Talks with Ashley Maher
Visit Ashley's websites
Flying Over Bridges
The Blessed Rain
CEV: From reading your bio on your website it seems that your voice was the focal point of your musical career from the very beginning.Tell me about the various styles of music (jazz, classical, choral, and medieval) that you went through and what they taught you about your voice and how it could be used to express these different styles.
AM: My mother told me when I was five that I had a God-given natural gift for singing. She was convinced that I had inherited the voice of her Welsh grandmother, who people had walked miles to hear sing at church. A scout from the New York Opera had discovered my great-grandmother and invited her toAmericato develop her talent, but her Victorian father swore that his daughter would never sully herself by performing onstage.
My mum had colorful dreams for all her kids and, at five, the notion that I had a grand destiny to fulfill appealed to me.But I really did have a natural and excellent ear for music, for melody, for harmony, for rhythm. My parents were not particularly musical … however, my mum loved classical and played top 40 radio while cooking dinner, while my dad, who had grown up in Brazil, loved jazz and Brazilian music.
The public schools I attended all had strong vocal music programs. I sang choral music in elementary and middle school, adding medieval, classical, doo wop, jazz, and contemporary styles to my repertoire in high school.I was always admitted to the top vocal group in my freshman years, won competitions and awards, and got a scholarship to UCLA on the strength of my singing.
When I was sixteen, I drove up the coast toSanta Barbaraevery Saturday to study voice with a rotund and passionate Russian vocal coach. And in my junior year at UC Berkeley, I studied opera inBologna,Italyfor a year.
So I decided to work in the opposite direction: rather than build my voice UP, why not work to tear DOWN the barriers to what is my most Absolutely Natural voice? That is where writing my own songs got started. I finished university, still singing jazz and classical music, but when I moved toLondon, everything changed.
InEngland, I felt like I was my own blank canvas. “Tearing down barriers to my most natural voice” not only meant learning to sing as naturally as possible, but also meant singing about my life, friend’s lives, singing from the center of myself.In my compositions, I can still hear echoes of medieval church harmonies, jazz phrasing, folk tunes, funk rhythms I had loved, the new African influence, Joni Mitchell, even the clean Brazilian bossa nova voices I grew up listening
to. Nothing is lost … we each become a more and more complex cocktail of influences. It makes us individual.
CEV: What was it about the influence of your encounter with C.K.Ladzekpo that so changed the direction of your music?
AM: I was taking a short cut through UC Berkeley’s music department and heard a huge wave of African drumming coming out of one room. Standing in the doorway to listen for a moment, every cell in my body lit up like a candle. Among all my life’s Ah-Ha moments, it was probably the biggest … in that instant, I knew that I would abandon any idea of a conventional future to follow this thing that had grabbed me by the guts. I had no idea where it would lead me.
I studied with CK Ladzekpo for two years. He was a wonderful teacher … very focused, an amazing drummer, and he had learned the language of Western notation to present complex Ewe rhythms to his American class of 100. But although the math of the music was remarkable, it was the way it made me feel that I couldn’t understand. I was so sure that he was conducting some kind of subtle magic on us, I sat in the class’s very back rows, asking myself over and over again, what IS it about this music that moves me so? I still can’t really say … even after working with African rhythms for 20 years!
A month after I graduated, I was inLondonin the snow, pumping coins into telephone boxes looking for a place to live while embarking upon my quest to track down, study with, and collaborate with African musicians. It’s what I have done every since.
CEV: What was it aboutLondon that drew you there instead of someplace in the states?
AM: My parents were British and Irish, I had been toEnglandmany times growing up to visit relatives, so I had papers that allowed me to move there and to work. Also, I needed to go far from home to create this new singer/songwriter/dancer identity for myself … shed the skin of my super-achieving, straight A student self. But mainly,Londonwas a hub for African musicians. When I arrived, the British government was paying for countless African bands to visit. It seemed like every night there was some other incredible performance live and direct from the continent.Heaven!
