a story of three friends, three songwriters, three voices
The woman on your left is Ashlee Morton and her close friend and singing partner on the right is Holly Diane Pulliam. Along with Brandon Thomas De La Cruz, they perform individually and occasionally together in various configurations and places: house concerts, coffee houses, churches and wherever else they can get a gig. Should either Brandon or Holly be on stage by themselves and you find yourself in the audience sitting close to Ashlee, you’ll also probably get to hear her sing along in harmony. The girl simply can’t help it.
Three friends, three songwriters, three voices.
These are twenty-something year old suburban kids, living and working in places south and east of Los Angeles in the counties of Orange and Riverside and although the territory is far and wide, opportunities for Americana and folk music are limited. It’s hard to become part of a cohesive community when everything is at least sixty minutes away on the freeways, and even tougher when you’re at that age where your either finishing school, beginning a career, need to earn a living or are starting to think about a family and marriage, or both.
Through Davie Gayle, an Americana artist who runs the Friday Night Writer’s series at Flour Fusion, a local coffee shop on the dusty main street in the little downtown area of Lake Elsinore, I came to hear about Brandon. He and I started to email back and forth well over a year ago about music, his efforts to establish himself as an artist, and some of the articles I’ve written and posted here at No Depression. He’d faithfully send me a list of his upcoming gigs, and I’d promptly miss them all. He also sent me a copy of his first album, and I was intrigued by his voice…we all hate the “he sounds like” thing, but he really does sound quite a bit like Conor Oberst, with a touch of Sam Beam from Iron and Wine and a twist of Neil Young.
I think there must be at least a few million people these days who call themselves singer-songwriters, who play at open mic shows, shoot videos in their bedrooms and upload them to You Tube, have My Space pages and record albums on Pro Tools that they try to sell at gigs or on any number of download sites. It’s almost at epidemic levels and I’d be surprised if scientists at the Center for Disease Control weren’t feverishly working on a cure as I write this. But every now and then, on any given night at unexpected places with no expectations, it’s possible to experience magic. Not probable mind you…but possible.
A few nights ago my wife and I took the seats closest to the door in the back of the room at Flour Fusion with our cups of coffee. Brandon had arranged a showcase of sorts for themselves, and there were maybe three dozen folks who seemed to be a mix of family, friends and a few strangers who had wandered in. I anticipated hearing an hour or two of good music, but I didn’t expect to be blown away. I didn’t expect to have a transformative experience. I didn’t expect to be touched deeply by the music and lyrics. But I was.
The guitar work was crisp, the vocals and harmonies spot on. The covers were tasteful and the original songs had great structure and melodies with strong lyrical content. The singing was from the heart, deep and emotional. I loved their youth and energy, their poise and humor. In a world of marketing to the masses, of phoning in performances and overcharging for tickets, of auto-tune and electronic replication…this was cool and breezy. Small venue, huge performance.
Three friends, three songwriters, three voices.
This is their story in their own words.
Brandon Thomas De La Cruz: I’m 25 years old, went to college at UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in philosophy, though I haven’t worked at all in any related field. I spent some time traveling right after graduating. New York for a bit, Newport Beach, back to Berkeley and now southern California again. I’ve been a teacher’s assistant, tutor and substitute teacher but currently am out of work. For the last year I’ve been trying to play as many shows as possible since finishing my album Everything Is New . Presently, I’m spending a lot of time writing and also recording some cover songs.
Ashlee Morton: I am 25 years old and trying to balance art with a stable income. Currently I’m working full time at a birth center in Orange County, where I am a back office assistant and phlebotomist. I assist midwives during the clinical portion of our schedule as well as at the birth center and home births of our clients. Its a really awesome job. I love it. I also have my own mini business of being a Birth Doula. Its really hard to balance the two worlds though. If I push too far into the Midwifery world, I end up putting my artistic side on hold. Factual learning and artistry are two different things.
Holly Diane Pulliam: I am 23 years old and attended Biola University for two years, but the combination of financial strain and a lack of educational direction led me to leave before I was finished. I changed my major from Liberal Arts, to Music, to Communication… I just couldn’t decide what I wanted, or what was best for me. So I withdrew after my fourth semester ended. I’m now back in school after a short time off, taking vocal and communication classes, and I’m also working a full-time desk job. I’m grateful to have an income in this terrible economy, and my job allows me the time and money I need to fund my music career as it is now.
Ashlee: I have always loved to sing. My first performance in front of a large audience was in fifth grade when I sang “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”. When I was 17 my friend Jacob taught me how to play guitar by showing me a few basic chords, giving me a simple song and saying “now play it!” That was it. I played everyday for hours, until my fingers were to the point of bleeding. I started leading in a small bible study at church and got most of my practice there. I soon moved to England for a short period of time where I was surrounded with friends who were brilliant musicians. I watched, learned and would sing with friends at different pubs around the towns, but nothing really creative of my own came out of that time. It was a good learning and developing period.
Holly: Ashlee is one of the most amazing people I have ever known. Not only is she a great singer/songwriter, but she is one of the best friends I have ever had. She and I met at church some 12 years ago, but it is only in the last 3 years that we have become very close. We starting hanging out more, and she told me about her music. So when I hosted a house show in the summer of 2008, I invited her to play. We have been pretty much inseparable since then. We play shows together all the time, and hang out on a regular basis.
