On Friday, September 6, Nashville singer/songwriter Ashley Sofia will release her sophomore album, Shades of Blue. Four years after her wide-ranging debut Love and Fury, the follow-up takes a much more focused tack in its sweet, smooth distillation of the 1970’s sounds that have influenced her since childhood.
In that narrower sonic focus, Ashley Sofia left more room for diversity of songwriting personality. She didn’t work with any co-writers–making her something of a Nashville anomaly–but in 13 tracks, she proves she contains enough multitudes all on her own, from the bright, cheeky country-pop of “That Girl Is a Rainbow” to “Looking For America,” a somber folk reflection on the state of affairs in a nation haunted by institutional evil.
She also takes a turn for the sultry and cinematic on the album’s first single “Make You Love Me Too.” Originally written for her fiance Josh Doke’s directorial feature film debut, Goodland, it’s another example of the ease with which she slips into different modes of writing and facets of an honest pop persona.
Ahead of the release, Ashley Sofia spoke to The All Scene Eye about the singular vision behind Shades of Blue and the struggles, both personal and political, that influenced its creation.
From the first track, change is a really important theme on this album. What’s changed in your life since you released your last album, Love and Fury?
So many things. I’ve relocated from the Adirondack Park and I’m living in Nashville now. I’ve moved several apartments to different neighborhoods in town. I’ve gotten engaged recently.
Thank you! Also, I went through a lot with my health during that time. I was diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases–
Oh my gosh.
Yeah, so there has been a tremendous amount of upheaval and growth in my life since then.
How has that changed the way you approach what you do as a musician?
It’s really forced me to hone in on what I’m trying to say–what I want to put out there. Getting into a serious relationship and dating this person that I’m now going to spend my life with forced me to start–I think what happened was I started to look outside of myself. Because the relationship provided me so much stability, I wasn’t experiencing a lot of romantic drama in my life anymore, and instead of focusing inward, I was focusing outward.
Also, with the illness, it really put a lot of things in perspective in terms of how finite life is. Everything is really short, and there’s not a lot of time that we have here, and I think that perspective really made me want to say what I had to say.
When did you first start working on the songs that ended up becoming this album, Shades of Blue?
I think it was four years ago I started, and then it was a lot of starts and stops because I was working with different people in the industry. There were some deals on the table, and I walked away from a few opportunities. There was a lot of back and forth between what I was going to be doing while I was in Nashville, and eventually, I stood really firm. I knew exactly the record that I wanted to make, and it was really important to me that I had full creative control, so I wrote all these songs myself, and basically, I just started slowly, one by one, working with a friend of mine, Kenny Baumann.
We started with “Make You Love Me Too,” and then I got sick, so there was a big break between recording the tracks and making it all happen. I actually had to move back home for a little while to stay with my parents, and after that, I felt like I wasn’t well, but it was so important for me to say these things. There was a brief period where I didn’t think that I was going to live, and that really makes you think about, “Alright, what do I want to say? How do I want to say this? What’s my timeline?” Obviously, the timeline was really out of my control, but I tried super hard to get it done as quickly as I could because I was so proud of these songs and I was so ready to share them.
Can you tell me more about that objective you had for this album and what your vision was?
One of the things that happened when I first came to Nashville was I realized that people sort of see artists in this town like they were moldable or malleable, or they could change them to fit their idea of what somebody was, and very quickly, that was extremely uncomfortable for me. I felt like that forced me to go deeper inside myself and say, “Alright, who am I specifically? People are asking you to say other things, but what is it that I want to say?” I realized that I felt very strongly that women should be allowed to write their own songs, so that’s what I set out to do. I wrote every single track exclusively on this album, and I heard from a number of people in town that that just doesn’t happen anymore.
Co-writing is sort of the Nashville thing, and it just wasn’t for me. I co-wrote a lot, and I enjoyed writing for other people, but I felt like in order to tell my story and to be authentic and do what I do best, it was really a solo job. I also wanted it to reflect the sounds and the styles that inspired me growing up. I was a huge fan of music from the 1970’s. I still am hugely inspired by the Laurel Canyon sound, folk-rock, just storytelling, so I really wanted to pay homage to the people who paved the way for me to be making the music that I am now. I tip my cap a little bit to Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and the Eagles, so I knew I wanted a record with, you know, lead guitar solos. I’ve got a song on the record that doesn’t have a chorus. I’ve got Hammond organ on it. I’ve got that bumbling 1970’s bass line. I fell in love with the sound of the sitar in college, and I’ve always wanted to put sitar on a record. Since nobody was telling me what to do, I felt like I could finally do that.
