Acclaimed country lyricist, vocalist, and singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe has captured elusive moments of happiness and bliss in song recently. From the release of her “first happy song” called “On to Something Good”, to her “great” Third Man Records intimate concert, Monroe seems upbeat and chipper for someone who’s made a name on bittersweet tales of loss and heartache.
Monroe was born in 1986. Her entry into the music business came at age 11, when she won a talent contest in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Two years later, recognizing her daughter’s promise, her mother chose to relocate the family to Nashville to foster Ashley’s nascent music career. The move to Nashville proved wise, and she signed a publishing deal within a relatively short amount of time. In 2009, after some delays, she released her debut album, Satisfied, through online digital retailers. As a solo artist, Monroe’s Satisfied was followed in 2013 with the release of Like a Rose, which garnered widespread critical praise. Like a Rose‘s successor, The Blade, was released in 2015 through Warner Brothers Nashville, and like Monroe’s previous efforts, featured highly lauded producers and co-writers.
Figuratively standing on the shoulders of giants, Monroe’s many collaborations and co-writers have provided her with much more then marquee value: they have allowed her to grow exponentially, and more fully express herself as a singer-songwriter. From working with Jack White, Vince Gill, Blake Shelton, Brendan Benson, and many others, Monroe has received a world-class entry and firm establishment into country music. Benson and Gill make their musical presence felt on The Blade, with Benson as co-writer and Gill as co-writer and producer. Among other heavy-hitting guests, Monroe is also joined by her Pistol Annies bandmate, Miranda Lambert.
Shirking the new in favor of classic or more traditional country music lyrical themes, Monroe’s lovely voice and humble, honest words have found many new fans with each successive release. The charming Monroe seeks to tackle a wider range of human emotion on The Blade, and her soul-seeking, introspective effort is paying off. At 28, she is blossoming, coming into her own. Here, she speaks briefly about passion for her new album, enthusiasm for her job, the emotional catharsis that songwriting brings, working with other writers, and living “music as life.”
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What was your favorite song on The Blade to write?
It’s really hard to just pick one. They all are so special to me. I love “From Time to Time”, because I was missing my dad really bad around the time I got married, and was really weepy. Then one night, I fell asleep on the couch, and this song “woke me up.” I could hear all the lyrics and melody. So it was like it was coming straight from my dad, for my wedding day.
Where do you feel that your sound progressed or “grew” between your Like a Rose release and now?
I think that Like a Rose was “Okay, this is the heart and soul of Ashley Monroe, stripped down and bare.” A lot of those songs I wrote when I was 17, 18, or 19, so I was also just catching up, trying to release music I had written that no one had heard.
The Blade definitely speaks to where I am right now in my life. We (Vince Gill, Justin Niebank, and I) didn’t want to make the same record twice. Every song on this record is autobiographical. On a lot of new songs, it’s “where I am now, as a 28-year-old woman.” I just let whatever songs I wrote and loved create the record.
The song titles are so poignant. They speak to us so readily. Would you talk a little bit about what “Bombshell” and “If Love Was Fair” mean to you?
“Bombshell” is something everyone can interpret in his or her own way. I really am proud of this song. I wrote with Gordie Sampson and Steve McEwan. We were just talking about all the bombshells that we drop, and how hard it is. How there’s never a good time. It could be “I don’t love you anymore”, “I’m gay”, “I’m pregnant”, “I have cancer”, and so on. It’s a hard lesson in growing up. Sometimes you have to tear someone apart with the truth. And it’s hard. “If Love Was Fair” pretty much says all the things you wouldn’t be doing if love was fair. But the bottom line is: it isn’t fair.
There’s some confusion in the press regarding your “album count”. How many releases do you have floating around in music-space right now?
I have five. They are Satisfied (released to iTunes on Columbia Records after I left the label), two Pistol Annies records, Like a Rose, and next up, The Blade.
