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Friday, June 3, 2016

The Pure Love of the Music: Interviewing Ashley Maher

Something amazing happened this week. I got to interview one of my all-time favourite artists, Ashley Maher.


It's possible you haven't heard of Ashley, so I started off by asking her how she would describe her music to a new listener:

"It sounds a bit like Joni Mitchell grew up in Africa."

That is definitely a great starting place to try and define Ashley's music, for it shares some of Joni's knack for sharp observation and there is a sisterhood in the woody timbres of their voices.

"I've called it World Folk Jazz... if you looked at it as a recipe, the biggest two dollops are an African sensibility and folk, with a splash of jazz."
This is getting closer, for Ashley's music is truly a blend of genres.
African music is her passion, and now particularly the Mbalax music of the Wolof people of Senegal. Ashley has immersed herself in that culture, gaining admiration and recognition from the Senegalese for her inspired melding of African and Western legacies. Like the best folk music, Ashley has a photographer's eye for reflecting her subjects in her work, transforming everyday moments of people's lives into melodic snapshots of our world. In this intersection of traditions, Ashley pushes the boundaries of melody and rhythm, creating a sound that is unique and captivating.
I asked Ashley what sparked her passion for African music. She was studying history at UC Berkeley when one day, while taking a short cut through the music department, she heard an unfamiliar sound:
"I went to the doorway and I remember feeling like I had been hit by lightning... It was a drumming class from the music of Northern Ghana... there was a guy called C.K. Ladzekpo who was teaching, he was a Ghanaian master drummer... I felt on a cellular level everything just light up... I remember thinking, 'this is it, my life has changed. My whole life has just changed direction in this doorway'."
Ashley has since explored what she feels is a "DNA connection" to African music, not just through writing and recording, but through live performance that incorporates traditional African and Senegalese Sabar dance:

"My journey into it has been through my body. By studying the dance for thirty years I feel like I understand the music from a feeling point of view, not just an intellectual one."
Signed to Virgin in the early 90's, Ashley released two critically well-received albums, Hi. and Pomegranate, before EMI swallowed Virgin up and cut its roster in half. Since then Ashley has independently released three further albums, The Blessed Rain, Flying Over Bridges and Amina. I suggest to Ashley that with each release her sound has become bolder, more fully embracing the African elements:

"[Mbalax] is a different language, but my own understanding of it is so much more sophisticated now... I can enter into it in a way that seems like it's eye-to-eye rather than top down... It feels effortless, even though it's been borne out of years of work and study."

Five years on from her last album, Ashley is keen to record new music; something her many fans, including me, are thankful for. She recently set up a Go Fund Me campaign to help cover the costs of recording in Senegal, something integral to achieving the authentic sound she craves. She is almost half way to her modest target (no grand diva lifestyle requests from our Ashley). I ask Ashley what makes Senegal so special for her:
"In Dakar they've got these little pods of musicians and studios... these little kind-of hit-making factories... There is this incredible democracy of talent."
Ashley describes how the finely-honed Senegalese musicians can "massacre" a track in a day, then the engineer arrives to mix the track overnight and there you have it:
"I think there's an energy in making things happen quickly... if your musicians are up to standard, if they're really great, the music's going to have a freshness to it that I'm excited about."
The new songs Ashley plans to record have been written over the last five years since the release of Amina. I asked Ashley whether she could give us a sense of what they are about:
"A lot of them are to do with... what it is to fall in love completely out of the blue, like being hit by a train, from sideways... The whole notion of what I would call the fallen angel... you spend your first half of life building up your ego, finding your place in the world, having your identity. The second half I think is dismantling that, and in doing so you find an identity that is bigger than your small self."
Rich territory indeed for a songwriter. Knowing how insightful Ashley's lyrics are, and how able she is to blend them with melody and rhythm, I am beyond excited to hear what she will create this summer. In the meantime, Ashley is continuing to develop her material at her live shows. One of these new songs is called Got To Go:
As a fan, I love being able to support the artists I care about, like Ashley, through campaigns that help them to continue exploring their art. It's not purely altruistic, it's selfish too. I want to hear more great music. I hope this blog can help spread the word about Ashley's music and help her pursue her dreams. Please share it, retweet it, pin it, whatever and wherever you can. And if you have a few dollars, euros, pounds, or CFA Francs spare, you can find Ashley's campaign page here:

It was a real privilege for me to meet and chat with Ashley. Her music has given me many hours of happiness and it was a delight to find she was the positive and inspirational person her work suggests:
"I'm really doing this out of the pure love of [the music] myself... Let's just see where this river is taking me. If I can be of service to the music and the people, then I'm down."

Ashley's albums are available on iTunes: Ashley Maher iTunes Preview
Or if you have Spotify I invite you to "Spend an hour with Ashley Maher" with a playlist of my favourite Ashley tracks: Spend an hour with Ashley Maher

You can learn more about her and hear more of her music at these sites:
Or watch this video to find out more about her work:
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