October 2, 2023

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Ashley Monroe on New Album ‘Rosegold,’ Writing Sad Country Songs

When Ashley Monroe wakes in the morning, she often heads straight to her closet. “I hear melodies in here,” says the singer-songwriter, calling from inside the cramped space during a recent interview.

In the quiet early morning hours of 2018 and 2019, Monroe heard much more than melodies in her closet. Fully fleshed-out arrangements — bass grooves, synth lines, vocal hooks — spontaneously presented themselves in her head. “I was hearing them like the songs were already written,” she says. If she liked something enough, she’d sing whatever she could a cappella and make a voice demo. “It was giving me joy. What a concept: To just squeeze joy out of every melody I possibly could.”

With its airy vocals, industrial harmonies, and sparse electronic production, Rosegold bears nothing in common with the honky-tonk of 2013’s Like a Rose, a collection Monroe describes today, with distance and affection, as “chasing each other’s country tails.” Monroe’s latest is a singer-songwriter record that prioritizes rhythm and atmosphere over narrative and owes just as much, if not more, to R&B and moody synth-pop than roots and country.

When David Macias, the head of the independent Thirty Tigers, which will be releasing Rosegold on April 30th, first heard Monroe’s new work, he “flipped out about it,” he says. “I just played the shit out of it… It’s different from what she’s done, but when you look at her entire body of work, it’s also very much in the spirit of creative adventurousness that she embodies.”

Rosegold could not have been made at any other point during Monroe’s career, which, until now, was partially defined by commercially unsustainable relationships with Nashville’s major labels. Warner Music dropped her shortly after Sparrow came out. “It felt like someone’s breaking up with you,” she says. “I remember my cheeks got hot, and my feelings got hurt for half a day, but then I calmed down. It helped me grow. I thought, ‘Well, I want to try to show people what all I can do.’”

Monroe co-produced her new album for the first time. She envisioned the sultry come-on “Groove” as a duet between her and a rhythm section. She wanted “Flying” to feel like the action of flight. She wanted the bass on “Drive” to sound like it was made with a synthesizer. Monroe wrote and produced Rosegold with a variety of co-writers and producers, and then tinkered with the album’s sound in extensive sessions with Gena Johnson, who, in addition to serving as engineer, also functioned as a de facto co-producer.

Johnson and Monroe listened to Kanye West and Whitney Houston records as reference points, incorporating the snare sounds from songs like Prince’s “7” for album closer “The New Me.” “This whole record was really just dealing a lot with trying to create dimension and space,” Johnson says.

Johnson also focused on bringing out Monroe’s vocals, which were much lower and subtler than her traditional high-lonesome whine. “I’ll never not be ‘twangy country girl,’” Monroe says, “but ‘twangy country girl’ can write other styles of music as well.”

It was that twangy version of Monroe who introduced herself on 2009’s Satisfied before breaking through in old-school country circles with her 2012 tour-de-force Like a Rose. A few years later, the singer made her strongest attempt at mainstream country with 2014’s The Blade, a record that got almost no radio airplay but ended up becoming one of the stronger full-length country statements of the decade.

That period already feels far away for Monroe. “I can look back on my earlier artist self and just see in the way I walked, that I was more shy and a little bit sadder,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been able to release a little bit of that and feel more brave, more sure of myself, calmer, and hopefully less fearful. I am definitely less fearful, artistically. I have anxieties in other areas of my life, but I feel sure of my artistry.”

Part of Monroe’s shift away from harder country sounds is due to her insistence that she not be known just for sad country songs. “I’m not in denial of anything that’s going on, that hearts are breaking all over the world,” she says. “But right now, my joy, I’m real protective of it.”

Even so, Monroe still writes sad songs — she’s just not putting them on her records. She co-wrote one for Travis Tritt’s new album called “Leave This World.” (“I was fighting it real bad, but then I was like, ‘If Travis likes this, I’ll go there,’” she says.) She’s also been writing quite a bit with the Pistol Annies, her group with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, and says that in addition to Rosegold, she’s “glad that there will be songs out that are just as country as I’ve ever been this year.”

Monroe hopes Rosegold might facilitate new opportunities (“big things, genre-less things”): She’d love to sing a vocal hook on a Kanye West record, or score a movie for fellow Knoxville native Quentin Tarantino. For his part, Macias is hoping to use Rosegold to introduce Monroe to new audiences on formats like Triple A (adult album alternative) radio.

Monroe sings about the promise of such new beginnings on “‘Til It Breaks,” one of the album’s stunning highlights, a song about how joy is so often preceded by turmoil. She initially wrote the song as encouragement for a friend who was going through a hard time after having a baby. “Relief, let it break, let your ego break, let your tears break, let your heart break, whatever it is,” Monroe says of the song, “and it’ll come back together.”

Not long ago, Monroe was singing “‘Til It Breaks” in front of a camera for an upcoming music video when she had a small revelation. She realized “‘Till It Breaks” was, of course, also about herself. “They say when one thing dies/ Another comes alive,” she sings at one point in the second verse.

“It’s almost like where I am now,” Monroe says. “It feels like it’s come together, in a way.”