Interview: Ashley Campbell Explores Loneliness and Freedom on Her Debut Album
Ashley Campbell didn't intend to be a musician. Her debut album, The Lonely One, which drops on Friday (May 11), is the result of a circuitous path that began somewhere quite different; in fact, the singer-songwriter started out as an aspiring actor, and had dreams of appearing on Saturday Night Live ... but something clicked when she picked up a banjo as part of a role in a play.
That isn't to say that music wasn't already a central part of Campbell's life: As the daughter of country icon Glen Campbell, she grew up with a deep appreciation for the history and traditions of country music. Campbell tells The Boot that part of what drew her to the banjo is its connection to American musical history.
"It's such an old instrument, with roots that go down deep into America's history," she explains. "I feel like it's bigger than me; I've always thought of it as kind of a sacred thing. We've been playing it for hundreds of years, and people still love it, so I've always felt closer to American heritage through playing the banjo."
The Lonely One's release has been a long time coming: Campbell began writing songs for the album an eventful four years ago; at that time, she was focusing much of her time to contributing to I'll Be Me, the 2014 documentary about her father's farewell tour, and caring for him as his Alzheimer's disease progressed until his death on Aug. 8, 2017. The year 2017 was a tumultuous one professionally for Campbell as well: Her label, Dot Records, closed early that year, prompting her to ultimately release her album on her own label, Whistle Stop Records.
Long before she was ready to do so, though, Campbell says she had a relatively developed sense of which songs would make it onto The Lonely One: "I had all these songs I'd been writing for the past four years, so I already kind of knew which ones were my favorites," she says.
"The whole thing ended up being mostly breakup songs, or lonely songs, or independent songs; I wrote the title track, "The Lonely One," pretty close to when we started recording, and that's when it all started really coming together, because it was sort of the perfect way of describing this group of songs," Campbell adds. "They're all about different aspects of dealing with yourself: Some of them are about missing someone, or regretting leaving someone. And then some of them are like, 'Thank God I left that person!' Some of them are about loving being alone."
Although loneliness and endings are two major themes on the album, not all of its songs are sad; rather, Campbell says that one of her favorite tracks, "Nothing Day," was inspired by a fond memory.
"I thought of this one particular time, this one moment in my life, when I could remember being so very happy in the present moment. Nothing particularly interesting was going on -- it was just this beautiful moment with someone I really enjoyed being with," she recalls. "I think I went [into the co-writing session that day] wanting to write a positive song, so I just 'did a Peter Pan' and thought happy thoughts."
While Campbell didn't consciously draw influence from her father's music for The Lonely One, she acknowledges that growing up with his love of country music traditions undoubtedly had some effect.
"Growing up with my dad's music being such a big part of my life, obviously I'm obsessed with fiddles and strings, so there's a lot of big string arrangements on the album," she explains. Campbell also worked with her siblings on the project: She co-produced the album with her brother Cal, and another brother, Shannon, co-wrote one of its songs and lent some electric guitar lines and backing vocals to the project.
Ashley and Shannon Campbell recently returned together to Abe's Garden, the Nashville-area Alzheimer's and memory care center where their father spent the final portion of his life, to celebrate what would have been his 82nd birthday with a performance for the facility's residents. It was Ashley's first time back since her father's death, "so it was a very emotional experience," she recalls of that day.
"I still don't think I was really ready for it. It was really nice to see some familiar faces, and to catch up with all his caregivers and give them big hugs," Campbell adds. "I loved playing music for the people in the facility, because even if they're not really there, or 'with it,' you can tell they're enjoying the music."
Indeed, Campbell credits music for prolonging her father's life and improving his quality of life, even in his final weeks and days: "I truly believe that because my dad kept touring and playing music for his fans, it kept him with us and healthy longer," she explains. "Even after he had lost his power of speech, and really even lost the ability to be aware of what people were saying around him, I would sit and play music for him. All of the sudden, he would tune in randomly and start tapping his toe, or close his eyes, and you could tell he was enjoying it ... Some part of it got to him."
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