An Interview with Ashley Cleveland

By Shirley Simmons and Nita Andrews

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 8 (Summer 1997): 116-124.

Lesson of love

Lukewarm: If Roget ever decided to publish a thesaurus on musicians, this descriptive might be the first in the list of antonyms for Ashley Cleveland's entry. Her singing, her songwriting, her guitar playing, her faith, and, most importantly to her on the horizontal plane, her living in the context of family-all are experienced and spoken about by this Grammy Award-winning artist in emotional, passionate, "hot-or-cold" fashion.

Ms. Cleveland's debut release in 1991, Big Town, was named as one of Billboard's "most overlooked albums of the year." As we talked to her, we heard a good bit about Ashley's family life. Many of the things she shared had a familiar ring, because in the songs on her three albums-Big Town, Bus Named Desire, and Lesson of Love-Ashley is refreshingly honest and vulnerable about the details of her life. Lesson of Love, the best-known of this trilogy of records, was originally intended to be her "take" on familiar hymns, but in its final form, became both a compilation of bluesy renditions of these hymns and a collection of wonderful new songs of praise and reflection. Ashley is convinced that the authors of the old hymns she has recorded "are rolling perpetually in their graves," since her blues-based rock & roll interpretations are, to say the least, unorthodox.

Ashley spoke with us recently by telephone from her home in Nashville.

Mars Hill Review: As I've listened to your music over the years, a line from an old Mark Heard song has come to mind-"I'm too sacred for the sinners, and the saints wish I would leave." How much would you identify with that concept through the years of your career?

Ashley Cleveland: Oh, I think the back half of that line may apply-some of the saints might wish I would leave, but I don't think any of the sinners have ever considered me too sacred (laughing)-I'm one of 'em.

I don't think I've really ever felt rejected because of what I represent. I think the better way of looking at how my music is received is, "How does it portray excellence?" I don't feel I've done a totally great record yet. I think that will be the deciding factor on acceptance or rejection of my music, because ultimately great music is great music and it finds its home.

Actually, a lot of my longtime fans took issue with Lesson of Love because it didn't rock hard enough. But then, Lesson of Love did have a number-one hit, which was a first for me in the gospel market. I have been very fortunate in that my records have been valuable enough to keep me in the game and have afforded me the luxury of continuing to make records.

Each record has had its own little spotlight in some small way, or not so small way, as Lesson of Love did win a Grammy last year. You can't please everybody, and in many ways each one of my records I really love and find value in, and each one has been part of a pretty intensive learning process for me.

MHR: As we've listened to the first song on each of your records, there seems to be a progression of emphasis on the realities of faith, hope, and love. You say a good deal about your past in "Big Town," then you sing about your future in "Long Goodbye," and in "Lesson of Love," the focus is on the present process of learning to love and be loved. Is that an intentional progression?

AC: That may all be too lofty for me. I think you might read in more than I even think of. In essence, I think the entire body of work that I have pretty much capitalizes on one of three themes, and usually all three are in tandem somewhere, and those themes are hope, despair, and sex. How those all kind of dovetail with one another depends on how I'm doing at the time. I mean, I am certainly not a stranger to despair, and yet I feel like I have a great deal of hope. I've always had that, and it has sustained me.

MHR: When you've been in those despairing times, what's kept you from quitting?

AC: Who knows? I mean I could probably come up with a more inspired answer, but I think the reality of it is, I'm just not a quitter.

MHR: How do you know that about yourself?

AC: Well, I'm still here.

MHR: Still here when you've had a lot of opportunities to walk away?

AC: Oh, absolutely. I think that I hear my own call and I respond to that partly because I can't think of anything else to do.

I usually respond the best when I've come to the end of myself, albeit briefly, but I always get back to where it's the middle of myself. On occasion I do come to the end of myself, and then I really hear my calling clearly. But the other part of that is that I'm very curious to see where that calling is leading. I really enjoy the process of seeing what God has intended for my life. Also, I kind of enjoy the process of hanging on when there seems to be no reason to, just to see the glory of God sooner or later.

MHR: And that glory is something of which you're very sure?

AC: Well, I'm pretty sure of it-although at any given moment you could ask me that and I'd say, "Well, I've changed my mind." But I'm still here and I'm still profoundly devoted to my Christian faith, so I must be pretty sure of it. It is the cornerstone of my life and work.

