Despite Early Setbacks, Ashley Monroe is Satisfied With Career Track
Ashley Monroe has had an unlikely career so far. Signed to Sony as a teenager, she released two strong singles that went nowhere. Her debut album, Satisfied, was shelved, and she was eventually released from her contract. That spells doom for most artists, but Monroe has flourished since then: collaborating with Trent Dabbs and Brendan Benson, touring with Jewel, and logging songwriting credits with Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, and Guy Clark. And earlier this month, she received her first CMA nomination for the Raconteurs’ “Old Enough” (featuring her and Ricky Skaggs). As she embarks on the Ten Out of Tenn tour, which spotlights unsigned Nashville artists, we caught up with her to discuss her storied past and bright future.
STEPHEN M. DEUSNER: How did you end up on the Ten out of Tenn compilation?
ASHLEY MONROE: Trent Dabbs and his wife founded it. I found Trent a few years ago on MySpace. It was really random. I was just listening to music on there. I didn’t know him, but I MySpaced him and said, “Hey I love your music, can we write?” Turned out he lived two houses down from me! So it was pretty crazy. He and I started writing and we became really close. We would go in to do demos and we were really happy with them, so we made a little EP that we put out on iTunes. He was picking out the new group for the comp and asked if I would do it. It just made total sense because I know a lot of the people who are on it—Sarah Siskind and Jedd Hughes and K.S. Rhoads. I’d already written with them and hung out. It just felt like a no brainer.
SMD: So you were familiar with most of the people on the compilation?
AM: I was, through Trent. A few of them I didn’t know until this week, during rehearsal. But we hit it off great.
SMD: How do the shows work?
AM: We each play two songs, but we don’t play them back to back. I’ll play piano on a couple of other people’s songs, sing background vocals on other artists’ songs. Different people play bass and different people play guitar on different songs. All of us are on stage a lot, but we switch in and out and do different things. When I sing, it’s acoustic. My first song is just me on guitar, and I’ll have Kevin Rhoads play piano really softly. My friend Jedd Hughes, who’s an amazing artist as well, will play just a little slide guitar. I wanted mine to come down a little bit, because a lot of it is really a big-sounding production. It’s interesting because a lot of it is pop and Sarah is very folky. I’m definitely the country. I can’t hide it. The funny thing is, it’s brought people who didn’t listen to country into the country side of things. I think they could tell I wasn’t putting on an act or anything, that it was real and it was genuine. I think they’re all amazing, and they all inspire me in different ways.
SMD: How did you end up working with the Raconteurs?
AM: A few years ago I was at the airport with Taylor Swift, and we were both going to Los Angeles. We were sitting together, and she said, “Oh my gosh! There’s Jack White! Let’s go get his autograph.” He was getting off the airplane and he’s got his black hair all in his face.
She says, “Hi I’m Taylor Swift.” Everyone recognizes her everywhere, you know. And he’s like, “Taylor…?” He wasn’t familiar with her. And then, I’m like, [sheepishly whispering] “Hi I’m Ashley Monroe.” He looked up and said, “Ashley Monroe the singer?” I thought he was making fun of my name, because it almost sounds like a stage name. It sounds a little fake. I said, “Yeah, I’m Ashley Monroe the singer.” And he says, “No really, did I hear you on the Opry?” And he named the song I sang. He says, “I was listening to the Opry the other day. Oh my gosh, I’ve just been raving about you.”
Taylor was laughing. She was funny about it—“Oh, Taylor who?” At the time she had just sold a million records. All I said to him was, “Are you kidding me right now? Are you kidding me?” That’s all I said. And I let him walk away. Why didn’t I say something cooler, like “Let’s work together?” Or something. For three years, I was thinking, Gosh, I would love to work with him in some way, but I don’t really have his phone number. But then he emailed me. He found me through somebody, and asked if I would do that video with them. And then we all just became really close. I went to his house to rehearse, and Brendan was there. We hit it off that night. I could tell that our voices blended well together, and our personalities went well together. We just started writing together a lot.
SMD: Your brand of country has room for experimentation and exploration, especially in the material with Trent and Brendan Benson.
AM: The thing with Brendan is big because he’s rock and not country. What I think is cool about it is that we just even each other out, like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, or Robert Plant and Allison Krauss. I just can’t picture myself doing pop country, but I love experimenting with different sounds. Brendan’s just a genius on guitar, and the sound is just so real and so organic. I love it. But I made a little acoustic EP to take out on the Ten Out of Tenn tour, and it’s just me and guitar, a little bit of strings, a little bit of piano. It’s like you’re sitting in the living room while I’m singing. It’s very light and relaxing, and I’m so excited about it. It’s back to the basics.
But I’ve definitely experimented with other people. This stuff with Trent was much more pop sounding than my Satisfied record. When I do my next solo album—which is going to be released, by God!—it’s going to be country for sure, even if it’s through a non-country label, even if we go through somebody in New York. I’m talking to a label up there now, and they have really good marketing ideas, and we’re trying to figure out different ways to market that aren’t through country radio, because those boys don’t play me much. That’s okay.
SMD: That had to be frustrating to be at Columbia and have it go down the way it did.
