Ashley Monroe on Sexy Songs, Writing While High and Unattainable Crushes

East Tennessee songwriter shares details of motherhood, the next Pistol Annies record and her dazzling new solo LP 'Sparrow'

Ashley Monroe's latest studio LP, 'Sparrow,' features songs co-written with Jon Randall, Waylon Payne, Anderson East and Brendan Benson, among others. Credit: Hannah Burton

After the one-two traditional-country punch of 2013's Like a Rose and 2015's Grammy-nominated The Blade, both co-produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, Ashley Monroe began working with über-producer Dave Cobb, whose Grammy-winning works for Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, among others, have redefined country and Americana music in recent years.

Recorded at the historic RCA Studio A, where Cobb works in residence, the songs on Monroe's Sparrow perhaps owe a bit more to Smokey Robinson than the Smoky Mountains in some ways, bathed as they are in warm, luxuriant strings, still retaining the uncluttered twang of her East Tennessee upbringing yet also emphasizing an even more soulful tone than her previous efforts. Embracing unbridled sensuality, coming to grips with long-held grief (her father died from cancer when Monroe was 13) and understanding one's parents more deeply are subjects touched on throughout the luminous new record, mature themes well-suited to the LP's lush instrumentation. And while many of the songs on Sparrow – released not-so-coincidentally on 4/20 – were written in the heady haze of weed, they were ultimately recorded while Monroe was pregnant, where the only likely buzz was generated by Cobb's vintage recording equipment.

Monroe gave birth to Dalton William Danks, her son with baseball player husband John Danks, in August 2017, retreating from songwriting during her pregnancy, during which she admits she did little other than eat and gain weight once the album was finished. Since then, however, she's been making up for it all, writing and stockpiling tunes that include efforts with her Pistol Annies cohorts Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley for a record Lambert said in 2017 could surface later this year. Monroe sat down with Rolling Stone Country recently to talk, among other subjects, sex, drugs and Kanye. She also details how her unborn child motivated her in the studio and recalls how a crush she had on a young songwriter, whose presence is featured throughout the new album, was thwarted by the discovery of his famous country-music boyfriend.

Other than the fact that he has a pretty impeccable track record, what made you decide to work with Dave Cobb on this album?
A lot of my favorite current artists right now are making music with him. I knew a little bit about him, but I didn't know him that well. I knew that he was interested [in making a record] as well, and I thought, "Man, that just seems like a perfect fit." It just seems kind of obvious, in a weird way. He's just so, I don't know… there's just something about him, there's something about his sound that I just love. I don't know how to explain it, but it's magic.

The instrumentation is a little different from your previous records, especially the overwhelming presence of strings. Was there anything he did that really surprised you?
A lot of the solos, or a lot of parts, are strings. I love that so much, that they actually have a part, it's not just mood. It’s like, here are the licks. We did get some bongos out at one point. That was fun. The Mellotron, I think it's on "This Heaven" and it's on "Hands on You." And the steel solos are not your normal steel solos. I listen to this album nonstop in my car. I have never, ever listened to myself. But I just love it so much and I love the songs. I call myself "Kanye Monroe" because I love myself in 2018. [Laughs] But I'm proud of it, I really am.

Was there anything about being pregnant during recording that affected the way that you sang?
I don't know. I was stuffy, but I think that's good on my sexy numbers. [Laughs] I felt different because I already felt stronger. I hadn't met my child but I felt different inside and felt different about myself. I was almost more comfortable in my skin, vulnerable in all the right places. I felt every line I sang one hundred percent because I was not doing anything you shouldn't do when you’re pregnant that would give you any sort of buzz! Everything was there, everything was very present. I sang the whole time with my hand on my stomach. I wasn't, like, mushy about it. But I felt a certain strength, knowing that I had another life inside of me. I was certain that Dalton could hear and understand if I ever hit a wrong note. I always sing harmony to the radio, but when I was pregnant and I would sing, I'd be like, "You better hit it!" It's like somebody was always listening. I was certain he was aware of pitch.

Did you feel a different sort of vulnerability while singing some of the really personal songs on this record?
I felt that on "Daddy I Told You" and "Keys to the Kingdom" and, well, on all of them. I felt I was coming at it with a new emotion. I don't know, even "Orphan." You know, now when I sing that, I think of him. I wrote it about the 13-year-old me. My dad died and my mother was MIA for a little bit, but came back. She did not die; she's alive and very much in my life. But singing that song pregnant was like a different pain [than] for a kid in that situation.

You address your parents collectively, but also individually. It seems like the ones about your mother were a little more complicated, a little more nuanced than the ones about your dad.
I believe that my dad can see me and is with me and protects me, but that door, in a way, is closed for now. That relationship status is on hold, we'll say. So, "Daddy I Told You" is almost like a letter to him with me checking in: "Hey, this is me now." My mother and I, I'm still learning her, the older I get and the more she's in my life. I mean, even seeing her as a grandmother and all that. But part of her went away when my dad went away because she loved him so much. And I get that, too. So I feel like I'll just keep on writing songs to my mom because it's one of the biggest relationships in my life, and I'll always write about those. When my mom kind of went away after Daddy died, she moved off to this exit, and it was between Knoxville and Nashville, in Rockwood. My husband and I were driving there a couple years back, and went past that exit. I kind of chuckled. That's when "Mother's Daughter"came to me. [Sings] "Gone away, Dixieland, gone away is the steady hand." That whole chorus came out there. In that moment, it was like, "Man, I'm so much like her!" It's just ironic, and it's really funny that I ever gave her a hard time about anything, or that I do now or that I ever will. Because everything she does that gets on my nerves, is because I do it. I've just noticed that recently.

