The songwriter-artist talks about her smash hit, “Moral of the Story,” her life before and since lockdown, and her new live, solo video performance of the song.
“You can think that you’re in love
When you’re really just in pain…”
From “Moral of the Story”
It’s something we learned as kids, after being told some fairy tale that got fairly grim. The inevitable question would come: “So – what is the moral of this story?” It taught us all to look for meaning, even when things go wrong.
And so, with the world going so wrong right now, Ashe’s infectiously compelling anthem, “Moral of the Story,” is the perfect song for now. Uniquely dynamic, the song is conversational and theatrical, sad and funny, romantic and realistic, and all at the same time. With a poignant vocal that draws you in with the intimacy of a lover confiding in you, it’s an expansively, almost hypnotic song; you hear it once, and immediately want to hear it again. And again.
Even before our current crisis, our culture was at war with truth, forever uncertain about what is real and true. Now with so many scared, suffering or already gone, the yearning for meaning is greater than ever. Which might be part of the reason that “Moral of the Story” has so resonated at this moment of time. It’s got the perfect fusion of seriousness and fun. Featured in the Netflix movie To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, it was used not as background music, but out front: The main character, Lara Jean, sings the song directly to the audience, facing the camera.
It clicked. Immediately after the film’s premiere, Ashe and her song were launched into the streaming stratosphere and beyond, as millions sought it out. The initial response was huge, and kept expanding. Even now, more than a year since its release,it continues to amass many millions of streams per day.
Like so many great songs, this one emerged from the truth of the songwriter’s life.
“This time a year ago,” Ashe said during a recent phone interview, “I was dreading the arrival of Valentine’s Day. My marriage was on the verge of collapse. I moved out of my house, filed for divorce, and left for tour. Faced with a broken relationship and no immediate answers to as to why, writing ‘Moral of the Story’ became my way of making sense of it all.”
Some mistakes get made
That’s alright, that’s okay
You can think that you’re in love
When you’re really just in pain
Some mistakes get made
That’s alright, that’s okay
In the end it’s better for me
That’s the moral of the story, babe
From “Moral of the Story” by Ashe/Ashlyn Rae Willson, Casey Smith, Noah Patrick Conrad and Finneas Baird O’Connell.
“Moral” is co-produced by Ashe’s friend Finneas O’Connell, famous for his production and cowriting with Billie Eilish, his sister. Presently he’s working with Ashe on her upcoming album, which is almost complete.
Recently, Ashe released a wonderfully intimate, live solo rendition of the song, recorded on location here in Los Angeles.
The song’s perspective of finding meaning is also reflected in Ashe’s response to the pandemic, the widespread fear that it’s engendered, and the quarantine. Instead of focusing on the darkness, she saw this as an opportunity to transcend fear. It’s a time, she said, not to obsess selfishly, but to reach out with human kindness and creativity.
So since lockdown was imposed, Ashe invented a fun antidote to this imposed solitude, an interactive Instagram series called Q(uarantine) & A(she). It surrounds compelling conversations with fellow artists, including Finneas, who was one of her first guests, and Elektra recording artist Phil Good. It keeps her creatively connected and engaged with other kindred souls, even from a distance, while lending loving support to the isolated multitudes.
“Now’s the best time to call and Facetime the people you love,” she said. “We’ll get through this if we get through it together. But at a distance!”
She grew up in San Jose in Northern California, where she started playing piano and writing songs at eight. “Songwriting rescued me,” she said. “When things got chaotic in my life, my family, I had music. It saved me.”
She furthered her music studies at Berklee in Boston and then headed to Nashville before ultimately making her way to L.A., where she lives today. We spoke on March 20, 2020, the first day of the quarantine at home policy in California, so it still seemed fairly surreal then. (Actually, it still does). Our conversation began, as do most these days, with talk of coping with this crisis.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: Today is March 20th, the first day of spring. And to celebrate here in Los Angeles, we’re all on house arrest pretty much. We’re supposed to stay in our homes.
ASHE: I know. Can you believe it? It’s crazy.
It is. So many musicians and songwriters are going through a tough time, with gigs, tours, sessions cancelled. Before we get to the good stuff about your music, tell us how you’re getting through this.
