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INTERVIEW: Den of Ashes

Hi Ash, welcome to VENTS! How have you been? 

Good, great, sometime in-between days…

Can you talk to us more about your song “California”?

California is a song that is autobiographical. I left rainy NY and headed to a meeting in Nashville then out to LA to meet my potential new boss. We met, got along just fine, then I called my manager in NY and told him that I’m not coming back to NY and to have all of my things moved out to LA. I was able to travel much of the world but my thoughts of the West and the California dream were more fascinating to me and became my home. That was the first line of the song.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

We decided to downsize our house to make room for other things in life. We loved what we had, but change is inevitable if you are truly inspired to pursue your dreams. When God gives you multiple talents and only one lifetime to figure it all out, you have to make choices to fulfill those abilities. Some of those choices require sacrifices, taking one step back to take two major steps forward toward my music was part of the deal. There were thoughts about leaving California. I went through a lot of soul searching and sat down to think about the reasons why I came out to California in the first place. The West has a feeling like no other place. I could move practically anywhere in the world, but nothing compared to the freedom of what I created for myself and my family in California. I picked up my guitar and thought about my journey out West and the others that came before me to live out their dreams. The music flew off my fingers and the self-realization that everything was going to be alright. The diversity of California is like no other place both Northern and Southern California. I drove Highway 1 from LA to Carmel in my 1965 Cadillac Coup de Ville when I first moved here. I met my wife, I worked in Hollywood and met many famous people along the way through my work. It had all the elements for a great song. I wrote the music in about an hour and then spent the next month working out the final lyrics. It played out like a film in my mind as did the rest of the album.

Any plans to release a video for the track?

The concept of the video has been written. It’s a matter of shooting several locations at this point with my crew. Some of the locations are closed until the Fall, so we might have to wait until then to finish. I am currently working on other videos for the album and will release them along the way.

Why name the album after this track in particular?

The journey through the West is prevalent throughout the album with the ultimate destination being California. The California that I talk about is a bit in the past from what California is today. The mystery of what existed during the Golden Era is legendary and incredible. I met a lot of old Hollywood when I moved here. I rented an apartment from a great couple, Abe and Muriel Lipsey. The apartment was originally Nancy Sinatra’s apartment. Abe was one of the founders of Hill Crest Country Club in Beverly Hills. Their son-in-law was Glen Campbell, whom I had several great conversations with. I also have a little tribute to him on the track California. I met George Burns and Milton Berle. They represented the California I was fascinated with which is now long gone by 20+ years. The album cover of California stands in disrepair, a fixture of what was. There is a story that within it’s walls that exist in the Den of Ashes. My stories are not of an artist’s name but a place where these stories can reside. Collectively they represent my journey to California.

How was the recording and writing process?

The writing process is constant and continues on… I have songs on California that I started writing early on as a musician. Late Night Radio was about my travels in my Cadillac, driving late at night listening to the AM radio. I like to create a mood around lost moments in time that surround the human condition.  I compose a skeletal structure of a song then usually walk away from it and let the vocal melodies take over. I then write the rest of the music based upon those melodies and work out bridges to piece them together. Other times it just hits me and the vocal melody flows right along with the music. I have no idea what I am writing most of the time and don’t force it. It reveals itself along the way, sometime unexpectedly.

The recording process is extremely creative. The instruments are already in my head long before getting to the studio. I give the musicians a character or a mood to follow. I get very descriptive. I rely on the talents of those that surround me and let them do what they do best. You can’t rush the process. I comb through each track looking for those nuances that keep the feeling of the track real. All of my albums have real instruments in the hands of great musicians. I will not compromise that. Players and craft go hand in hand.

How does your upbringing influence your music?

