The following profile is from “Vocally,” a new content series from Billboard and Ally. Each episode retraces the stories of music’s rising stars, covering their respective paths to the spotlight and the family members, friends, collaborators and other allies that supported them along the way. Click HERE to learn more about how Ally is helping musicians pursue their artistic endeavors
Ashe is a vibe. A fan of good hangs and making her friends her family, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter’s warm energy is palpable when she walks into any room. When she sees her team, it’s all hugs and light jabs. You’d never guess that the past few years have been some of the most challenging of her life—filled with inexplicable loss, heartbreak, and uncertainty, all amidst making her debut album, Ashlyn. On the other side of grief, the indie-pop artist has become the definition of resilience, and with the love she’s cultivated around her, it’s clear to see how she’s reclaimed her joy.
Born Ashlyn Rae Willson, the Bay Area native grew up in a conservative town, where she played piano and performed in a local church choir as a kid. Familiar with the bubble, it was her late brother Ryne, who passed away last year, who first showed her there was more. “He was like, ‘Let’s get the heck outta here. I’m going to show you what really good music is,” Ashe recalls. Ryne would take her on car rides to introduce her to the indie music that would go on to influence her own.
Her grandfather also had a hand in her music education, taking it back further with Motown and records from the Muscle Shoals era. Unbeknownst to a young Ashe, these unofficial “classes” would alter the course of her life, and it’s because of them that she credits her brother and grandfather as two of her earliest allies on her musical journey. “They really started to shape my storytelling ear when it came to music,” she says, which, until then, she hadn’t considered a real path.
“I started to figure out that songwriting was the only thing that was always there for me, so I felt drawn to…the idea of what music had in store for me.” After graduating from Berklee School of Music, she moved to Nashville where she believed she’d find her musical family and a path to becoming a career songwriter.
She was right, at first. While in Nashville, Ashe knocked on every door and attended every writing session, not knowing that someone would open her mind to the possibility of pennings songs for herself. She recalls a meeting with a BMI exec. “I remember her going, ‘These songs are good, but your voice is what’s really standing out to me.’ It was the first time that someone breathed life into me as an artist.”
With that fated encouragement, she embraced her voice, found a manager in Sean Sheahan, and made the leap to LA to pursue her own music. As she tells it, “Once people really believe in themselves, suddenly the universe starts going boom.”
While she slowly left her self-doubt behind, she was still in a toxic marriage that held her back. Her first EP, Rabbit Hole, was an experiment with her sound, but inauthentic to her impulse as a songwriter: to share her truth. “I was learning that I was pretty codependent and making a lot of decisions based on making someone else feel safe and okay,” she says. “Then I relearned that I’m pretty resilient.”
Newly divorced, Ashe remembers walking into the studio with nothing left, so her close friends Conrad and Casey Smith helped channel her pain into poetry. Together, they wrote “Moral of the Story,” the 2019 hit that would ignite the achingly honest Ashlyn. “Talk about finding allies in life; those were people that came alongside me and said it was going to be okay.”
In making her debut album, she also found a safe space in friend and producer Leroy Clampitt. “Leroy was the only right person to make Ashlyn. I couldn’t fathom having to go through making an album without someone that I felt really respected me, my ideas, and let me lead,” Ashe says. “And going through losing my brother, there was no one else I could write [“Ryne’s Song”] with.”
Listening to Ashlyn, with dream-pop tracks like “Till Forever Falls Apart” (feat. FINNEAS) and “Not Mad Anymore,” and entirely made with the creative support of her community, you can feel her light flicker back on. It’s a light that Ashe feels will only continue to grow brighter with time. “Someone asked, ‘Are you worried that you’re going to run out of stories?’ Life kicks me in the teeth enough to know it’s probably gonna do it again. I’m going to have plenty to write about, also all of the really good stuff.”
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