Also,London had a very well-informed public, an international flavor, and great record labels who championed Mory Kante, Youssou NDour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Papa Wemba, Thomas Mapfumo, Pepe Kalle, Koffi Olomide, King Sunny Ade, Johnny Clegg, you name it.
CEV: Tell me about how you went about forming your band inLondon and what it was that you were trying to create in terms of musical style with the musicians you asked to join you.
AM: When I first arrived inLondon, I thought I would start by becoming a backing vocalist. So I scoured the music magazines for ads and went to countless auditions … only to be rejected over and over. It took me a while to realize that my voice and harmonic intelligence was usually miles better than the bands’ lead singers, who would consequently feel threatened and not hire me!
My first band, called Backlash, combined funk and African pop. We came together via a network of friendships. Both the conga player and my co-singer had both been members of the South African band, Osibisa and they were creative, great dancers, funny, and a blast to work with. The other members of the band were West Indian, Cockney, and Canadian. We were a pretty typical band: lots of rehearsals that became social gatherings, gigs in front of a handful of people with no pay, everyone holding down day jobs, lots of big talk and big dreams. But I learned a lot about the art of songwriting, about being onstage, and working as a team.
CEV: How long did you perform with your group before you decided to take it to the next step and do some demo tapes of your music? Did you anticipate what came next with your signing to VirginUKand what did that mean for you and the band?
AM: Backlash performed together for two years before they broke up due to personal conflicts within the band. I returned from a brief trip to find that they had broken up and was devastated. All that hard work! All those rehearsals and gigs! We were really going somewhere! I thought. I sunk into a terrible depression that lasted about three months before I got a call from an engineer who I had briefly worked with when the band was still intact.
The engineer simply said, “Hey, I hear that your group broke up, but I wanted to call and tell you that I think you are really gifted. If you ever want/need studio time, I will give it to you for free. You can pay me back if the demos turn into something bigger.” With that, I invited four Ghanaian drummers to come into the studio to simply play whatever they felt like from their traditional repertoire. In one afternoon, they recorded five rhythms with complex multi-tracked parts. I then took them home, mapped them out and meticulously wrote melody lines, intricate harmonies, and words that wove in and out of the rhythms, so that they were in dialogue with one another. On the way home from that studio, holding the demo, I remember thinking, “I just KNOW I have something of quality here that is really unique and different.”
On the strength of that demo, soon five companies wanted to sign me and I signed a contract with VirginUK. The guys in my old band wished me well, and were happy to get writing credit on some songs that ended up on album #1. I gave the Ghanaian drummers co-writing status, too.
CEV: Were you pleased with the results of having your music released to a wider audience (hi and Pomegranate) on VirginUK and did this kick your musical career up a notch?
AM: You know, among young musicians, it is a common practice to bemoan the arrival of a record company on the scene as the moment one’s artistic integrity gets trashed. I, myself, wept upon signing the contract, programmed as I was by all those band rehearsal conversation to believe that the record companies were sharks out to exploit, control, and destroy their artists...me included. The reality was that I had some great people to work with at the label who seemed genuinely interested in bringing my creative vision to life.
Being signed was a double-edged sword. It felt awkward to have the label obsess about my image.They also told me that touring would be too expensive, so I couldn’t develop onstage, which was frustrating. And then, with EMI buying Virgin UK the same week that my 2nd record came out, I was cut from the roster with no back-up plan.
However, being signed also meant that I was privileged to work with some of the best musicians in the world and to buy a flat inLondon, which has been the financial cornerstone to me being able to survive financially through the recent “lean years.” Moving toLos Angelesyears later, the musicians I had worked with served as a calling card for the musicians I began to collaborate with, so I’ve had the advantage of working with the Best!
And lastly, having those however-many-thousand first two CDs out on the world stage, got my international fan base started. In this era of Google, I still regularly have people find me via the internet, find out that I am still recording, and order my later CDs. That always feels amazing.
CEV: Do you still do solo work as opposed to what you do with your full band? How is that different for you as a vocalist and does performing solo limit you as to what you will perform in concert or in the studio?
