Decatur, IL-based Americana//folk singer-songwriter Ashley Riley has just released a brand new album, "Set You Free," a song-cycle of introspection, self- assessment, letting go, moving on, and, perhaps most importantly, being true to yourself. Riley's voice flutters and floats above the Americana-laced music, creating a sound all her own that feels both familiar and fresh. Riley calls her sound "dreamy Americana," and the description fits perfectly. Roughstock sat down with Riley recently to chat about the album overall, the song "All Fall Down" in particular, how the record came together in a time of social distancing, and how she still puts a great deal of thought into song order on her albums.
Roughstock: Hi Ashley! Thanks for joining us today. We love your new album so much. Tell us a little bit about it overall.
Ashley: Thanks so much, I really appreciate that! I'm excited to release "Set You Free." It has felt like a bit of a long process because, well... 2020. We started the recording process in-person and switched to a remote set-up, which ended up being really cool because it gave me lots of time to make choices with the songs. The way that this album was recorded, kind of solo, now that I think about it, really plays well with some of the themes on the album. The songs themselves all center and circle around some of the same themes of knowing when to let go, when to hang in there, starting over, and staying true to yourself.
Roughstock: We loved the song "All Fall Down" immediately. What is the story behind this song? Why did you write it?
Ashley: Thank you! I wrote that song in late 2017, at the time I had just finished up an EP that leaned a bit on the alt-country side of my sound. I had been working with a band, and we were getting ready to promote it, booking shows and all that stuff, when suddenly one of the guys moved states away. So, I was being a little bit dramatic and sad probably, but really, it was the domino effect.
The chorus lines -- "All this time I thought that we were building something strong | All it takes was one swift move, parts of it are gone | We all fall down, We all fall down" -- were really just thinking like, "Damnit, all these plans... now, we have to regroup." One literal move was what it took, I guess. I carried on, though.
"All Fall Down" was my writer's heart making it all dire. It feels that way though, sometimes, when you get thrown off track. At the end of the day, I'm an optimist and truly a believer that things work out the way they are supposed to, and forcing things is not the way to go.
Roughstock: What kind of a vibe were you going for on this song when you recorded it? Do you think you ended up with a song that sounds like you expected it to sound? If so, how so, and if not, what's different about it?
Ashley: I wanted this song to feel emotional and moody, maybe more of an acoustic moment on the album. I worked with producer James Treichler on all these songs. We would get on the phone and chat about the direction of the songs, and I would send him references for songs, although I feel like we were on the same page pretty easily. James has a great sensibility about what he does that serves and elevates the song in such a natural way. I wish I would have been able to be in the studio during his process, although I still learned a great deal even though we were remote.
So basically, I sent him a really good guitar/vocal take of "All Fall Down" to decorate, and when he sent it back I was just like, "Yes!" He added all these little elements that almost feel cinematic. The sparse piano at the end is one of my favorite parts. Vocally, this song is so fun to sing, and it's the only song on the album with absolutely no harmonies or backing vocals, and that was a deliberate choice. I wanted to keep it open in that way, especially since it's talking about being alone. I wanted the production to imitate the lyrics.
Roughstock: How does "All Fall Down" fit into the overall vibe and themes of your music in general? What role does it play on the album?
Ashley: "All Fall Down" and songs like it are dear to my emo heart. There's something so satisfying about a good sad song, and upbeat songs don't come as naturally for me. As far as the role it plays on the album, I think it's the album's first foray into the slightly darker, more emotive part of the album. I remember thinking that it was kind of the downbeat sister to the "Oh Song," so I wanted them to be next to each other on the full tracklist. I also like songs that bring you into an emotion and don't try to resolve it, and "All Fall Down" doesn't resolve anything. It's a release to sing it, for me, though.
I know most people are streaming music these days, but I still feel it's important to put quite a bit of thought into the album presentation and order. Like with a book, you don't just get the seventh chapter to read. I will say that this was the first time in a release cycle that I've released four singles off of one album, and it was pretty fun. I liked celebrating individual songs. Anyway, with "Set You Free," I made the decision to stay in the thick of it with the songs starting with "All Fall Down" through "We All Need Love." It was a bit of an instinct to break them up with something lighter, but once I did that it didn't make sense.
I don't think I've said much about it, but this album is really the most autobiographical of mine. That was kind of unintentional. I don't know if I turned a corner in the way I was writing or how it all happened. The songs were all written in the last three years with the exception of "Make Me" (which is almost 10 years old), so they all do have a similar vibe of what I was going through. I was a bit surprised when I sat down with the list of songs that made the cut and realized there was quite a story of letting go of a lot of different parts of my life the last couple of years. "All Fall Down" is that turning point in the album where you realize what you're chasing isn't there or isn't what you thought it was..
Roughstock: Was this a music-first or a lyrics-first song for you? Which way do you tend to write in general, music or lyrics first?
Ashley: This song was and is definitely a feeling. I remember coming up with the little picking pattern and just loving how that felt, so the music definitely came first on this one. Up until the point where I had to track vocals, I just sang the first verse twice instead of even having a second verse. That's mainly why the vocal melody is so stretched out and decorated on the second verse, I was trying to see if I could get away with just having the verse repeat. Eventually I realized I owed it to the song to finish out the thought! The song really soothes me and is probably a bit indulgent on my part for that reason, so I'm glad that you like it!
Roughstock: You have a cohesion to your sound that is so organic and natural. For the Roughstock readers who are just meeting you for the first time now, how do you describe your music to people who haven't heard it before?
Ashley: Thank you again. I really appreciate that. I try my best to be open and honest when I write, and I love to play around with genres and feel, but I really do think that I have a bit of a style that I come back to because I enjoy it. My favorite description that I've come up with is Earthy grit. Rootsy and soft. A distinct voice. At its core, my music is best described as sophisticated indie-Americana. I also like to say Dreamy Americana. I mean that in an aesthetic way, but I noticed that I do have a lot of songs that mention sleeping and dreaming... that's just a side note. :)
Roughstock: How have you been connecting with fans during the pandemic?
Ashley: Well, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was, like many, totally at home, so I did livestreams multiple times a week. It was really fun, and I did feel like in some small way I was able to connect with people and help take our minds off of the uncertainty and sadness that was happening. In that way, social media has been a blessing. I had to tune out a bit and buckle down to get the album completed, but it's been fun coming back into the mix and starting to do some more live social stuff again.
I can't wait to get out and play shows IRL again, but I'm still finding the online connections to be fun and engaging in a way that sometimes you miss when you're on a stage and there is physical space between you and an audience. There's a bit more of a conversation that can happen if you're able to read comments and engage in that way. Livestreams are the one place where I do read the comments. :)
Roughstock: What's up next for you?
Ashley: I've just started booking so new dates will be showing up at ashleyriley.com and on my socials. Another fun thing that I'm doing this time around is podcasts; I'll be posting about those soon!