Ariel & Zoey (plus Eli) double up as singing stars, regular kids
Photo by Richard Rupp
Oh, and if you’re local performers Ariel, Zoey and Eli Engelbert, you manage all this before you’ve gotten within spitting distance of puberty.
It started with Disney princess songs, says their manager/writer/producer/onetime sound guy and dad, Matthew. “People are obviously divided on the importance of Disney,” he deadpans, “but it’s been good to us.”
By the age of 2, it seemed like identical twins Ariel and Zoey were singing those songs at least as well as they were talking, if not better, and Matthew — who had studied voice before getting his law degree — noticed that they were “born with perfect pitch.” So singing was a definitely a fun family pastime for the next few years, and eventually Matthew thought it would be a neat idea to go into a real studio and record a song. When they played it back, he says, the girls’ eyes just lit up.
“I’d never heard my voice that way,” recalls Ariel, now 11, sitting in the family’s bright playroom with her parents, identical twin Zoey, 8-year-old brother Eli and their 2-year-old youngest sister, Joely (who promptly tired of the interview and went in search of a more interesting afternoon). “I thought it sounded nice and I almost started crying. It’s still exciting every time.”
Since that idea had been such a hit, Matthew decided to go all out and have the girls record a single. Then seeing as he had this single, he decided to send it to radio stations to see what happened. And what happened was that Detroit’s WOMC radio personality Dick Purtan called to say that he loved it and wanted to feature it on the air. Matthew recalls that Purtan “really made a big deal about it. It was really cool — this isn’t just your dad or your grandma saying you’re good, this is Dick Purtan!”
Next, the girls got really good at singing “The Star Spangled Banner” — for the Detroit Pistons, the Toledo Mudhens, the Big Ten Network, the University of Michigan Wilpon Baseball and Softball Complex dedication, the USA Olympic Women’s Softball Team, and finally the New York Mets. They got that last gig while standing in line at the Wilpon Complex concession stand: a gentleman whom Matthew describes as “looking like a million bucks” approached the girls and asked, “Would you like to come to New York to sing the national anthem at Shea Stadium?”
Remembers Matthew, “I know they didn’t know who the Mets were or what Shea Stadium is, but they did know there was an American Girl store in New York. I thought, ‘This is going to be an expensive trip.’ And it was,” he concludes — but he doesn’t look like he much minds. The girls serenaded the sold-out crowd with aplomb and nary a hint of nerves; Zoey says the crowd of 54,000 “feels the same as anything else.”
“Somehow, it’s easier in front of the biggest crowds,” agrees Ariel. So it’s just a sea of faces? “Well, we have our glasses off” to prevent glare from the cameras, she admits, thus blurring the crowd a little. But they don’t have much need of anti-stage-fright tricks in general.
“I thought Zoey was nervous once,” Matthew says with a laugh, “but it turned out there was an honor guard behind her with a rifle as big as she was. She hadn’t even noticed the crowd.”
How did he get on board the Ariel and Zoey show? “I kept asking ‘Dad, can I join? Dad, can I join? Dad, can I join? Dad, can I join?’” he explains.
“Is that how that happened?” asks Zoey, more big sister than bandmate for a minute.
Ariel & Zoey perform at 2008 Top of the Park:
That summer, the trio also teamed up with the Thank You Foundation to give a concert for children of wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Matt Engelbert
In only one instance has the dark side of fame inserted itself into the kids’ rise to celebrity, in the form of a graphic and disturbing email sent to the Ariel & Zoey web site. Matthew, who screens all of the mail, took it to a personal friend who happened also to be a U.S. Court of Appeals senior judge — and who insisted that the family immediately contact the FBI. For a few hairy days, they hunkered close to home and waited. The authors of the email turned out to be two high school girls with no real intent to carry out any of the threats described in it, but the episode had lasting effects. “It kind of took all the air out of it for a while,” says Matthew. “And we have security now. But it was also a good learning experience. (The kids) got to have a bigger experience of the world, and see that it can be double-edged.
“But it’s not just them, either — all parents, and kids too, need to be vigilant. Cyberbullying is a big deal, and they got to see that law enforcement took care of it and the perpetrators were punished. I think the kids were empowered.”
Kid empowerment is, in fact, the theme of the new TV show, “Ariel and Zoey (and Eli, Too).” Matthew, who has since quit his law firm to devote himself to his familial entertainment enterprise (mom Caroline is the “Costumes and Snacks” department), teamed up with Gearhouse Creative in Livonia to produce it, and they’ve shot the pilot and begun planning future episodes while looking for a broadcasting partner that would allow them to stay in Michigan and retain creative control over the content.
Photo by Matt Engelbert
Eli also plays the guitar, bass, piano and drums, and my visit with the family ended with a stop in the basement to visit pretty much the coolest jam station ever. A sparkling silver drum set sat next to a keyboard and a pink, heart-shaped guitar, surrounded by walls covered in brightly-painted kid-graffiti (“Zoey stinks!” “Eli rocks!”) and illuminated by rotating disco balls and utility lights whose boring white bulbs have been replaced in favor of colored ones.
It looks equally like just the sort of space in which a trio of future superstars would fondly recall launching their dreams — or about which a set of musically inclined siblings will swap “Remember that time ?” stories at holiday dinners for years to come. Heck, maybe both!
Ariel & Zoey perform with The Chenille Sisters at the Michigan Theater at 4 p.m. on November 15, along with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, and they'll also be around for the pre-concert activities from 2:30-3:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 for kids and $15 for adults. You can also keep up on their plans for the television show at Ariel & Zoey's web site.
Leah DuMouchel is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com.