by Katharine W. Poole
Thomas that is. Ahhhhhhh Ashlee…. This is how it feels even sitting with her in the bustling Barista Parlor on the east side of town. Her divine light is an aura that lyrically breathes calm into any space. When asked what brought her to Nashville, other than the obvious, music, her response is simply: “Cool.” She let’s that word hang in the air. There is no urgency in the moment of silence. No bated breath of Hamlet. It is simply an acknowledgement of a memory. And then…
“I had never been here. I had been to LA. I’d been to New York. I — couldn’t really hang in LA —I like it but it just didn’t feel right. New York I felt was so cool, but I felt like I would be surviving really hardcore. I actually never really thought about moving here. I was on the road in Wyoming, in the Winnebago – and I was like: ‘What to do? What to do?’ My Mom passed away about a year before I moved here and I swear I just heard her voice say: ‘Go to Nashville.’ So I went. I didn’t have any idea…” Ashlee’s mother was a pianist, and she sang. Music was in her blood and she passed that on to her daughters. “We had a little quartet in our Thomas House.” The sisters and mother banded together, with two violins, a flute and piano.
“I started classical violin at four – was begging for it before I had my own pencils – my mom was like: ‘you’re two. You cannot play yet.’ Then she let me.” The deal was, once she started lessons, Ashlee was not allowed to quit until she was eighteen. “‘You have to practice every day, except Sundays.’ I took classical lessons all through high school, and then my senior year I was just so over it. I quit. Then [my Mom] found an audition for a scholarship at Utah Valley University – she said: ‘Just try. You don’t know what you want to do. Just go.’ So I did and I got a scholarship. I went to college for a year…an’ I was like – ‘Peace Out! I don’t want to play classical music anymore.’”
Ashlee reverts to high school momentarily. “About the time when I quit violin, I picked up my mother’s guitar and just taught myself. It was a twenty-five dollar, nylon string, terrible guitar to learn on – oooph my fingers! They hurt. I remember just sitting there pressing so hard to get those damn strings down The action was like an inch off. It was so bad!” She laughs. Ashlee’s mother told her: “I have given you lessons. I am not buying you a guitar. You can earn your own guitar.”
As soon as she could play a few chords, Ashlee realized she could write her own songs. “I started playing open mics in Utah – sneaking in through the back door because I was eighteen – just started playing wherever I could – these really weird songs that were not crafted the way that Nashville would say a good song is crafted. But, they were from the gut and from my heart. People responded. It was really lovely. So, I got on the road as much as I could.”
Ashlee also prepared herself for “real life.” She studied Hair Styling and became an Esthetician, attending school in Salt Lake. “I am a hair stylist. Which I love.” Interestingly, Ashlee only cuts and styles women’s hair. Not intentionally it just kind of morphed into her M.O. She also studied yoga and became an instructor. A musical Yogini. “It’s like therapy. I sing in all my yoga classes. You open the body and then your pour some music into it – it’s like magic.” Through it all Ashlee found that music was a part of every outlet she pursued. She strived to connect her music to everything she did.
A native of Utah, Ashlee’s introduction to Nashville in 2008, at the age of 24, began in East Nashville; which she muses, she found on Craigslist. She thought its sounded like her kind of vibe. “We drove in and my Dad’s like: ‘Oh my Gosh.’ We pulled up to Shelby and 14th – I had a great little apartment with a great girl. I didn’t know her. I met her on the internet, and she turned out awesome.”
At the time Ashlee was still working for a company based out of Salt Lake. She worked remotely by computer. “I had flexibility. It wasn’t great money, but it was enough. And then, I walked into a salon on Elliston Place one day and they hired me. I’ve always been really lucky because everybody I work for is hands off. You manage yourself. Which I really need. It’s been a gift.”
“The first night I was here I cried. I was like: “What have I done?’ And then I thought – get it together. So, I looked in The Nashville Scene and I see The Bluebird Cafe has a writer’s round – but I don’t really know what this means, because we don’t really have writers rounds in Salt Lake. So, I show up with my guitar thinking I’m gonna go play.” Ashlee learned, like many new to town musicians, that’s not how the Bluebird works. They explained she could attend the open mic night with Barbara Cloyd, and graciously gave her a ticket so she would have a spot the following Sunday. Intuitively, Ashlee stayed for the show that night. She sat. She listened. She soaked it in. “I had never even heard of the Bluebird Cafe. I knew nothing of Country Music…maybe some old Country. I had no idea about Nashville…no idea what was going on here.”
She found Nashville beautiful. “The music, I thought it was so good, but it was so left field for me – or maybe right field – maybe I was left field. It sounded like stuff you hear on the radio and that wasn’t really what I was doing, or even attracted to…” She wondered if she came to the right town. But it grew into a place where Ashlee thrives. She felt her mother all around her as she found herself surrounded by a growing network of women.
