When Arielle Cowie dreams, she isn’t falling, her teeth aren’t spilling out, she’s not taking a test she hasn’t prepared for, and she most definitely isn’t showing up to work naked.
No. Arielle Cowie’s dreams aren’t like everyone else’s. For one, hers are the size of Grammys.
Lithe, dimpled, and tousle-haired, with a grace and ease that would charm the pants off Scrooge himself, it would seem that the 27-year-old Diego Martin native was a natural-born performer. With gigs alongside legends like Tarrus Riley, Major Lazer, and Machel Montano under her belt, it’s hard to picture her doing anything else but sing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know that.
As an import quite removed from the local music scene – soca aside – my first introduction to Arielle was probably the most dispassionate. I Googled her.
What I cobbled together in the few minutes I spent leafing through was at best a confused sketch of a rookie whose sudden exhibit of vocal prowess warranted a couple of headlines. At worst, it was a disconnect. A hockey player turned singer? Please.
Still, eager to prove the dark side of my skepticism wrong, I decided to give her a listen. I found Drop, her first single and seemingly the most well-attended. But with 14,000 views – modest by Youtube standards – I wasn’t predicting any grand innovation.
Boy, was I wrong.
Drop takes the tired trope of lost love and gives it a sultry, dusky R&B kink worthy of Alessia Cara or Jhene Aiko. Unlike most of its contemporaries though, it’s not the beat that emerges clear victor; it’s Arielle. Fiercely talented, with a surprising intimacy that even a computer screen couldn’t damp, Arielle was every bit the artist I didn’t expect her to be.
When I finally met her, on a sunny Friday morning that begged a Maracas run, at a too-well air-conditioned section of Dianne’s Tea Shop, it’s no doubt that I had questions abound.
Naturally, the first talking point was her former career as a precocious hockey player with a coveted stint on Trinidad’s national team.
“I was born into a family that played field hockey. My parents, my four siblings, everyone played the sport. I was an absolute tomboy and hockey was just fun. It wasn’t a discipline; it wasn’t work; it was just something we always did, and thankfully, I was good at it,” she said.
Despite her early aptitude, her first official induction into the sport came at 13 when she joined Holy Name Convent and was placed on a team. Soon, that spark bubbled into a full-time calling, earning her a sports scholarship to Ohio State University, and eventually a place on T&T’s National Women’s’ Field Hockey team. The team competed in Brazil for a place at the 2012 Pan American Games but failed to make much headway.
Only slightly dispirited, Arielle returned to college, where she rode out the rest of her scholarship, graduating in 2013 with a Bachelor’s in International Business, a minor in Spanish, and a catalogue of awards and wins as a Buckeye.
And yet, something was amiss.
The thriving sports career she had worked so hard to build and maintain didn’t seem quite fulfilling anymore. In its place, came something a lot more cardinal – an intuitive, inbuilt, impulse. A need to sing.
With her degree in hand and cautious dreams mounting, she made her way to New York.
When Arielle talks about her brief two-month spell there, she grows animated. There’s a glint to her bright, almond-eyes as she talks about immersing herself in the Big Apple’s robust music scene, in resonant venues, trying to make sense of what role she could play in all of it. But up until that point, she had never pursued what she calls her “one true love.”
“It was fear and cowardice. For as long as I remember, all I’ve wanted to do was sing. But hockey was a safe choice. I had grown up with it, I knew I was good at it, so I let it define me,” she explained.
“I was so worried about what other people thought of me and my voice and if I was good enough that for most of [my adolescence], I never made the leap.”
And so for the most part of her life, Arielle steered clear past singing. The shyness that pockmarked most of her run-ins with public performance had quite literally shunted her music career.
But now, with New York in her veins, and a squint of promise, she found her way back to Trinidad, unsure of almost everything aside from the fact that she desperately wanted to sing.
Her first big break came when she auditioned for the role of Cinderella in September 2015. As the production got closer to opening night, Arielle, who was initially cast as one of three alternates, found herself playing both the show’s lead and one of the step-sisters (on rotation), carrying a cast and performing to crowds of hundreds at SAPA and NAPA.
It was a breakthrough.
“With every performance, I felt more at home. That paralyzing shyness was gone. People didn’t seem as scary to me anymore, and it became about enjoying the moment and doing something I believed in,” she added.
Riding that high, she recorded an acoustic, stripped-down video cover of Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’. Bare-faced, an earnest Arielle croons into the mic as the lush backdrop of Trinidad’s verdant hillscape colours the background.
Soon after, she booked her first solo performance at Kaiso Blues Café, spending the whole performance “sitting on a stool the entire time,” because it “grounded” her. It was a sold-out night. Friends, family, and strangers alike frolicked the storied Woodbrook bar.
The only notable exception: her mom.
In 2005, Caryl Cowie – a “formidable woman” and past president of the famed Ventures hockey club – was diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma (LMS), a soft tissue cancer that has a 14 to 63 percent survival rate.
“My parents sat us down a morning and broke the news to us. I didn’t know how to react, what to think, what it even was. Soon after, my mom left for Miami to begin her chemotherapy and I threw myself into school and hockey,” Arielle explained.
When Caryl returned to Trinidad, several months later, she was weak, frail – and unbeknownst to Arielle – hanging on by a sliver.
“Of course she was still my mom but it was a shock seeing her that way the first time. It never occurred to me, even then, that there was a possibility that she could die,” she said, adding, “Most of that time, I stayed away. Not deliberately, but on some subconscious level I just didn’t want to see her like that.”
Six months later, it came to a close.
Arielle was at a friend’s place when her brother arrived, unannounced, asking her to accompany him home.
“He was being extremely nice to me so I knew something was wrong. But it was only when I turned into my street and saw the…cars and people…leading to our home that it hit. [And then] a flood broke. I started bawling and crying, right there in the driveway.”
At this point, the tears fall freely. The memory of her mother is heavy and palpable in the air. Arielle’s crying. Quietly, she fumbles for a napkin, dabbing at her eyes. Her makeup from the morning’s shoot is now a browning mess. She laughs, nervously, self-deprecatingly, apologising for her emotions.
I feel intrusive. Unsure whether it’s rude to stare or rude not to engage, I look down. My sandwich has never seemed so interesting.
A few minutes later, she’s more composed.
“It felt good talking about that,” she begins, “I haven’t been able to say all of that, in one breath, for a very long time.”
Just like that, she’s back as ‘Arie’ – a stage moniker that’s now her public persona. Strong, confident, determined.
Turning life’s sour lemons into something that resembles victory seems to be Arie’s strength. Shyness into public performance, unforgiving history into inspiration, hockey into music. She’s equal parts go-getter, dreamer, and magician.
These days, Arie hovers between working on her debut album (All to Me, the first single, was just released in Jamaica), writing songs, performing live, and engaging in social work. With vocal inspirations like Paula Abdul, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, Arie certainly has high, shiny, red-soled stilettos to fill.
But with her mom on her side, the pride of a nation at her back, and talent too good to dismiss, who knows; her dreams might just amount to something absolutely dazzling.