Ashley Monroe Sees the Signs

Music Features Ashley Monroe
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Ashley Monroe Sees the Signs

A couple of years ago, recalls old-school country thrush Ashley Monroe, her mother was rummaging through a storage closet when a small, weathered scrap of paper fluttered to the floor. After reading it, she immediately showed it to her daughter, who had forgotten it but was taken aback by all the heartwarming memories it unexpectedly stirred up. Written the year after her father died from cancer, when she was only 14—and around the same time she started penning cathartic songs to cope with the loss—the manuscript was essentially an open letter to the Savior, or, as she likes to think of it now, a fully answered prayer.

“I wrote, ‘Please, Jesus, be with me—I can’t control my past, but the future’s a hopeful place for me, so please stay with me and give me the true chance to do this. I want to sing for people, and I want your light to come through my voice, because you live inside of me—how could it not?’,” recalls Monroe, now 34, recalling how shortly thereafter she moved to Nashville to launch her successful bid at stardom, which led to first a publishing-house career, then twangy solo sets like 2013’s definitive Vince Gill-produced Like a Rose and her envelope-pushing, keyboard-heavy new magnum opus Rosegold, as well as parallel gigs in the snarky all-girl power trio Pistol Annies, and as a vocalist in Jack White’s Third Man House Band. She married a nice guy along the way—Chicago White Sox pitcher John Danks, in an October 2013 ceremony officiated by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert—and, four years ago, gave birth to a son, Dalton. Someone somewhere was certainly looking out for her.

But during pandemic lockdown, Monroe says, she’s returned to her faith from childhood, even though, as a lifelong germaphobe, she eschews going to gregarious chapel. “I’ve always carried a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere, so I’m glad everybody else is catching up to where I was,” she quips, before waxing serious. “I’m feeling in my gut that now is not the time to not pray, now is not the time to not talk to Jesus. I try to, and every day I open my Bible, I find something, I write it down, and I put my hand above my head and I just say. ‘Thank you,’ and I’m instantly in a place where I’m humbled, I’m not worried about anything, and more often than not, a tear will fall out without me even realizing it.” She’s not perfect, and only human. But hey—she’s trying. And Rosegold is part of her inspirational plan, straying from tear-in-your-beer pedal-steel traditionalism on a synth-pop “Siren,” a symphonic “Silk,” and the sultry R&B of “Gold” and “I Mean it.” Monroe isn’t out of her depth on these experimental new recordings—she’s just starting to explore her own, revolving around the bright, alluring alloy of rose gold itself, the same color she’s dyed her hair and employed in an elaborate new rose tattoo she just commissioned.

As a child in Knoxville, the devout diva frequently felt what she terms The Holy Spirit moving through her in church, and it always left her with the awestruck shivers. And these days, she attributes her heavenly compositions to that same Christian entity, as well. “I know that’s where I get my melodies from, and these melodies that come through me? They give me chills a lot of times, too,” she testifies. So you can choose to believe or not—she’s not proselytizing. “So I’d rather just give folks a chill through a song, and if they don’t know where it came from, that’s fine. I’d rather make ‘em feel it than just talk about it.”

Paste: How long have you had a backing-vocalist session career going? It seems to just quietly keep growing.

Ashley Monroe: I know! Like I’m really Featuring Ashley Monroe, and my first name is Featuring! But I love that, though—I think it’s an honor to be asked to sing on everything I sing on, and I look back in wonder at things by everyone from The Raconteurs to Ricky Skaggs, to Train to The Cherry Sisters, when Karen Elson and I did the background vocals on a Wanda Jackson record that Jack White did. So I just love that I’ve been able to sing so many different types of music with so many amazing people.

Paste: Do you play keyboards yourself?

Monroe: Yeah. I can play piano, and I took classical piano probably when I was seven until my dad died when I was 13. And when my dad died, there was too much other stuff to worry about than piano lessons. But I learned theory and I know how to play any chords, so I know how to play piano, yes.

Paste: Because this is a really keyboard-based record.

Monroe: Yeah. And all of it wasn’t me, of course. But it’s interesting, because a lot of those melodies came without any instrument—I already heard the melodies in my head. Like for “Flying,” for instance—I couldn’t figure out what chords I was hearing, because most of my voice memos, or any melodies I have, are just melody only, with no instruments being played.