“Nashville has evolved so much. I’m more of a hippie – spirit, Earth – and thank goodness it’s here. It’s here in it’s own kind of Southern way. I thought: ‘What am I going to do without the mountains? What am I going to do without my desert?’” She grew up ten minutes away from all the ski resorts in her hometown. “I could leave my parent’s house and run up the mountain trail.” She was afraid of losing that connection to the outdoors. “It’s very easy to be outside in the West.” She notes the lack of bugs and continues, “Here I was like chiggers? What? What is this? I didn’t know what they were ’til I got ‘em. Rolling around in the dirt.” she laughs. “My cat had fleas. I had chiggers. I had to treat my cat. You don’t have to do that in the West, ‘cause there are no fleas.” It was an enlightening introduction to the South, but she adjusted, maintaining both her outdoor and musical lifestyles. Ashlee found the artistic environment inspiring.
“ I love the creative energy…I love that everywhere you go someone’s creating something – not just music. It’s really awesome. I love the green. I love the birds. I love running in the city. I love the music. I love that you can go to The Basement East, The Building – so good – It’s growing so fast. It is a big small town, but at the same time I only know a small section of the pie. There are so many people I do not know in the music business that I want to meet. So many musicians that want to collaborate with. I like that it’s a huge vessel of possibilities.” she adds, “I love the Salt Lake music scene. I still play a lot in Salt Lake, but it’s small. I kind of know almost everybody there.”
Ashlee has a strong fan base at home. And rightfully so. But she wanted a push. She wanted to travel to a place that challenged her. “I wanted to go to a place where they were like: ‘You’re not very good. I wanted to grow. I was gonna get a record deal. I was gonna give it one year. Then I heard people say, this is a five year town. I was like: ‘I don’t have five years.” she laughs from the heart, “Yeah, you do! You’ve got eight. You’ve got twenty.” She is joyous about the reality. It’s refreshing. “I was gonna make it happen. I just really wanted to be a better songwriter. So I went out all the time, by myself, to writers nights, listened, and then asked to play.”
“Eight years down the road…” she smiles the most eloquent of smiles, noting this wisdom and its beauty. “My goals are so different. Except that I want to write better songs. There’s always room for that, which is so exciting. I want to give energy. Healing. I use my hands in hair. I use my hands in yoga. And I use my hands in music. I feel as though I have been waiting my whole life for this kind of energy to arise…I’ve been waiting for the magic to come back.” She describes her style as Earth-Folk, a genre that marries her passions. “My focus is using Yoga and music together…The Yoga community swooped me in; wanted me to teach. I love putting Yoga in the most unlikely of places. Say, Yoga at the Barista Parlor,” she regards the surroundings, a plan formulating as a spark in her eyes. “Or Yoga in a bar, like in a dirty place.” She giggles. “It’s happening. I’ve done it at the Tennessee Brew Works. I want to do a Yoga thing at The Ryman. “
She wants it all. “I want my music to be as big as Grace Potter – to tour with her – to be her opener – but it doesn’t fuel me every day. I don’t know. The music industry doesn’t know what it’s doing right now. A record deal from the right company. A small, more obscure publishing house would be definitely awesome. The big mainstream Country, it’s not my thing – especially as a solo act.”
Ashlee was once a member of Midtown Violets. A duo with Karen Waldrup. A Country project. Which was an exceptional venture. The two created a sound that rocked the house everywhere they toured. But in the end, there goals were just different. “I want to have big Yoga music events, because they are equally as important to me.” She pauses, sipping her coffee. “I’m making an EP right now, three songs and three videos. Nashville took all of my fire and my belief in myself out of me, during Midtown Violets, it was sort of off focus – I wanted to tour. I wanted to work hard. I wanted to make music full time. And we did it. Karen and I both loved to work our asses off.” The girls could be on the road, play a four hour set and continue well into the night for a private after party when a fan asked to hire them. They were tireless, never turning down the opportunity to play. The project was a great success and learning experience. It taught both women skills they needed to pursue their own individual dreams and solo careers.
For women in music to get support Ashlee believes: “Women have to do it. You have to see it. If I want to be heard and I want to be supported then I go see other people. As women, get out and support each other. All of us. It’s easy to get out of that. Easy to get tired. But you never know who you might see, or collaborate with in an amazing way. When I got to town I met Herky Williams, who was the Vice President of ASCAP at the time, he and his wife took me under their wing – they were so good to me. He said: ‘Listen. Ya’ gotta hang in. Hang on. Hang around. And hang out.’” Words to play by in this town.
“If you don’t go out, nobody can meet you. It’s easy to do as an artist – I’m just gonna stay home and smoke a little and write. No. Put it down.” She laughs, but she’s right. The artist thrives and suffers in the solitude of creativity. It’s easier to hide behind the art than go out and sell it. “Put your make up on, or don’t, and get out the door.”
