Ashley Brooke Toussant…let me call you sweetheart
I was tempted to start this up by using the Gillian Welch lyric “Oh me oh my oh, Look at Miss Ohio” but forget it…I’m not going in that direction.
Instead, let me try this on for size:
Most people in my age group have grown up without ever knowing anyone (except maybe their granddaughter or a young niece) named Ashley. Nor Brooke. I mean, there are millions of them running around now, but back in the old days those names weren’t used all that often. While both have been in the top fifty of baby names since the mid-seventies, in the fifties and sixties they didn’t even crack the top thousand. Oh yes…I have researched and looked it up…trust me on this.
So about a month ago as I was reading a publicist’s email that a young(er) woman named Ashley Brooke Toussant was about to release a new album, I thought first of Britney and Lindsay and almost deleted the message. For just a brief moment I became a curmudgeon, snob and ageist all rolled up in one, but I was feeling the need to hear and experience something new and different…and I got a lot more than I expected.
If you’d like absolute honesty, it was the album cover that drew me in. The hat and the dress. The blue eyes and mint-green nails. The straw and the milk shake. There was something in the way she doesn’t move. Looking into the lens. This imagery is of a different time and place. I’m thinking of calling it: Still Life…in Ohio.
I needed to sit down and look at the map before I wrote this. Ashley grew up and is based in the northeastern part of the state…she lives in Kent at the moment. There’s a university there as you might guess, with a vibrant music scene that comes along with the student population. And an art scene. And a fashion scene. And the entire area is really very pretty, at least during the eight or nine months a year when it doesn’t snow too much or get too cold. Places like this are often neglected or forgotten about by those of us who live on the coasts or in the big cities.
Let me share a bit about Ashley. She is 26 years old and grew up in Canton…a town I’ve actually visited. (Some of you might recall a record store chain called Camelot Music…their headquarters was located in Canton.) She did vocal training in elementary and high school, and when she became a freshman at Kent State, she took up the guitar and started writing her own songs.
“I have always loved to sing. Growing up I always adhered to singers with great voices, never realizing that people were out there writing what they were singing. It wasn’t until college really that I found folk music after hearing an Eva Cassidy album at a Virgin Megastore listening station. Her incredible voice in a soft sort of manner…I fell in love. It was there I went exploring. I took a folk guitar class in college and I started writing. My musical tastes kept delving deeper. I started to realize what kind of writing stood out to my ears. During the summer before my junior year of college I contacted Jim Blum at WKSU-FM (Kent’s public radio outlet) and inquired about an internship. I was moving into an apartment complex right next to the station and thought it might be fun…definitely because of the music, but also that convenience. It ended up being the best job.”
Ashley started playing around the campus…at coffee houses, open mics, art galleries and bars. A year after graduating from KSU in 2006, she headed off to Chicago.
“My boyfriend Geoff and I had been dating a year long distance, and we decided to make the move together. My goal was to reach a bigger market, play better shows. About three and a half months in, I sang at an open mic that led to an introduction of a man that was working with Grammy award-winner producer Jim “Tools” Tullio. He agreed to meet with me one day at his home in a suburb of Chicago. I took the train with my guitar and arrived at his house. It was intimidating. He played me music that he produced that sounded so incredible (and very, very loud)..then said “play me something”…long story short, we made my first professional recording/EP All Songs in English.”
After two years in the city where she performed whenever she could, Ashley and Geoff decided to return back to their native state. “He wanted to go back to school. And I had some good friends from college, made some new ones and formed a band. I consider this past year the most serious I’ve been about my music and trying to make a living from it. Before, I didn’t really know what the heck I was doing. I have built a great relationship with some fine musicians in the Kent area, and this feels like a good home base. I have some friendly fans who show up to my shows, and I’m playing at lots of festivals, house shows, Beachland Ballroom, Grog Shop and the Kent Stage. Last summer I toured back east and got to play at The Living Room in New York City.”
Ashley has also done well opening for artists such as Lucy Kaplansky, Jessica Lea Mayfield (another Kent State person…”we used to play together way back when”), Jill Andrews, Jenny Owen Youngs and Two Man Gentlemen. “My biggest show was opening for Don Williams. We did concerts in Akron and Wheeling, West Virginia.”
Sweetheart, which is an independent release available on iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp and a few other venues, will be Ashley’s first full-length album. Partly funded by a campaign through Indie Go Go, she wrote the songs mostly in the past few years since moving back to Kent. “This is my band on the album,” she says. “Some members have been with me longer than others, but the warmth is there. We respect and share each other’s musical tastes. But these guys add even more sparkle than I could have ever imagined. When I listen back to the disc, I am overwhelmed with happiness to have all these talented musicians playing on my songs.”
