Music for Music: Naomi Ashley
Naomi Ashley: Exhilaration and Risk
By Dan Ursini ©2020
As we try to live ordinary lives in the blur of a seismic moment in the human community, the music of roots singer/songwriter Naomi Ashley resonates especially well. The driving impulse behind her work over the years, she says, is that she finds it “devastating and beautiful, the way we’re all trying to get through day-to-day with limited resources.” Ashley’s current album, Last Wednesdays Live, offers a dozen songs—largely originals—with plenty of excellent hooks to pull you into songs of remarkable depth:
Each piece is exceptionally well-crafted: completely realized, rooted in country, folk, and rock. The songs tell compelling stories of relationships in which everything essential is in short supply—and the usual workarounds have their own downtrends. You can hear this in the song titles, like “It Only Lasts So Long” and “Worse Ways to Go.”
Ashley’s observations are full of compassion, laced with dry, resigned wit. In “Let’s Pretend It’s Love,” the lyrics elegantly sum up the situation:
We could sit upon my couch.
Appreciate the late November.
You can ask me all my secrets.
I’ll tell you the one I can remember
Her lyrics are marked by extensive use of irony, understatement, and lyricism. Asked about her influences, Ashley replied, “One of my first influences was John Prine. He has this ability to flesh out dynamic/heartbreaking characters with simple details…. I love Tom Waits for the same reasons. I love the straightforward raw emotion of Lucinda Williams’s songs and voice. I’m also a huge fan of short story writers Raymond Carver and Tony Earley, and the poetry of Jim Harrison.”
Ashley’s vocals soulfully convey the poignance of her characters’ lives. And she enhances her melodies through nuanced phrasing and exquisite timing. The results are captivating, particularly in songs of great economy and power like “Slow Train.”
And, “It Only Lasts So Long.”
When Ashley covers a song, she truly makes it her own. A good example is “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Fresh and complete on its own terms, her take is radically different from the original Joy Division version. Ashley explains, “I love interpreting and performing covers. It is very satisfying to boil down the essence of a tune, what it means to me, then turn around and try to communicate that with an audience. Plus, I have an incredible band that lifts everything up.”
Last Wednesdays Live, is of course an album recorded in a performance situation—at Wire, a venue in Berwyn, Illinois.
As such, this album is a showcase for the stellar capabilities of Ashley’s band, which is composed of roots music veterans. Their understanding of the music, and of one another, is highly refined. Ashley herself plays guitar. She has an exceptional rhythm section with Paul Bivans on drums and Michael Krayniak on bass guitar. The solos of guitarist Andon Davis and fiddler Cathie Van Wert provide compressed and complete statements. Everyone in the group sings.
Along with her work as a band leader, Ashley is active in a number of collaborative projects. She and Andon Davis join with bass guitarist Ralph Baumel and drummer John Carpender in a tribute group, the Real Pretenders. She brings alive Chrissie Hynde’s vocals with remarkable accuracy.
As well, Ashley enjoys cross-genre collaborations. She says, “I often perform as featured guest of the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill. My band backs up the poets, and we do a featured set of my original music. Slam Founder Marc Smith and I often collaborate.”
A good example is an earlier version of “Slow Train” with a much different, yet arresting, arrangement. A highlight is Smith’s monologue, midway through:
Throughout Ashley’s varied projects, she is committed to being alive to the artistic possibilities of the moment. Of her collaborations with Smith, she says, “We rarely plan out what we’re going to do ahead of time and are flying by the seat of our pants. When it comes together, it is magical. It’s exhilarating even when we crash and burn.”
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org