AM: The beauty of my set list is that it can act like an accordion, expanding and contracting according to a presenters’ needs, budget, context. The most “solo” thing I have done is last Valentine’s Day, when a fan hired me to come and surprise his wife by singing her three songs. When she answered the door, she cried out, “Oh Bill, you didn’t!” I ended up in the backyard, singing to her a capella while they had a lovely breakfast. Great, eh?
My Brazilian guitarist and I have done a load of acoustic shows at houseconcerts, in coffee houses, hospitals, small clubs, you name it. Sometimes we invite another singer to add harmonies. I love the small shows because they are cheap and easy to put on, the songs and my voice are the focus, and I can tell stories and talk to the audience in between. They are very intimate and easy-going.
That’s my model for the BGB. Those shows are a lot more work to put on, and ten times as expensive, but I love doing them. We performed locally the other night and it was amazing. The club was packed and people were blown away by the combination of dance, world-class musicianship, and song. My goal is to take this show on the road and become an internationally touring act like my heroes!
As for the solo artist vs band issue, although I tend to work with my musicians long term, it’s simpler if I am officially a solo act and in charge. The early years are difficult, because I have to pay everyone for every show and can’t rely on musicians to play free “good exposure” or tactical gigs. Also, they are so good, they have their own projects going on and are in high demand, so I always risk getting that last minute call to say they can’t do a gig because Isaac Hayes needs them to tour the east coast…
As my profile rises, though, I have a stronger hold on the musicians and will be able to pay them better for their fine work. I have a pool of bassists, guitarists, drummers, who can fill in for whichever key player can’t make a gig. Flexibility is essential.
CEV: Tell me about some of the back up work you have done with artists such as Youssou N’Dour, Afro Celt Soundsystem and Myriam Mursal.How is it that you hook up with these performers and what led to you working with them?
AM: I met Youssou because I shared Peter Gabriel’s manager. She sent me toParisto meet Youssou when he was just starting out. We then bumped into one another backstage and elsewhere inParis,London, at Peter Gabriel’s studio,New York,Dakar, andL.A. I sang backing vocals on an obscure track he recorded for a Sylvester Stallone film soundtrack. I submitted some songs for his upcoming record, two of which he accepted and two of which he didn’t. The two he turned down ended up on my fourth album: (Lucky and Learning to Fly).
The Afro–Celts are lovely guys.They used to call me to improvise in their studio to add color, rhythm, and harmony, to their tracks. They credited me with a few co-writes, which was great.
Simon Emmerson, who was the Afro-Celts’ musical director, invited me to record backing vocals for Myriam Mursal at Peter Gabriel’s studio. THAT was a lovely day!
CEV: You mentioned the fact that your fans have found you via Google and other internet searches. Does that mean that you have embraced the idea that the music industry has changed forever because of the digital age and how do you feel about this brave new world of music and technology?
AM: Change is life’s Great Constant and technology’s rate of change is speeding up! From vinyl to four track to cassette to CD to DAT to digital downloads, IPODS, sonicbids, myspace, cdbaby, every year there is a whole new template thrown into the mix for the public to absorb and artists to negotiate.
Above all, artists need to be flexible and on the ball. The new technology has its down sides (piracy, etc.) but also has allowed independent artists abundant opportunities to promote themselves online.
One’s website can serve as a newsletter, resource, fan base, library, office, advertisement, press kit and store all in one … with little overhead and the chance to reach millions of people.
At the same time, the technology has made live performance almost more important than ever. With countless fans having access to the exact same recording (whether bought or downloaded legally or illegally), live shows offer the audience something ephemeral, unique, handmade, in the moment, that is connective and healing. Recorded music is now as much an incentive to see someone live as a live show is an incentive to buy the music.
Personally, I think there is a huge music boom right now. Despite the grip of the big record companies and Clear Channel radio, there is a lively independent underground that is throwing up a lot of great talent. I just wonder what’s next?
