Ashley Monroe doesn’t do radio promotion anymore. She wouldn’t even if she were still on a major label; she’d previously told her former team at Warner Bros. Nashville — who later dropped her in 2019 — she wanted to bypass that particular industry standard because it was “wasting everyone’s time and money.” Monroe still remembers one of her last radio gigs: After she finished singing “Has Anybody Ever Told You,” the love song off her 2015 album The Blade, someone at a radio station she won’t name began to talk to the regional manager who came with her. “What we need is more bro country,” he said, and showed the regional manager some other example albums. “I was like, I’m too old, I’m too tired, I’m too good,” Monroe remembers. “I’m not doing this anymore.”
Monroe has never fully played by Nashville’s rules. For the first years of her singing career, in the mid-aughts, Columbia sat on her debut, Satisfied, allegedly because the singles didn’t get radio play. As country went bigger and poppier, she was making stripped-down ballads and jaunty honky-tonk jams. After she got a deal with Warner Bros. for her 2013 album Like a Rose, she released a string of stunning records rooted in classic country sounds. To a wider audience, she may be best known as a member of the Pistol Annies, the supergroup with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley that stared country music’s sexism right in the face from their 2011 debut.
Yet nothing Monroe has done has broken the rules quite like Rosegold, her just-released fifth studio album. Beyond releasing it without major-label backing (it’s now being distributed by Nashville company Thirty Tigers), it’s a confident pop record, drawing more from Kanye than Dolly. Monroe wasn’t in a rut before Rosegold — 2018’s alternately heart-wrenching and sexy Sparrow, produced with fellow Nashville rebel Dave Cobb, featured some of the best songs of her career — but the new album nonetheless feels like a breakthrough. Maybe that’s because it’s the first solo music Monroe made since having her son Dalton, whom she credits for both her fortified sense of self and her desire to make a decidedly joyful album. “When everything changes, everything changes,” she says. Vulture spoke to Monroe from her home in Nashville about the influences on her new album, from the spiritual feeling that led her toward the new music to the hip-hop beats of Kanye West and Beck.
I’ve been thinking back on every record, and every time I follow the feeling, if you will — what I’m feeling right then. That’ll be the kind of melodies, production, lyrics, blah blah blah that come to me. Well, this follow the feeling was just a brand new feeling.
I’ve always, ever since I started making music, wanted to make music to give people chills. In my mind, that’s the Holy Spirit saying, “This is right.” I would come in my closet — which is where I am now, my closet — and I would hear melodies. I have the tape of me, at like 7:02 in the morning, going, [sings] “You can’t see / You can’t see / You can’t see / What you’re doing to me / I see a million—” It goes into that part too. And I would get chills when I was hearing these melodies, like, Wow! Sometimes it would take me a while, when I would get an instrument, to even see, like, what chords are these? [Laughs] What does this need? But what I was hearing was so pure.
Being dropped by her label while navigating new motherhood
I got let go from Warner Bros., the label I made Sparrow with [in 2018]. I get it, I don’t think I make them a lot of money, and I had a lot of money to pay back. I don’t have radio hits, et cetera, et cetera. I’m thankful that they kept me as long as they did [for three albums], but when that happened, I almost got my feelings hurt — it felt like high school when somebody would say, “Hey, just wanna be friends?” Like, ugh! So sad.
But then I started getting this wave of confidence. I was hyper-focusing on this love in my life, this child that came into my life [in 2017] and has changed me in every way. I walk differently than how I walked before I had a kid. My shoulders were always hunched over, I didn’t have that much confidence, I didn’t portray that I believed in myself and my gift that much sometimes. All that started happening at once, plus Warner Bros. let go of me, and I felt this freedom.
[If I were still on a label], I don’t know if I would’ve let myself be all the way free [to make this album]. It’s probably something that’s always been in the back of my mind. But I was starting to write [these songs] when I was still at the label. I just became more confident and was like, I want to use my songwriting to write something out there, and just let it free.
Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and Beck’s beats
When I would get into my car, I started digging into Kanye West. Like, every record he’s ever made. I don’t know why, either. That’s another thing I just felt led to. And I would notice [when I did], I would get chills a lot, and I would laugh out loud a lot. He would use certain beats [on] different records [in] different ways. I had been paying attention to different kinds of strings [after drawing from Glen Campbell on Sparrow], like Kanye West’s “Gone,” and how those chug there. The strings on “Groove,” I wanted them to chug, and then at the end I was like, “We need to add one more groove.” I’d never done as much percussive styles with strings. I listened to a lot of Kid Cudi as well — I was getting interested in different ways of phrasing, unexpected phrasing, which kind of inspired “Siren” in that way, too.
Beck was another one, when that record [Hyperspace] came out [in 2019]. I would listen to “Uneventful Days”; I love “Wow” [off his 2017 album Colors], I love “Saw Lightning,” and all the noise, all the layers, all the different things. I’ve always loved Beck, too, so I went back and listened to a lot of his older ones, too. I love how there’s something underneath something in his beats, and how much more powerful that makes it. To have these heavenly, pure noises and vocals, with something that’s heavy and powerful that just drives in that feeling even more — I like that.
Nobody’s just one thing. Willie Nelson’s done an amazing reggae record [Countryman]; he’s done Stardust [a collection of pop standards]; he’s done Red Headed Stranger [a concept album]. Elvis, too. A ton of my favorite artists have done lots of different kinds of music, and it’s so cool — it has always been, for me — to watch artists truly express themselves.