You’ve said in the past that Joni Mitchell was somebody who influenced you. Was the title Shades of Blue homage to her?
A little bit, yeah. It was a play on a few concepts, but when I was thinking up the title, I noticed there was just a lot of the color blue on this record, and then I thought about how her record had shaped me. Blue was one of those really formative musical pieces for me, so I thought it could be a cool concept to play on both ideas of blue. Also blue being sadness, blue being the color of the ocean and the sky, and just the connection with landscape.
Even just looking at the tracklist, it jumps out at you. “Blue Eyes and Blue Jeans,” “Tangerine and Blue,” “Blue Lights.” Was that something that organically came out of your writing process, or was that something you were thinking about?
It was totally organic. That color just kept coming up, and I think that’s why I let it lead the way toward the title. I wasn’t sitting down and thinking about a specific color, or agenda, or theme at all. It was just what I was feeling, and that’s what I ended up with, so I think that’s telling.
The song “Blue Lights” touches on a lot of things you’ve been talking about, about success in the music industry. What can you tell me about that song and that image of blue light?
For me, a lot of this journey has been relating to people. I never had this idea like I was going to go out and be a musician, or I never had the dream of being a rock star. I was very, very shy for most of my life, and I had stage fright in the beginning of my career, but what started to happen when I was writing songs was that I was developing relationships with people through music that inspired me to keep going. Girls on my hallway in college would come in and say, “Oh my gosh, who wrote that song? I need to download it. I love it,” and I was so proud to be able to say, “I wrote that.”
These experiences kept happening, and they were growing sort of exponentially and in tandem with the more that I put myself out there. I’d started to notice when I was playing barrooms or clubs, people would come up to me and share their stories and talk to me and pick apart my lyrics. It was some of the most fun times of my life to be able to connect with people through art, and I really felt like I wanted to talk about that in a song. I wanted to talk about the behind-the-scenes and what it’s like after the lights go down–what it’s like when you get off of the stage.
You also reference The Great Gatsby in there, which makes me wonder–were you using the blue light as an analogy to the green light that Gatsby sees on Daisy’s dock?
[laughs] I love that. I didn’t think of that at all, but I love that interpretation, and that’s the most wonderful thing about music, right? You can take your life experiences and hear a song completely differently, and that is just as accurate a reading of that song as my interpretation. For me personally, that was more of an allusion to an Eagles song where they talk about the bright lights fading to blue onstage, and there really is a blue hint and hue after everything settles down.
But yeah, I was an English major in college, and one of my favorite teachers in high school, Deborah Breitenbach, taught creative writing. She taught The Great Gatsby and she read it every year, and I’ve read it every year since because of her. She’s since passed away, but she hugely inspired me as a writer, and I actually dedicated this album to her.
“Make You Love Me Too” was the first song that you worked on for this album, and you wrote it for your fiance’s film. Is that a different mode of writing for you?
I think it was a different mode of writing for me. There was a lot of pressure on that song for me because he was my boyfriend at the time, and he asked me to do him this favor and write a song for this part in the movie, and the character says, like–right before she starts dancing to it, she says, “Oh my gosh,” like, “Turn it up. This is my favorite song,” so I knew starting out that this song had to be really catchy and accomplish quite a bit. It’s hard to sit down and say, “Alright, I’ve got to write something to this timing, this beat-per-minute, and it’s got to be a hit, right off, that this young girl is obsessed with enough that it’s her favorite song.” Also, I just wanted to do him proud. I wanted him to feel like I had contributed to his project and I wasn’t holding him back at all.
I spent a lot of time on it, and I was having a lot of starts and stops with the song. Then one day, I think it was close to midnight, I was home alone sitting at my kitchen table with my guitar. I started playing those chords, and it just fell out of my mouth. It just started coming, and I picked up my iPhone. I started recording so quickly and I knew I had it. It just felt right. I don’t think it’s something I would have written organically on my own without the prompt, you know? It drew out this really different side to me–this different sort of songwriting–but as soon as I wrote it, I was like, “This also feels like me.” Even though I wouldn’t have written it on my own, it feels like me and it feels like it belongs on the record.
Is that something you’ve returned to since then–having other people prompt you to do things that you wouldn’t do yourself?
