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SiS Featured Songwriter: Michael Ashe

20 Oct Posted by in Blog | Comments
SiS Featured Songwriter:  Michael Ashe
 

TV commercial jingles… 60-70’s rock… folk… heavy metal… punk rock: if musical influences were a sandwich, for singer-songwriter Michael Ash, these styles would be the listed ingredients. And he would, as his favorite quote by Warren Zevon states, “Enjoy every sandwich.”

Unlike modern times, where listeners enjoy a myriad of choices when it comes to media, Michael Ashe grew up in a simpler time when stations and styles were limited. “Growing up we had music in the house and radio in the car. I can remember sitting in the back seat of my Mom and Dad’s Olds listening to 60-70’s rock on the radio while driving to antique shops in rural parts of Illinois with my Mom and Grandmother. There was not a ton of variety in the songs the stations played, so I was able to memorize lyrics, or some warped childhood form of what I thought the lyrics were, then repeat them over and over again each hour as they came on. I can remember singing those songs, and identifying with the ‘hook’ of each song.”

When not listening to the radio, a limited number of TV stations were likewise available. Ashe remembered, “I watched quite a bit of television growing up as well, so the jingles from those commercials were swimming around in my head a lot. To this day I still find myself singing the jingles from toy commercials from the 70’s and early 80’s; whether it was a commercial advertising a cowboy action doll – Dusty, Dusty, Dusty.. riding Nugget, Nugget, Nugget… they’re riding East, riding West, now it’s time to take a rest – or from Empire Carpet- which at the time was only a Chicagoland company.. 588-2300 Empi-i-i-i-ire. Those songs and lyrics were sticky; I still remember them today, so they clearly had an impact.”

Ashe’s extended family also were an influence in the development of his style. “My Uncle Curt was a powerful force in my creative life. He was an amazing artist and painter who introduced me to the Beat poets, R. Crumb, and some incredible songwriters: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, J. J. Cale, and Dave Van Ronk just to name a few. Curt had an amazing record collection, painted all his life, and created an amazing body of work throughout his career. I was very close to Curt. He taught me many things in life.”

Having parents who loved music added another layer to the musical influences and choices of Ashe. “I remember at a very young age dancing to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, Doobie Brothers and Allman Brothers with my Mom on the white shag carpet in our living room. I was 6 or 7 and remember being moved by the music such that I would dance around and play air guitar for hours.”

The most logical instrument to learn would have been the one already in his house: a piano. “My mom had a piano, and my Dad played acoustic guitar. I showed an interest and an ear for hammering on some chords on the piano around this time, so my Mother got piano lessons for me. I took piano lessons, but hated it. I always had a love for the guitar, so on my 9th birthday my Dad bought my brother and I a 1966 Fender Musicmaster II which I still have today.”

Ashe also recalled how his family musical experiences shaped him as a writer. “My Dad played folks songs on the guitar and was one of ten kids, so during family gatherings the guitar would come out, and we would sit around and sing, laugh, and tell jokes. I liked the stories that those songs told whether it was Stewball, the Racehorse or Charlie, on the M.T.A. I listened closely to those lyrics and felt them. I knew that music had power to move people, and I understood that at an early age.”

With such an auspicious start, one might imagine that Ashe’s formative years were spent impressing his friends with his musical prowess, but in elementary school, he took a different road. “I started probably by being the class clown in school, making up funny lyrics to popular songs to get my friends to crack-up. This was something I liked to do even as a 4th and 5th grader.” He also added, “I did like to sing in the choir at school and had a music teacher that was really cool. She was ‘hippy-cool’ and had long-haired friends that would play at our seasonal concerts. She took music seriously, was a solid piano player, and wrote original songs that we performed – which I thought was really cool.”

Later, Ashe’s influences broadened to include the music of the changing times. “When I moved to Issaquah, in high school, in the mid 80’s, my brother and I both played guitar and listened to hard rock and metal. I met Blake and Chad Cook who played music and liked metal and punk rock. Chad and I played freshman high school football together, and we both loved the Ramones and became friends. Blake was a hyperactive kid that could play the drums like Animal from the Muppets, so naturally we started a garage band called BOT.”

Using the skills acquired in his early years, Ashe began to compose. “I wrote simple rock riffs and started writing songs at 15. Chad played bass. We had our first performance at a grange hall in Kirkland, where barbershop quartets used to practice and perform, called Skippers (now condos). That was our/my first performance on stage with a band doing our own music.

BOT had some early success and we were industrious kids, making our own tapes, creating the artwork, and selling them at Fallout Records in Seattle. I was DIY in the punk rock spirit. We were written up in Maximum Rock and Roll magazine and were featured on a Northwest Hardcore Compilation album that included the Melvins. That was a really cool thing for a bunch of kids from Issaquah. It really motivated us to perform and write more. The band performed and stayed together through the 90’s even when each of us attended separate colleges. I went to Western Washington University, Chad went to Central, and Blake, Evergreen. When we as a band weren’t able to perform, I started playing open mics with an acoustic guitar and writing songs solo.”

As a writer now performing as a solo act, Ashe’s writing process has developed. “It’s certainly changed over the years, but much like the circular themes from those TV commercials, it often starts with a phrase. This can be a musical phrase, a little riff/run on the guitar that I scat nonsense to until words start forming, or a quote or soundbite I hear on NPR in the morning that gets me thinking. I have notebooks, old envelopes, and scraps of paper that I scribble lyrics on. These ideas or themes sometimes go nowhere, they sometimes take months to develop, or in those great flashes, come together while I have my guitar in hand.”