I’m such a music lover, and I’ve never only listened to one thing. As a little girl, my parents would have on Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles, and they’d put on Bonnie Raitt, and then I’d put on Whitney Houston, and [laughs] then we’d put on Celine Dion. I’d listen to [Mariah Carey’s] “Vision of Love” record on the way to my clogging classes, every week, and I would try to sing along with those melodies, and would feel them. And my brother had all the rap CDs that I wasn’t allowed to listen to, but we listened to them on the way to church. I just took in a little bit of everything.
Breaking the recording process
I would normally go in with an idea. Well, I did on every one of these [songs], but it wasn’t a complete idea, and it wouldn’t have ended up how it did if I wouldn’t have had faith in [my collaborators]. They would just get so excited with me! Because it’s not the same old same old thing for them, or not something that they’re trying to make for a label. It’s like they all were free to be whatever the song needed [them] to be.
Every vocal except “The New Me” was my vocal the day I wrote the song. When you write a song, that sound is so cool. Sometimes, when people make these amazing tracks and play everything and spend hours and hours on it, then somebody on a major label that has a big budget will just hire a producer to literally try to copy what they did. That’s been the case forever, in Nashville, just trying to copy a demo. They’ve always said, “It’s hard to capture that demo magic.” So in my mind, I’m like, Why wouldn’t I show up, if these guys are sick producers? As opposed to going and trying to replicate it. It didn’t make sense.
Rethinking: What is country?
I didn’t want [this album] to be country. I wouldn’t have had a steel [guitar] or anything on it; that’s just not the production that went with these songs. I wasn’t trying to be country, but I wasn’t trying not to, ’cause my voice is from Knoxville, Tennessee.
I think [Rosegold] is genre-less. When I listen to country music, I don’t know, it’s a different feeling. But I wouldn’t say this album isn’t [country], because I’m from the country [laughs], and a lot of these are angel-y kind of melodies, which a lot of country music has. I didn’t want it to say country in the genre [categorization], because it’s not me representing country. [Ed. note: Rosegold is filed under “pop” on Apple Music.] I’m not trying to be like, “This is country.” I wouldn’t do that, because I realize it isn’t, technically. But then, my old stuff, they would say it was too country for country. So, what is country? It’s just a word these days, I don’t know. A feeling.
I can think of “Take It to the Limit,” [by the] Eagles, and to me, that can feel countrier than anything these days, but it’s not technically. I think the power of the Eagles’ melodies and harmonies will always be there. Bobbie Gentry, I listen to her records, and they could be so different. And sexy — “Fancy,” my gosh. And “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
Also, I love Shania Twain. When she came [into] pop — those melodies, I just always loved it. I was watching a little clip of her earlier today, like a flashback video, and I thought, Man, this is beautiful. It was not country, but it’s like, whatever it is, it’s really amazing and she’s really great at it.
Fear of loss
I’m still medium-ly wound tight as a mom, but [right] after I had my son, Oh, God. Fear of losing — that stupid thing kicks back in, because it did happen to me; I did lose my dad when I was a young girl. Every single day, I have to fight that fear. I listen to my Bible, I pray, I do everything I can to try to not have to focus on what could go wrong. Sometimes songs on this album almost sound like a declaration of, “Oh my God, I love you so much, I couldn’t make it without you.” It kind of is like that, just a hyper-exaggeration of it. But I’m trying to not let my fear of losing the joy rule the thrill of having it. [Laughs] I think that’s another reason why I wanted to hyper-focus on it, because it freezes it. You can always go back to it.
At the time I was writing these [songs], I got the overwhelming urge to dye my hair pink, and I got the overwhelming urge to get this really colorful tattoo on my right arm. I saw everything through a prism light. I wear rosegold sunglasses every day. ‘Cause, you know, it’s pretty to look through rose-colored glasses. It just is. So it’s almost like I wanted the visual part of the album to have that [feeling of] you’re looking through everything with a rosegold lens as well. Like something coming alive.
When I was with Nathan Chapman when we wrote “Gold,” that’s when I felt sure. I was like, This project is called Rosegold. My second record was called Like a Rose, and I have a lot of rose [imagery] in my life. When I was pregnant, the only thing I could listen to would be Édith Piaf; something about “La Vie en Rose” connected in a whole different way. And then, when we wrote “Gold,” and it saying, “You’re a ‘50s record on the stereo,” you can see that ‘50s gold. Then, with that rose on the front of it, I felt, That’s exactly what this sounds like.
I feel like “Gold” would be like what a hit was. I would think it would be one, but I don’t even know what genre it is. But I get it stuck in my head. There’s even a line in it, “I wear you like a ruby necklace” — that’s my son’s birthstone. Or, “You’re ‘Love Me Tender’” — I have that tattooed on my back. There’s different little things in that song that make it that much more personal to me.
I saw some [picture of me] the other day, and it was like 2011. I was so insecure and shy. I’m proud of where I am now — I’m proud of that girl who has been able to put her shoulders back and stand a little bit taller and look people in the eye and own the gift that I do feel like I’ve been given. I wouldn’t change anything in the past for anything. I see how it got me to here.
I think it’s exactly what the last line on [album closer “The New Me” represents]: “I’m alive and on fire, now that I’m ready to love.” I also wanted to put that Bible verse in, Isaiah 43:18-19: “I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up, do you now perceive it?” I love that. It’s almost like being baptized and coming up again a new person. Baptized in love.
Her future after Rosegold
I have so many more songs of this vein [of Rosegold] that I want to make — and I might just produce it, I don’t know yet. Because I have to make some money to spend some money without a label these days. [Laughs] But once that happens and I can do it, I know how I want it to sound, and I have a lot of them written that I cannot wait for y’all to hear.
And then all the while, I’m writing songs with the Annies, and that part of me — that country Tennessee girl that is who I am and where I’m from — gets to come out there. That’s the purest part of that songwriting part of me that gets to come out right now, whether I’m making genre-less [music] or not.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.