Despite having just turned 29, Ashley Monroe has already ridden out her fair share of turbulence that tends to come with building a successful career in Nashville. Following the death of her father when she was 13, Monroe sought refuge from her loss in songwriting and music and the result turned into a publishing deal and then a recording contract all before the age of 20. Despite positive reviews, her first album Satisfied ended up embroiled in label politics and never made it to physical release, but her follow up Like A Rose and this year’s release The Blade have both achieved wide-spread critical acclaim.
Monroe’s spirit evokes a golden era in country music and comparisons to Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton are easy to make. Like these great artists she has packed in a lot to her years, working along the way with Chris Stapleton and Jack White, and in demand as a respected songwriter, she has written for the likes of Jason Aldean and her long-time friend Miranda Lambert. It was through this friendship that Monroe introduced Miranda Lambert to Angaleena Presley, so it’s with thanks to Monroe that the three went on to form their side project, The Pistol Annies (who themselves have seen significant success with 2 albums, Annie Up and Hell on Heels).
I’ve followed Ashley Monroe’s career closely for a number of years so I was delighted when it was announced that she would be coming to the UK as one of the artists performing at the C2C Festival next March. In the midst of a sold-out US headline tour and just days before the CMA Awards, I got to talk to Ashley….
NOH – How’s the tour going?
AM – I’m really loving it! I did my second show last night in a synagogue actually which was interesting! But it was amazing; it’s amazing to sing for fans that are there for you, because they know all my songs and I can just be me.
NOH – I think that’s what makes it special when you see an artist playing to their own fans. Oftentimes for us in the UK, because of the trip, we will come over for a festival, and that’s great fun but it is also a very different experience to seeing someone with their own fans, it’s that complete appreciation for that one artist rather than spread across other 20 on the bill.
AM – Yeah, and sometimes in those big shows you really have to pump it up too. It’s nice to be able to do both, but it’s so amazing when you have your own fans singing back to you.
NOH – Well we are so excited that you are coming over to the UK next year
AM – I am so excited you have no idea! I’ve been asking and trying to figure out a way to make it work for so long. Angaleena’s told me, and Patty Loveless told me and actually everyone who has been over is so positive and has been saying, you should get yourself over there.
NOH – When she was here in the summer, Angaleena promised to go home and tell you and Miranda to get yourselves over and she delivered!
AM – And she did!
NOH – C2C is great fun, everyone is there with such a complete love of the music, and you have the UK artists playing as well as some fantastic big names coming over from the US.
AM – I’m grateful that you all love country music, it honestly makes me so happy to hear this.
NOH – And we’ve heard that The Blade is getting a UK release date too. Thank you for that. We [at NOH] loved it from the moment we first heard it. It’s actually in the running for our album of the year for 2015. There is stiff competition and we’ve yet to finalise but it’s up there in the top 5 right now! It’s a very special piece of work.
AM – Well thank you! I’m proud of it, you know people always ask me, when you were working [on it], did you think about radio, and all of that and I really wasn’t. I don’t think when it comes to music, I just do, and those were the songs that came out. But what I have is something that I am proud of and I think it represents me and if people can relate to it, then that’s all the better
NOH – I think that’s the appeal. Angaleena said something similar when she was over, about how country music can travel and be relatable be it in the mountains of Tennessee or the rolling hills of the English countryside.
AM – Yeah, exactly. It’s life.
NOH – It’s interesting that you say you do what you feel, rather than over-thinking, is it commercial, is it radio friendly. I think that’s something that stands out for me with your music. You’re not trying to mold it.
AM – Oh yeah, that’s my approach. I’d be a richer, much more well known person if I’d done something different or had just given in a couple of times or sang something that I didn’t feel or I didn’t like, but I never did and I was never pushed to either. I was lucky to have good record labels who always supported me.
NOH – You seem to have a great community or Nashville family of people around you, obviously Vince Gill, but also you’ve come up through the ranks with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Brandy Clark, and they’re also now achieving success and receive that commercial recognition.
AM – It really is. And you know, someone like Kacey [Musgraves], I’ve known her probably since she was 15 or 16 when she was still living in Texas and making trips up to Nashville. Actually, I’ve probably known her as long as I’ve known Miranda. It’s funny how these relationships grow and they graduate into the next chapter.
NOH – It must be great to see the paths that you’re all taking, you know it’s happening in different ways
AM – I think we’re all kind of figuring it out in our own ways. We all have music in our hearts and we all want to sing and play and want to be heard. Time might change things, but I’m just keeping on banging on the doors and doing what I love.
NOH – In terms of how time changes things, if you look at how you approached Like A Rose, to the work you put into for The Blade, was there a different process, or was it more organic? Obviously you had Justin Niebank and Vince Gill as your producers on both albums.
AM – With Like A Rose, I hadn’t put out a record since 2005 or 2006, so it was important to me get the right songs, and I had written a lot of songs! The song “The Morning After”, I love that song, so I knew I wanted to record that, so I kind of went back through my favourites, the ones that make up the core of me, and I always have Vince help me with the song picks. It’s hard when you write them, you can think something is really great and it’s not, or maybe it won’t come across in the way you want it to, but equally, there are times when I think something is not good enough and it turns out great, so I trust Vince’s opinion on that. Actually, him and Justin; we work as a team and we all kind of agree on the same things and we are looking for similar things. Justin and Vince know so much about making records, they know all the technical stuff that I don’t have to worry about, and I can trust that they will make the guitar sound exactly as it should and they’ll pull out the right vocals, plus me singing in front of Vince Gill, it makes me sing better every time! It’s funny how that will do it!