Produced, mixed and mastered by Charles Loudin, here’s the lineup of musicians in addition to Ashley who does vocals and plays acoustic guitar and uke: Eric Baltrinic (drums), Chris Wise (bass), Joe Linstrum (electric and acoustic guitars), Spencer Martin (honky tonk piano) and Walter Prettyman (violin). A really great decision was made in bringing in guest instrumentalist Al Moss from Hillbilly Idol on pedal steel. “These songs took a country turn when the pedal steel was added and I welcomed it very much. My appreciation for songs from long ago also stretch to classic country singers. I love Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash.”
On my first listen of Sweetheart I was struck by several things. Ashley’s voice is a singularly unique and distinctive instrument. To my old ears, I hear traces of Melanie (ha…she told me she used to sing “Brand New Key” in her sets, and sometimes still gets requests for it), Buffy St. Marie, Robin Ella and even a little Sandy Denny (only at times…in her phrasing and tone). And there is this real, grounded earthy sort of feel to the production that really compliments her songs and the singing. It moves around from old time to folk, fifties-like pop to sixties singer-songwriters, classic country to the softer side of indie rock.
There is also another influence at work here, and that is Ashley’s connection to the fashions, style and “the whole mystique of a time I was not a part of.” When I mentioned that she seemed to have a good eye for creating an early sixties-look and wondered if it was conscious or just coincidence, she replied: “I love the innocence in the fashions of the decade. It’s a concerted effort. I like the classic looks of Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn. I feel like everything looked better then. I want to stand out in some way. I want to have a nice presentation when I put on a show. I care about how I look and I can’t help thinking when I put on an outfit if my Grandma Edie would have worn something like this, or wondering who has worn it before me. Stories. I like clothes having some meaning.”
Probably the most puzzling thing for me was that the album closes with a cover of a Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini song called “The Sweetheart Tree” which was sung by Natalie Woods in the film The Great Race. Where and how did a 26 year old named Ashley come up with this?
“It was several years back that I really became a fan of Henry Mancini. I had heard of him and knew him as the composer of “Moon River”, but it was an NPR feature of his career that made me want to explore. It was around the same time that I became a fan too of Burt Bacharach. I really fell in love with the “timeless song”. I also became a fan of the movies that Mancini scored. I love, love, love the 50’s and 60’s. His rendition of “The Sweetheart Tree”with the player piano sound (my great gunt had a player piano that we would always sit around and sing and dance to..that might be why I loved it immediately), the chorus of singers, the sweetness of love. I adore the tune and have always said I want it played at my wedding..and I’m getting married in April. When I thought about naming this album after my own “Sweetheart” song, I was in the car switching my music player over to Mancini, searching for this song. And I thought “Yes! This would be a great way to pull the album together”. I kept it simple and tried to dwell on the honesty and sweetness of Mercer’s lyrics and the beautiful Mancini melody.”
And I think she did a great job. Of all the versions out there of this song, from the Four Tops to Glenn Yarborough to what seems like thousands of Japanese female pop singers, there isn’t anything like what Ashley has come up with. It’s simply beautiful.
While I’m often one to let various songs just pop out of my iPod without any input from moi, Sweetheart has been an album I keep choosing to listen to end to end. In the dog days of summer, and especially out here in the desert with our triple-digit temperatures, Ashley’s music cools me off like that milk shake she’s holding on the cover of her album. And dare I say these words…but it seems to me to be all about love. And it takes me back to when “timeless songs” were written and sung and meant to be heard over and over.
Note #1: The photography was done by Amanda Graber Johnson and you can easily enjoy getting lost on her site Here’s Looking At Me Kid.
Note #2: The illustration above of Ashley was found on a blog called 100 Days in Cleveland by an artist named Julia Kuo. She wrote about the drawing: This is Ashley Brooke Toussant singing in Tremont. She’s got the sweetest voice and the cutest songs about ice cream sandwiches! Ashley is originally from Kent and has been making her way through Cleveland this past week, singing at the Waterloo Arts Fest and at the Visible Voice bookstore. It amazes me to think of how much talent comes out of Northeast Ohio (think of the Black Keys and a new favorite, Cloud Nothings) and the quality of music I hear being performed in back patios and your neighborhood bar. It’s exciting to be in a place where there are always up-and-coming bands making great music.
I think she says it better (and in a lot less words) than me.