You know, I really do feel so lucky. My next tour wasn’t scheduled
until July, and as of now, it’s still on. And we’ve just been in sort of the
deep thick of working on my debut album. Obviously, I can’t go into the studio
and work with my co-writers and my favorite producers and things like that
right now. But for the most part I can write from home.
We’re doing a lot of radio promo stuff still remotely for “Moral of the Story.” And we’re making the most of it. I know that a lot of people have it much, much more difficult than I do, and so I feel very lucky right now.
Are you being careful and doing the social distancing that they’re telling us to do?
Yeah, I’m completely quarantined, yeah. I started that on Monday. My best friend is an emergency room tech, and she called me and said, “People aren’t taking it seriously enough and we really need you guys to stay home because we can’t.”
I said, “I would love to do my part. Our grandparents were called to war, I’m called to sit on my couch. Cool.”
Compared to going to war, you’re right, it’s not so bad.
Yes. Way less of a sacrifice, I would say.
Is it true that Carole King was your first musical hero growing up?
Yeah, she’s my favorite. Yes, as soon as you say her name I get excited! She was first. But I also loved The Eagles. And also the Beach Boys, and The Beatles.
I always feel weird about people that call themselves old souls,
but I have always identified as an old soul. I’ve always been sort of more
drawn to classics.
How were you exposed to this music? Did your parents play it for you?
No, my grandpa did. He was kind of a catalyst. We’d go on road trips and he would play the good stuff.He’s the one who set me on this path. He’s got the moves, too. Also, he’s the only one that can carry a tune in the family, other than me. The others are not very musical. They’re engineers. My mom’s an English teacher and my dad was a police officer, and a construction worker. No one did music, so it was pretty weird for me to choose music.
Was there was a piano in your home?
Yeah, definitely. We were gifted one from an aunt. She said, “You can have this, as you’re growing up and learning.” And I was eight when I started. And I played on that beautiful upright. Yeah, I fell in love with the piano. I didn’t love my piano lessons, but I loved sitting down at the piano and just messing around.
It’s great she gave you one.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s really important. I definitely will make sure, when I am a mom, to have one. Or maybe have like five pianos with my kids in the house. It’s important.
Were you studying classical piano?
Yes, my piano lessons were pretty classical. And then I went to college at the Berklee College of Music and that was pretty jazz heavy. So I sort of lived somewhere between classical and jazz. But yeah, when I was little it was all classical.
I didn’t really love my piano lessons. I loved my teacher, but didn’t like learning other people’s music, I just wanted to make my own at home. I had way more fun making up my own songs than learning sheet music. I still am a terrible sight reader. Terrible.
How old were you when you started writing songs?
Probably around eight when I started playing. Eight or nine. It was probably terrible, though.
Do you remember what inspired you to write your own songs?
There was something in me; I really didn’t want to learn other people’s music. I really just wanted to be creative; I wanted to make my own.
And so I think it just started from a very innocent place of maybe not wanting to learn my lesson for the week, and wanting to mess around on my own.
[Music] has always been the only thing that’s been right in my life. And my life got really complicated in my family. And without going into much detail there, life got kind of chaotic, and music became the one place I could go to. It is, and has always been, my therapy.
Songwriting is beautiful that way, in that you can really put things in order and get things almost perfect.
Yeah, and for a control freak like me, it definitely gives me a sense of control over my life, even if it’s a faux sense of control. I feel like we’re in therapy right now. You’re helping me discover why I love writing, it’s really because I’m a control freak. [Laughs]
You’ve been working with Finneas, who is quite an amazing talent, both as a producer and writer.
He is. Fin was already such a close friend at the time when we started working. I already was seeing him through `I love you, I care about you’ eyes, so it was such a personal experience.
Our first writing session together was maybe three or four years ago, and Billie [Eilish] still was an up-and-comer; she wasn’t super famous yet. So Fin and I were just two writers in a room, like anybody else getting to know each other.
And that day I remember watching him work and going, “Wow, you are a genius.” And I told him that this was an opportunity for me right now to really take advantage of this time we have together. And we just became really good friends. So working together has become just like breathing. It’s just so easy.