I think life is a lot harder than we could ever have imagined it to be. I also think that faith is a lot less satisfying in the temporal than we want it to be. Ultimately, there are very few immediate answers. Really, you just have to stake everything on that one eternal answer. This life of faith feels like a long haul sometimes, but at the same time I very much feel like I have been so blessed with so many things to enjoy. I really do richly enjoy my life. These days I sort of don't have a whole lot to complain about.

MHR: What aspects of life are you really enjoying these days?

AC: I love my family, and I love the process of being in a family. It is a difficult process-I have a teenager, so I can't even begin to tell you how difficult that process is right about now. I really get a lot out of being married, which is also a very difficult process-but I feel very privileged that my husband, Kenny, and I get to do something together with our lives such as music, in addition to building up our family and building up our partnership. We have this artistic endeavor we share that is really satisfying to both of us and that keeps us both intrigued.

Kenny and I work as partners in this creative process. Musically we believe we haven't quite nailed it yet. In addition to all of that, I pursue creativity on my own. My work is very satisfying to me and gives me a sense of purpose. To make a contribution is an incredible privilege.

MHR: You have had so many big changes on the home front since your first record came out. You were a single mom of an eight year old then and now you have three records, you're working on a fourth, you're a wife and a mother of three, including a teenager. It very much sounds as if you're in a season that feels much more enjoyable on the whole when we listen to Lesson of Love compared to Big Town.

AC: Yeah, the despair factor on Big Town was pretty high. A lot of pain was a catalyst for the bulk of the songs on that record. However, I think the hope was still very much in evidence. But, at the same time, I lived those songs, and it was tough.

Lesson of Love, on the other hand, was pretty much designed to be a statement of faith. Initially, I hadn't even planned to write anything for it. Originally I wanted to do my take on old hymns, but the record label was like, "No one will buy that, so you need to write something for it." Had I been given complete license I would have stayed with my idea of a record of old hymns because I simply adore old hymns.

MHR: What can you tell us about your new project?

AC: Interestingly enough, if I were to compare it to any of the previous three records, it's more like Big Town than any of them.

MHR: Musically speaking?

AC: Musically and thematically. We've been through some tough things-well it's not quite as dreary, but there's some tough stuff on there, yet some really upbeat material also.

I think the time when I feel I'm performing to my greatest capacity as a writer is when I write almost literally of my own experience. I try to temper it a bit, because I don't want to make it so individual that nobody can relate to it but me. But I always try to tap in to some kind of universality that everybody can relate to. My biggest ambition with this new record was to simplify my writing lyrically. I felt like in a number of instances I was getting too clever for my own good, and it was easy to lose people in the process. I wanted people to be able to hear these songs and get an immediate sense of what I was saying to them without having to give it a great deal of thought. And yet I also wanted to have enough substance. I didn't want it to be so simple that it lost its depth. It was a considerable challenge to me.

MHR: How do you come to your song ideas?

AC: All different ways. Sometimes I'll just sit down and start, something will spill out, and I'll think, "Gee, I didn't even know that was in there." Other times I fret over an idea for six months. It just happens all different ways.

Some things are prompted by the music, some things are prompted by a title. Sometimes I hear someone say something, and from that I'll get an entire song. My job is to keep my antenna up and wait on it. I spend a lot of time ruminating and waiting.

MHR: Could you talk more about your sense of calling and vocation? What do you want to put forth to our culture?

AC: I try not to think too much about that, because it can be an opportunity to think more of myself than I need to be thinking. I believe I have something to say from the perspective of a woman living a life that has similarities to many women's-I work, I have a family, I wear many hats, and I'm struggling to find my own sense of place, not only in the world, but also in the kingdom of God. I think that more than anything else my calling has been to be as transparent as possible without showing off. I think sometimes transparency can be used to call attention to oneself in a way that doesn't serve any positive purpose. But I think genuine transparency produces transparency in others, and I'll always endeavor to be transparent and to be genuine.

MHR: The honesty of your songs has certainly gotten my attention and stopped me in my tracks in some powerful ways that needed to happen. I can remember back to 1988 when you debuted a particularly transparent tune called "Walk to the Well" at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. In that same week, our pastor preached a sermon on exposure. Many people, churched and unchurched, were moved to walk in more of reality because of your transparency during that time. What's been the contribution of the church community to you and the practice of your art?