That is a very loaded question. Grandparents who were Country and Western stars back in the late 1930’s – early 1950s. A mother that sang choral and opera and an older brother that was a huge rock fan before it was considered classic rock! I was surrounded by music and ability. In their prime my Grandfather played guitar, banjo, harmonica and sang. My Grandmother played the accordion and sang. My Dad, lap steel. My other Grandfather played violin. My music is a culmination of this. It’s my natural style. My grandparents opened a hotel once they came off the road to cater to their entertainment friends and NY socialites. I met many of them growing up. It was just a normal thing with a bit of magic mixed in. Their restaurant was called the Silver Spur with a Western theme. I grew up listening to Country and a bit of Western. Western was abandoned by the record companies in the 60s, although its influences were carried over in what was becoming Folk Rock. The influences of Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Glen Campbell along with Keith Richards and Jeff Beck were always running through my head. They all have a very organic style of playing. They play either on the beat or slightly to the left or right of it which gives a players feel to the songs. I was not going to compromise that in my playing. It is prevalent throughout my albums.

With an incredible background on the visual department – how does this influence your music? Do you approach your music from a visual standpoint?

Visuals are a huge part of the writing process for me. Great design is very spacial. That translates directly to my music. I listen to the tones of the guitar and search for chords, strums and notes that create this mood that I continually refer back to. Pictures start to emerge as I start working through the notes and chords. They invoke some very powerful emotions. It’s almost like a ghost showing me the way. I go through some extreme highs and lows. Understanding the depths of your own emotions helps. It lets you go to some places that are uncomfortable for most people to experience. I stay there only to observe and let resonate through my music. I have no idea what I am writing about most of the time. The pictures that emerge could be something that I saw in the past and threw into my subconscious. It could be a profound feeling I walked away with from past experience with my own fundamental beliefs mixed in, of a life’s experience that impacted me heavily and left an impression or crater. The pictures that emerge can be beautiful or haunting. They create a movie type experience for me. I translate that into into lyrics. That’s what I follow and what ultimately becomes a story-telling journey. The highs are in California, the lows are in Demons and Angels from my first EP Blackbird, a song about my father and his last day on earth when he took his life at age 34.

How do you go on translating your visual ideas into your music and the other way around?

I really don’t have visual ideas when I start writing. The pictures appear to me as I play and that is what I write about through the mood of the music.

With the great reception from your previous record – did you feel any pressure as you release new material?

All of my pressure is self-inflicted. I would have liked to have released this album a bit earlier, but I had to turn a big ship around in order to make the necessary time to finish writing and get into the studio. I came into the studio with 16 songs. I recorded 14 of them. California is 8 songs, patterned after Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, one of my all-time favorite albums. I have a follow up single and EP coming out at the end of this year. Crafting an album like California takes a good amount of time in the studio. Its all about the nuances. I deconstruct the songs to their basic level and then start rebuilding to keep the songs spacial.

What aspect of the Western landscape did you get to explore on this record?

That’s a great question. Many trips to the desert, shooting photography that encapsulates the Western themes of my music. Joshua Tree in particular for the trees and rock formations. I also stay in Gram Parson’s room #8 at the Joshua Tree Inn and isolate myself to write. The Salton Sea. Driving Highway 1 North to get a true perspective of California. Northern California, Carmel by-the-Sea, San Francisco, Napa and the Redwood Forest. Yosemite for the massive landscapes, Palm Springs for the feel. The California Beaches, mainly Hermosa Beach and the Southbay. The second set of lyrics in California, “They have the mountains and the oceans and the trees and the desert breeze is gentle, on my mind in California.”

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Old Photographs, Pictured books and magazines like National Geographic and Western museums. American Western History, Clint Eastwood Westerns and classic Western films. The James Dean film Giant. Family photo albums and photo archives. Talking with people much older than myself or others that have done extraordinary things in their lives. WWII veterans. Mainly all that evolves around travel and the West and Western lifestyle.

Any plans to hit the road?

Yes, I am planning a Gallery Tour which will be a combination of a musical performance with a full art gallery show of my large format Western photography and my Grandparents photography as they travel throughout the West on tour from late 1930s through early 1950s. They are very rare photographs of early Western landscapes, musicians and unique places, now what is considered Americana.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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