When a musician has been in the public spotlight for as much of their life as singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe has, it’s almost inevitable that at some point, onlookers, listeners, or even the artists themselves, start to view that ongoing timeline in distinct phases of sorts. Whether notable changes in an artist’s personal life, creative life, or an intertwining of both take place, the result can lead to unintended rigidity regarding outside expectations, once an artist’s latest project starts to make its way to the surface. It’s a sentiment Monroe recognizes but doesn’t find herself overly concerned with when writing new music. “I guess I just felt like growing up as a songwriter, singer, and producer, whatever else, you know—a creative type in other words—that you [ought to] do what’s inspiring you right now,” Monroe tells American Songwriter.
Thus, when Monroe signified a change to her creative direction on new album Rosegold —a creative shift which came about following the birth of her son Dalton—a specific direction or a sense of rigidity were the last things to play a part in shaping this new record.
“I noticed what I was listening to—things that gave me chills.” Monroe says.
“Gradually over time, I was noticing I was waking up to love more. And also, I had been doing manifestation-chat like things, and I was reading the Bible a lot more, and I was praying a lot more, [and] saying, ‘Thank you!’—just big time, humbly, saying thank you, and all these things.”
Chills on their own though, don’t tell the whole story or give the whole picture, which would be more fittingly illuminated by the idea of joy—something Monroe has never taken for granted, but works even harder now to nurture, given how often the experience has seemed to escape her in the past.
“I was thinking about, you know, now in my real life—not just musically—I’m super protective of my joy. I don’t even watch Dateline anymore and that used to be the highlight of my week,” Monroe explains, turning from the pros and cons of true crime television to the realities of why cherishing joy means so much to her.
“I’m just very protective of my joy because I lost my dad when I was young and after that, life was dark and bad. I think [joy] is such a fresh feeling for me, cause it’s been gone so long,” she says.
“That made me kind of hyper focus on the feeling and want to put wings on the ceiling and just let it be, and make music like that. Sometimes, if you just stop looking at everybody else’s world, and just hyper focus on your own world, you see it’s not all that bad.”
Rosegold being Monroe’s fifth studio album, the desire to branch out of an established creative pattern would be more than understandable on its own. However, the specific way in which Monroe chose to spread some new artistic wings—largely loosening the nails holding the frame of conventional country style songwriting in place and writing more from a place of natural emotional drive, displays just as much, if not more, change than any new instrumentation, song structure, or lyrical concept would otherwise.
“I don’t hear music as genres. I can get chills on like Hank Williams or like, Cat Stevens’ songs,” Monroe says.
“I don’t understand genres as much, just because I’ve listened to so many kinds of music. I love so many different kinds of music. I’ll listen to Kanye West and then I’ll listen to Beck. Then I’ll listen to the Beach Boys. Then I’ll listen to a Sammy Smith song. I don’t care what it is. If I like it and I feel it, I like it and I feel it: period. All that’s to say I wanted that [love of music] to show because I don’t feel like anybody is just one thing. And if you are, you’re probably a little bored, or boring.”
Still, there’s embracing change and then there’s the things that come to fruition after making that decision. In the case of Rosegold, the degree of pure unknowns that would accompany the carefree mentality around composition, sound, and collaboration that Monroe took with her into the studio, certainly had the potential to go in a myriad of directions—not all of which might appear like they fit together in a musically sound fashion. But when considered against how Monroe has been affected by musical variety, the embrace of freeform change makes far more sense
“Now that all this [music] is coming out, I feel like it’s been waiting to come out or it’s [been] waiting for the perfect time to all come out at once, because it’s really just the flood of stuff that I grew up listening to, [melody]-wise and production-wise,” says Monroe.
“You know, from Dido to TLC, all of these things, these lush melodies and these lush things…from the Eagles, you know? It all just kind of lead out at once,” she adds. “So, I think that it’s cool to pick joy as the emotion to be all together on, because a lot of the sounds that I like and things that I find interesting when I’m listening to music help [emphasize] joy.”
