Today, we get an early look at Set You Free, the latest release from Decatur, Illinois singer/songwriter Ashley Riley. Join us as we connect with Riley for some exclusive Q & A and take a deep dive into the new album!
We often speak of authenticity when writing about music—especially in the Americana scene. Sometimes we simply mean the works reflect the roots of the artist. Swampy rock for a Louisiana band; foot stomping bluegrass from the Appalachian foothills. Other times we simply mean the artist has stayed true to a particular sound. However, authenticity can also be gleaned from a singer’s delivery. You can often tell if the words have personal meaning to the artist, rather than simply being text set to music, which is exactly what Ashley Riley was able to capture on her latest album, Set You Free. Thanks to her always expressive, often aching, sometimes raw, vocal delivery, she leaves no doubt we’re getting the real deal.
The album is built on introspection. For her songwriting, Riley connected with experiences both past and present for inspiration:
Mother Church Pew: This album is pretty darn magical, start to finish, and the songs fit together so well. Can you walk us through how you came to gather this collection of songs into one living, breathing album?
Ashley Riley: Thank you so much, I really appreciate that! It makes me happy to hear you say that, but it’s also funny because the recording of “Set You Free” was slightly disjointed because of the pandemic. I worked with James Treichler at Wave Upon Wave in Champaign, IL, and we only had a few in-person sessions before the stay-at-home orders hit. At first, we were waiting it out, but once we started to realize that the pandemic was going to go on for a while, we decided to take it remote. I have a little set-up in my home, so I was able to track vocals and guitar and some piano, and we sent songs and mixes back and forth.
We would focus on one or two songs at a time. I feel like, because of that, each song really got the attention it deserved as opposed to going in and tracking five songs in a day; that was a new approach for me. All of the songs were pretty much written in the last year or two with the exception of “Make Me,” which I wrote almost six years ago or more. When I started to listen back and finalize which songs would make the album, I realized that, lyrically, they seemed to be supporting each other on this journey, and it was things I had gone through in the last couple years.
That’s one really cool thing about being a songwriting and an artist: your albums are like time capsules of your life. It’s like when you hear that song that takes you back to high school or your childhood memories; it’s really fun when you get to tell your own story.
Set for independent release this Friday, June 18, Set You Free features a folksy, Americana vibe at its core. However, just when you think you have the album’s sound pegged as an aching folk album, Riley mixes in unmistakable elements of classic country along with hints of jazz, rock, and pop.
Album opener, “Close To Me,” is a cross between a classic, electric guitar humming country ballad and throwback airy folk-rock song. It’s a time machine that would feel right at home on both 80’s country radio or a 60’s folk rock channel. “Second Guessing” captures angsty vibes thanks to the addition of dark strings and the drummer’s focus on using the toms. Riley’s haunting vocals inspire easy reference to the style of Stevie Nicks. The Nicks and Fleetwood Mac comparisons return later in the album in the jazzier, “Oh Song.”
Mother Church Pew: Your sound is laced with Americana and more rootsy vibes, but there is also a slight pop luster to some of the tracks. How do you describe your music and your sound?
Ashley Riley: The way you put it definitely resonates. I love acoustic singer-songwriter music, folk, and really lo-fi albums, but I grew up listening to Top 40 radio, so as much as I’ve tried to emulate that stripped-down, singer-songwriter vibe, I’ve always thought my songs snuck a little bit of that pop sheen into them. I like to say that my sound is Dreamy Americana or roots-pop, so I think you hit the nail on the head.
I like to play around with genre; I love me a good, sad folk song, but I really dig the songs that are more rock (for me) like “Set You Free.” It’s really satisfying to play songs like that with a full band. Honestly, I love the emotions and energy that different music can evoke, so it’s fun to experiment with that.
Mother Church Pew: Building off the last question, where do you pull your musical inspirations from? Who are some of your favorite artists and how have they impacted you as a musician and lyricist?
Ashley Riley: I try to think of inspiration as being curious. If you’re curious about something, you can discover something new, and then you’re inspired. I get inspired by conversations, other people’s art, nature, traveling, TV shows — the list goes on. I love different points of view, and I’m always analyzing something.
As far as what I’ve learned from who inspires me, that list is also always growing, but I will list a few. Patty Griffin’s and Lori McKenna’s songs have shown me the beauty of writing about ordinary moments. Sheryl Crow’s and Tom Petty’s songs have taught me about using rhythmic melody and making songs singable for everyone. I’ve learned a lot about singing from listening to Jewel and Brandi Carlile. I really fell in love with Neko Case’s album, “The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” and her lyrics are so intriguing to me. I don’t always know what she’s talking about, but I kind of love that. Some of my current favorite artists in rotation are Erin Rae, Anna Tivel, and Lera Lynn. I can’t get Madi Diaz’s song “Nervous” out of my head — it’s so catchy!
Although present throughout the record, Riley’s emotional rawness is simply stunning on “Starting Over.” While you can feel the narrator is on the edge of losing control, there’s a touch of resolve as Riley puts forth the purest vocal performance on the album—letting just the slightest break creep in as the song ends. Is it a tale of finding comfort in moving forward or is it a cry for comforting support?
Mother Church Pew: Your lyrics have a lot of depth to them, with different lines having impact on repeated listens, sort of a peel-back-the-layers kind of experience the more time one spends with the songs. What is your writing process?
Ashley Riley: Thank you, that means a lot. I love to layer meaning if I can, and, if I’m being honest, sometimes I only realize it later. I definitely prefer to write when I’m inspired rather than having a regimented writing schedule, but I have found that even if I’m not inspired to sit and write a song that just sitting down with my guitar and singing anything will usually lead me down a path towards creativity.
Singing and creating, even just for myself, gives me a sense of peace, it’s like a runner’s high, but I don’t run, I sing, LOL. I try to sit down with my guitar at least a few times a week, usually late at night when everyone else is asleep or when I have the house to myself. I get a lot of good song ideas in the car or walking. I’ve heard it said before that there’s something about forward motion that breeds creativity, and I agree. Sometimes a snippet of a lyric or melody pops into my head, and I go from there, and other times I sit down with an idea that I’ve been thinking about. I usually finish a song in a day or two because when I’m in the zone I can’t leave it alone. I usually keep working and refining for a week or two, because I really like to play around with tempo, guitar pattern, and even melody, but I usually have most of the song done pretty quickly.
While one might wonder why an artist would be willing to share a diary’s view of her life, Set You Free is simply Riley’s honest and personal reflection of memories that have shaped her.
Mother Church Pew: What do you hope listeners to take away from Set You Free?
Ashley Riley: It’s been interesting as I listen back to this album in sequence, this one feels pretty personal, almost confessional at times. On my past releases I’ve had songs that were about other people or places that broke up the more personal songs, but on Set You Free, these are all songs I’ve personally lived, feelings I’ve had, things I’ve had to get over or make peace with. I hope that gives this album its strength. I hope that people take away that peace and strength that comes from putting yourself out there.
With that in mind and without further ado, Mother Church Pew is proud to present the streaming premiere of Set You Free by Ashley Riley. You can pre-order the album today here.
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Artist Featured Image Photo By Joe Riley