Ashe’s dual aura of cool girl and quirky everywoman works like a charm. Not that it takes much effort; it’s just a natural quality of the 28-year-old singer’s drawing power that has helped her stardom burgeon. Of course, the talent is there (the California native has a knack for songwriting and a vocal dexterity that ranges from delicate crooning to passionate belting), but the real secret sauce is the affable magnetism in her music and presence.
Her charisma prompts a risible greeting when we virtually chat on a sunny Friday in May. “Sorry I’m a couple of minutes late,” she says after joining the Zoom call two minutes behind schedule. “I was looking for my AirPods and then realized they were dead. They’re the fuck-boys of technology.”
The budding artist is speaking from her home in Los Angeles where it’s 9:32 a.m. She’s wearing a floral blouse, and her long blond hair — parted down the middle, exposing her dark roots — cascades out of the camera frame. The room she’s sitting in has a cozy ambience: pictures, arranged asymmetrically, hang on a rust-hued wall above a velvety green couch where her dog is curled up on a blanket next to a yellow accent pillow. A recording microphone in the background peeks into view, blocking a small fraction of the light pouring in from a nearby window.
Meanwhile, I’m nestled into my studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where the clock just hit the early postmeridian hour. Despite the time difference, we both seem to be full of energy, though, admittedly, for different reasons. I’m conducting a highly anticipated interview while guzzling my second cup of coffee, and Ashe — who dropped her debut album, Ashlyn, the week prior — is on cloud nine after tickets for her tour, Ashe: The Fault Line Tour, went on sale earlier in the morning. “I’m in a little bit of shock,” she effuses. “New York sold out in five minutes, which is crazy.”
Ashe, born Ashlyn Rae Willson, seems genuinely taken aback by all the support. But it’s hard to imagine that an artist so sincere and relatable in their music wouldn’t have a fanbase that bolts to a ticket site in hopes of seeing them live, especially after this hellacious past year.
The singer is just as excited to reconnect with fans. Her Lollapalooza debut in July and official tour kickoff in September will likely provide solace following her own year of ups and downs. At the beginning of 2020, Ashe started to gain more popularity, largely due to the success of her song “Moral of the Story,” which was featured in Netflix’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You. But amid the growing recognition, the pandemic hit, and Ashe experienced a heavy loss when her brother, who struggled with addiction, died after relapsing.
Her brother’s passing happened near the tail end of Ashlyn’s writing process, prompting Ashe to pen the heartfelt ode, “Ryne’s Song.” In the eulogy, she works through feelings of grief and lament, highlighting the brevity of life.
“Writing the whole album, I wouldn’t say it was meant to be this cathartic experience, yet writing music ends up being that way,” Ashe says. “It’s the only way I know how to cope with my existence.” She didn’t have any concrete plan or formula for expressing her thoughts. Instead, she allowed whatever she felt to flow freely and candidly. “It was easy as hell to write this album,” she reveals. “Any time me and my co-executive producer, Leroy Clampitt, sat down to write a song, we’d typically come out with one that made the album. We were very in tune with each other.”
Trust and authenticity are foundational in each song on Ashlyn. Bolstered by rich production — soft piano, dulcet strings, striking percussion, and emotive synths — Ashe shares honest reflections about love, loss, and what it means to be human. Much of the material addresses her previous relationships, notably one that led to a marriage and then, ultimately, a divorce. In hindsight, she recognizes that the relationship was psychologically abusive, but she still grapples with the heartache of splitting from someone she once loved.
“Going through a marriage and then a divorce in my early 20s, I felt like a failure,” Ashe admits. “It took a while for me to be like, no, that was a piece of my puzzle, and all of it adds up to who I am now.” She pauses for a second and smiles, adding, “And I really like her.”
It’s all part of a restorative process in which self-forgiveness and mercy are vital. On tracks such as “Save Myself,” “Taylor,” and “Moral of the Story,” Ashe divulges about the hardship of ending a romance but emphasizes that it’s not a strike against her humanity or her ability to love and be loved. It’s quite the opposite, actually.