Ashlee: My influences include Ray La Montagne, Feist, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, Norah Jones, Adele and many others.
Holly: I am always on the lookout for good music. Rocky Votolato – who is one of my all-time favorite artists – is a gem I discovered when a good friend loaned me his CD collection some 7 or 8 years ago. I listened to his Suicide Medicine album and was moved instantly. I felt as though some of the stars had aligned. That’s how I fall in love with music – if I am deeply, emotionally moved by a particular artist, I become a dedicated fan for life. I have been to many of Rocky’s shows, and met him a few occasions. He is a huge influence on my music.
Brandon: I don’t know if anything is more important than being a captivating storyteller. For myself, playing music live is the most enjoyable part and all the other work that I put into it is in hopes of having more opportunities to perform in front of people.
Holly: My faith is a huge part of my life. I am a Christian, and have been my entire life. My songs come from my personal thoughts, opinions, struggles, understandings, views, and feelings about situations or experiences I’ve had. If you are listening to any of my songs, you are essentially reading my diary.
Ashlee: It wasn’t until a hard break up from a long term relationship that I started writing. Funny how heartbreak does that for you. Kicks you into gear. As far as the secular and the non-secular go, those worlds intermingle for me. They flow one into the other. I just try to be me and allow the music to come from where I am at the moment. I’m trying to learn to not censor that just because it may or may not offend people. I think that people appreciate honesty. So I try to bring just that, in the least offensive way I can.
Everything Is New: Brandon De La Cruz
Brandon: I recorded Everything Is New in various garages around Southern California starting in October 2009 on through September 2010, though their composition began while I was living in Berkeley during the spring and summer of 2009. My brother played drums on a few of the tracks and some of my close friends sang harmonies. In February 2009 I began performing these songs at the weekly open mic at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley to very kind audiences. These songs developed and came to fruition on the Freight’s stage. I am very grateful for the seven song collection that emerged and I am very happy to share it with you. (You can download the album for free just by clicking this link.)
Holly: A good friend of mine has a small home studio and he is recording and producing my first album. It has been a blast so far, and I am so excited for the finished product. My dreams for my music are pretty big, but not unrealistic. I would ultimately love for his to be my full-time job but I’m not out to make tons of money or be really famous; I just want to impact lives and connect with people. (This is the link to Holly’s Reverbnation site with music to hear.)
Ashlee: In the summer of 2009 I saved enough money to have my dear friend Ryan Webster record, produce and master my EP Don’t Grow Cold. It was so fun. It was a beautiful summer filled with greek salad, cabernet sauvignon, and music (we literally did each of those things at every recording session). Dreams were happening. We did the vocals right before he, his wife and their kids moved to New York. The final vocals were recorded the day before their big move. It was my first time to ever professionally record. It was a very sweet time, and I see how much I have grown since then. (This is the link to Ashlee’s site where you can purchase Don’t Grow Cold.)
Don’t Grow Cold: Ashlee Morton
Brandon: We have been playing regularly at Alta Coffee in Newport Beach and The Gypsy Den in Santa Ana, among a few other coffee shops and bars. We want to start playing more in LA, but it’s hard to branch out that way because most of our friends and fan base lives farther south.
Ashlee: Brandon has been a huge encouragement for me. He has pushed me and taught me how to throw myself out into the local music scene. He is a large part of the reason I have continued to grow and play live music. He took me to my first open mic in Orange County and there are now regular venues for me to play and be featured at. The coffee shop scene is both wonderful and difficult. The small venue lends itself to intimacy while also adding a touch of brutality to it. Its raw. People are right up close and personal. Its not distant or performance. Its emotional and personal. But even still, I really enjoy it. Its my beginning. Its my learning ground.
My Heart Came To Rest: Brandon De La Cruz
Brandon: I think both Ashlee and I often aren’t sure what else we can do to move towards having a career in music besides play more shows and continue to share our music with people. One of the interesting things about playing so many different shows together is experiencing the way different audiences respond to our music. Some nights people really love her set, other nights people will make a point of talking to me after my set, and then some nights people really connect with what each of us is doing.
Ashlee: Holly, Brandon and I have really moved forward in booking shows and playing with each other. It has become a wonderful friendship. We all spur each other on. We are our biggest fans and also our inspiration. We’d often get together to hang out and pass a guitar in a circle and show each other our new songs or things we were working on. Hearing their music really pushed me to want to write more of my own and to develop it.
This is the last song they sang the other night except that they turned it into a sing-along. Three dozen people raised their voices as one in a small coffee shop on a dusty street. Family, friends, strangers. Building community, building bridges, building relationships. It’s what separates art from mere commodity, and it’s what I treasure most about this gift of music we all share in together.
Post Script: There was another good friend of theirs who opened the show the other night, but I decided to hold off on writing about him for the moment. Timothy recently left his band, which is one that has been pretty successful with recording, videos and extensive touring, and they have yet to make an announcement on his departure. His set, only his first or second solo outing to date, was brilliant and he’s working on more songs and pondering a folk music path. If you find yourself in Southern California on June 4th, they’ll all be playing at a benefit for the victims of Japan’s earthquake. Here’s the link for more information.