AC: Outside the obvious, which would be support, I think the value of my church community has always been the community itself and the individual relationships. I've always felt very supported within that community. Of course, my own personal community is such a microcosm of the greater one, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who would take issue with my presentation. I still have those seeds of rebellion that refuse to leave me [laughs] that show up here and there. I can't say that I work diligently to get rid of them. I guess as I get older they're my last vestiges of youth, and I cling to them.

MHR: That reminds me that when I first heard your version of "Power in the Blood" I had to go to the lyric sheet, because one line wasn't exactly as I remembered singing it in church. You changed "would you be free of your passion and pride" to "pettiness and pride," and I rejoiced in that change. How did you come to make it?

AC: Well, I think I understood what the author meant. I mean, there are some passions which consume us to our detriment, but in general, to me, the ultimate picture of passion was when David was dancing before the Lord. I think it's good to be passionate in that sense; that's not something to get rid of.

So, I chose something that I believe is rampant in the church, but often totally ignored, and that's pettiness. I really enjoy poking at conservative bastions. But when I got my second tattoo, my thought was, "You know, you're really getting carried away with this, you need to knock it off."

Ultimately, the funny thing is that in my heart of hearts I'm relatively conservative myself. My husband and my oldest daughter would certainly point that out! I have a problem with the fact that a conservative politic has replaced genuine Christianity. I disdain the trend that conservative Republicans represent Christianity. So, I hardly ever resist an opportunity to take a little shot at that. I don't even think it's right that I do that, I think it's an issue between the Lord and me. He does bring it to my attention on a pretty frequent basis-the knowledge that I have no business judging anybody considering what I've been relieved of.

MHR: But don't you think the spirit of the iconoclast is really important?

AC: Yeah, I'm into that, but I have my own icons, too. They're just more acceptable to me. But to somebody else it would mean the same thing-they could look at mine and say, "That's just as destructive." So, who's to say?

That is pretty much the form that my rebellion takes. It's difficult for me to sit quietly under somebody else's authority, and so that's the other form.

MHR: And how about when that authority is good?

AC: I sit under God's authority and that's good and it's funny. I'm going to have a song on the new record called "A Deeper Walk" that's about that. One of the lines in it is, "I hate authority, but I can't resist your love for me." I think it's the way the authority is presented that either woos me or repels me.

MHR: You used the word "excellence," the standard of what you could give to the music. How do you know when you're doing an excellent job?

AC: How does anybody know? I know if I can sit back and listen to something without wincing; if it touches me, and, more importantly, if it draws in other people and touches them, then I know obviously it touches something.

MHR: Do you listen to black gospel singers to enjoy their rendition of a song?

AC: Oh, yes. My mother has always been a huge fan of black gospel music, so she regularly sends me stuff that she comes across. I don't listen to any one person. At one point I listened almost fanatically to Aretha Franklin. I have a documentary on her that is so inspiring to me, hearing the way she uses her instrument. In some ways her gospel recordings were so free-form and uncontrolled that it was hard to follow. I didn't like her gospel records as much as I liked her pop records.

MHR: How did you find your voice? Were you in high school? How did you discover your talent?

AC: Singing along with the radio in the car. And I think I did sing in a church youth group in high school. I grew up in the Presbyterian church, but I always knew that I was a closet Pentecostal.

MHR: Your songs use metaphor often. Whether it's in "Bus Named Desire" or "Up from the Ether," you find a way to communicate with metaphor. Is that so that prodigals can hear your message-so they can be caught unaware?

AC: I operate so much of my life out of instinct. I don't think I give the songs that deliberate type of thought. I think I am like the phlegmatic-the type who knows things and doesn't even know how I know them.

I don't know how I know how to play guitar. I've never had any training. While composing, if there is some kind of progression that I need to be able to play soon, I'll find what I am looking for. I can sit down and try enough different tunings and come up with the music.

That is so true for much of my life, and it is certainly true of my songwriting. What I do love is language, and words have always been fascinating to me. I am always looking for a new way to express my thoughts.

MHR: Ether is a metaphor that people wouldn't expect.