CEV: Do you consider a web presence (personal website, My Space, CD Baby etc.) an essential promotional tool for yourself and other artists out there trying to get their music heard and reach the maximum amount of listeners? How has this changed how you relate to your fans and to those who are seeking you out for performances or those who want to secure some rights to your songs?
AM: As mentioned before, the web is everything now for independent artists. It has made communicating with fans easier and more immediate. Presenters have instant access to reviews, photos, videos, biographical information, which helps them book us. Someone wanting to secure rights to my music can, too. The website has become both calling card and press kit rolled into one.
At the same time, I think the old rock bottom rules still apply: word of mouth, hard work, building things steadily, starting local and then growing outwards … just as it’s always been done. The context is just different.
The last thing you mention is important. With commercial radio access restricted, record stores declining, and so much piracy, getting a song placed on TV or radio can pay the bills. I’m trying to figure that one out myself!
CEV: Lets talk about your latest CD Flying Over Bridges. Tell me about the title and the statement you wanted to make with that title.
AM: “Flying Over Bridges” is a lyrical fragment from “Taxi,” song seven on the record. It tells the story of an African taxi driver inNew Yorkwho is seeking passengers who will take him “flying over bridges” fromManhattanto the mainland. Having immigrated from Africa to theUSA, he has to navigate through so much to survive the transition.
I noticed that migration, transition, bridges were a constant theme through the record: bridges between cultures, between continents, between different facets of ourselves, between life and death, from fear to fearlessness, from childhood to adulthood. And I liked how the phrase “flying over those bridges” could both mean a) crossing them dynamically and b) transcending the bridge itself. The record has an uplifting energy, as if to say, yes, these journeys are difficult, but look how we are all making them with such dignity and courage.
CEV: When did you first start to work on Flying Over Bridges and did you have a theme in mind for the material that was going to make up this project?
AM: Moving back toL.A., caring for my mum until she died, having a second child, starting over in theUSA, getting a band together, performing, and writing music had taken almost seven years before I had a chance to record again. I approached Andre Manga (a wonderful Cameroonian multi-instrumentalist and producer) about making album #4 on a tiny budget and he said he was up for it.
From that moment on, it was like magic. The musicians on the record are some of the absolute best in LA and they all agreed to work on it for a fraction of their normal rates. A great studio inHollywoodrented us their space for cheap to record drums, percussion, and violin, and we did the rest at Andre’s apartment. With top notch recording, mixing, and mastering engineers, it ended up costing three times what I had originally intended, but it is worth 10 times the final price. I re-mortgaged the small flat we have somehow hung onto inLondonand sank it all into this CD.
I didn’t start with a theme in mind, apart from documenting the chapter I had been through. It is a very personal record, speaking of our long term marriage, our son negotiating his mixed heritage as he moved into adolescence, my mum’s passing, Andre’s musical relationship with Manu Dibango, my sister, and stories of friends.
CEV: Typically when you approach a project like this do you just start writing songs until you feel you have enough to choose from?
AM: I believe most artists keep writing songs regardless and then, when it’s time to put an album together, you sift through what you have and choose a group that feel like a family. I had written a number of songs with musicians in LA andLondonthat didn’t “fit” with the others and were left off.
However, that doesn’t mean they won’t be considered again. Distant Sister Moon was in the running for album #3, but wasn’t chosen. Then album #4 rolls around and it feels like a better fit, so it’s on. It’s all about feel and vibe and creating a cohesive piece of work.
Nonetheless, this album is full of sonic contrasts. Many records today, like, say, a Nora Jones CD, create a steady atmosphere, a vibe from start to finish. I tried to find a balance between being cohesive and being dynamic. The tracks range from folky to full blown African jazz to just myself singing multiple harmonies with sabar drums. Shelby Lynn’s debut record was a little like that. It was stylistically all over the place, yet it was alwaysShelby.
CEV: Was the long gap between your previous CD The Blessed Rain (1997) and this new oneFlyingOverBridges(2005) a help or hindrance when it came to getting back in the mindset of creating and recording this new CD?
