Interview With Ashley Cleveland
The Light Club/New Creation Fellowship
Milwaukee, IL
Saturday, February 21, 1998
By Chris Parks

"The show," the old saying goes, "must go on"--even when an airline loses one of your guitars and some of your other equipment.  When The Phantom Tollbooth had an opportunity to sit down with Ashley Cleveland on a mid-February Saturday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she was changing the strings on a guitar borrowed from the pastor of the church at which she was to play that night. 

(Note: sections of the interview were reconstructed from our notes, as our tape recorder stopped working for awhile. The interview, too, must go on.) 

Tollbooth - I thought we'd start by catching up with your latest doings. There's been rumors of a live album and your own record label. Where is that right now?

Cleveland - Well, I'll tell you exactly where it is. My husband, Kenny Greenberg, is starting his own record label for which we just finished the trademark name search.  It will be called "Judah West." We've found a record label that has offered us a licensing deal that we are very much interested in taking. It would be for several records, not just the live record.

The reason why the live record hasn't been released is Brentwood Music, which owns Reunion Records.  Three of the songs on the live record were on Lesson of Love, and there's a standard clause in record contracts that says you can't re-record songs that were on a record for another label for five years. They are exercising [that clause].  For three months, we've been trying to get them to work out a deal with us--generally that's what's done. But so far, we haven't been able to get them to respond. 

I've tried to be very circumspect and not say anything about it, but now I'm ticked off, so I'm going to start talking about it. (laughs) What makes me angry is that, for them, it's minor record label politics, and essentially doesn't mean much. For me, it's about my life. I really hate to be beholden to anybody about moving forward with my own music. We're trying to play ball with them, and I have some hope that it's going to work out. It just takes forever. The simplest thing takes six men and a boy to accomplish in the record business.

Tollbooth - So the plan is still to have the live record be the first thing that you do on the new label?

Cleveland - Yeah. There's some wonderful stuff on the live record. There's some new things that are really great, and some great versions of older songs. We're just about finished mixing it. The other great thing is that everybody that contributed to this record is basically donating their gifts and their energy. That's very meaningful to me, and I am really grateful for that. 

It would be wonderful if it spawns a hit single, and certainly we plan to take it to radio, gospel radio, and mainstream, but our primary goal for this record is that it be a vehicle to finance the next few records. I'm not opposed to finding another record deal - I'm not anti-record label.  But if I can't get a great record deal, I would just as soon own the masters.

Tollbooth - What are your touring plans? Have you thought about the summer?

Cleveland - Well, everything sort of hinges on this record, so we have to get the situation squared away one way or the other. Basically, most of the festivals are going to want to book people that have something currently happening, and until I get a new record out, that wouldn't be me. 

Sometimes I play churches, Sunday morning worship kind of things, and I enjoy doing that. It's been great for me to be able to go out and play a club or a college or a church. It's been a real blessing that I've been able to continue to do that, even without a new record, but hopefully that situation will be resolved soon.  Street Level Artists has done a great job just getting me itinerant dates like this
where I fly out and do the date.

Tollbooth - As long as they don't lose your pedals.

Cleveland - Well, no, they lost my guitar. They lost my pedal board, too, but infinitely more important is that they lost one of my very best guitars. What is so disturbing to me is that no one knows what happened. It's not like somebody said, "It's over here, and we'll get it to you such-and-such a time." There's no record of it in Nashville, there's no record of it in St. Louis where I changed planes, there's just no record of it.  The lady who was supposed to be helping me said, "Well, you know, sometimes, you just never know. They get crushed or stolen." I said, "I have a really bad headache!" I've lost stuff before, and you get through it. It's that reminder that you just can't get attached to stuff. 

Tollbooth - Who were your influences, as a guitarist and a writer?

Cleveland - There are at least thirty artists I could name from the late sixties and early seventies that influenced me:  Stephen Stills, Joni  Mitchell, Neil Young, Elton John, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Little Feat...and rock-and-roll bands that capitalized on the acoustic guitar's percussive qualities. I really think the acoustic guitar is the ultimate rock-and-roll instrument.

