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Ashley Monroe on Her EP 'The Covers' & Cancer Battle: 'It's Been Nice to Have Something to Look Forward To'

Ashley Monroe
Electra King*

Ashley Monroe

For Ashley Monroe, music has always proven to be an emotional balm, a creative vessel, an avenue for chronicling life’s ebbs and flows.

After her father died when Monroe was just 13, she found comfort in performing and channeling her pain into her own songs (several of which would later be included on her 2018 album Sparrow) -- but she also turned to familiar tunes, such as Extreme’s “More Than Words,” for solace.

“That was my go-to song when I was seeing my dad die when I was 13 and then I started kicking up my singing even more,” she tells Billboard. “Anytime anybody at school or at a party would say, ‘Sing something, Monroe,’ that’d be the one I would go to.”

Now, with three Grammy nominations to her name -- for her 2015 album The Blade, her 2014 duet with Blake Shelton, “Lonely Tonight,” and her work as part of trio Pistol Annies alongside Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley—Monroe revisits a handful of songs that have become enduring favorites on her five-song EP, The Covers, out this week.

She teamed with Tyler Cain, known for his work with Darius Rucker, Shaggy and Aloe Blacc, as well as his own acoustic single “Suitcase Heart.” “He had a new studio that he was working on and invited me to come over,” Monroe recalls. “We started talking about some of our favorite songs and I told him I would love to cover the songs that are on every playlist I make. I feel like they're just deep inside of my soul at this point, because I've leaned on them and listened to them so much in my life.”

The first song on that list was the Beach Boys’ classic 1964 hit “Don’t Worry Baby.”“It just felt so natural, I kept getting chills when we were making it," she explains. "We wanted to keep them simple and not add a lot of stuff to it. I did want to put the background vocals, because I liked singing background vocals, and all of background vocals on all of these songs are so important.”

Singer-songwriter Brittney Spencer joins Monroe on a version of Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" -- a song Monroe recalls loving as a child, but also one she sang to her own son, Dalton, when he was an infant.

“I met Brittney a few months ago to write together, and the first time I met her, it was clear that we were very much alike and loved the same kind of music, the same kind of writing," Monroe says. "Later, we were texting about how much we love Bryan Adams’ music and I asked her if she would do a cover song with me. She came into the studio and we were sitting on a couch practicing it, singing it -- and it’s funny because we locked eyes and you could just feel a deep soul connection, like we’d been singing for years. Our voices just knew exactly how to follow each other."

Ruston Kelly guests on a rendition of “Love Hurts,” the power ballad first made famous by the Everly Brothers in the '60s and then Nazareth in the '70s. The two have previously written songs together, and Monroe says Kelly reached out to her after the release of her album Rosegold in April 2021: “We just kind of picked up where we left off. I just love his voice so much. Even when we write, you can tell that our voices can blend really well together.”

With The Covers EP, music has again become a solace for Monroe. On July 13, Monroe revealed that she had been diagnosed with the rare blood cancer Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM), a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Initially, after having routine bloodwork done, Monroe was told she was anemic. A bone marrow biopsy soon revealed the diagnosis with Waldenström macroglobulinemia.

Though she started working on The Covers EP prior to her diagnosis, Monroe says the recording process has served as emotional therapy. “It’s been nice to have something to look forward to releasing that’s new, that’s deep from my heart," she says. "I started these projects before my initial diagnosis, except for ‘Everything I Do.’ I knew that chemo was coming at that point.”

She also offers an update on her treatment, saying, “I’m feeling okay right now. I’ve had two chemo cycles. The first round was harder than the second. The third one is two days before my 35th birthday. You just kind of mentally prepare, you know this is going to suck, but do it anyway. So that's kind of the phase I'm in right now -- prepared to not feel good after, and then hopeful that I'll bounce back.

“This process kind of just puts a pause on life in a lot of ways. I can’t be around people, so I’m not really writing a lot and not really recording like I’d like to be," Monroe continues, noting that she just returned from an afternoon boating with her husband. "The biggest danger when you do chemo is just not to get sick with anything else, because your immune system's so low. So it feels good to share a piece of myself with this project, even during this odd season where everything’s just kind of frozen for a moment in time.”

She says the experience has already altered her perspective in several ways.

"I was germaphobe before the pandemic, then I was germaphobe and pandemic-ized by the pandemic," she relates. Now I've got cancer and my immune system's low. So when my immune system grows back, I think I'm really going to drop my fear of germs a bit. I think I've maxed out on fear of germs officially."

She adds, "When I was feeling good, before chemo and stuff, and before I got anemic, I would bounce out of bed, feeling great, but also worried about things like, ‘I need to vacuum’ or whatever. It’s really just noise when you take that away, and get down to the base of what matters. Now, I just soak up the moments. It's really opening my eyes to how I'm going to be after all this, too. Just to appreciate the moments you have, instead of worrying about what's about to happen.”

Monroe has other happy moments to focus on, as well. Monroe and her Pistol Annies cohorts Lambert and Presley previously teased that the trio has been collaborating on music again. Though Monroe is mum on details, she says, “We’ve definitely been working on something and I think people will know sooner rather than later what that is. We’re all excited about it.”

See the track list for The Covers EP below:

1. Don’t Worry Baby
2. Every Breath You Take
3. Everything I Do (featuring Brittney Spencer)
4. Love Hurts (featuring Ruston Kelly)
5. More Than Words