AM: On one hand, long gaps are a luxury because you are under no pressure but your own. It’s hard to have a record company breathing down your neck saying “Produce! Produce!” while hinting that you’d better have two singles to offer in the mix. All that thinking about sales can drain the natural magic and experimentation out of the songwriting, which is why great debut records are often followed by mediocre sophomore efforts. The artist has had years to tinker and experiment and write freely before recording album #1, while album #2 is made in a pressure cooker.
For myself, I was almost weepingly grateful to be in a studio again behind a microphone after almost seven years. There had been times when Life had taken me so far from music, I’d despair at the distance. To find my way back was just so wonderful.
Having made albums 2 and 3 with virtually the same team inLondonandParis, I DID wonder how it would be to work with an all-new lineup? Vinnie Colaiuta had played drums on my first record, so he was a returning musician, and some of the songs were co-writes with my London/Paris crew, but this was a new vista. As it turned out, Andre and I really clicked in the studio and I had a marvelous time working with everyone on the record, so my apprehension was unfounded. I just have a larger pool of favorite musicians to choose from now!
CEV: Was there a particular song on Flying Over Bridges that you were more proud of than some of the others? Why?
AM: That’s a hard one, as each song has a story of its own and I am proud of them all. However, I’d say that I am super proud of “Lucky” for being such a fine fusion of melody, story, and the mbalax feel which is the preferred rhythm of my favorite African artist, Youssou NDour.
“Seven” is special because it is sonically so bold … only voice and sabar drums.
“Club Dibango” is special because it is my first foray into singing in a jazz way.
And lastly, “Taxi” is probably my own overall favorite for sheer FEEL. The musicianship, the song, the story, the production and mix on this one is nearly perfect for me.
CEV: Tell me about some of the musicians that appear with you onFlyingOverBridgesand how they helped to make the CD complete?
AM: Andre Manga was a linchpin of this record. After working for years with African musicians, Flying Over Bridges is my first record produced by an African. Andre is like an Cameroonian Quincy Jones. He has impeccable taste, years of experience, and an abundant imagination. He is fearless in the studio, tackling new technologies, ideas, concepts without resistance or anxiety about where something might lead him.
When I approached Andre about producing the record, I wasn’t sure he would agreed, as I had so little money to invest. But when told me he was “in” it really got the ball rolling. We work really well in the studio, as our personalities and talents complement one another. He is also a great story-teller, hilariously funny, committed, and very generous with his time and energy.
The day Vinnie Colaiuta agreed to play on the record was another high. He had recorded drums for my firstUKrelease years ago and we’d gone out to lunch inLondon when he came over to audition for Sting a year later. When I went to Vinnie’s website in 2004, my jaw dropped. I just kept on scrolling and scrolling and there was this endless list of class A artists he had worked with.
I figured it was a long shot, but I had nothing to lose in asking him. To my surprise, he not only remembered me, but said, “Yes!” Again, Vinnie agreed to perform for a very reduced fee. He came in and blew everyone away while recording drums for six tracks in one day. He finished many songs in two takes only. Vinnie throws himself into the music and gives it everything. He is a magician.
Venezuelan pianist, Otmaro Ruiz, was another huge influence on the record. I had met him at anL.A.showcase and soon became a huge fan. His own band/music is incredible … so epic and evocative with roots in the myriad African/roots Latin rhythms ofSouth America. He is peerless improvisor, a brilliant composer, entertaining onstage and a Truly Good Guy. Otmaro was sick as a dog the first time he came to the studio, but he wiped his nose and dug deep into the music. This was the first CD where I had featured a pianist so prominently and it was an honor to do so. Otmaro’s playing moved the axis of the music toward a jazz flavor, which made it grow beautifully.
Youssou NDour’s guitarist, Jimi MBaye’s appearance was a pure pleasure. Having been a HUGE fan of Les Super Etoiles de Dakar for twenty years, I was so excited when he agreed to guest on a song while he was in town. Again, a really lovely person, and he instantly clicked with Andre and I. His guitar riff on “Sundiata” gells perfectly with the track.