As a guitarist, I really liked Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell, especially her use of alternate guitar tunings. I learned a lot of her songs from her songbooks.  Back then, a songbook really showed you exactly what she was playing. You wanted to learn some of these songs, and you wanted it to sound like it did when they played it.  That's why I like to have guitar tablature versions of my songs on my web site.

Tollbooth- Are you a self-taught guitarist?

Cleveland - Yeah.

Tollbooth - Has meeting up with Kenny done anything for your playing?

Cleveland - (laughs) Showing me what I don't know. He's the consummate raw player, but he's also the consummate professional guitar player. He goes into the studio, and you play him somebody else's playing and say, "This is what I want,"  and he can play that style.  Some styles out of his genre he can't imitate as readily, but he can do a lot.

We're very different players, which is great.  It's interesting because when it comes to rhythm guitar playing, especially on my songs, his pocket is not the same as mine. There are a lot of times where I'm having a hard time getting a part, or I have to go back and replace a part, and I'm playing behind the track, or I'm just not as good in the studio as he is, and he'll go do it for me. And it's not acceptable to me; it's just not the right pocket. So I'll have to go in there and cry and slug my way through it.

I'm an unschooled guitar player, but I definitely have a style that is valuable, at least to me. I've grown to appreciate what I'm able to do. And every once and a while, I threaten to get better at it, but I guess I'd have to practice, and I probably won't be doing that.

Tollbooth - So you're keeping your artistic individuality in your relationship.

Cleveland - Yeah, oh, yeah. That's a hard thing, too. After we got married, I kind of deferred to him, and I think my records suffered as a result. Part of the benefit of this wilderness experience of not being on a record label is that I have repossessed my own artistry. 

At one point, I  realized that nobody at the labels cared if I continued or not.  If I was going to continue being an artist, it really was up to me. If I was going to play music, it would have to be because I loved to play music, and not because I was in the music business. It's funny - you think, "Well, obviously musicians play because they love music." But I'll tell you, the music business can really distract you from your first love, which is the music. It can have a detrimental effect to where it becomes the business thing.

Tollbooth - How do you go about making music?  How do you usually get started on a song? Is it words that come, or is it music, or does it matter with the song?

Cleveland - Well, it happens all different ways. Every once and a while, it's the idea, or it's the title. Like with "Henry Doesn't Care," I had the idea, I had a title. I had no idea in the world what it meant. I thought, "That just sounds like something," but I didn't know where it would end up.  Sometimes I get a piece of music first, and then I wait. That happened with "Walk to the Well." I had the entire song musically, played over and over again, but had no idea what it would be about, and then one day the lyric kind of walked in. 

Sometimes, I just feel like I go to the muse and wait until I can take dictation. There's a certain amount of intellectual process that goes on because I do tend to ruminate and think about things forever. But the great songs always come almost stream-of-consciousness. I just kind of copy them down as they pour out.

Tollbooth - Do you usually write by yourself, or do you write with other people?

Cleveland - I usually write by myself. I have written with other people, I'm sure I will write with other people again. I really like writing with Kenny because he doesn't involve himself with the words. Sometimes he'll have a title, or he'll throw in a word here or there. But he's wonderful in that my musical knowledge is real limited, and his is far more expansive. So he can contribute things that I wouldn't even know how to do.

I like to co-write, because that always changes the flavor of the song, but in the end, I like to go back and have my way with it. I've had co-writers get mad at me because we'll start a song, and then I'll go home and finish it by myself.

Tollbooth - I've seen references in various interviews you've given to books you've read, and they're often books about writing as a process. That's interesting to me because there's this tendency to think of song lyrics as something not as literary as other writing.

Cleveland - More than anything else, I just love great writers. It's like I just started reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which I've  never read before. His language just kills me. The way he describes the scenery and the situation, and the way he describes the person's character is just so moving to me, and so rich.

I love language. I used to read the dictionary for kicks because I think words are fascinating. To me, songwriting is very distinct and different from novel writing because you're trying to get a complete idea in a short amount of space. But to me, great songs and great books have a lot of similarities because what they do is stir something up in people so they become emotionally involved. That, to me, is a great song or a great book.