AC: Yes, "Up from the Ether" is simply about entering into life fully, because at one point in my life I was so checked out. I realized that after I had been in three minor car wrecks! I started to think, "Well, I just don't think I'm very present here." And I'm sure the Department of Motor Vehicles would agree with that. I overheard someone say, "I'm coming up from out of the ether" in a conversation, and that picture stayed with me. I remember thinking, "That means something to me. There is something in there."

MHR: In addition to metaphor, several of your songs include confessions. What irritates you when you pour out your heart and tell people the truth?

AC: Sometimes in my songwriting I reach a point where I either need to come clean or need to abandon the song, because it is too embarrassing to sing the truth. I'm just not that private of a person in terms of information, but there are other things I hold back.

There are things I feel very private about, but I think that drug addiction is old news. Who cares? I don't want any part of my past to become my calling card-you know, "I was in the gutter and now I'm back." Every other week in People magazine that kind of story is used to exploit others.

I think the other thing people need to be aware of is that my writing reflects my best self, but my living doesn't always. I write the truth, but I also write what I aspire to. What is irritating about people's response when I'm pouring my heart out is that sometimes they think I'm better than I am, or they give me more strength than I really have. That can be a huge disappointment for them and an unnecessary burden for me.

MHR: Do you think you will like writing until the day you die?

AC: I certainly hope so. Writing is excruciating for me. It is a whole lot of work. The songs that pour out in twenty minutes are few and far between. I dread the process.

MHR: How do you find a way to write with a family?

AC: I get right down in the middle of everything, and I grab an hour here and an hour there. I usually wait until the song insists on being written before I face the task. There are plenty of times when I'd rather do the dishes than write a song. Also, I spend so much time in the car hauling my kids from here to there that I have ample time to ruminate. Ruminating is such a huge part of my writing process. I allow things to simmer.

MHR: You have written songs about each of your children.

AC: And I'm sure I'll write excessively about all of them.

MHR: I think of your song for "Rebecca" when you speak of your newborn daughter being your tutor. That is a dimension of parenting that most new parents don't realize. It isn't a predictable song about children.

AC: No, and I always look for a different angle on it. I loathe to repeat myself. I may do it accidentally, but I really don't want to do it on purpose. And so my constant ambition is to find a different angle.

With the song "Henry Doesn't Care" I wrote much more about the folly of my life. I find my children play a role. I can observe it and experience life, learning from them. In that case, it becomes less observation and more experience that I'm writing about.

MHR: Do you enjoy the travel that has been included in your career?

AC: I enjoy things in small doses. If New York, for example, was my daily diet I would enter a deep depression. For me the dilemma always is how to balance this with family life. My family thrives on structure and repetition, and the life of a musician is a gypsy existence. It's hard to bring the two together effectively. I insist on trying to integrate the two. And I do it with varying degrees of success.

MHR: One thing experienced in live performances that often is lost in studio session recording is your laugh. You have a good, deep, rich laugh.

AC: Oh, well, that's wonderful. I do like to laugh. As much as I loathe struggle, I love life. To me it's always been extremes on the scale. It's like marriage and child rearing to me. Either I am hating it or loving it. Most of the time I love it, but, boy, there are times when I hate it, and that's the way I am about life. I'm never just in it. I always have a feeling about it.

MHR: When you're discouraged, what thoughts or passages of scripture do you anchor on?

AC: I have memorized this one passage in about three different versions. It is from Psalm 91. The Psalmist writes, "He who dwells in the secret place of the most high shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."

Often I gravitate toward the Psalms, but mostly I sit before the Lord. Sometimes I sit quietly and sometimes I sit pretty loudly. It depends on if I am depending on him, or if it is an issue I have with him. It's comforting to me to just weep in his presence, so that's what I do.

MHR: In one of your songs, you wrote about giving a few years to fantasy and then giving what's left to honesty. How would you distinguish between those two?

AC: I think of it in relationship to Psalm 91. I have a tendency to go rushing off into fantasy-either a fantasy of my own making or the refuge of someone else's fantasy. I'll hide out in books-whatever is on the top of the bestseller list. I will escape there.

Especially as I get older, I find I have elected to move more and more into honest living and less into wishful thinking. Sometimes it gets tough to face what I call full frontal reality. It is hard to do all the time. I guess for all of us, it's a question of where we will take refuge.