The other guitarists on the record are Federico Ramos, (Uruguay) and Roberto Montero (Brazil). Federico is a versatile, fleet-fingered, incredibly sensitive player who had toured the East Coast with me. One of the kindest people you’ll ever meet with the true heart of an artist. Meanwhile, Roberto and I have played countless gigs together. He has a repertoire of Brazilian chords and colors that bring our acoustic shows to life in a really special way. I love Roberto on acoustic guitar. He is inventive and a positive guy.
Aziz Faye is a God on sabar and djembe drums across the record. No Senegalese drummer I’ve seen in the States comes close to his creativity, precision, fire, and stage presence. Aziz is a mesmerizing sabar dancer, a great teacher, and another heartful person. I’ve known him since he arrived inAmericaand he has grown SO much artistically since then. He is now well-known across the country, is in high demand at dance conferences and by various groups here, and his older brother has played sabar and djembe drums for Youssou NDour for 20 years.
Wow… I can see I am really going on, here, but I adore the musicians on my records. They breathe life into the music, so I always feel a grateful connection with them. It’s a magical thing.
So then there is Jason Hann. What a guy. Another totally wonderful human being, super talented, always enthusiastic, loves to experiment, open minded, a great percussionist. He brings so much joy and positivity to everything he does, never speaks an unkind word about anyone. SO honored to have him on the record, too.
…and Karen Briggs, the jazz violin diva genius. She’s a character. I feel like I don’t know her very well, but I respect her artistic spirit loads and was really grateful that she graced the record with her beautiful playing.
Lastly, Lambert Moss sings backing vocals, Kevin Armstrong (who produced my second album) plays guitar on track 11, and Hans Zermuelen plays some keyboards on track 5. Lambert bears a special mention, as he has performed with me for countless shows. He has an amazing spirit, an angelic voice, and I count him among my very best friends.
I am one lucky woman!!
CEV: Are the songs on Flying Over Bridges or any of your other songs for that matter expressions of things going on in your personal life at the time they are written or are they separate entities altogether?
AM: When I was with VirginUK, my manager sent my debut CD to David Geffen. He said my material was not “personal” enough for his tastes, which I found really interesting. He had a point … many of my songs were stories about other people. But then, doesn’t a portrait photographer or painter indirectly paint a portrait of themselves by focusing on their subjects?
Flying Over Bridges is perhaps my most personal record to date. There is a song about my husband, our marriage, our son, my mother, my sister, my producer, a friend, and more. My past few years have been so focused on the domestic, it has spilled over into the content of the music.
I sometimes wonder how my subject matter would change if I was touring a lot. Probably a lot of songs about the open road and the characters I’d meet along the way!
CEV: Do you enjoy performing live? What is it that you take away with you from doing a show in front of your fans?
AM: I absolutely LOVE performing. For people to get babysitters, drive across town, hunt for parking, pay their ticket, come into a club and stand for an hour and a half to listen is a huge deal … a gift … and I feel like I really owe them.
Performing is an art. Even after all these years, I still feel I have loads to learn about being onstage. How to deliver a performance that really holds an audience’s attention? How to inspire them to FEEL something? How to bring the songs to life, give the musicians room to breathe and express themselves, bring color and magic to that particular show? How to tailor a set, pitch a performance, so that it honors its context?
There was a moment of stunned silence and then she started doing a funny scooting step on her bum, which had the audience howling. It was a master stroke.I’d love to find creative ways to involve the audience. In many cultures, audience and performer are intricately entwined … through call and response singing, dance, in space. But in the West, there is an odd divide between subject and object. It always makes me feel uneasy to see some electric African performance held in a stuffy hall where everyone is seated like they are at a lecture. You can see the context draining the energy out of the performers.
I can’t wait to have the chance to tour. I would love to watch a show evolve over a few weeks of playing shows back to back with the same musicians.