On “Moral of the Story,” Fin came in at the eleventh hour and did a lot of production. I’d already written most of it. I wrote it mostly with Casey Smith, and the producer Noah Conrad. Both of whom have phenomenal, amazing cuts; both are amazing in their own right.
How did you come to write “Moral of the Story”?
I had a writing session with Casey Smith and Noah Conrad. It was the first time we worked together. I walked in and I said, “I just filed for divorce.” And they said, “Okay, then! let’s write a song about that.”
So on that first day, we got the bones of the song down. It was just piano and vocal.
And then Noah went in and worked on the production a little bit more.
I got coffee with Finneas a few weeks after that writing session, and we were just catching up. We sat in my car and I showed him “Moral of the Story.” Within five minutes of that car conversation, we decided that he was going to be the executive producer on the EPs I was making. His role was mostly as an overseer. He’d come in and say, “I think this lyric could change this here, I think we could add this production element here.”
It was much more about creating a cohesive body of work than going in meticulously on each song. It was a little bit different than your typical “We’re in a room together writing a song” kind of thing.
The production on it and the other tracks is powerful. It’s both understated at parts and then really dramatic.
Thank you. I think we all did a really beautiful job. I’m really happy with how it all came out. I’m excited to write the next thing. I feel like a lot of artists get stuck and they never feel like something is finished. And I feel that, too. But because of Finneas, I felt, “Ah. Yes, this is done.” I felt like these songs are ready to go out in the world, and I didn’t want to touch them anymore. Which is a very rare feeling as an artist and songwriter.
So, yeah, I get to literally close those chapters now and start the next ones, you know?
He seems like a great producer, because he’s a songwriter himself and knows how to champion the song, and the songwriter.
Absolutely. He’s pretty wonderful. He’s one of my favorite people in the world.
Did you have the title “Moral of the Story” before writing the song?
No. It came out during the writing. I was just talking through the divorce process. There’s so many different stages of grieving, but I was in the stage of acceptance, going, “Okay, that’s the moral of the story.” And then my friend Casey. Who was in the room, said, “`Moral of the story,’ that is so good.” And we all wrote it down and started working that into the hook. It just came from talking, just like we are.
It’s a strong title. When we ask what is the moral of a story, it’s asking what is the meaning of this? It’s that human desire to make sense out of stuff.
Yeah, that is right. That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I think everyone is usually looking for the meaning in things. And in this song, I’m saying, “Here you are, this is the meaning.”
At Berklee, did you study songwriting?
No. My major was called contemporary writing and production, which is basically a fancy way of saying orchestral writing, big band writing, and production. My main classes were arranging and composing for big band or orchestra. My senior project was composing our own whole project orchestra. And we had to conduct it in the studio, it was really cool.
I already felt like I could write a song when I got there, and I wanted to get the most out of Berklee as possible. Not to say that I couldn’t have learned a lot as being a songwriting major there. I’m a good listener. I think a good listener makes a good writer. And so I just wanted to learn what I knew I couldn’t learn elsewhere.
I mean, I can listen to Bob Dylan all day, or Carole King all day and learn how to write a great song. Whereas I can’t learn how to write for orchestra from Carole King.
I’m haven’t really used that major much till now. But my next album was really inspired by The Beach Boys Pet Sounds album, and that’s so orchestral. So it’s actually coming in handy now.
Being a California girl, did you enjoy living in Boston when you went to Berklee?
Yeah, it was a good switch up. I needed to get away from California for a little while to appreciate it. I’m such a California girl, it’s insane. I feel like it was good to get away to create some contrast in my life, and of course, eventually was called back to California.
I know how much this album means to you as an artist. Are you
feeling good about it?
Yes. I couldn’t be more excited or more proud of the music we’re writing.
I think these are really important records we’re making, and I just don’t think anyone else could sing these songs other than me, at the end of the day. I love artists like Halsey, and Selena Gomez, but I don’t want them to be able to sing these songs, I want me to be the only one.
So yeah, I think we’re making unique, classic, and hopefully timeless records that I love. So that’s where we’re at. I don’t have a date slated yet; this quarantine thing’s kind of thrown everything into a loop, but hopefully it will be out soon.
Great. Congratulations on the new album, and the great success of “Moral.” It’s been nice getting to spend time with you even now during lockdown.
Likewise! Thanks for hanging out for a little while!