Tollbooth - Are you writing these days?

Cleveland - Yeah, I have about fifteen songs for the next studio record that are just slamming. I love this live record, but what I'm most excited about is my next studio record because I have a batch of songs that really reflect what I'm trying to get after. They feel very cohesive in the way they relate to each other. It's as strong as I've felt with a batch of songs since Big TownBig Town is hands down my favorite song record. It's not my favorite sounding record, but the songs on Big Town are my favorites to date.

Tollbooth - So what are you trying to get after in these new songs?

Cleveland - To me, my first three records represent a lot of artist development. I look at each record, and there's stuff I love about them, and stuff that I can't stand. That may be true for the rest of my career. You tend to outgrow your records at some point and move on. But I changed my writing style so I could say what I've had to say in simpler terms, but still retain the depth. Also, I really want the next record to be a rock-and-roll record. Because that's the thing I love.

Tollbooth - I understand that your son Henry has written his first song.

Cleveland - Yes he has.  (laughs)

Tollbooth - At age five?

Cleveland - Well, Henry kind of came up with the lyrics, and I kind of came up with some music, and it just happened that it worked out, and it was really good. Really, I wasn't trying to encourage my children to be songwriters.  To me, there is a tremendous down side to being a professional musician.. (laughs)

What I was trying to do was devote the evenings to my family. It is so easy to just turn on the television, so I try to do things with them like play games or make stuff, anything that doesn't involve the TV. Both Kenny and I try to pursue that with the kids. So one night, just to have something different to do, I said, "let's make up a song," and it just worked out. And Henry's so thrilled. But he hasn't come back to me and said, "Let's make up another song." 

My oldest child, Rebecca, is a great connoisseur of music, and she has a great ear, and she's an amazing writer in terms of how she articulates her thoughts and her feelings, for being a fifteen-year-old. But I don't know if she's headed for a musical career at all. They're all intrigued by the idea of being on stage; but my youngest, Lily, is three, and she loves to sing the most. She will sing throughout the day, or you'll hear her at night, and she'll sing herself to sleep, and she really enjoys music more than any of the other kids. She has a tonal quality to her speaking voice that's real similar to mine. Kenny has said several times, "She may be the one who takes after you." She's also got a lot of piss and vinegar in her, so she might be the one in many ways. (laughs)

Music saved me in many ways. I don't want to deify it or anything, but if I hadn't had music, I don't know if I would've survived the trauma of my earlier life. It gave me something to pour my feelings into, and to express myself in a way that was very cathartic and uplifting, and ultimately, it paved the way for what would later become my life. Through  music, I met Kenny and got married, and we have this great family, and I wound up in Nashville. Music was the catalyst for so much. But at the same token, if our kids came in and said, "Well, you know, good for you guys, but we want to be accountants." I'd say, "Right on! Can you help me out in March?"  (laughs) 

Tollbooth - Do you have favorite songs to sing to them?

Cleveland - We sing tons and tons of nursery rhymes. I tried to get everybody interested in hymns because as everyone knows, I'm a diehard hymn fan.  Becca, my oldest, just now likes hymns, but not the others. We  have a little family devotional time in the evenings before they go to  bed, and for a while I tried to get us all to sing a hymn together. For them, that was like the harshest, cruelest thing I could inflict upon them, so I gave it up. They like kids songs. Henry has reached an age where he likes a kid's song with something naughty in it, like there's a cowboy song where the cowboy sings about his horse, "Snotblossom," so Henry wants to hear that song repeatedly because it has "Snot" in it.

Tollbooth- Is there a movie in the last year you would've liked to have written and performed the theme song for?

Cleveland - Wow, that's a great question. The movie that I most enjoyed recently was Good Will Hunting; I thought that was fantastic. I  loved that movie. I wouldn't have minded taking a shot at that one. But then there was The Full Monty, so I could've maybe written a theme song for that one. (laughs) Just the idea. When I went to see that, I thought, how hilarious if Kenny and some of his friends were to do this. You think about how that would translate in your own life, and it's just hilarious. But of course, Kenny and his friends would never do that.  (laughs)