“How does the sparrow know more than I?” Ashley Monroe asks on the cinematic “Orphan,” the opening track to her latest album Sparrow (out April 20 on Warner Bros. Records). “When the mother is gone, it learns how to fly.”
What begins as a story of a lost soul looking for home becomes a tale of perseverance, resilience, forgiveness and finally, freedom. Monroe says when she finished recording the album she found that it mirrored the trajectory of her own life.
“When I looked at it I did see that it was acknowledging past hurt — hurt that I had done and hurt that was done to me–and then you come to see forgiveness for myself and for everybody else,” Monroe tells Wide Open Country. “At the end I really just feel — when I listen — a freedom, which is ironically exactly how I feel in my life. I love looking back and going ‘wow, that makes sense now.'”
Learning to Fly
Finding her way through tough times is something Monroe knows something about. She moved to Nashville at just 15, two years after losing her father to cancer. The singer packed up and headed from her eastern Tennessee home to Nashville with her mom, who took Monroe to writers appointments and joined her in searching for gigs.
“I’d go down on Broadway with my mom and go and just ask bands if I could get up and sing. But then I got a little bit more established and realized how much I wanted to write. I just wrote all the time with everybody,” Monroe says. “I always wanted to prove I could hold my own. I never thought I was better than anybody or anything like that. I just always wanted to go in prepared with ideas even when I was really young. I respected that you had to really work and prove that you’re good in order to make it.”
After releasing her debut album Satisfied, which was shelved until 2009, Monroe worked with some of her musical heroes, Guy Clark and Vince Gill, on her critically acclaimed 2013 album Like a Rose. Then, in between joining forces with fellow singer-songwriters Angaleena Presley and Miranda Lambert to form country supergroup the Pistol Annies, Monroe released her Grammy nominated album The Blade in 2015.
Now Monroe is releasing what’s possibly her most personal and raw album yet — no easy feat for an artist who’s never shied away from writing about her own triumphs and tragedies. Sparrow is a lush, orchestral, sweeping album recorded in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A with sought after producer Dave Cobb.
On the album, Monroe channels the countrypolitan sound the studio made famous, calling back to the string-laden sounds of Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry, as well as early Elton John.
“I always just start by writing the songs and kind of following that inspiration that’s coming in and all of these songs, when they started coming out — they sounded different. I couldn’t tell what the sound was yet. I just knew they sounded different,” Monroe says. “I think Dave (Cobb) just kind of looked at it and just thought, ‘There’s so much emotion in these songs — wouldn’t it be awesome to have strings? That would pull out even more emotion.’ I’ve always been obsessed with strings and he has too. And that room — Studio RCA — was built for strings.”
Monroe recorded Sparrow in a transformative period. She was four months pregnant with her son and, as she says, “feeling everything.”
“I was just sober as a stone,” Monroe says. “But I also felt an empowerment…I’d always heard about how you feel like a woman and you feel an empowerment holding a child. But I really did feel that when I was recording and I was aware that he was listening and he could hear me.”
A songwriter’s songwriter, Monroe teamed up with friends and frequent collaborators Brendan Benson, Waylon Payne, Angaleena Presley and Jon Randall, among others, to write songs focusing on everything from explorations of familial bonds to self-expression to desire.
Monroe reflects on mother-daughter relationships on “Mother’s Daughter” and the loss of her father on “Daddy I Told You.”
“Daddy I told you I was gonna fly/ I’d get out of that town alive/ Don’t worry, I kept your name,” she sings. “And your picture in a frame.”
Album standout “Rita” is a testament to the power of friendship, a letter to an old companion backed by a stunning orchestral arrangement.
There’s explorations of pain and healing on “Hard on a Heart” and “I’m Trying To,” which follow a soul still reeling from heartache.
Also represented here is something sorely lacking on mainstream country radio: honest depictions of adult womanhood. Monroe embraces female desire offering up the kind of sultry tunes Delta chanteuse Bobbie Gentry could have recorded on Touch ‘Em With Love.
The fantasy-driven “Hands On You” and the yearning “Wild Love” celebrate passion, pleasure and living with wild abandon.
“I love how women have been reacting and telling me, like ‘Oh my gosh, I love ‘Hands on You’ and ‘I love ‘Wild Love.” I had a lady that worked at the airport chase me down and say ‘I’ve been listening to your song non-stop.’ I think because we do a lot of stuff it’s hard for us to acknowledge that sexy feeling. And music can be so good at resurrecting feelings,” Monroe says.
The album’s final moments examine life as a person born to sing — and create — with “Keys to the Kingdom,” co-written by Monroe and singer-songwriter Waylon Payne.
I was handed keys to the kingdom,” Monroe sings. “I was given a haunted guitar and it made me sing every song it every wrote and then some.”
The singer says Sparrow represents a new beginning for her, something that’s reflected throughout the record.
“On this one I really felt quite a leap into myself, a new chapter and a new chapter feeling — being pregnant and a new studio,” Monroe said. “I think this record lined up with that perfectly.”