“I’m a healthier human when I allow myself to fuck up,” she says. “It’s funny, I find that as humans, we’re so much more loving and forgiving of each other. It’s easier for us to accept somebody else. So why is it so hard for us to accept ourselves and believe in our story?”
I concur, telling Ashe that I often wonder how I’d react if someone spoke to me the same way I speak to myself. “The shit we say to ourselves,” she responds, shaking her head. “Even just flippantly, not even on purpose — like, ‘Oh, I’m such an idiot’ or ‘I’m such a loser.’ I say that shit all the time. How much of that is seeping into our subconscious and making our overall outlook of ourselves fragile and weak?”
It’s a valid question that evinces the self-awareness and sensibility that motivate Ashe to better herself amid her quest for fulfillment. “I’m a more loving person when I love myself or am more accepting of myself,” she says. “And I want to love people. That’s part of my job on Earth.”
To be rooted in love often means processing letdowns with understanding, even when it’s difficult. Ashe encapsulates this on Ashlyn when she concludes the eighth song, “Not Mad Anymore,” singing, “I’m not mad anymore about the madness / We didn’t have any more of the magic.” She seamlessly transitions to the deeply emotional, vocally stirring ballad “Always,” saying, “What if staying with me isn’t the best way to keep you happy? / And if letting you go is the best way to show that I love you, I will.” Her disappointment is palpable as is her discernment.
So what comes after the heartbreak and paves the way for renewed vitality?
For Ashe, it was reestablishing her sovereignty. “Oh, independence,” she says with a drawl. She thinks back on her marriage and how she lost herself in the relationship. “I was told that there wasn’t a world in which I existed without this other person,” she says. “And if you’re told something enough by someone you think you love, you start to believe it.” Subsequently, she worked to reject the myths of insufficiency and self-doubt that trapped her in the toxic environment.
That journey inspired Ashlyn’s upbeat track “Me Without You,” a catchy reclamation of self-ownership. The mesmerizing music video, directed by Jason Lester, shows Ashe in a mild daze, dancing in a bar before approaching a mysterious door. She punches through the portal (yes, she actually walloped the door and bloodied her knuckles) and capers into an open field. “But I can be me without you / I don’t feel lost without you,” she declares. “Go find yourself / You let me down.” She returns to the bar where she pours herself a drink, chugs it, and smashes the glass on a counter before dancing barefoot on the broken pieces while bleeding. At the end, the camera pans out to reveal that Ashe is watching herself in a movie theater.
“There are a lot of metaphors throughout the music video for ‘Me Without You,’” Ashe says. “With the stepping on glass, it’s about how it’s injurious to leave someone that you’ve attached yourself to and yet completely freeing and exciting. There’s a clip at the end where I’m fully out of the relationship. I’m watching the movie back, and I walk down the street after walking out of the theater. My feet are still bloody, and it’s sort of a metaphor for how there’s still healing going on.”
Coming out of a situation with battle scars isn’t exclusive to damaging experiences, Ashe says. “Even when I was in other relationships that weren’t abusive, I still got so swept up into those other people,” she notes. “It can be a very loving, kind, and borderline healthy relationship and, still, you get lost in this other person. Or you get lost in your job or your parents’ expectations of you, whatever it may be.” She adds that finding autonomy is an essential introspective process that she hopes to kick-start in others.
Titling the album after her real name is certainly a means to becoming a beacon of autonomy. But Ashe admits that it’s nerve-racking to remove the barricade of identity. “If anything, what Ashe did was separate me just a little bit from the art,” she says. “There’s artist Ashe and then there’s Ashlyn in her real life, and if you don’t like Ashe, then Ashlyn is still protected.” Her eyes flutter upward, and she covers her face before letting out a deep sigh. “Why did I take down that barrier?” she finally says with a laugh. “I’m still really proud of it, and it’ll take a bit more mental health, therapy, and good processing to make sure that doesn’t fuck me up.” But at the end of the day, she says, naming the project Ashlyn is liberating.