As for “what I take away,” it’s pure joy when a show goes well, and a worry that I have let people down when it doesn’t. When people really respond, it feels like all the years of work, focus, and effort that I have invested in this life path has been worth it. It is a high beyond
one’s wildest dreams. When a show falls flat, I tend to agonize over what I could have done differently. Either way, I am always learning.
CEV: When you finally get a few moments to relax do you listen to music yourself? I’m not going to ask you for a list of your favorite artists but what kinds of music allow you to unwind or if you are in the mood inspire you in regards to your own compositions?
AM: I love silence. When I am working at home, I almost never put on music. I am too sensitive to it. Our society bombards us with music everywhere we go. You can’t eat in a restaurant or shop for anything without a constant soundtrack. The only music-free places indoors are the post office, the library, … and my house when the kids are at school and my husband is at work!
Growing up, I listened to whatever was around. My sister, one brother, dad, and mum were all really into music. My brother and sister’s tastes were eclectic, ranging from The Clash to David Bowie to Earth Wind and Fire. My sister took me to my first concert (Hall and Oates), snuck me into the Roxy, underage, to see the Go-Gos, and now loves Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, and Hawaiian slack guitar music. My mum had top 40 music on the radio every evening during dinner and my dad loved jazz and Brazilian music.
My own favorites were all the black music radio stations. I’d be the only white girl on the dance floor during high school … uninterested in Boston and The Steve Miller Band, but knowing every word to a Parliament or Funkadelic track. Even today, I share a love for rap and hip-hop with my son. My African husband loves ethnic music from round the world (currently, he is deep into mariachi!), so that is blaring through the speakers on the weekends when he is cooking.
But going aaaalll the way back to your question: what inspires me is a combination. I listen to radio in the car and world music via the internet. However, the band that I adore the most is Youssou NDour et Les Super Etoile de Dakar. Their music is like catnip to me. Oh the joy to have a band of such amazing musicians playing together for years and years! Their sound is incredible, their shows wonderful. I love the music, even without understanding one word. For me, it is about Youssou’s phrasing, the dialogue between the instruments, the rhythms.
I tend to write while walking … conjuring up images, stories, words, rhythms, fragments, in my head that I can bring home, pin down, and start working on. But for music that I can relax to, it sounds corny, but it is still the music of silence, the music of sitting near a tree or hearing the crunch of my footsteps on a mountain path, the magic of being able to hear my own breath.
CEV: How do you view the state of women in the music business today as compared to 10 or 20 years ago?
AM: Hmmm. I’m tempted to come up with a creative answer to this, but I don’t think it has changed that much. There seems to be a similar array of options open to women singers as performers. The internet has given women more opportunities to be independent … but that is the same for men. And I am not deeply involved enough in “the industry” to judge whether woman are occupying more seats of power within it now in comparison to then.
CEV: Did anyone ever tell you that you sound like Joni Mitchell on some of your songs? As a singer/performer do you find it flattering when someone compares you to another performer or would you prefer folks find some other way of describing your music?
AM: Of all the singers I have been compared to, people mention Joni Mitchell the most. I always take that as a HUGE compliment (and don’t mind at all!) People comparing singers and their music to one another is an efficient way to describe us. Each artist is a cocktail of influences. It’s more descriptive to say India Arie’s music sits somewhere near Eryka Badu, Jill Scott, Joni Mitchell, and Donny Hathaway than to say she’s somewhere between nu soul and singer-songwriter.
As for Joni Mitchell, I grew up listening to Blue, Court and Spark, and Hejira. Here are our similarities: we were both born in Canada and ended up in Los Angeles, we have a similar vocal tone (although I never set out to imitate her) and when Joni said that sometimes she felt like she was an old black man living in a white woman’s skin, that hit a chord. Like her, I have always loved rhythm, live jazz improvisation, and unusual vocal phrasing. When I heard her song, “Dreamland,” I nearly passed out. Just vocals and drums? That was SO me!
However, although I always feel flattered, I am also humbled by being put in the same sentence as Joni Mitchell. She is a consummate guitarist, musical innovator, pianist, poet, painter, Artist with a capital A. Joni set the bar so high, no one has come close.