Other than her mother’s influence, Ashlee is inspired by her father whom she describes as freakin awesome. “I call him The Wise Man – I think every one has an archetype – he just has such sound advise. He’s just so good.” She breathes, and continues. “I love Bob Marley, musically and for what he stood for. I love Michael Jackson, musically and for what I believe he stood for. I love Paulo Coelho, the author, The first time I read The Alchemist I [thought]…” her voice takes on an almost gutteral sob effect as she expresses: “Somebody else feels like this too – you know I was 17 and was like: ‘Thank You’ – he put into words so many thoughts I just hadn’t [experienced that before.]” And women of music that influence Ashlee? Clearly, the powerhouse Grace Potter, whom she refers to again and again with respect and admiration. Along with the poetry and reflective artistry of Jewel – whom she describes as a “grounded goddess.”
In Ashlee’s eyes, the unique nature of the female Nashville musician begins with the fact that “not many are from here – so they bring a little bit of every state to this state. Where you are affects the music that comes out. When I go back West the songs I write change. They feel more West. Being here, I’ve got a little Country in me now. Which is cool. I mean,” she states with surprise, “I wear Cowboy boots!”
“There’s this pulsing energy of songwriting here that if you can tap into…let it come through…I think songwriting is about getting out of your own way.” This matches her philosophies of life and Yoga. A “let it come through” approach. “Stop forcing things,” she smiles. “I’ve done it with my music career and my life so many times I’ve forced things into action, and it dissolves. Everything I’ve ever forced into action taught me great lessons, so I don’t regret it. But, it can be easier.”
Ashlee is on the road much of the time, but this year is a bit different. She will be spending more of the winter months in town. 9 weeks in a row. A long stretch for her. She is looking forward to recording, connecting and “just being” in Nashville. “I always have one foot in the West, a little bit. It’s been hard to connect.” Ashlee’s experience is not uncommon. It’s the nature of this business, especially for women who have to tour to maintain a financially supportive career in the music business. “I want to play shows here!” She exclaims, adding as a note to self: “Let some things come to you.”
There are many highlights for Ashlee as a resident of Nashville. The diversity of musical opportunities speaks to her her being. From seeing Loretta Lynn and Gillian Welch at the Ascend venue, which she describes as “a little mini festival” – to playing at a Yoga/Music event in Centennial Park with four hundred Yogis – to doing a fundraising event at The BlueBird Cafe for a friend who survived a rare form of cancer, and inspires her with the human cause, daily.
And the challenges? “Losing myself musically in Nashville. I felt like I lost my voice. I didn’t even know how to sing. It’s back now. But, I think you almost have to go there to really hold it. You have it. I’m by far, a million times better writer than I was when I got here eight years ago. I can apply what I’ve learned from this city, the songwriting techniques, and also apply what is inside of me that nobody else has. That’s the gift. That’s the point.” I don’t want to blend in with all the other fishes. I want to be the tie-dyed fish.” she is serious. And with that, Ashlee demonstrates another of her profound gifts: the ability to bring it all around to a positive light. What could be the most challenging of obstacles she turns into the power of her own artistic impact.
When asked what she accomplished that she never expected, Ashlee laughs, aghast at the reality of it even now, “I produced a Country record!” She continues, “…and I actually like it.” She never would have thought that when she arrived here, but it happened. And it led her to so many new opportunities. Her new goal is to focus and excel. “To try to master all of my three crafts, because I love them all.” She aims to hit the stage at The Ryman, not just musically but combining her Yoga and her music. She describes that dream as “being able to hold more space so that I can do bigger things.” For Ashlee it is clear that accomplishment comes from self reflection, exploring, learning and crafting.
Her secret for fellow female artists is simply and eloquently stated. “There are no secrets. Put yourself out there.” She throws in a story of a friend who got a song cut for Allison Kraus just by cleaning a house. “Do what it takes. Don’t think you are too good for anything. Know that the pathway is clear, you just can’t see it. [Sometimes] It’s hard to have faith in it.”
The Nashville 7:
The final questions posed to Ashlee (inspired by James Lipton’s approach to interviewing for Inside The Actor’s Studio.)
1 In one Word describe Nashville: PULSE!
2 Your favorite food experience in Nashville: “Turnip Truck!”
3 One word that describes your music style: “Witch-Folk.”
4 Who is the one person you want to meet in Nashville: “Jason Isbell.”
5 If you could ask (him/her) one question what would that question be: “In one sentence, tell me about evolving to a certain kind of songwriting…”
6 What is your favorite Nashville venue: “Third and Lindsley.”
7 Your favorite lyric from a song you wrote: She pauses, looking up, “Hmmm…any song?” A reflective moment, then, “Peace is in the trees I burn.” A lyric from her song, Oh My Darlin’.
The Shanti of Ashlee is contagious; in her music, her words and the softness of her presence. The strength she brings is an inspiration for female artists. Here, she has found love, a creative community and a new voice. She brings with her a Western influence and shining hippie vibe that flourishes in the East Nashville scene and is sure to change the face of music in this town.
Ashlee K Thomas will be performing at : TN BREW WORKS YOGA AND MUSIC with ASHLEE K THOMAS
Jan 9 Sat at 11:30a and Jan 14 Thur 6:30p
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