It’s hard to keep track of everything Ashley Monroe has accomplished since her 2009 debut, Satisfied. Along with releasing three more full-length solo albums (including 2015’s Grammy-nominated The Blade), the singer-songwriter and Knoxville native earned another Grammy nomination for her work as one-third of country supergroup the Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, penned mainstream country hits for other artists (“The Truth” by Jason Aldean, for example), and lent her vocals to performances by the Raconteurs, Train, and even Don Henley.
Monroe’s forthcoming album, Rosegold, draws on all of those building blocks and more, expanding on her country sensibilities with poppier strings, catchy beats, and bassline grooves—a sound that might surprise some longtime fans.
“I’ve already seen some people say, ‘She was so country! I loved her! Why’d she change?’” Monroe says with a laugh. “But someone else can’t tell me what I am. I wrote all the songs and I’m singing all the parts, so it is me.”
Listeners who approach the project with an open mind will be all the better for it: Monroe’s vocals shine through powerful harmonies, soaring choruses, and lyrics that blend vulnerability with vivid imagery and wordplay. Below, get an exclusive first look at the video for Monroe’s new single, “‘Til It Breaks,” a dreamy mid-tempo reminder that sometimes things have to get worse to get better. And read on for more from the 34-year-old songwriter about her East Tennessee upbringing, what country music means to her, and the one song she wasn’t so sure she should share.
How did growing up in Knoxville contribute to the artist you are today?
I’m from Northeast Knoxville. Most of my dad’s side of the family all lived on the same street. I feel like in my family and where I grew up, people are funny. There’s a really good wit coming from people in East Tennessee. I’m a dry, quick-witted person myself. I’m glad I got that trait.
I just remember feeling free as a kid. I used my imagination a lot. I was always at one of my family members’ houses. I always heard lonesome melodies. I would tell my parents with different songs, “Oh, this is giving me a lonely feeling,” and they’d be like, “Well, we’re right here…” [Laughs] But they let me be, which was pretty good—until my dad passed away when I was thirteen, and everything went opposite of good. Funny how one person can hold it all together.
You write about that loss, as well as other difficult topics, often in your music. “Til It Breaks” is about how sometimes things have to fall apart before they can get put back together.
Every time there’s a break, there’s a bigger mend afterward. I look back at my story, my life—I always wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t think it was going to take. From thirteen on, my life was exceptionally hard and broke me over and over again. But I held on to music, and it set me free in the end. Looking back now, I see that I am who I am because of that stuff. I’ve learned huge life lessons, and now I can pass those on to my son. Most of the time, it doesn’t come together until we break ourselves a little bit—break the control and the patterns.
What do you think people tend to get wrong about country music?
When I think about country music, I think of a feeling. I think of how I felt when I was listening to Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Lawrence and Diamond Rio when I was a kid in the ’90s. But I also feel that when I’m listening to the Eagles, or Flying Burrito Brothers, or Cat Stevens for that matter. It’s always been a feeling to me. I’ll never not be able to write country songs—that’s the first thing I started writing. But I think sometimes people get attached to a name, or that you have to be this sound. I love traditional [country music], and I’m a keeper of the old just as much as I am a flag-flyer for the new. I’ll never not sing the way I do—I mean, I’m clearly from East Tennessee. [Laughs] But times change. No one has the right to tell you what you need to be.
You’re known for being pretty fearless when it comes to revealing yourself as a songwriter. Has there ever been a song or lyric that you were hesitant to share?
Well, for “Weed Instead of Roses,” I had to get my Poppy’s approval. [Laughs] But really, I’m not afraid to put myself out there. I thrive on being real. I don’t have secrets.
Rosegold will be released on April 30.