Ashley Riley’s music is an immediate gut-punch of emotionality, but it will assuage moments later, comforting and soothing away any pain. Her music is quietly fierce yet gentle; it sneaks up on you and surprises you. It’s depth and eloquence is instantaneously felt. At times, it wails and laments, then it soars with gorgeous grace. And her voice. Oh, that voice. She sounds like nobody else vocally, yet her voice is instantly familiar and unforgettable. It’s airy, beautifully breathy, yet moments of grit ground it, begging for repeat listens.
Vents Magazine sat down with Ashley to talk about “Set You Free,” how she loves to tap into melancholy vibes but also thoroughly enjoyed writing the feel-good “Cut My Losses,” how she has embraced making cross-genre music, and how she can’t wait to get back out and play shows.
Vents: Hi Ashley, welcome to VENTS! Your new album, “Set You Free,” is really special and caught my attention right away. I absolutely fell in love with the song “Cut My Losses” — it’s a great listen. What was the inspiration behind it? What prompted you to write it?
Ashley: Thank you so much! That song in particular was really when I knew that the album was complete! I’m really comfortable writing emotional songs; I love a good ballad or tearjerker song, but sometimes I just want to write a feel-good song. That doesn’t come as naturally to me, so that was the goal for “Cut My Losses.” It’s funny that wanting to have a feel-good song became the subject matter of the song, “I want to cut loose..” We grow up and get more settled and get into these routines of work, bills, sleep, repeat.
I was reflecting a bit and thinking about how I used to feel more carefree and not get so bugged up about the little things, and I kept thinking to myself like, “Man, I swear I used to be fun…” That’s actually a Kathleen Ewards lyric, but at that moment I could totally relate. I wanted to encapsulate that feeling, and, honestly, in the last year, I think we all had more time to sit and reflect and think about what we wanted to clear away from our busy schedules when the pandemic brought life as we knew it to a halt. “Cut My Losses” took on a different meaning to me after that, I was ready to leave the house and go hit the road!
Vents: Any plans to release any sort of video for the track?
Ashley: I think this would be a fun video to create, I’m currently working out more ideas and content for the songs, and “Cut My Losses” is definitely on the radar!
Vents: How was the recording and writing process for that song?
Ashley: I wrote “Cut My Losses” in an evening. It was one of those songs that, once I started writing, I couldn’t step away from it. I remember really putting it through the paces as far as tempo and melody. I like to try all kinds of different styles when I’m writing, just to make sure I’m getting the right vibe for the song, and I remember at one point I was playing it in more of a waltzy, 6/8 time signature, but it just didn’t feel carefree. Once I locked in the feel, it was fairly easy to find the direction for recording. This was the last song that I wrote for the album, and I just knew it would be the closer. I wanted that to be the end of the journey, which really becomes the start of the next.
I worked with James Treichler at Wave Upon Wave in Champaign, IL, but because of the pandemic about half of the album was recorded remotely. This one was maybe the last to get finished up, and by that point we had established a pretty good work-flow for sending tracks back and forth. This is the first song I’ve ever recorded electric guitar on; I usually stick with my acoustic, so that was a fun challenge! I love dressing songs up with ooohs and ahhs whenever I can. I really try to think of the voice as an instrument in that way, so “Cut My Losses” was pretty fun in that regard as well.
Vents: Your lyrics are always consistently great across your releases. Do you have a favorite lyric line or two in this song? What about those words really works for you or speaks to you?
Ashley: Thank you so much. I appreciate that! I think my favorite lyrics are the first verse, because that’s the real feeling that inspired me to write this song. That feeling of being guarded and wanting to feel carefree again was what drove me to write “Cut My Losses.” The chorus is fun lyrically, but the first verse gives “Cut My Losses” its heart.
Vents: What do you hope listeners get from hearing the song?
Ashley: I hope this song makes people feel good. To me, it’s a roll-the-windows-down, feel-the-sunshine kind of song. I think there’s something cathartic about a road trip, and “Cut My Losses” speaks to the feeling of needing that. I think we can all relate, at some point. I also kind of hope it gets stuck in people’s heads. My little son walks around the house singing this one, and I love hearing that!
Vents: Your sound mixes up Americana, folk, roots rock, even some pop, and tops it off with a modern sensibility, so the music calls to mind classic singer-songwriters but also is really fresh at the same time. Some of it’s upbeat, some of it’s quiet and slow, some is really dreamy and bittersweet or even melancholy. How did you settle upon the “Ashley Riley” sound? And how would you describe your sound, using one sentence?
Ashley: Thank you, I love everything that you just said! It can be hard to articulate what you think you sound like, so I always love hearing what other people hear in the songs. I’ve been at this songwriting thing for awhile now, and it’s been fun to experiment with different genres. I think when I was a little bit younger, I tried to be less pop and more rock, or more folk and less pop, but I definitely grew up listening to Top 40, and I finally just let that element seep into what I do rather than toning it down. My songs are pretty emotionally driven, and I really do love those melancholy feelings. I lean into it.
As for the one sentence, I used to have a little “elevator pitch” that said, “Often compared to Stevie Nicks and Jewel, my sound is roots-pop infused with fingerstyle guitar, and a subtle, dreamy hint of Mazzy Star.” I still think that fits!
Vents: When you are able to head back out on the road and play live shows in front of an audience, what song are you most looking forward to playing live and why?
Ashley: I can’t wait to get out there! I’m playing at the Summer Sundown Festival in Effingham, IL in September, but I really hope to sneak in some summer dates before that! I’m really looking forward to playing all these new songs, but in particular I’m excited to play “Oh Song.” I just got a loop pedal, and I’m having fun trying to work up something for that one.
Vents: Who are your biggest musical influences? Why do you love them? What are your three favorite albums of all time?
Ashley: Patty Griffin definitely. Her album, “Living With Ghosts,” goes on my top three list; it opened up my musical world. I was a really new guitar player and songwriter, and someone gave me that album and I was just BLOWN away. The realization that acoustic songs and performances could be that powerful and not need anything else was liberating to me. The songwriting and the performances are still incredible to me. I think the reason I love Patty so much is her songwriting and the raw, real stories she turns into songs.
I’m a huge Brandi Carlile fan, and I love all of her albums, but “Give Up the Ghost” would be on my list, too. I love seeing Brandi and the twins perform; their show and stage presence is an education for any artist. I love their activism and inclusion, and I’m inspired by them.
I love Tom Petty. He was an absolute treasure. I don’t know that I could pick one album, so I’ll just say “Greatest Hits.” 😉 I swear, I bet everyone you know can sing along to a Tom Petty song or two, and that’s really special. I think the singability of his songs is pretty amazing. I feel lucky to have seen him in concert twice.
I always have to mention Jewel as well, because she was a really huge early influence for me. I decided I wanted a guitar after I heard her first album.
Vents: What else is happening next in Ashley Riley’s world?
Ashley: I’m so excited for summer. I can’t wait to play shows for people IRL, and get together with my friends and write songs together in person! Really, just more of the same, but hopefully much, much more. 🙂
Artist website: https://ashleyriley.com/