Ashley Monical





Ashley Monical
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“Who are you gonna be tonight: a lover, a friend, an enemy of mine?”

 

That’s the question Ashley Monical poses in the haunting “Stage Fright,” one of the most unabashedly personal songs featured on her debut album, Facing The Shadow. It’s the kind of moment of truth that can make or break a relationship between two people, but the “you” Monical happens to be questioning is none other than her own self. “Be true,” she continues, “that’s all I ask of you.” Her voice is vulnerable, pleading, but the challenge lands like a gauntlet. 

 

Spoiler alert: Facing her fears head-on, Ashley Monical does not back down. After spending the better part of the last 10 years working towards this moment, the Austin-based singer-songwriter is ready to share her music with the world at large. Some would argue that Monical was ready for this moment as far back as five years ago, when the aspiring solo artist, still testing her wings, began attracting a fair amount of buzz as one half of an acoustic folk duo called the Wildflowers with fellow songbird HalleyAnna Finlay. There was even a fling with Americana Idol that took her all the way to Hollywood, if albeit only briefly. (“It was a cool experience,” Monical says today of her brush with TV talent show fame, “but it definitely wasn’t really for me.”) But as far as Monical is concerned, her real artistic journey begins now. 

 

 

 

Although both of her parents loved music — so much so that her mother began teaching her how to sing as soon as she could speak — Monical didn’t begin writing songs until her early 20s. That’s when the Texas native moved to Austin after spending her teens in Colorado and growing up overseas for the better part of her childhood. She began the Austin chapter of her life immersed in theater, discovering her passion for performance over the course of many experimental plays — including, she recalls with a laugh, a Greek Tragedy in which she had to be fully nude onstage every night in front of an audience of 300 people. Talk about stage fright!

 

“It was terrifying and liberating,” Monical admits. “And I feel that performers should always strive to go to that place, even if they aren’t literally taking their clothes off in front of hundreds of people. When performers are open and vulnerable, it allows the audience to be open and vulnerable, too, and it benefits everyone involved in the sacredness of the art.” 

 

As much as she loved the theater world, it wasn’t long before Monical found herself drawn like a willing moth to a flame deeper and deeper into the heart of Austin’s justly celebrated music scene. “I picked up guitar at around 21 and just sat alone in my bedroom a lot, playing until my fingers hurt and I learned enough chords to play some covers, just because I wanted a way to sing,” she recalls. “But then I started writing my own songs and eventually going down to songwriter night every Wednesday at Cheatham Street (a legendary venue in nearby San Marcos where many notable Texas songwriters got their start), and it all kind of started from there.” She went on to spend the better part of the last decade playing her songs in front of audiences all over Texas and beyond, from Austin bars and coffeeshops to the International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis to Larry Joe Taylor’s Coastin’ & Cruisin’ music cruise; she landed that gig — and the chance to perform for thousand’s at the LJT Texas Music Festival — after winning one of Taylor’s annual songwriting competitions. 

 

All of the experience is readily apparent on her debut. Monical’s honeyed voice has been honed to crystal clear perfection and purity over years of choir practices and performances going back to fourth grade, and every song is a testament to both her poet’s soul as a writer and her equally graceful way with melody. The album also reveals a definite sense of purpose; Monical spent months revising her songs to gig-tested perfection and recording a number of demos with different artists as a concerted effort to bring her artistic vision into clear focus. By the time she found just the right producer in John Evans, she knew exactly the kind of record she wanted to make. And Evans, a seasoned performing songwriter in his own right, was right there on the same page with her from the start. 

 

“It wasn’t forced at all,” Monical enthuses. “John has experience as an artist and fresh ears with an edge on how he hears music. He is open to new ideas and ways of creating sound and that’s what made me want to work with him.”

 

After Evans (guitar) lined up the rest of the musicians — namely, drummer Falcon Valdez and Scott Davis from the Band of Heathens “playing a little bit of everything,” plus fellow Heathen Trevor Nealon and Eleanor Masterson (playing piano and violin, respectively) for a couple of tracks and singer Emily Bell for backup vocals on a few others — Monical (who played guitar or piano on every track) secured the perfect studio space for them to live and work together in creative seclusion: a cabin in Wimberley, Texas on land owned by her father. “We all stayed out there and recorded the album on equipment that the engineer, Steve Christensen (from the legendary Sugar Hill Studios in Houston) brought down with him,” says Monical. “I just wanted to be surrounded by nature and really liked the idea of everyone being out there together with no one else around to distract us.”

 

All of the recording was done over the course of two weeks in the summer of 2014. And although Monical and Evans stayed true to their shared big-picture concept for the album as a whole, they allowed the sessions to flow organically rather than by any sort of confining formula. “We just bended and twisted the songs and sound until they came to a place where we felt right about them,” she explains. “Some fell into their place right away and some took lots of time, energy and patience, but they all found their home.”

 

The results are spectacular. The first song Monical and Evans demoed together, a gorgeous, stately piano ballad with a spiritual theme and sensual undertow called “A Child I Was,” evokes the warm amber glow of Rumors-era Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, and the rest of the album is every bit as striking. From the fierce resistance coursing through “Hunt Me Down” to the soulful, gospel arc of “To the Mountain” and “Traveling Soul” and from the languid beauty of “Sleep Child Sleep,” a lullaby Monical wrote for her godson, to the restless verve and sly bite of “Running” (a surefire single with a razor-sharp hook worthy of prime Tom Petty), it’s a multi-faceted study in sonic and emotional contrasts that fit together as a seamless, three-dimensional whole.

 

“It’s not really a concept album,” Monical says, “but I was definitely going through a period of really discovering who I am and what I stand for and what I believe in over the past couple of years, and a lot of these songs are definitely about that.” 

 

A good deal of that self-discovery came out of Monical's decision (self-imposed) in her mid-20s to go sober. But coming into her own as a performer with the courage — and obligation — to share her songs in front of strangers, friends, and peers alike proved an awakening, too. 

 

“There are still times nerves creep in a little when I am about to go on stage,” she admits with a smile. “And for a while, I wanted to call the album ‘Stage Fright’ because I want to face that. I want to bring it out of the dark and shine a light on it, just to put it out there and ... release it.” She ultimately decided on “Facing The Shadow” as the album’s title. “Everyone goes through a time in their life when they need to face the shadow. My wish is that this album will not only help folks through that time, but also inspire them to turn up the volume, roll down their windows and sing along with me in the moment!” Monical has the courage to own up to and face her fears and weaknesses, but she’s not about to be defined by them. 

 

Who is Ashley Monical going to be tonight? Nothing less than everything she’s meant to be: a gifted young artist on the rise, ready to seize the moment and defiantly stand her ground, empowered by the freedom to sing and determined to be true.

 

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