"Usually the banjo that Nashville requires is a six-string banjo, so it’s just a guitar banjo. It’s not even a real banjo" In conversation with Ashley Campbell
We spoke to Ashley Campbell in what we called the graveyard shift, and at the end of a long day another chat is probably the last thing she wanted. Forgetting the idle chit chat we went straight on in with the questions, about her new record, the quite fab The Lonely One, co-writing for it, and whether the banjo is underrated. It is.
How do you go about finding the people you co-write with?
It’s a mixture of writing with friends. And I used to deal with Warner Chappell Publishing, and so they set up a lot of my writes when I first moved to Nashville, so I met a lot of great writers that way. And I went on some writing retreats so, you know. All different avenues. All different ways to find people to write with, and write the songs.
Is there anyone that you wrote with that you’d like to write with again, or was there a particular song you thought would be suitable for someone you were writing with and it just didn’t work out?
Yeah, I mean it happens from time to time. It’s unfortunate but, you know. It’s not going to happen like magic every time.
And what do you do when that happens? Do you just junk that song, or do you carry on with somebody different sometimes? Or does it just depend on what stage you’ve got to and how you’re feeling about it?
Yeah, it just depends. If I have a start to a song that I really like and it doesn’t work out with that one writer I’ll just start from when I started and try and keep working on it.
Do you find it easy to write with other people?
I do. I actually really like having that other person there as a sounding board, and when I get stuck sometimes they’ll have another idea that’ll get me going again. So it’s really nice to have someone to work with.
Obviously you’ve done a lot of interviews about the record; is there a particular song that people ask you about more than any of the others on the record?
Mmm. I don’t know. People have tended to say their favourites are 'Better Boyfriend', 'Looks Like Time', and 'Good For You' and 'Nothing Day'.
There’s quite a spread there. Is there a particular song that nobody asks you about or nobody seems to mention and you wish they would, because you’ve got a really good story to it or you really like that song?
Let’s see. Up until today, I hadn’t heard anyone say anything about the song 'Good For You', but today someone said in an interview that that was their favourite and that was really nice because that song is really personal to me and it’s one of my favourites that I’ve written.
Are the songs that are more personal, are they quite difficult to write, or are they actually a bit easier to write because they’re directly related to your experiences and your feelings?
It really just depends on the song but yeah, if it’s really true and close to home, the songs definitely sometimes writes itself.
'Carl and Ashley’s Breakdown'. Was that just you jamming out in the studio? Or was that a planned thing?
It was a planned thing. I wrote that track with Carl a couple of years ago, and I always knew it was going to go on the record. It’s just so much fun to play live, and I’m very excited that it is on the record.
The whole record’s got a kind of quite a traditional feel to it, and you don’t often hear that on a lot of mainstream country music these days and you certainly don’t hear instrumental tracks on a track listing.
That song was fun to write, because it was me and Carl trading off writing sections so I did the first section, he did the second, and we were just hanging out together one day and the song came out.
Did you do any of the co-writes at distance with people? Like LA and Nashville?
We were pretty much in the same room, I think.
Would work if people weren’t? Do you need to play off that person when they’re there to write a good song?
I mean, I’ve written songs where I’ll start writing with someone else, and then I’ll go home and finish it by myself. But I don’t know if I’ve ever written a song via Skype even though I talked about it with my friend. I was going to write a song over Skype just last week, but I got food poisoning.
Obviously you play the banjo. Is that your main instrument, or do you play guitar more?
Banjo’s what I’m mostly known for, but I wouldn’t say I had a main instrument. I play an equal amount of guitar and banjo.
It seems to me almost like banjo’s a hidden star of country music because there seems to be lots of it, but it doesn’t get near the amount of focus that steel guitars and lead guitars like that get.
It’s always added as an afterthought or “oh, this needs to sound more country. Let’s throw a banjo on it.” And usually the banjo that Nashville requires is a six-string banjo, so it’s just a guitar banjo. It’s not even a real banjo.
I was reading that being a musician and doing music wasn’t necessarily what you wanted to do. Is that right?
Yeah. I went to university and I studied theatre. I did acting and improv and sketch comedy in Los Angeles. And I was trying to pursue a career in theatre, I even got accepted into RADA in London for the postgraduate program. I ended up touring with my dad instead.
Obviously your dad was incredibly well known for music, do you think that was slightly rebellious, or was it just you wanted to do something different?
I mean, I was very passionate about it, and still am, but maybe it was me trying to carve my own path, something that my family hadn’t tread upon yet.
Switching to talk about the record, you’re releasing it on your own label, right?
Yes, yes, no record label in the States…I’m working with Raft Records in the UK. And in the States I just released it independently, so calling my label Whistle Stop Records.
Was that a conscious choice?
Well, my fear with going with a label again, especially before I released the album, was that they would try and control my music and I didn’t want that. So I definitely would have considered going with a label but not if they were going to try and take over and tell me who to be.
As part of that process, did you come across that? In terms of when you were developing the album and stuff, did you have that experience with people or was that just a nervousness you had around the major label, Nashville thing?
Well, I was with Big Machine for almost two years and they were wonderful to me, but it just didn’t, it didn’t turn out to be who I am as an artist, and so that was a little conflicting, because I just didn’t want to run into a situation again where I was maybe disappointing the label and not being radio enough or whatever. So I just wanted no expectations, just pure passion. [laughs]
What’s your view on the Music Row bit of the country music industry? The more pop and radio stuff. How do you see that sort of thing these days?
I think there needs to be major change in radio. I think they’re playing way too much of the same stuff all the time, and it doesn’t really leave much room for different songs to get on the radio, you know. I would call a lot of what’s played on country radio fluffy filler. Catchy pop tunes that you’re not going to remember in a couple of years.
And how do you think that industry views your music now and your record? Do you think they think it’s too traditional for radio play, or do you think it’s just on the right balance for that?
I’ve kind of gotten to a point where I don’t really care what they think. You either like it or you don’t. [laughs]
That’s a good place to be though right?
My major motto for I guess my whole music career is “you can’t be everything to everyone. But you can be everything to someone.” But you shouldn’t worry about pleasing everyone all the time, you should just do what you love and the odds are someone else is going to love it too.
You just get bland stuff otherwise, trying to please everybody all the time.
If you water it down for the masses, it’s just going to end up being watered down, you know.
To find out more about Ashley you can visit her website, follow her on Twitter, like her on Facebook, or see her on Instagram. You can stream The Lonely One on all good streaming services now, or you can buy it - and you should buy it - from decent music places.