INTERVIEW: Ashley Monroe finds reasons for joy on ‘Rosegold’

Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies

Ashley Monroe, courtesy Alexa King.

To understand why Ashley Monroe is holding onto joy and love so tightly on her new album, Rosegold, you have to reach back all the way to her teens. After a fairly typical, joyous life with her parents and brother, her dad was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer when he was 40 and she 13, and died three months later. That’s when life turned on its head for the future country singer-songwriter.

Ashley Monroe
Mountainrose Sparrow/Thirty Tigers, out now

Her mother then had what Monroe describes as a nervous breakdown. She ran off for most of a year into an abusive relationship with another man, leaving Monroe, at that point 14, and her 19-year-old brother to fend for themselves. The family’s beautiful log home on the same street where much of her other family lived turned into a party house.

“We’re grieving our dad and what are you going to do? Party. …  Numb it,” Monroe, 34, said in a video call a few days before releasing Rosegold. “I’m telling you, the bottom just dropped out. … You deal with grieving, and oh God, it was just so dark.”

There are still parts of that year that Ashley Monroe doesn’t remember. The combination of grief, as well as two concussions she had in vehicle crashes two months before her dad died (she was a passenger in both) likely played a role in that, she said. But she does remember asking her friends to spend the night at their homes so she could get a ride from school. She describes that time as “just a lot of winging it going on, like barely surviving.”

Her mom returned and the two eventually moved from Knoxville to Nashville. There she would eventually become a Grammy-nominated artist, both by herself and as part of country supergroup Pistol Annies—a trio that includes Monroe, Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley. But it was not until she and her husband would have a son, Dalton, that she felt rejuvenated with joy for the first time.

Much of Monroe’s first four albums deal with sadness and loss, but Rosegold centers on the love and joy she shares with both her son and husband. “I thought of him a lot in ‘Gold.’ I thought of him in a lot of them,” she said when talking about the inspiration behind many of the album’s songs.

“I wanted to freeze this feeling and to harmonize with it, and amplify it,” she said.

The album begins with the romantic love ballad “Siren.” Monroe saw herself as the siren trying to entice listeners with a beautiful, “old-timey” melody to lead them on a journey about the different shapes love can take.

Equally sensual are “Groove” and “Drive,” which Monroe said are extensions of a journey she started on 2018’s Sparrow with “Wild Love” and “Hands on You.”

“I just noticed how much I liked writing songs like that, how much I like singing songs like that,” she said. “It’s good for a woman to have that outlet. I was actually surprised at how many women told me they loved “Hands on You.” That’s so cool when a woman just owns that part of herself. … Me being a mom now … that should be unsexy. But it’s made me more confident and more cool with myself. I wanted that to come across.”

Ashley Monroe worked on the record for two years, taking her time. After releasing Sparrow Warner Bros. Records dropped her, which initially hurt, but she doesn’t hold any ill will toward the label.

“For like 10 minutes my face got red and my chin did the little quiver thing when you’re about to cry. But that’s just because I loved everyone there, and it felt like you’re being broken up with,” she said.

Then she decided to take the opportunity to open up and follow her whims as a songwriter. For the first time, she focused on songwriting without focusing on deadlines or even on genre. Rather than writing everything and then taking demos to a studio, she and her team recorded each song as it was written.

At first, after she finished the first five songs, she’d assumed she would make an EP. But the songs kept coming to her. She and engineer Gena Johnson got together and hone in on mixing sounds, but there were breaks between sessions. Eventually Thirty Tigers Records signed her, at which point she got serious about selecting the songs to include on the record and finishing it up.

As for not worrying about genre, the record doesn’t much sound like a country record. Instead, it’s a blend of modern pop and ‘70s Laurel Canyon folk.

“I nailed it, then,” she responded when those two terms are used to describe Rosegold. The echoey, ruminative penultimate track “I Mean It” even recalls Ray of Light-era Madonna, to which Monroe pointed out that the pop diva also wrote that record after the birth of her first child: “I guess we were on the same wave of joy.”

She said making the collection of breezy songs felt natural and credits Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift), one of her producers as helping to meet her vision. One of the key rules was avoiding traditionally “country” instruments. When Chapman picked up a banjo, she immediately asked him to put it away. The two of them used more unusual artists as baselines, such as Lil Wayne and Kanye West

“All you have to do is kind of give a couple of references,” she said. “I knew I wanted to double or triple my voice on the chorus. I always wanted the chorus to come and flood, like it’s sweeping everyone away, and the verse being almost like I’m right in your ear whispering, but using the lower register in my voice.”

Many of the songs have the feel of drifting on a cloud, such as the familial love of “Silk,” seductive “Drive,” sparse and intoxicating “The New Me” and woozy piano-led “Flying.” She wrote the slightly bluesy “Til It Breaks” for a friend going through a difficult time as well as to help herself accept and let go of her past.

Her goal, she said was to give listeners joyous chills with a vocal inflection or a guitar lick. The feel of the songs came as she was working on improving herself and replacing fear with happiness and acceptance.

“After I had my son, because of everything, I just told you about my life, I became hyper protective of my joy,” she said. “Right after he was born, I was a super nervous wreck, afraid I was going to lose everything because of my past.”

So she turned toward her faith for reassurance, and now feels more grounded than she has in a long time.

“I talk to God more, I pray earnestly, I read the Bible more. I feel light kind of coming through me, and I’m working on always honing in on that light,” she said.

Ashley Monroe broke into song, singing a line from “Silk” a capella: “It’s so close that/ I can feel it/ Softly kiss/ Against my skin.”

“I wanted to use lyrics, as well, to cause people to feel that feeling—all the fires of love,” she said.

She briefly thought about releasing the record under a different name to set it apart from her other, more traditionally country sound, but decided against it after accepting ownership of it. Her next record may be even more different, yet she’s also not left traditional country behind. She’s cowritten songs on recent albums by both Travis Tritt and the Oakridge Boys that sound nothing like Rosegold.

Pistol Annies also have a lot of material in the works, she said. The trio of close friends talk every day over text message and have met often to write. Their songs, much more in the outlaw country mold, come effortlessly.

“It’s me singing, writing, producing, creating on every single level [of Rosegold], so why would I try to act like it’s anything else but me?” she said she decided. “Nobody is just only one thing. I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee. I am country. I’m from the country, but I’ve always and will always like seeing and being able to do all kinds of music, and that’s what makes me so happy about music, as it can be everything.”

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