How do you take care of your voice? What vocal warm-ups do you practice before a show?
I try to drink a ton of water. (As I’m sitting here drinking coffee. There’s water in coffee, I guess?) It’s really hard, when I travel as much as I do, to keep it at its best. Especially flying. I do this silly vocal warm-up to kinda make sure it’s there before I sing. In hotel rooms, I always think whoever is in the room beside me must think I’ve lost my mind. Oh well: maybe I have.
How does writing or art help you?
When I start to spiral into panic, I remind myself to breathe and stay where I’m at. Not worry too much about the future, or things I can’t control. It’s easier said than done, but I’m getting a little better at it. Writing definitely helps me “empty out” emotions that are filling up my head. It’s so therapeutic for me.
Which is easier for you: writing music, or writing lyrics?
It’s different every time. I don’t know how to explain it. If I overthink it, it’s harder to do. So I just go with it when I get inspired.
For your own projects, versus for others, do you write while you’re on tour?
I write whenever I get inspired. It’s harder to write on the road. I definitely get ideas out here, that I write down in my phone, and melodies I hum into my recorder.
There are a lot of collaborators on each track of The Blade. How do you pick the co-writers or collaborators for your material?
I have written with so many people, that I’ve definitely honed in on the ones that work best for me. Sometimes we write and have no idea who it’s “for.” [We] just let the song happen, and it will find its place on down the road. Or not. Ha! Either way, I love writing with all of the co-writers on my record. We have a certain chemistry that’s hard to find.
With all of the collaborative effort, is there any worry about losing your autonomy? Or is it more of a “these are my friends at home, and I want you to love them too” type vibe?
I’m definitely trying to stand alone and show that I’m my own artist. But at the same time, I love that I can collaborate with anyone from Blake Shelton to the Raconteurs to Train. I’m proud that I have made music with people who also love music. Emmylou [Harris] also did that, and I think things worked out just fine for her.
How do you select your co-writers? Is that a label thing, or do you get to sit down and pick people? How did you end up with Alison Krauss on “Mayflowers”?
No, the label lets me make music how I want, with whomever I want, which is refreshing. Vince Gill had the Alison Krauss and Dan Tymenski hook-up on “Mayflowers”, and I’m so thankful. I co-wrote “Mayflowers” back in 2008 with Brendan Benson, who is the lead singer of The Raconteurs, and an amazing artist on his own. We write great together.
Is it a chore to make time to do the business-y side of songwriting and recording?
It depends. It’s not a job when you truly love music. I’m always singing. All the time: in the car, in the house. Always. I mean, it’s obvious that when it’s time to make a record, that there is more work into booking the studio, and musicians, and stuff.
Who dreams up the collaborations to begin with?
Some of the collaborative parts happen organically even in that [business] part.
How did the Third Man “recording direct to acetate” gig go?
It went great, I think! I haven’t listened back, and I might not ever. I was super nervous once I got there. But once I was a couple songs in, and realized it was just singing to a big group of people who were actually listening, I calmed down a bit. But that was definitely one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
I think the lousiest part of touring must be when you have to leave your family and friends behind. How do you balance the “away” and “together” time? Are those close to you understanding?
Everyone close to me gets it. It’s definitely hard sometimes, but I remind myself “this is my dream.” “This is what I was wanting to do” when I would be home sitting on my couch. So I try to enjoy every moment of it. Homesickness happens. After I play a good show, it’s definitely a great payoff.
What’s your favorite leisure activity while you’re on tour, besides the online “window shopping”?
Online shopping is my favorite activity. Ha! Going to see the city when I can is always nice too.
Your next tour leg is with Little Big Town; this summer you’re opening for them. Then, what’s in the future, music-wise for you?
We’ll see. There’s the part about worrying too much about the future. I’m not guaranteed tomorrow. So I’m just trying to keep my overall goal to be to wake up. Be the best I can be. And leave a body of work I’m proud of behind.