Essentially, what Monroe ended up with was a record predominantly tied together by a desire to act on the joyful inner perception and outer disposition that permeated her very day-to-day living experience after Dalton was born. It’s from this vantage point that, even knowing Rosegold wasn’t built from a creatively fixed place, the record nonetheless stands very boldly and definitively apart from its catalog counterparts. Rosegold’s melodic core—both instrumental and vocal— is heavily electronic, sonically textured, and moves with inherent flexibility. That’s not to say though, that such choices were made out of a need for performative support or a lack of inspiration with organic sound. To the contrary, Monroe and her mixing engineer had quite the chemistry when sculpting the sonic landscape and putting the shine on Rosegold.
“Gena Johnson, who mixed and helped me dissect every song, had all these, I don’t know what they’re called…buttons and knobs. There’s just so many different ways of making just a simple noise sound like something else or change a low harmony [and] I love singing harmony. I could sing harmony with a wall,” Monroe says.
“So I said, ‘Why not just shine a light on that?,'” she adds. “I would find a low, low harmony and say, ‘Okay, let’s go in there. Okay, I want to make one of those vocals have more reverb.’ [The process] just [involved] different ways of mixing and different ways of doing kind of, everything.”
The musical through line of Rosegold, across all of its tracks, is that flexibility: the looseness of the synthesizer tones dancing underneath Monroe’s vocals; her enthusiasm for vocal shaping on tracks like “See” and “Gold;” the application of reverb, delay, and effect filtering to give familiar parts like drums, and even the classic clean electric guitar on closer, “The New Me,” a touch of intangibility. Rosegold paints an ethereal and slightly hard-to-hold-onto picture using these musical traits. Each helps to shrewdly mirror the way Monroe clearly feels and the way she wants to show her newfound positivity, while helping the music remain descriptively elusive in the most fascinating of ways.
“I also wanted to surround people. We were mixing [the album] to surround people [with sound].” Monroe says. “I didn’t want [the music] to just be coming flat across the speakers. I wanted it to feel like [listeners are] in the middle of this magic bubble.
“I also played synthesizer on this record,” Monroe adds. “I think it was on ‘new me’. But I played piano when I was younger, I took classical piano and when I saw an old Korg– that’s all I’d need. So it was fun to kind of experiment with that too. I’d make some noises, turn some knobs, push some buttons, and that’s what I did.”
Charming as this burst of inspiration to jump on the synthesizer sounds, it wasn’t entirely a product of childhood piano nostalgia. Monroe has her own synthesizer, which during the socially distant months of 2020 ended up helping to bring about some of the initial ideas found on Rosegold, and from an increasingly useful but surprisingly underrated part of many musicians’ households to boot. “I have a synthesizer named Cynthia,” Monroe explains. “I keep her in my closet and a lot of these melodies would come to me, [during] early morning, in my closet.”
Given that changes of life are so unpredictable and that emotions, even the good ones, are so hard to describe, it’s admirable to see Monroe feel inclined to let that sentiment steer Rosegold, more so than a fixating on any one musical objective or stylistic profile. Letting go of her own and others’ expectations led to a record that’s sure to be seen as a definite career marker of sorts. What better time is there for Ashley Monroe to leave an air of wide open potential for her creative future than with an album inspired by the birth of a totally new, yet-to-be-defined life?
“I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t gone through and done what I’ve done. I’m so grateful [my career] has gone the way it has [so far]. I’ve done so many things that were dreams of mine to do so, I wouldn’t want to discredit my past to say, ‘This is me starting over’ because, you know, I may want to do a bluegrass record in two years. I may want to do a jazz or a pure reggae record, I don’t know. But I’m going to always do what I’m feeling and this is what I’m feeling now,” Monroe says.
“But I also know that I will always, and I have always—in all my previous records and everything I’ve done—wanted to make people feel.” she adds. “I’ve wanted to have people get chills, whether they heard a certain chord change in a country song or whether they heard 5000 [vocal] layers on ‘See.’ The feeling that I want to give people is the same. This time it just happens to be specifically joy-based chills. But I think if anything, that says I’m not just one thing and I’m okay with that.”
Photo credit: Alexa King