Heading into the 2004 SNL appearance that culminated in a now-notorious lip-sync snafu, Ashlee Simpson knew she was in trouble. “During that time, I’d gotten two nodes, and I woke up and I couldn’t talk,” the singer, actor and reality-TV star tells Rolling Stone. In retrospect, she would have handled everything differently. “Now, I would say, ‘No, I’m sorry, I’m not doing it,’” Simpson says. “I was young, and people can talk you into doing something.”
Simpson is now in a very different place. It’s been 10 years since she released new music, and nearly eight years since her most recent television series, Melrose Place, ended. Since then, she has effectively disappeared from the public eye to focus on her family. It would be completely understandable if she was hesitant to open up again. But now she’s returning to reality TV — this time with her husband, and new musical collaborator, Evan Ross by her side on their new series Ashlee and Evan.
At 33, Simpson is nearly unrecognizable from her early days on The Ashlee Simpson Show. The brunette with spiked bangs, choppy layers and green Converse has evolved into a bohemian blonde with an affinity for large hats — something she shares with Ross. When they meet with Rolling Stone at New York’s Bowery Hotel, they’re sporting almost identical headwear, despite the lobby’s dim lighting.
Together they’re playful, flirtatious; there’s a sparkle in their eyes when they speak to one another, especially about their children, Bronx (Simpson’s son with ex-husband Pete Wentz) and Jagger. Simpson’s kids actually inspired her to do reality TV again. “It was years ago, and even being a mom now, you want to teach your kids to be strong,” Simpson says. “Everybody goes through stuff.”
Ashlee and Evan, which recently premiered on E!, details their marriage, their family and friends, and the duets album they’ve been making. It’s meant to be as close to a documentary as possible. “My biggest thing on the show, and in general, is finding my balance of how [I’m a mom] and do all of the work in the studios and my hours, and also make sure I’m there for school,” Simpson says. “For me, it’s so important that I find that balance, and you see me really trying to discover it.”
Starring in a reality TV show is a big change for Simpson and Ross, who have remained notoriously private since they wed in 2014. “I think in a lot of senses we still are very private,” explains Ross. “I think that with this show, you give up a lot of privacy to let people on this journey with us.” But Simpson, who had already experienced the ups and downs of reality TV, had prepared Ross for what was to come before they started. “I was like, ‘OK, babe, we have to open our hearts and just do this because if you do it, you have to be there and open yourself and open the door,’” explains Simpson.
The series also serves as a reminder to viewers that Evan is the son of Diana Ross — in one of the episodes, the couple actually visits the legendary singer at home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Simpson herself sometimes forgets this striking fact. “There are moments where I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s my mother-in-law,’” she says. “But she’s also the most amazing, sweetest human being and grandmother to my children and such a family woman,” Simpson explains. While Ross sees his mom as his mom and not a star, he adds, “She’s definitely larger than life.”
Viewers can also expect a cameo from Simpson’s sister, Jessica, on E! series. While Jessica has remained out of the limelight like her sister, they remain close. It’s a departure from a time when the tabloids reported about a pop rivalry between the two siblings. “I don’t know that we were pitted against each other,” Simpson recalls “We’ve always been really supportive of each other’s sounds and whatnot. I think people like to say that or make up things.”
Aside from family dynamics, the focus of the show is on Ross and Simpson’s foray into making music together. Initially it may have been surprising to fans that Simpson’s return to music would be a duets album with her husband, but Ross is an ideal partner for the project, as a musician himself and a lead actor on Fox’s musical drama Star. Together, they found inspiration in Simpson’s love of soul music from Erykah Badu to Lauryn Hill, and Ross’ favorite duets albums from his mother and Marvin Gaye and Sonny and Cher. When the duo first started dating, they’d sit together and sing all night, which fueled a desire to make a record together. “It was something that we always wanted to do, it was just never the right timing,” Simpson explains. “Like, we’d go away for a show, or I got pregnant and definitely, that wasn’t the right time.”
The combination of Simpson’s sultry, raspy tone and Ross’ soulful vocals works; their songs are balanced and genre-fluid. Their material includes “I Do,” an acoustic, country-folk-inspired track; “Paris,” a seductive R&B cut that takes cues from the Badu-Q-Tip era; and the bluesy “I Want You.” The couple also recruited bassist Verdine White from Earth, Wind & Fire to play on six of their album’s tracks. “There wasn’t a limit on [whether or not] it’s pop or it’s soul,” explains Simpson. “I feel like there was a discovery of what our sound was together.” Ross’ mother is also a part of their album. “She did a song [for us] called ‘Whole Lot of Love,’ and she came up with the melody,” says Ross.” Ross’ mother also wanted the couple to do this album for a while. “She loves the way we sound together,” adds Ross.
Simpson and Ross’ album and series are just the start of a new beginning for the couple. They’ll eventually be going on tour together, but fans will also get solo albums from the two of them down the road. Ross’ album will be “soulful” and full of acoustic music. While Simpson will return to her roots. “With my solo album, I’m definitely going to do a bit of a pop-rock thing, but with a little soul added in now,” Simpson says. “I definitely want to get up and dance around. I’ve gotta do it.”