Yeah, I think that–I’m inspired constantly by different conversations I’ve had, things that I see, things I read, and podcasts I listen to. I think it’s good to keep an open mind as a writer and to always make yourself available. Like, I feel like my desk is the world, and I try constantly to carry a notebook, carry my iPhone, and just write ideas down, or even record myself singing or coming up with melodies while I’m driving. For me, songwriting feels like it’s something that I–something that already exists, and every once in a while if the circumstances are exactly right and everything aligns, you can just touch your finger into this incredible place of inspiration that exists without you. Sometimes I feel like the songs are already written, and I’m just the transmitter playing them.
And so, translating a song like “Make You Love Me Too” to video, what was it like working in that other medium?
I feel so fortunate to get to work with Josh. He’s got a brilliant mind. He’s incredibly smart, and he’s a true visionary, so when I work with him, I feel like I can relax a little bit. I tend to lean toward perfectionist tendencies when it comes to my music. I will work ridiculously long hours and I will focus on the sound until it’s exactly right, and the way that I experience my own music I think is different than the way other people experience it. I hear these tiny nuances that will bother me to no end, and it will bother me until it’s fixed, so when I actually got to shoot the music video with Josh, I felt like I was able to sit back and be like, “You tell me what to do. You direct me.”
He wrote the concept, and basically what he wanted to make was a neo-western, 1970’s heist-style music video, and he actually was paying homage to The Driver with Ryan O’Neal from–I think it was 1978. He was basically just like, “Alright, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to steal a car, and I want this to be, like, sexy and fierce and fun,” and I was just like, “Absolutely. Let’s do it.” When we actually started shooting the video, I had so much fun. I’ve never had so much fun at work. I felt totally free. I felt, like, so excited to be racing cars and burning up the streets. I actually burnt rubber for the first time and peeled out, threw gravel, and I felt like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.
You were also a co-producer on this album. What was it like for you taking these songs into the studio with somebody else and being involved in that process of committing them to tape?
I’ve always been really hands-on with my music. I’ve always had a pretty defined, distinct vision of my sound and what I was going for, but I think this record I really, really was more focused. With my first album, I was like, “I want to do this and this and this,” and I was trying different sounds and styles, and I thought I could do it all. This time, I was like, “No no no no, I feel much clearer about what I’m trying to do.” For me, it’s very easy to be involved and to be hands-on.
The hard thing is for me to sit back and say, “Yeah, that sounds good” or “Sure, however you hear it” because some of these songs, as I was writing them, I could hear the drum parts, I could hear the bass lines, I could hear the harmonies, and I would even come into the studio with those parts recorded on my iPhone. I would write them right there to be played on the record, and–not always. Kenny brought a lot of wonderful ideas as well. He came up with the bass line to “That Girl Is A Rainbow,” and it just floored me. It was so perfect, and I didn’t actually have a great vision for that song, so we complemented each other really nicely. Where I had weaknesses, he had a strength, and vice-versa, so I felt like we were able to patch together something that was as close to the vision I had in my head as possible.
Where did you record the album?
Kenny had a house in Whispering Hills in Nashville. It’s a little suburban neighborhood–lots of little family houses–and every day, I would drive over there, I’d park in his driveway, and we’d walk down into his basement. He called it Bonsai Recording Studios. He had a full studio setup and a lot of great equipment that he had acquired over the years, and bought, and borrowed.
One of the cool things about it was that there were so many creative people coming in and out of that house. His girlfriend is a singer and an actress, and his housemate was a songwriter and a recording artist. All of our friends were musicians and involved in the arts, and when we were making the record, we could just call anybody up, or they might even just be upstairs, and we’d say, “Hey, come down and sing this harmony we hear,” or, “Can you put organ on this? Can you play a little bit of piano? Can you jump on the bass guitar real quick?” There was this atmosphere and creative opportunity, I think, that’s only available in a place like Nashville, where everybody plays something, everybody sings, and everybody writes, so I felt like I had the best musicians in the world at my fingertips. I could just call and say, “Hey, you want to play that?” And they would say, “Sure.” And in two seconds, it would be the most beautiful thing I ever heard.
I bet you could knock on the doors of a lot of those family homes and find out there were recording studios in the basements.
Absolutely. Actually, a really good friend of mine, Dan O’Rourke, he’s a wonderful musician in town–he actually played lead guitar on several of the songs on the record. He played on “Tangerine And Blue” and “Battlewounds,” and I found out when he came over to record, he was like, “Dude, my recording studio is, like, a block over. That’s crazy, like, I’m recording with this kid right now in the basement over there.” I feel like a lot of cool music things are happening in different pockets around the city.
On a more serious note, “Looking For America” is a song that has more of a political edge–you touch on issues like the history of slavery in America and like lack of care for veterans. What inspired you to explore that direction in songwriting?
