From writing songs about her dog to showing a sexier side in her music, the East Tennessee singer/songwriter blazes a new trail on her fourth LP
You might not recognize Ashley Monroe's new album, Sparrow, right away — at least not until her unmistakable voice delivers the first few words 12 seconds into the opening track, "Orphan." Monroe made a sharp left turn on her fourth full-length album, honing in on total honesty and sensuality in her songs and teaming up with GRAMMY-winning producer Dave Cobb to add an extra layer of gorgeous strings, roomy glue and heart-worn grit to her unmistakably East Tennessee style.
While the album has a different feel from her earlier work, it also feels undeniably authentic. The album's focus flows from Monroe's family relationships to her most personal fantasies and desires. Perhaps Sparrow steps out of country's shadow and leans toward Americana, but it still all starts with the song.
"I just love writing about and singing about what I'm feeling right then. If it's sexy and sensual, I'll write something like 'Hands On You' or 'Wild Love,'" says Monroe. "I really had never written songs like that until this album."
The first single, "Hands On You," offers a particularly candid, lucid and daring moment on the album. The song presents a sexy side of Monroe and uses sultry imagery devices she channeled from one of her songwriting heroes, Aimee Mann.
"Well, I had that [she sings] 'I wish I lay my hands on you.' I had that started and the melody started when I went in with [the song's co-writer] Jon Randall," she says. "He and I both love Aimee Mann. … We were just talking about, let's make it great. Let's make some 'innuendos indiscreet,' you know? That was like, 'What would Aimee Mann say?' Let's just not make it boring; let's keep it real. 'Bathroom stall,' all that stuff. We wanted to have those gritty lyrics in it."
"I'm all about putting an image to a song. I actually think of an image a lot when I sing. I'll associate an image with that song."
From Sparrow's honest writing process to its organic recording process, Monroe set out to make an album with nothing to hide, and it worked. A key decision toward that end was working with Cobb, who has experienced unmatched success in recent years with acts such as Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. The key to Cobb's sound, and to Monroe's transformation, lies in the vibe.
"Dave is actually super laid back in the studio," says Monroe. "It seems like a simple thing but he didn't try to fight me or, 'Because I'm the producer I have this idea.' He lets things breathe until it becomes perfect. It's really a beautiful way of approaching it."
The ease in the process can be heard on the aforementioned album opener, "Orphan." Monroe lists "She Wakes Me Up" as another one of her favorites from the album.
"That started about my dog, Betty," she says. "I would sing 'Oh, my Betty, she's the light of the world. She wakes me up with the sun in her eyes,' every morning when she would come to me. And then I started thinking, 'I like this song. This is more than a Betty song.' Then, at the time, I was trying to get pregnant and thinking, 'We're having a kid,' and in my mind, I'm thinking, 'It's gonna be a girl, so I'm just gonna finish this song for my future child that will be a girl.' But it wasn't. I kept it she. Betty still loves when I sing that to her."
Where many artists find themselves slowing down as life changes under their feet — Monroe gave birth to her first child, Dalton, Aug. 4, 2017 — Sparrow is only the beginning of a wealth of new material the GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter says is inspired in part by these major milestones.
"I've written a lot more since I've had my son. I just feel more confident, you know? I always want to keep music pure," says Monroe. "The world is so complicated, and everything is complicated, but when the music's pure, I feel like people can escape it for a little bit. I always want to keep it honest. I want to keep it true. Not to say everything I write has to be about my life, but I just want to keep it true and real."
Monroe's prolific writing period has also spilled into the other project she's become famous for, her collaboration with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley as Pistol Annies. The country supergroup are heading into the studio next month to resume working on their third full-length album.
"Angaleena, Miranda and I are the most real and honest versions of ourselves as human beings when we're around each other," says Monroe. "It's crazy how fast the walls fall. That's why I think that we can write from our true selves. We all have that input in every single song. I feel like this album will be definitely a more grown-up version, cause we've grown up a lot since our last one. That's [not] to say there's not still humor and all that stuff. There's heavy topics too, but these are hands-down the favorite songs we've ever written."
Visibly excited about all the new music she's working on, Monroe also teases more solo material in the works. With essentially two main musical projects going at once, a long list of collaborations and live appearances, plus a busy family life with an infant (and don't forget Betty), she has come to cherish the few quiet moments her life has to offer.
"Yesterday, I flew here [to New York] from Nashville. It was very hectic at home, lots going on. Dalton's sick. This morning I woke up and I had coffee while reading the E.B. White '[Here Is] New York' book in complete silence," she says, smiling wide. "I had the most amazing morning just doing that."
Monroe is wise to take any opportunity she can to unwind, as her whirlwind year seems to only be getting started. And considering how far she's come, musically and personally in the first decade of her career — from a budding country talent drawing big-time Nashville buzz and comparisons to Dolly Parton, to a family woman and an artist all her own with a bona fide Americana authenticity. Anything seems possible from here.
When asked who she still dreams of collaborating with, Monroe presented a formidable wish list, including Ray LaMontange, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Ryan Adams, David Gray, and even Bobbie Gentry. But Monroe's scope is even wider when it comes to the possibilities, as the success and transformation she has seen in her life and career have removed any musical barricades.
"I just like so many different kinds of music. Eminem, he's an amazing writer. I would really like to write a beautiful hook, [like] Dido. ... I love those samples," says Monroe. "I love Lil Wayne. He's an amazing writer. I really don't see any boundaries anymore. I feel like everything can fit in anywhere."