A quick Google search will tell you that the name Ashlyn means “dream” and “meadow of ash trees.” And a bit more digging into some obscure websites about nature symbolism will also tell you that ash trees represent strength, productivity, and power — all of which seem to have played a part in materializing Ashe’s LP.
“Whether or not the world wanted an album, I was like, ‘I’m doing it. Hope you like it,’” Ashe says. “But I definitely did it first and foremost for me.”
Comparatively different from her songwriting process, Ashe had a clear idea of how she wanted Ashlyn to sound. “Sonically, I wanted it to be this marriage between worlds of old and new,” she says. So she drew inspiration from the likes of Elton John, The Beach Boys, Carole King, and The Beatles, as well as Lorde and FINNEAS, who lends his vocals to the misty opening track, “Till Forever Falls Apart.”
With that auditory aim in mind, Ashe unleashed her ambition, not caring much about reception. “I could’ve written a more pop-forward, easier-to-digest album,” she says. She recalls learning about The Beatles at Boston’s Berklee College of Music where she earned a Bachelor of Music in Contemporary Writing and Production in 2015. In class, she was taught that the illustrious band became more experimental after dropping a palatable debut album. “I remember being in school and them being like, ‘Don’t get weird with your first album. The Beatles didn’t, so don’t think you’re better than The Beatles,’” she mimics with a strict tone.
But she tossed that advice aside and went for it. Not because she believes herself to be better than The Beatles, she clarifies; because she’s become increasingly aware that tomorrow isn’t promised. “My brother’s death was so sobering,” she says. “Life is short. What if this is the only album I get to make? I may not get to write a second album. I hope so, and I’ll probably start working on it pretty soon, but if I don’t get the chance, I wrote exactly what I wanted to write. That’s been a big thing for me: saying what I want to say and not worrying about if I’m going to ruffle feathers.”
The passage of time is a galvanizing concept that Ashe often thinks about. “The time we have is extremely limited,” she says. “I’m an artist and a fucking human, so while I desperately want to be loved by people and want them to love what I create, the idea of life being short helped me make an album that I felt wasn’t very safe.”
Whatever Ashe has in store next involves taking intentional steps toward mastering her craft and boosting her stature in the music industry. As she gains fans and has more eyes on her, she aspires to be as steadfast as possible in responsibly cultivating her work. “I 1,000% feel like I have to be really purposeful with my artistry,” she says.
And although her substantial social media audience — a combined 2.8 million followers on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter — induces a bit of pressure, she’s willing to accept that if it means being a force for artistic sincerity. “I asked for it,” she says. “I choose it every day, and part of me choosing it is me saying, ‘OK, I’m going to take this with great responsibility and be really aware of the things I’m saying and the things I’m doing.’ I don’t think that’s how everyone needs to live their life. But, in my particular story, I picked a profession, and I’m now at a level that requires me to be thoughtful about everything I do.”
Hopefully, that will help her accomplish some of her short- and long-term goals, including selling out her Fault Line Tour (“It’s not official, but it’s in my reach,” she says), playing for a sold-out crowd at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, and winning a Grammy. She also hopes to act one day in “a really weird, obscure indie film.” (Perhaps she can get some acting advice from her longtime inspiration and entertainment beau idéal Diane Keaton, who recently sent Ashe a personalized signed copy of her 2017 book, The House That Pinterest Built.)
There’s a lot on Ashe’s to-do list, but she circles back to the importance of cherishing every tick and tock on the clock. Throughout her journey of processing devastations, fostering truthful expression, and gaining her personal and professional liberty, Ashe says she has learned to treasure life and trust that “everything works the way it’s supposed to.” To quote her hook on Ashlyn’s bass-heavy “Kansas,” it’s only a matter of time.