Paste: Let’s lay it out there—you’ve finally embraced your inner Taylor Dayne.

Monroe: My who? I don’t know who that is! What does that mean?

Paste: She was once the reigning synth-pop queen. And you’ve got synthesizers everywhere now.

Monroe: Ha! Yeah, the synths are everywhere. But it’s interesting because, first off, I had made Sparrow (in 2018) and I’d had my son, and then I kind of released into this wave of love and joy that washed over my life with having a son—it put some of his innocence back into my life that truly I haven’t seen since I was 13 since my dad died. So I feel like I was inspired in that way, but at the same time I also got let go from Warner Brothers, which is not their fault—it is what it is, and I would have done it, too, because they stuck with me a long time. But when I got let go, I was frightened for maybe one little second, and then I was like, “You know what? It’s fine—you’re not ever gonna stop making music.” This was me to myself, by the way, and I was just thinking, “Be brave. I know I can write, and I want to be able to write all kinds of melodies, because I love all kinds of music, very much, and I listen to all kinds of music, so much.” So without putting out any grand intentions, and without having anything in the back of my mind other than just creating what I was hearing — and I’m in my closet right now, actually—I started singing in my closet, and I heard most of these melodies in my closet, where it’s soundproof. I started hearing these things, and I heard all the parts, too. That’s another thing—I heard very clear, the production. And I was also paying attention to things I was listening to at the time. And I really started listening to Kanye West, all his records—just like how he mixed things, how many layers are on things, or how few layers. And I love that band Cigarettes After Sex, too, and Mazzy Star. I was paying attention to things that were just interesting, and all these different layers. And then at the same time, I was thinking about and listening to The Beach Boys, The Eagles, Queen, classic things with all the beautiful layers and harmonies that really make it. It’s so cool, and I just love it, and I can sing harmony really well and I like singing it. So I added all that on, too. I heard it that way, and I just went with it, withe full confidence of, “Okay, this is where I’m being led right now, so I’m just gonna go with it.” And I didn’t want any sad songs. And sure, I’ve written a lot of sad songs, and I’ll write a bunch more—I’ve written a bunch this year, as well. But with this thing, I’m just really protective of my joy. I haven’t really felt this much joy since I was a kid, and ‘this joy’ being my son and my family and also working on myself, replacing fear with love and reading my Bible more. It’s all about love, trying to be more loving, always, and I thought what better way than to make people feel good? I love writing songs where I pour my heart out, and I love singing them, too. But this time, I wanted people to see explosions of confetti fireworks going off in their face, where they just see so much love and so much color. I really wanted them to just feel these songs and these melodies.

Paste: Nothing against your darker material, though. I’ve been listening to a lot of vintage Rose Maddox, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton during the pandemic, and man! Dolly meant business! Attending the wedding of her ex to a new gal and singing,“I don’t want to throw rice / I want to throw rocks at her / She took the only love I had.” And then her song “The Bridge,” wherein the protagonist kills herself and her unborn baby!

Monroe: Yup. She didn’t care. And you know, I love that. I love those storytelling songs that are dark. And I actually have a lot of unreleased murder ballads. I’ve always lots of different kinds of songs, and I’ve always been influenced by so many kinds of music, even when I would put on Celine Dion’s “Visions of Love” to go to class, coming home and listening to Carlene Carter, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, dad putting on The Black Crowes, The Eagles, and then my brother and me go to church and listen to the Three 6 Mafia and all that. I’ve always been so interested and moved by all different kinds of music. So I cannot just make a genre-less thing. But I was listening to Dolly on her podcast, and she said that if they could write “Knoxville Girl,” then she could write the female version of murder ballads. But I can’t think about my murder ballads now—I’m in a positive frame of mind! Maybe that’ll be my bluegrass record in the future.

Paste: A lot of great songwriters over the years have said that all you have to do is have your antennae up on a clear night, and the song, dark or light, kind of beams down to you, prewritten.