AM: It was. When I signed to Columbia, there was a whole different group of people running Sony at the time. John Grady signed me, and he was very creative. He did the O Brother Where Art Thou? project with T-Bone Burnett, and he understood that roots scene and was really excited about trying to break that through country radio. Right in the middle of my radio tour, Sony and BMG merged and John Grady got fired, along with a lot of the team that I had been working with. So I just came into a whole new group of people who did things another way. I’m not putting it down or anything; it’s just different. It was really frustrating because I was so proud of that CD and I wanted it out so bad. I had lots of promotion for it and lots of getting ready for it, and they delayed it a little bit at a time: “We need just one more song, we need one more single, we need you to write one more thing.” Then it got where I couldn’t sleep at night because I just knew this wasn’t right. I didn’t want to change it. I actually asked off the label, and Joe Romani— he’s head of Sony and a friend of mine, a sweet, brilliant man—at first he said no, probably because I was 5 zillion dollars in the hole. I put it to him like, “Aw you don’t need another female girl to worry about. You’ve got enough girls to worry about. I’ll just go. You don’t need me.” He was nice enough to let me go and try something new. After I got off the label, Joe called a year later and said, “We’re going to release Satisfied digitally, but we’re not going to promote it.” That’s okay. As long as there’s some way people can hear it. I’ll take what I can get. I was proud of it.
SMD: Has there been much response to the digital release?
AM: Not really, because there wasn’t any press about it. One day it was not on there, and one day it was. I’m not on Sony anymore, although I think they could still make some money back by promoting it a little bit. They own it. I’ve tried to tell people. When I went out with Jewel, I would tell people. Hopefully, they will find it and listen to it.
SMD: It seemed like the label wanted you to have a big hit single, and when “Satisfied” failed to blow up, they didn’t know what to do. Did it seem like they had unrealistic expectations?
AM: It was interesting because everybody was so excited, so pumped up: This is a hit, this is a hit! And even the Nashville community—which is still very supportive of me, I’m really lucky to have their support—they were all rooting for me. But labels right now aren’t doing that well financially, and when it doesn’t happen, they freak out. When it didn’t become a huge hit and when radio didn’t play it as much as they wanted, they started second-guessing everything. And that’s where I think we got ourselves into a weird situation because we started second-guessing every song. Toward the end of my time at Sony, it became not about the music, but about constantly asking, What can I give them that they’ll like? I can’t do that. I’d rather dig ditches all my life. I can’t expect people to like my music if I don’t.
SMD: And then you’re stuck singing those songs for the rest of your life.
AM: And you know what? Some people just want to be famous and be known and have a lot of money, and good for them. They have a lot of money and I don’t. But I just don’t have it in me to sell out. That’s not why I got into music. I got into music because I love music. It’s in me. I don’t want to sell myself short in any way.
SMD: Do you think it’s more difficult for female artists in Nashville right now?
AM: I think it is harder for females. The playlist that country radio plays is pretty much big stars. It’s just hard to get them to fit you in. I remember when I went on my radio tour, there was this one man, a program director who was super nice. I sang “Used to Be” for him on the bus, and he started crying. My promotion guy asked, “So do we have the add?” And as he’s wiping his eyes, he says, “It just doesn’t fit our format.” What in the world? That makes no sense. It’s not like they don’t like music or they weren’t nice—it’s just so much business.
SMD: Did those experiences change the way you write and create music?
AM: I think I’ve grown in the way I write. I still have these times when I wake up—it’s weird—when I literally feel like a song’s going to come out. I just feel it. I go and I hold my guitar and sure enough, it does. I just get these flows of creativity. I wrote some with Carrie Underwood, and I’ve been writing with other people, and I’ve learned how to think a little more mainstream. But when I write by myself or for myself, I just let it happen, just let it flow. At the end of my deal with Sony, I just couldn’t write, because it was so much thought. I would go in every day and it was like, “okay. Upbeat! Fast! Happy happy happy!” and the thing with me is, as you probably know, I write a lot of sad songs. People ask me if I’m really that sad, No, actually I’m really happy, but when I’m happy, I don’t feel like writing songs. I want to go out and skip in the park or something. I want to go out and be happy. When I’m sad about something, that’s when I write. That’s how I learned to write songs in the first place, when Daddy died. I was sad, and songwriting was my outlet. But I’m getting better at writing happy songs. I’m trying! I’m writing about sunshine and blues skies! I have Jason Aldean’s next single. It’s sad, but it’s good. I’m excited.
SMD: Even with these setbacks, you seem to have such an avid audience.
AM: The interesting thing is that it’s grown. It’s almost a word-of-mouth thing, I think. My fans are just so loyal and they all root for me. When I went out with Jewel, I made a lot of new fans who didn’t know who I was at all and really took to my music. This Ten Out of Tenn tour is another good opportunity to get in front of crowds that I normally wouldn’t be in front of. It’s just interesting to see the wide range of people who take to it, and I get a lot of messages on MySpace saying, “I don’t like country music, but I like your music.” It’s a very comforting, encouraging feeling. And even though it’s not my fault, I almost feel guilty because I want to put out more music for them. I’ve written so many songs it’s ridiculous, and I want to make another record. So I’m working on that.
SMD: Are you currently working on a new album?
AM: I’ve not started recording, but I’ve started picking out songs. We’re trying to work out a deal with somebody. I’m not signed yet, but we’re still in negotiations. I’m going to make it work one way or another. I don’t really know how, but I have this feeling that I’m going to make it work, if not with this label then with somebody else who gets it. And then Brendan and I have recorded fourteen songs, and I absolutely love working with him. It’s different than what I do solo and it’s different than what I do solo, but I’m really proud of it and I want to get that out there too. Brendan just released his solo record, and I have a feeling that I’ll probably release a record, and then our stuff will probably come out. Those are the two next things. I don’t know what order they’ll come in, but those are the two next things to come along.
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