There are some very poignant songs about your parents and then there are songs like "Hands on You" and "Wild Love." So let's talk about sex.
[Laughs] Yeah, me and Jon Randall wrote "Hands on You." We were talking that day, and we both said let's just make it real, make it gritty. He and I both love Aimee Mann. We were talking about some of her funky lyrics, her way of saying stuff. So we just went weird with lines like "innuendos indiscreet." Women love it. All of my girlfriends, that's their favorite song. But it's [my husband] John's favorite song, too. All the dudes are like, "I love this song."

"Wild Love" explores some of that same territory and there's a memorable line about needing a stranger to "pull my hair and call my name."
I always want to say "gently" because I have extensions! [Laughs] That one came to me in London. It was the first time I went over there and I thought that city was just so sexy and so beautiful and so amazing. Everything was just confident, and everyone, everything was just different in the most beautiful ways. I fell so madly in love with London. And that melody came to me at like three in the morning on my phone. I couldn't sleep, everything was off. It was haunting me the whole time. I sang it to my manager, "Listen to this melody." So when I got back, I had a writing appointment with Waylon Payne and Brendan Benson, who are two of my top favorite humans and songwriters and singers ever. We did "Wild Love" and then I think we wrote "Paying Attention" that same day.


You released Sparrow on 4/20/ Coincidence.
'Nuff said. [Laughs] Let the mic drop on that! The songs that I wrote when I wasn't pregnant, I was probably a little high when I wrote them. That's when I write the best. I'm inspired by it. I'm pro-that big time. Best medicine there is.

What kind of a routine do you have with weed when you're writing?
When I go write, I have a vape pen and I take a few puffs. My mind opens up, and there it goes. I start hearing these melodies, and words start coming out. People will say, "Pot just makes me sink into the couch" and I'm like, "You're smoking Indica. It makes you melt." My mom has lupus and she's got arthritis and she's got other degenerative neck pain. She's into edibles and they really, really help pain, which is cool. No side effects.

How much have you written since the baby was born?
I am on a writing streak right now. I do this pattern where I, and I think a lot of songwriters do, where they write, write, write  and then there's just nothing. It's almost like you have to live and then you have to absorb some things, some feelings, then you'll write. After I made this record I went home and I didn't do anything but eat. I gained 60 pounds. I ate everything I normally wouldn't eat. And I didn't write; I did not pick up a guitar. I barely hummed. I was down. And then after I had Dalton, I started getting inspired again. I'm more inspired as of right now than I've ever really felt. It's good to be fired up about music. I see that I need both in my life. I need my family and I need this side, too. I'm better for them. I'm better for myself when I do.

The album closes with the breathtaking "Keys to the Kingdom," which is sort of all about this subject, being inspired to make music. That's another co-write with Waylon Payne?
Yes. I had that title just written in my phone. My husband and I own a river house about an hour and 40 minutes out of town, and Waylon had come and stayed out there one weekend. It was summer. His dad was Jody Payne, who played with Willie for years, and his mom was ["Help Me Make It Through the Night" singer] Sammi Smith. He has this guitar, I'm pretty sure it was his dad's. Everyone's signed it, from [Kris] Kristofferson to Willie. The guitar is really magical. He brought that on the porch one early morning and we're drinking coffee. The sun was out, it was shining off of the river. And I was like, "Keys to the Kingdom," I've dreamed that melody, and we just started writing it. [Sings] "I was handed keys to the kingdom" and he was like, "I was given a haunted guitar" and it just kinda poured out. Waylon is such a fantastic singer and songwriter. He's just really special. I was obsessed with him when he first put out his album, The Drifter. When was that?

It came out in mid-2004.
I had seen his picture on the wall, and I said, "That's clearly who I'll be with!" [Laughs] This is so random. So, all those years ago, I had just moved to Nashville and I saw he was going to be playing with his mom at the Opry. I walked in backstage. I had gotten all dressed up. I was all prepared to meet my future husband and his mother, all in one. But I went in and I saw Ty Herndon, who was his boyfriend at the time. I was like, "Uh oh, he's not ever gonna love me, is he? [Laughs] But the weird thing is, I kind of dated two of his very best friends and that didn't work out, and now I'm back with Waylon. He was always the one. He was just my musical soulmate, as it turns out, not my actual soulmate. 

Every interview we've had usually ends with this same question: What's the status of the next Pistol Annies record?
We've been writing. We went on the road recently and that was really the first time we've sat down with the intention to just write. We did once at Miranda's house, but sometimes we get to talking, we get distracted. But on the road a few weekends ago, we wrote like five that I'm so excited about. We still have that fire and that fight. There's something so magical about us. We were on the bus writing and we were reminded when we were together, like, literally there was a "bzzzz," like a vibration. We were trying to tune the guitar, and all three of us had our phones, and we all had different tuner apps on our phones, and all of them were going haywire. It was like there's actual energy between us right now.

What are the chances of getting that record this year?
I don't know. I would love that and I think they would, too, but we've always been where we don't want to say it. We don't want to put too much pressure on ourselves, especially when we're all doing different things. But the time right now feels right. When we get excited, especially when the songs are coming as fast as they are… we already see it shaping into an album. So it's still really early, but I feel like we could turn it around. We'll see.