My Artist Child with a pair of EPs, Anchor Down Below and Quest, for which Charlotte songwriter Tera Jackson contributed lyrics.

Back in the Queen City between tours, Schroeder played a set accompanying herself on keyboards at Common Market in Plaza Midwood. A talent buyer for Charlotte’s NBA team – then called the Bobcats – noticed Schroeder, moving his seat closer to hear her singing better.

“He said he could see me playing in the arena with the lights low,” Schroeder remembers. “He kept describing the whole scene.” A year later, the scene became reality after Schroeder passed an audition at the arena. She played a gala concert for the team after they were renamed the Hornets, at Time Warner (soon to be Spectrum) Arena. Her performance received a standing ovation from team owner Michael Jordan.

At another gig, Schroeder once again came under celebrity scrutiny. Singer and former American Idol star Fantasia Barrino arrived unannounced and sat right behind Schroeder as she performed her set.

“Thankfully, I never realized she was there while I was singing,” Schroeder recalls. “That would have terrified me.”

After the show Fantasia and her family asked if they could exchange contact information and keep in touch with Schroeder. They’ve done so ever since.

As Schroeder continued to tour the East Coast, she got in the habit of booking a house show in every town where she was scheduled to play a traditional concert or club gig. The obvious advantages of house concerts were that they gave Schroeder a captive audience while providing her with a place to stay the night, but soon other benefits from performing in an intimate setting emerged.

“It’s a low-pressure environment, where people are coming to engage with the songwriter and the music,” Schroeder maintains. She found she preferred house shows over venues where performers contended with audiences who treated their music like aural wallpaper.

Coming off the road, Schroeder decided to promote the positive audience-to-performer connection of house shows in her hometown. In 2013 she launched Unplugged + Live as a house-concert series in Charlotte. She started setting up shows featuring independent musicians in homes and intimate spaces, but it quickly got to the point where she could not fit everyone into living rooms.

Schroeder started asking concertgoers if they could reciprocate and hold shows in their homes. Still, the audiences grew and the gigs expanded from private homes into coffee shops and eventually local music venues.

Audio from shows was recorded and put up on YouTube, and demand grew for Unplugged + Live. Audiences were drawn to the laid-back listening room environment, which made for a more authentic experience where performers tell stories that foster conversations between musicians and listeners.

“It removes the pressure from the performer,” says Schroeder. “For the audience, it’s a taste of what goes into the creative process. They can engage with the artist and ask questions.”

In time the Unplugged + Live shows outgrew mere audio on YouTube dissemination and became the live-streaming events they are today.

An open diary

In 2017, with the concert series gathering momentum, Schroeder launched the Dear Soul Music Company, LLC to provide resources for her fellow independent artists. Remembering that there had been no one to advise her along the way when she was trying to navigate the music industry, Schroeder draws on her finance, business and entrepreneurship background to provide resources for other artists so that they can develop professionally.

“We can change how artists approach this industry,” Schroeder offers. “They don’t need a huge label to back them … if they learn the business and … how to succeed.” At first, Schroeder supplemented her income by offering one-on-one consultations to artists, but she rapidly advanced to offering workshops on songwriting, branding and music production. This summer Dear Soul Music will host a youth recording arts camp.

“I used to wish that I had someone to sit me down and help me, so I now try to give that,” Schroeder says. Between her community outreach efforts through Unplugged + Live and Dear Soul Music, Schroeder has been awarded countless grants and funding opportunities through ASC including the regional Artists Grant (2015), Creative Renewal Fellowship (2019), ASC Cultural Vision Grant (2020) and numerous Culture Blocks Award from 2018 through today.

Arsena Schroeder
Arsena Schroeder, unplugged and empowered. (Photo by Andrea Orr/LevelUpCLT)

In the meantime, Schroeder continues to pursue her muse. In 2018, Schroeder released her second album Sleeptalking, a collection that delves into dreams, rest, and restlessness. With songs that share how Schroeder has grown through recent life experiences, it’s clear that the songwriter is still composing an open diary.

On a creative renewal fellowship through the ASC in 2019, Schroeder traveled to Prague to work with a new set of musicians. She says the sabbatical sparked her creativity, and gave her a chance to write some new material. Though Schroeder released acoustic versions of that material in 2019, she yearned to record the songs again with a full band. The following year, Schroeder collaborated with Curt Keys, her accompanist for unplugged live-streams to record those full-band versions of the songs. They were released as the Unplugged: Remixed & Remastered EP in fall 2020.

In her most recent video, released in December 2020, Schroeder celebrates her 30th birthday with family in a warm, confident rendition of “So Much to Give,” a song from the Unplugged EP. Another song, “Open Your Eyes,” was featured March 16 on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s TV show Delilah, which is set and shot in Charlotte. On a personal note, Schroeder recently celebrated her 10-year anniversary with husband Stephen.

The biggest change between the Unplugged + Live: Virtual Music Festival on April 9 and past unplugged live-streams is that this time the festival won’t really be unplugged. Unplugged + Live’s normally stripped back acoustic performances will be replaced with full band electric performances. Schroeder started practicing electric guitar in earnest once the pandemic was underway, and says she’s been getting serious with her D’Angelico guitar.

Schroeder is particularly excited to see Tamra Simone perform at The Cube’s stage, which Schroeder fondly calls “the band cave.” Simone has performed acoustically for Schroeder’s streaming concert series before, but this will be the first time she’ll be backed by a band.

“Tamra’s upbeat and high energy,” Schroeder says. “Even acoustic she had a lot of crowd interaction. If she’s like that with one musician accompanying her, imagine what she’ll be like with a full band.”

Schroeder says Menastree will bring a horn section and plenty of surprises to the band cave. “They pull from a number of genres, so I’m excited to see them in person live.”

Despite the technological advances in Unplugged + Live, which has seen small home concerts grow into an elaborate livestreamed festival, Schroeder believes the heart of the experience remains the same.

Arsena Schroeder
Arsena Schroeder’s Unplugged + Live: Virtual Music Festival takes place on April 9. (Photo by Andrea Orr/LevelUpCLT)

“What I love about this series is I believe that the original foundation is still there,” she says. The artists are in a safe environment where they can be themselves, and the audience feels they’re getting a unique experience.

“My hope is to implement a positive experience that’s not gimmicky or just showmanship. It really is a celebration of independent artists who are going at it and fighting the good fight.”

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