I actually sat down and wrote this song after grappling with the last election. Right after Trump was elected, I felt really confused living in the deep south and trying to understand this idea of what it means to be an American and understand America in this place where I feel like we’re trying to reconcile so much of our own history.
I had this concept for the second verse about these veterans because I’d seen so many homeless veterans before, but I wrote the second verse, and I just thought–I don’t know. I was so afraid of it sounding inauthentic or too much like a story I was trying to sell, so I sat on it, I deleted it, and then–I actually flew to Colorado, I got off a plane, and as I was pulling out from the airport, at the stoplight, standing there in the pouring rain was a man holding a sign saying “Three tours in Iraq.” I instantly burst into tears. Josh was with me, and he just grabbed my hand and squeezed it, and he was like, “I told you,” like, “That second verse. You’ve got to write it.”
Now I can sing it so proudly because even though I was trying to represent veterans with the best intentions, now that line is real. That was something I legitimately saw, and so it’s the visions that I’ve had of America, of living in the South, and of traveling around, and I felt like it needed to be condensed and put somewhere.
Has it helped you to have that song in your own confusion about the state of things?
Yeah, I think the cool thing about songs is you sit down with this unease in you or this melancholy, and what songwriting allows you to do is work through it. You sit down with a question and you come out with something melodic and something fully-formed, and something that gets you somewhere in three minutes. I don’t know exactly where that song takes me, other than to say that figuring out what this country means to me and what it means to be an American is something that will continue to be defined and redefined for me throughout my life.
What does it mean to you right now?
That’s a really good question. I think I’m still looking. I think that there’s a ton of hope–I see it all the time. I see so much beauty and incredible humanity in this country, and I also see a lot of darkness, a lot of trouble, and a lot of things that keep me up at night. I always hope that the light will outweigh the darkness. I believe that. I think that as a musician who cares about social justice, cares about the environment, and cares about people and human rights, I have to believe that the good parts are going to overcome the bad.
What has it been like playing that song for other people?
The reception has honestly been incredibly touching and eye-opening and validating in a lot of ways because I was really scared about writing about–I don’t know. I think everything is very sensitive right now. I think a lot of people are upset, and rightfully so, about things that are happening, but it’s like, “Who am I to talk about racism? Who am I to talk about homeless veterans?”
There’s always this feeling like, “Am I up to the task? Is this a good enough song? Am I yelling into an echo chamber?” But as soon as I started playing it out, people started coming up to me, and crying, and thanking me, saying, “That song is so beautiful. That song is important.” Ultimately, I think that’s why it made it on the record. I saw the response it was getting, and those fears sort of went away. I felt–“Okay, I guess I did what I set out to do.”
It’s gesturing at hope in a way that then gets followed up on the record with “Keep Moving On,” which is a really interesting balance. Were those two songs meant to talk to each other that way?
I guess “Keep Moving On” felt like the right song to end on. It felt like if I were to boil everything down into three minutes, that would be the message. It would be that no matter what happens, no matter how hard it gets, no matter what you’re diagnosed with, or what you face, or how hard it is at work, or what’s going on in your personal life, it’s the best advice that I’ve gotten in my life summed up in three minutes. I even listen to it myself when I’m feeling low, when I’m feeling scared or unsure, or things are just too heavy. I put that song on, and it’s a serious reminder to myself that it’s going to be alright.
What are some podcasts that inspire you, as you mentioned earlier?
I love This American Life. I also love Invisibilia and Hidden Brain, so I’m really into the NPR podcasts. There’s also a podcast called Generation Anthropocene put on by climate science students, I believe from Stanford. They take their expert knowledge and break it down and explain why climate change is happening, how it’s happening, and why it’s different than climate changes and variations in the past. Those are some of my favorites.
This album has been a long time in the making and you’ve gone through a lot in the process. What are you most looking forward to about the release?
One of the most exciting things about putting music out there is that you can never predict what it’s going to do–where it’s going to land, who it’s going to touch. You just know that sometimes what you put into something is what you get back, and I put so much love, so much blood, sweat, and tears into this project in particular. I mean, I really gave everything I had. By the time it was done, I literally felt like I couldn’t give another second, another ounce of work to it. It took everything–all of my resources and skills and time and love and money and every favor that I could call in–to make this project happen, and I think when you do something like that in your life, what usually happens is that project or whatever you’re working on, that book, that essay, that film, that painting goes out there and it has more of an opportunity to do something good for somebody. I’m keeping my expectations very low. All I ask, all I want from this, my prayer and my hope is that it helps somebody get through something bad. If it helps one person, it was worth it.