Ashley Davis: Finding Herself Through Her Past

Ashley Davis' first release

By Ian Worpole, Contributor
August / September 2008

Ashley Davis has only released one CD so far, but it’s a gem, garnering her much attention in the Irish musical community.

Ian: Ashley,  you’re a resident of New York City, but right now you’re over in Ireland recording your new CD.  Tell us all about it.
Ashley: I dreamed for years about going back to Ireland to record an album. Even though I live in New York, I feel like one half of me is always in Ireland. So, to have the chance to do what I love most, in a place I hold so close to my heart, means that this album is going to be very special to me.

My last album was a conglomerate of influences I had collected over the years of traveling and studying. With this album, I’m going back to my roots – five generations ago to those who sacrificed so much so that I can do what I do today. This album is for them.

Originally a native of Kansas, you began your music career as a bluegrass/country musician.  What led you to Irish music, and indeed, to move to Ireland and study at the University of Limerick?

Country and bluegrass music have their roots completely tangled up with Celtic music since that is its primary root. I often had people come up to me at country gigs and ask me where the Irish influence comes from. I had no idea what they were talking about. Investigating further, I discovered that my father’s side of the family originally immigrated from Ireland, and for some reason this part of our family history had been buried and sort of lost. Fast-forward about five generations later and this Kansas gal comes out singing like she’s been around Irish music all her life. So I took it as a very clear sign that it was time for me to use my voice to uncover the layers of our Irish family history that had been buried on the long and unforgiving trek from the port in New York (in the 1800s) to the free land they were giving away out west.

One aspect of Irish-American culture that I have found very fascinating in New York is realizing that the closer the family still is to where they docked, the stronger the connection to the homeland. Out in Kansas, I grew up with hundreds of kids with Irish last names, and looking back, I know that most of them did not know their family history. So it’s been a fascinating journey for me to come to the East Coast where cultural identity is at the forefront of everyone you talk to. I love it, and am so proud to be able to say (with now a good knowledge of our family’s journey from Ireland) that “I’m Irish-American!”

Your last CD, Closer to You, was very well received. It’s very sophisticated for a first album. How did you pull all that together?

I think it was a lot of years of listening and really knowing what I wanted when I went into the studio to record Closer to You. I also took a painstaking year to record the album – because I didn’t want one note out of place. The two musicians I worked with on the album (who are not Celtic music artists) were a huge factor in giving it the smooth and graceful sound that it ended up having.

In short, I had a clear vision for it and I wasn’t leaving the studio until I heard it played back to me. Luckily, we got there!

You’ve said Loreena McKennitt was a big influence. Who are you listening to these days?

Loreena has been a big influence – I think that her arrangements and the approach she takes to her songs is breathtaking. We both approach music from a highly literary perspective and then take that and see what worldmusic elements blend with the tale we’re telling. No one does it better than her. Now vocally, I would say that Moya Brennan has been my biggest influence. I think she has absolutely the most incredible voice I have ever heard. I get tears in my eyes every time I hear her sing. Her voice is otherworldly and I’ve learned so much listening to her and talking to her about her approach in the studio.

So recording this album at Moya Brennan’s studio must be a really big deal for you.  I believe you’re doing a duet together on the album.
Yes! I am recording the album at her studio, which is located in the basement of her lovely home on the shore in Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin.
I was downstairs working on a track and took a break to walk out into the garden to get some air, and Moya was playing her harp in the kitchen and the notes were floating around the back garden.  I closed my eyes and gave thanks to the gods for guiding me to this moment in my life. I feel so blessed to be here with so many amazing musicians and to have Moya upstairs.

Sometimes I pop up for tea and we just chat about the album and life in general. It’s still like a dream to me. Not only is she the most amazing singer I’ve ever heard, she happens to be one of the nicest, most genuine people I have ever met. Watching her in her home would be inspiring to any wife or mother. She’s truly lovely.

As for the duet, I am obviously quite excited about it. We are co-writing the piece around an idea that I had and have been researching. I wanted to write a song that was a series of letters between a mother and daughter. The daughter in the song has immigrated to New York, and the mother is still in Ireland wondering about the new world, while the daughter is wondering how things are back home. I can’t wait to finish it and go into the studio with Moya and sing it together. I think it has the potential of being a really special song for the genre.

At least one of your own songs seems to have entered the traditional canon back in Ireland. Is that a good feeling?

It is an amazing feeling. To come back to Ireland and hear one of your songs being sung by a young girl at a pub – I feel like I am actually fulfilling what my Irish ancestors would have wanted me to do. Bring music back into our family, bring the Irish back into our family. After my family, Ireland and all that it encompasses has been the single greatest blessing in my life, truly.

When I saw you perform at Joe’s Pub in New York, Philip Glass, was sitting at the next table – how did the two of you cross paths?

Philip met me as a young girl in Kansas when my mother was presenting him as a new and up-and-coming composer. She had commissioned a piece from him for the University of Kansas. When I moved to New York and recorded the first album, I asked Philip (having not spoken to him since I was about eighteen) if I could send it to him for his opinion and he sent me a beautiful note about my music after listening to it. I was floored. Then when he showed up at my Joe’s Pub gig – I was double floored. I have so much respect for Philip as not only a composer, but also a person. He came backstage that night after the show and was openly excited about how I have grown vocally and musically –  it was inspiring to listen to him talk, and then I realized that he was talking about me and I was overwhelmed with honor and emotion once again.

Any chance of Philip writing something for you?

When he came backstage and was very complimentary, I said, “Well, then put me on a soundtrack!” He laughed and said, “Why don’t you call me and we’ll go have coffee and talk.” Coffee hasn’t happened yet due to our schedules, but it is a dream of mine to collaborate with him.

Cathie Ryan, one of our favorite American-Irish singers, upped and moved to Ireland a couple of years ago; can you ever see yourself doing that, or is New York the place to be?

I love Cathie Ryan. I think she’s fantastic. She’s actually someone I would like to write with and do a duet possibly someday. I will almost definitely end up in Ireland someday. I feel most at home here. The reason I moved to New York was that it was close to Ireland and there was a strong Irish community there. It’s the culture I am easily the most comfortable in.

So what else are you doing with your time over there?

Well, I’m actually studying the Irish language at Oideas Gael School in Donegal. I’m pleased to say, on a full scholarship.

Do you have any plans for a tour back here in the States?

The CD will come out in January of 2009. I will only have a gig here and there until next year, but I plan to tour as much as possible to get this new music out to the listeners. All tour dates will be posted on my website, so I recommend checking that every now and then, or signing up for my mailing list. As for buying my CD, it is best to buy it online, either through a digital retailer (such as iTunes) or an online distributor such as CD Baby. My website is www.daisyrings.com. I always love hearing from people who have come across my music.

Ashley, thanks so much for your time, and good luck with the new CD!

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