Interview: You Probably Didn’t Know Ashley Monroe Could Make Music Like This
Ashley Monroe has paid her debts. After a decade of using her mellifluous voice and rare abilities to cast dark shadows across a room by simply closing her eyes and parting her lips, she's choosing to summon the sun.
Fans heard it at times across Sparrow, her critically-acclaimed album from 2018. There was a confidence and celebrated womanhood that drove memorable songs like "Hands on You" and "Wild Love," but "Keys to the Kingdom" is where you find the pivot. The first verse speaks of being handed a haunted guitar and told to sing the songs inside.
That was Monroe, across two-and-a-half exquisitely crafted, but at times painful, albums released on Warner Music Nashville. At her best, she was left holding the blade. At her best, the line between theatric storytelling and bubbling old realities was ambiguous.
"And I drank the water / And it was paradise," she sings toward the end of "Keys," actively taking ownership of what comes next. Starting there, and continuing across each of the 10 new songs on Rosegold, Monroe is letting us know that her commitment to telling old ghost stories has expired.
She's paid her debts.
"I think sometimes we don’t hyper-focus on those moments, just the simple, beautiful moments that feel like silk. Sometimes those just get lost."
"There was a lot of release with Sparrow,” Monroe says. "I was pregnant when I made that record, too, and I feel there was forgiveness. I feel there was release on "Daddy I Told You," "Mother’s Daughter," "Keys to the Kingdom" …
Becoming a mother has empowered Monroe with new confidence. Part of it is a don't-give-a-dang kind of power that comes with knowing there's always someone at home who depends on you. But for her, it was also the humility that comes with each day and pride in knowing what her body went through.
"And hell, I’m proud of myself as a little girl for overcoming everything I did when my dad died. It was some rough stuff, really rough," she says without offering specifics. "The older I get the more I can look back and go, ‘Good job.’”
These aren't the stories of Rosegold, however. This new record is much more subtle than any of her previous solo albums and a deviation from the kind of straight-forward, no-nonsense approach she takes when singing with Pistol Annies. "Silk" stands out lyrically across a very economical project, Seven of the 10 songs have one-word titles, and her lyrics are often garnish, more than meal.
"You are the silk and the honey / Cool as a mornin’ river runnin’ / Ever flowin’ / Yellow glowing," she sings.
These compliments are unequivocally feminine, especially as compliments in a love song. She offers no indication that she ever thought of her husband John — a former professional athlete — while writing it. There was simply literally a picture that needed to be painted.
"I saw that title and I knew what I wanted it to sound like," she says. "My son was sleeping ... John was somewhere else so I went by myself, sat outside in the sun and was just looking up in my backyard. I was looking up at the blue sky with the green. I was deep breathing, I was praying, thanking God. I was in that moment. I swear to you, it was like one of those airplanes with the banner on the back, like 'Silk.' In my mind I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what it feels like.’ That warmth, really soaking in your skin, that real sweet spot in life."
Vince Gill and Justin Niebank are credited with co-producing Monroe's first two Warner albums, Like a Rose and The Blade. Dave Cobb helmed Sparrow. You hardly need to look at the credits to know she's a co-producer on Rosegold (Mountainrose Sparrow / Thirty Tigers). Somewhere, there's a notebook filled with "madman notes" about where to bring low harmonies up, how to orchestrate the strings and where to twist a vocal at the final chorus. She's good at it and she knows it.
"Groove" would be the song to lead her production resume. Really, it's the calling card for the album and this chapter in her life, even if it's surpassed elsewhere (see "Drive," "The New Me"). The Mikey Reaves and Aaron Raitiere co-write doesn't jump off the paper lyrically — take a look at the opening verse and don't apologize if you think it reads like something performed by a dozen country men with radio success today.
"Ooh, I see the way that you groove / Your body’s makin’ the moves / Turns me inside out / Ooh, I see the way that you stare / Wind blowing waves in your hair / While the fire goes down."
For this production, Monroe begins nearly a capella before catching a ride on a jazz bass and a few soft snare and cymbal brushes. Thick harmonies further her call, showing that the difference between a good and great song is sometimes just commitment.
“I wanted it to be almost a duet between me, the bass and the drums. Or a trio," says the 34-year-old. "Also, the string part, in my Kanye listening, and a lot of hip hop artists where they use strings for percussion. So I had my friend Zach Casebolt come and do the strings on "Groove.""
But she wasn't done. Wanting more groove, she doubled the strings and asked for more from the rhythm section. Two days before mastering the album, she had another percussive idea.
"I called and was like, 'Oh! I hear some heavy breathing. Some sighing on this. So I’m going to need to come back over there,'" she says, starting to laugh a little. "I know now my management was freaking out, like, ‘What the hell is she doing?’”
The result is a song few would call country if not for that Knoxville twang, but that's true across Rosegold. Monroe isn't about to go big city on her fans, however — she still feels as confident writing the kind of bitter ex-love songs with her friends Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley as she does pulling down song titles from the sky. And there is a little "Can't take the country out of the girl" at the end of this story about "Groove."
"I put some heavy sighing on "Siren" that day, too, just for the hell of it," she says. "Buy one, get one."
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