Within that process, though, a thread continues to be woven that part of the fabric of his early years: storytelling. “I try to convey the story and feeling in the song with simplicity in mind. I’m typically sharing my music in small places, so there should be an intimacy to the music. I will try to write from an honest place, a feeling, or a landscape that conveys an emotion or strikes a memory.”

Like many artists, Ashe pulls inspiration often from his own life, in difficult times as well as times of beauty. “There was a time when I didn’t write, or hardly wrote at all. When I got divorced and really went through difficult times, I relied on my music and writing to help me heal, mourn, and push through. This pain and loss is something that we all feel, as are the lessons and insight we gain from living through those experiences. Learning, growth, new beginnings, joy, and loss are part of the human experience. Good honest music and songs are able to get at those themes and draw people in. I try to do that with lyrical phrasing and with melody in my writing.”

But it is not just the painful experiences of life that inspire Ashe. “I’m inspired by lots of things – the beauty of the natural world especially here in the Northwest. I, like many, am disgusted with the direction that our country is headed and the complete insanity of our leadership. I’m inspired by stories of justice being served, and believe deeply in honor, compassion, and equality. I’m inspired by the common, and oftentimes painful, experience of being human, by love and friendship.”

Like his father before him, Ashe has also had an influence on his own son, who inspires him as well. “I’m certainly inspired by my son Rowan who is an incredible musician, writer, and producer. He is 17 and is already a heavyweight. Everyone should check out Rowan Skye on YouTube.”

Self-reflective and transparent about his own challenges, Ashe’s struggles are mostly internal. “I’m impatient and I’m my own worst critic. I think most human beings are, by the way, but as a writer I found that forcing an idea usually results in a throw-away song. It’s challenging when you want to produce and feel like the content is missing. Learning to be patient as a writer is a big challenge.” He has found somewhat of a fix for this, however. “When I hit those writing blocks I will typically learn someone else’s song or push myself to learn a new chord progression. I listen to more music when I’m blocked as well.”

Beyond the writing process, Michael Ashe expressed some instrumental hurdles as well. “I’ve never considered myself to be a great guitar player. I’m a good rhythm guy, and I think I have a style or sound that is mine, which is great – but I strive to understand the instrument better. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to play Eruption like Eddie Van Halen.”

While Ashe’s youth was spent in a simpler time, the current times have changed to the extent that, “As an unsigned musician, it’s a challenge to play places around Seattle. In the 90’s we (BOT) played all the time in Seattle because there were live music venues that offered places to play. You even got paid in those days! Although I’m not playing hard rock/grunge or punk anymore, it’s a challenge to find places to play outside of open mics. I think that’s a function of the times and the internet pulling on people’s attention span. Additionally, there is just a lot of music out there. It’s very difficult to cut through the clutter and/or even be heard.”

Songwriters who are just starting out, however, will find that the advice Ashe gives is the same as what he himself practices: “Keep it simple, keep it honest. There is beauty in simplicity. Nobody has ever hummed an Yngwie Malmsteen song. Write as much as you can, and hone your craft. I’d also suggest playing out as much as possible.”

Ashe has also found that Songwriters in Seattle has also been a major factor in his development as an artist. “I’ve found the community of SiS to be inspiring and welcoming in so many ways. There have been events in people’s homes – casual meet-ups where folks can share ideas and songs. It’s been a great experience, and I’ve met some really great, talented people. Had it not been for SiS, I may well have only been playing music to the spiders in my basement.”

Though the current times are rife with digital production options for artists, Ashe’s next project will harken back to the sounds of his youth. “I’m really interested in the idea of a seven-inch. Vinyl is popular again, and I love the old punk rock seven-inch with four songs on it and plenty of room for artwork. I’ve struck up a friendship with Michael Connolly who owns Empty Sea Studios here in Seattle. Michael is just a great person, with an excellent ear and is a multi-instrumentalist and producer. I recorded a record, Autumn Road, there in 2015 and had a really great experience with Michael. That’s next.”

Like one of his favorite writers, Ashe has been “enjoying every sandwich” along his musical journey and evolution. Ashe remembered, “I loved Warren Zevon’s sense of humor and irony. I wasn’t really familiar with Warren Zevon’s work outside of ‘Werewolves of London’ until I met Jill Gross, my partner-in-crime and fantastic singer who sings with me on Autumn Road. I watched a documentary years ago of the making of his last album while he was in the last stages of battling cancer and heard this quote during a late interview on Letterman.”

For singer-songwriter Michael Ashe, that “Enjoy every sandwich” philosophy of Zevon permeates his lyrics and music. “As I get older, I think it’s important to feel those moments and understand where you are, who you are with, and what you are experiencing, and enjoy them. I don’t think I appreciated them as much as I do now.” Now, with the soul of a poet and a guitar to express the words, he is sharing those moments with the Pacific Northwest Community so we too can enjoy every musical meal.

https://www.facebook.com/michaelashemusic/
http://www.michaelashemusic.com

Char Seawell
Char Seawell is an award winning singer-songwriter, a novelist, and essayist from Bothell, WA. A journalism graduate from Colorado State University, she is currently working on two historical fiction novels, one based in the North Cascades and one in pre-Nazi Germany,

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