NOH – He knows how far to push you, but I guess you’re also coming out of your comfort zone, and stepping it up.
AM – Oh Yeah – he knows exactly!
NOH – If you had to pick between being a performer or a songwriter, could you choose?
AM – I like both equally. I sang first, you know in talent contests and all of that when I was younger in Knoxville, so I guess technically I sang before I wrote songs, but I started writing around the time my Dad got sick, so 13 and then I love singing even more when I’m singing something I created or helped to create, because then I have a real attachment to the song. I don’t think I could really divide one from the other now.
NOH – There is a lot of dark emotion in your music and I know that gets noted a lot. You’ve said you go to a dark place to write. But I can also see hope and happiness in there too.
AM – Oh yeah. The “Weight of The Load” is one that is hopeful. “On To Something Good” – hopeful. But you know, I’ve always liked sad country songs, or actually, sad songs, they don’t have to be country. Even before I had things happen in my life that made me sad, I was always drawn to those kind of songs and it just happens naturally, when I sit down [to write] I will go there, even if I’m not sad I will go that part of me. Hope is just as an important part of living and you almost can’t have one without the other, it’s just I tend to be drawn to the sad side!
Something Good – Ashley Monroe at 3rd & Lindsley, Nashville, TN (2015)
NOH – What do you think makes a great song?
AM – All I know is the feeling it gives me. Sometimes I can hear a really great song or piece of music and I get chills. I call it a chill factor, either the hook hits you hard, or somebody hits a note, and it’s the perfect storm.
NOH – You moved to Nashville when you were quite young and your career took some twists and turns. When you look back, what advice would you give to your younger self?
AM – That’s hard because of course I made mistakes, but then you look back and wonder, if I hadn’t made those mistakes would things have turned out how they did. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think I did the best I could when I moved to Nashville. A lot of those early relationships I made when I moved up there were pivotal in my career and they’ve helped me steer it exactly where I need to go. I believe that all of that, including the mistakes, were supposed to happen and they’ve got me to where I am right now, and I am really liking where I am right now. I was thinking about the definition of success the other day. When I moved to Nashville I had it set that I’d have a tour bus and I’ll be winning all the awards and that’s success. And in some ways it is but at the same time I look back at the people I’ve got to collaborate with and the people I’ve got to write with and sing with and create with and the fans that stand at the stage and sing along to every single word or sing them back to me and I think that’s my success.
NOH – Is there a particular song that drives that home, when you see people singing those words back to you?
AM – I don’t know if I can pick just one, but I like when I sing “Like A Rose” to them and they sing it back and I think to myself “I did come out like a rose, didn’t I?”
NOH – The first time I saw you perform was at Stagecoach in Palm Desert a couple of years ago and when you said it was the story of your life, it all fell into place for me. It’s a special song.
AM – Oh yeah, that was a big stage! Thank you very much, I’m very proud of it.
NOH – Are there other pieces of music or musicians who have influenced or shaped you?
AM – Well, my Grandfather listened to Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and I loved all of that. My Dad was The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Black Crowes, Bob Seager and all of that has influenced me. My Mom listened to Bonnie Raitt, and actually all kinds of stuff… Mariah Carey. I’ve always loved all kinds of music and I think I have soaked up everything I have heard and that has touched me and it’s all in there and it helps me with what I do.
NOH – You’ve worked with lots of great artists too. Is there anyone you still hanker to get on a stage with or share a recording studio with?
AM- Dolly! [note, there was absolutely no hesitation here!] She wrote me a letter around 2004 that said that she loved my songs and that I reminded her of herself in the way I sing, and that she would love to sing with me sometime. I’m still waiting on that, but I can wait for Dolly!
NOH – That would be awesome!
There is a lot that is made about women in country not getting the airplay or recognition. We see it slightly differently as we don’t have the same type of commercial country radio model [as the US], we have mainstream which is a pretty broad mix and actually the country radio stations we do have are very good about playing it all! What’s your view?
AM – I’m always pro a women getting what she deserves, but I’m also a fan of great music and I want to hear the best, male or female. I’m glad that women are getting more attention and I certainly believe that we shouldn’t be played less and there are some amazing female artists out there that can easily fill up the airwaves. But I want to hear Stapleton on there as well, the issue is bigger than just female.
[Editor: Ashley certainly got her wish with regards to Chris Stapleton!]
NOH – The industry is tough whichever way you look at it.
AM – It is and it’s certainly hard for anyone to get airplay and recognition.
NOH – Well we are ready to show you some appreciation this side of the pond.
AM – I’m really excited about it and I’m looking forward to seeing you guys.
NOH – When we interviewed Striking Matches we asked them for their recommendations for new music, and they told us to check out Ashley Monroe.
AM – I love those two!
NOH – Is there anyone you’ve seen or are listening to that we should keep and eye or ear out for?
AM – There is a guy called John Fulbright. I don’t know him in person, but I really love his records.
NOH – Thank you for taking the time today.