Monroe: Yes. And I hear mine really early in the morning. I’m an early riser, most mornings, and I am very open. My antennae are up, I’m open, and it’s quiet, and I’m not thinking about anything, and I’m half in a daze. And that’s when it hits me [she hums a euphonic little ditty], and I hear a lot of these melodies almost like a choir, with all these harmonies in them, and I’ll think, “How beautiful would this melody be for a choir to sing?”

Paste: What’s your morning ritual there in rural Tennessee? Do you live in a wooded glen with tons of nature? Do animals dress you in the morning like in a Disney film?

Monroe: Almost! There’s a family of deer that walk through a lot. And our dog loves them, and they love our dog. It’s almost like she checks on them, just to make sure, like, “Hey, how are ya? How are the kids?” It’s almost like they know each other. But my ritual in the morning? Well, I used to drink coffee, but now I go on these caffeine strikes. And I was on one until I went and got Starbucks this morning. But early in the morning, I wait for my son to wake up, and I’ll do some writing in that little window, if I hear a melody or something, and I’ll do it without any substance or stimulants. There’s just that little window when I wake up in the morning before Dalton wakes up, and it’s getting smaller and smaller, because he’s waking up earlier and earlier. So I’ll just hone in on that moment and get myself set for the day. And I do meditate sometimes—I’m trying to get better at it. But you do have to make time for it. Like, I’ll make time to go upstairs where I have a little workout room and do all my workouts, but I should make more time to go up there and do a 10-, or at least a four-minute meditation. Because any stillness I can catch, I’m getting better about holding on to that stillness. And I’m reading a book called The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, and it’s so interesting—it’s about the history of speed, and how people used to sleep for 11 hours a night before there were clocks, and you went to bed with the moon and woke up with the sun.

Paste: Have you—like a lot of us—been glancing at digital clocks at odd or eerie times?

Monroe: My number is 9:10. I wind up looking at it every time it’s 9:10, and I was born on 9/10, and I weighed 9.10, and I think the hospital room number was even 910, too. But I see it, I see it every time. And the more I ask for it, the more it happens, so that’s another thing I’ve been practicing—asking for signs. I had a friend recently who lost her brother, and he was actually in The Steel Woods—Rowdy Cope was his name, an amazing, amazing guitar player—and I was sitting with her family, just in the throes of grief, and it really brought up some stuff from my dad, and oh, it’s just a nasty feeling, just a very bad feeling, to grieve something that deep. So I called up my therapist and started crying, and I said, “How long does it take to grieve somebody who died in 2000?” And she said, “Different times for different people. But do you feel your father’s presence? And have you asked for more signs? Have you asked for him to show up?” And I said, “Huh. No, I haven’t.” Which was interesting, because as soon as they die, you do. But after time goes by, you almost stop asking for ’em, like, “Well, they’re gone—that’s it.” So then I started asking for more, and it’s crazy the amount of signs I’ve been getting. It’s like, “Okay, dad! Show me a little more!”

Paste: After 9/11, I think many faithful wondered, “Why would a benevolent God let all those people die?” And now after the coronavirus devastation, folks might be thinking the same. How would you respond to such doubts?

Monroe: I would respond with, This world isn’t perfect. It’s never been—and it’s never going to be—a just place, unfortunately. But I still believe in Him, and I’ve had terrible things happen to me, too, and I was mad at Him for a long time. But I still believed in Him. And sometimes I feel like not having answers to those questions is the best way to get peace of mind, because I don’t think we’ll ever have answers to a lot of questions like that.

Paste: Are there any enlightening Bible passages you would recommend at a tense time like this? Some wisdom that might help folks through?

Monroe: Let me look … I have my devotional journal in the car, but I’ve taken some pictures of some, though. Some that have gotten to me recently. One of ‘em is the one that’s in “The New Me”—Isaiah 43:19. And I like this one, 1 Peter 3:4—“Instead it should be of your inner self the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” And here’s one more—1 Corinthians 13:12 —“For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face, now I know in part that then shall I know even as also I am known.” That’s a good one. I have a bunch, and I write new ones down every morning.”It’s funny, my granny’s friend used to always say when I was little, “Doris, she kind of scares me. I don’t know if she’s going to be a missionary or a stripper!” And I giggle sometimes now thinking about that, because I think I’m perfectly both!