An Interview with Ashlee Simpson

by Nikki Tranter


PopMatters Books Editor

“I’m a very, very complex person,
I try to improve but you see how I worsen,
I’ll do anything to make you adore me,
Or deplore me, but never ignore me.”

51; The Pretenders, “Complex Person”

Ashlee Simpson calls them “stumps in the road”; those career missteps she’s tried to dodge but been forced repeatedly to defend since January’s infamous lip-synching debacle. The girl’s not stupid, so she’s likely aware of her own contribution to her cred-shredding year. What with the post lip-synch blame tossing, the very public catfights with other Hollywood starlets, and her recent drunken belligerence caught on camera. But, like all good rock chicks, she’s refusing to let a few errors in judgment stop her from doing her thing—writing songs and touring. Her family loves her, her band loves her, her fans love her—so who the hell cares about anyone else, right?

Right. Still, for all her black-haired, “I didn’t steal your boyfriend” bravado, Simpson is actually more reminiscent of her sweet-as-candy sister than her bitter, early Alanis-inspired music might suggest. During my recent phone conversation with her, she came across as warm, intelligent, and mostly unaffected by the vitriol about her roaming the Internet. She’s soft-spoken, exceedingly polite, and genuinely thrilled at the collection of songs on her new CD, I Am Me.

The album isn’t noticeably different from Simpson’s 2004 debut, Autobiography. Both albums are chock-full of undeniably catchy pop-rock. There’s a rockier edge to this one, though, with Simpson squealing louder and screaming harder. She’s obviously a lot angrier than she was last year. Like the last record, song subjects here range from bad boys to best friends to dancing and depression. It has its bitter moments, but I Am Me is hardly a downbeat record. Simpson declares it “in the same vein” as her previous effort, but more of a dance album. And she’s succeeding at developing, if not musically (when you’re on a catchy thing ...), then lyrically, with “Catch Me When I Fall” and “Beautifully Broken”, two decent attempts at self-realization.

According to Simpson, her album’s message is simple: “The songs all symbolize me, who I am.” She admits, too, that her writing process isn’t rocket science, and that like any artist, she writes about what she’s going through. “When I’m writing, I think about what’s going on. I’m a pretty honest person with my music. I’m out there with whatever I’m going through at that moment.”

So, it’s no surprise her Autobiography reads like a teenager’s diary—it is one. I Am Me works similarly. Simpson expels through her songs. And she does it honestly, in the best way she knows how. She’s clearly aware of the hand her privileged background has given her in terms of her success, but she’s not above soliciting empathy. And why not? She’s allowed to be a spoilt brat if she wants to be—it’s her hand and she’s playing it. She’s not the first girl rocker to use her assets to her advantage. She doesn’t beg respect, but she does make an attempt to blend her incredible luck and her away-from-the-limelight humanness. “I am me, and I won’t change for anyone,” she wails on the album’s title track (“I’m a little pissed off there,” she says of the song), but a few songs later, on “Catch Me When I Fall”, she sings, “It may seem I have everything / But everything means nothing / When the ride you’re on leaves you lost”.

Simpson’s made a conscious attempt to go deeper with her lyrics this time out; so much so that some of what she came out with surprised even her. “With this record, I noticed when I finished it that there was a lot of finding beauty in the dark side, that kind of thing. And, you know, we go through hard things, but we need to work at finding the light and having fun and letting go of everything. In my music, I try to be very real and honest. Nobody’s happy all the time, and everybody goes through heartbreaks and everybody loves. So, I just want be honest with that. Every song I sing on stage I’m thinking about exactly what happened at that time when I wrote it [and] I full on go for it.”

Simpson says she enjoys playing with sentiment and employing metaphor into her music. She likes mystery, and, in a sense, to encourage deconstruction of her work. She’s found inspiration in other women artists who do the same. “I can listen to a Fiona Apple record and I can think that she’s talking about this, and she’s not—she’s talking about something else. Obviously, mine isn’t to that extent—we really don’t know much about what goes in her life. But, I think that I still have that, that personal level ... [just] maybe you don’t know what the song is about.”

Inspiration is big for Simpson. Though discussed in similar breaths as her pop-rock, TV-leg-up counterparts Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, and Kelly Clarkson among others, she’s taken to studying Apple, Alanis, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde, and Debbie Harry. “I love women that get up there and look sexy while they’re rocking out. I think that’s amazing.” She gets especially excited when discussing Hynde, who she considers one of her all-time idols. “I love her. She is so sexy with her guitar.”

How did Simpson discover these rockers of yore?

“I’ve always listened to Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple. And I discovered the whole ‘80s music thing when I started getting out there and buying records. I was about 15, and I thought, ‘Wow, these girls are the best.’ My mom had always loved them and I’d always loved Madonna. But when I started paying attention to the ‘80s chicks that really rocked, I was, like, ‘Oh wow.’ I definitely got inspiration from them.”

Simpson has a long way to go to reach Hynde heights and she knows that. Still, she’s thrilled at the opportunity to have a public stage on which to grow and develop as a singer. “Sometimes I can’t believe this is my life, but it’s an amazing position to be in.” She also takes comfort, as well as more of that inspiration, from performing to the fans she says have stuck by her through her tough year. “The greatest thing is to be able to see people’s faces, who come out to your show every night. That’s the coolest thing. Being in the studio and actually getting to create the song, and write, is amazing. And it’s kind of therapeutic in a sense. But to get out there and perform your songs to everybody and actually see their reaction and to see them singing the song along with you is also an incredible feeling.”

Has the criticism brought her closer to her fans?

“Absolutely. My fans have stuck by my side. And, you know, it’s like, okay, whatever these people want to say … but [the fans] seem to be enjoying the record and they seem to be enjoying this, whatever it may be. Fans will come up to me and say they really connected with this song or that song. It’s amazing and it helps me to want to keep going.”

Is the criticism as hard on a young woman as it would appear?

“You know, it is and it isn’t. There’s definitely moments where I’ll feel, ‘Oh, that’s tough’, but I’m with my band all the time, and they’re my really good friends. I have a bunch of girlfriends on the road with me. I have so much love and support and friends around me that it’s really ... it’s never too hard, you know? There are times when it’s critical and can be tough, but I think that only makes you more thick-skinned. I feel like I’ve been a pretty strong person this year and I’m definitely happy to be where I am.”

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