Someone once joked that I am like a Joni Mitchell WITH kids … having kids has meant I had to share my creative attention with domesticity’s demands. But then my children have also inspired and enriched the subject matter of my songs. Whatever path you take, you have something to offer and express. We all just need to work with what we love, what we have, what we are drawn to.
CEV: Is there a style of music that you would still like to explore with your music or are you happy moving along the path that you are on now?
AM: My enthusiasm for West African rhythms (particularly Senegalese), dance, and musical colors is so inexhaustible, I am sure to work in that vein for many years to come, if the universe allows. I’d love to do a record focusing on vocals and traditional drums and percussion, to include musical colors like the calabash, the ngoni, the tama, the kora into songs.
Live jazz and improvisation fascinates me. I would love to learn more about music theory, about how to vocally improvise, how to play guitar, to improve my piano. I want to keep studying sabar drumming and dancing … to go to Senegal and really get into it. I’d also love to collaborate with other artists and musicians who I admire across genres, to play live more consistently, to get the support to start working on a fifth album.
CEV: Will you be out on the road in the near future doing some live shows? Do you have a schedule that is kept up to date for your fans looking to catch one of your shows?
AM: Touring, kids, touring, kids. How to juggle the two? Each year that I am at home, I know is good for my children. I’ve watched other artists and wondered how they manage? Some take their kids on the road. Others have strong support at home. Others just stay home until the kids grow up and leave.
So far, it’s worked out OK. I have had short bursts of gigs out of town… four days on the East coast, a couple in Arizona or Colorado or wherever. I can go for a weekend and they are fine hanging with my husband, but extended touring would be another issue altogether.
Every day that I am dreaming my present/future into being, I ask for musical success that benefits myself, my children, my husband, my musicians, everyone involved to the highest possible good. May things evolve organically from there…!
Fans interested in finding out where my live shows are can refer to the “gigs” page on my website. I am looking for a booking agent as I write this.
CEV: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with your fans as we close out this interview?
AM: First of all, so much gratitude! Thank you, Michael, for sending me such interesting, thought-provoking questions. And I’m grateful for my family, all the musicians I have worked with, everyone who has supported my artistic efforts.
I’ve learned a bit more about myself while doing this interview: that the arc of my music career, haphazard as it seems, actually does have rhyme and reason to it. That everything that’s happened, good and bad, has been a blessing. I may have wept when I signed the contract with Virgin, and being let go after album #2 was brutal, but the finances and contacts built into those early years with them have kept me afloat and doing-music-somehow-on-the-cheap ever since.
Leaving 12 years of work in England to start all over in California was breathtakingly hard, but it has made me strong, self-reliant, resourceful, and I have been able to work with wonderful people over here, while staying in touch with my European “family” of musicians.
Having kids has “disrupted” my career, too, but it has also inspired me, given my days purpose, made me super organized and humble, connected me to other women. I champion our desire, as mothers, to be positive parents while also finding space and time to express ourselves and follow our dreams.
It is tempting to look back and wish I had worried less and had more faith in the final outcome. But then, those 3:00am cold sweats over money and “God, how are we going to make it through?” were all part of the process fueling me to push hard, work hard, stay focused and clear.
Someone once said that the only thing separating an egg from a chicken was perseverance. I think that is really true. We become who we are right now. We are who we were. If you are truly talented, work hard, are honorable in your dealings with others, keep your priorities straight, keep your sense of humor, and throw yourself passionately into what really moves and inspires you, with no intention to bring harm to others, the forces of the universe will move to aid your efforts at the Right Time and in the Right Way.
Peace, blessings, abundance, and Big Gratitude to anyone who got this far in the reading!
CEV: Ashley it has been my pleasure to talk to you at length and get to know the person behind all the great music that you create. From the sounds of it you have a wonderful grasp of who you are and how you want the various aspects of your life,both personal and as an artist, to interact. Keep up the good work and we'll be looking for more good music from you in the years to come.