Take Five with Ash L’Esperance

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I’m one-half of a singer-songwriter duo with my husband (Ash & Eric). As a kid, my dad toured in a cover band, and the swinging-door of unshowered, long-haired 90s rockers in my young life taught me to write songs before I could walk or talk. I am classically trained in opera and piano, and self-taught on guitar. My earliest influences were John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Damien Rice and Katie Herzig – all amazing songwriters who taught me how wrapping some great lyrics into a few chords could shepherd a human soul back home to itself. When my parents split at age five, music became my stable home and resting place.

I’ve been a recording singer-songwriter since I was 14, and released my first EP in college in 2009. I met my husband in 2013 and we’ve been touring & performing together ever since. Eric and I released our third LP on May 8th, 2022. This record, “Sure” was completely self-produced at a boarding school in Western Massachusetts.

Tell us a little about your musical background; how old were you when you started playing guitar, and what inspired your musical desire?

I was classically trained in piano since the age of 10 and graduated with a BA in classical voice. I’m attracted to the discipline and structure of classical music and thrived in that environment as a kid coming from a pretty shaky home. Guitar is the only instrument that I taught myself, without any formal training. My dad was the bassist and background singer in a cover band my whole childhood, so I was always aware of the possibility of music being a career. I learned harmonies to every 90s alternative hit in the car with my dad, and we wrote songs together since I could walk. Our home videos are just hours of us going back and forth with lines to silly songs.

In middle school, my musical taste erupted. I was really into emo music, R&B (Alicia Keys was a huge early inspiration) and the poppy alt-rock of the early 2000s. After seeing John Mayer live around 2003, I asked my mom for a Fender. I had this really hyper group of middle school guy friends who used to come over because they thought my mom was cute and we had a hot tub. One night, one of them was trying to play the Fender as loudly as he could and broke the quarter-inch jack on the amp almost immediately after we got it. We never got around to fixing it. I was frustrated by my small fingers working their way around an acoustic, so I gave up for a bit. Around the same time, a lot of these amazing acoustic singer-songwriters were coming out of Ireland – Damien Rice, Glen Hansard (Swell Season), Lisa Hannigan – and I was obsessed. They were creating what, to me, sounded like emo music on Takamine acoustics. It felt like the perfect solution to my creativity; instead of needing to get really good at the piano like Alicia Keys, or shred like Mayer, or find myself an emo band (which felt impossible for a 14-year-old girl), I could simply learn a few chords and start writing my own version of “emo” songs. I recorded my first demos around 14 or 15 with my dad’s band, started playing shows around New Haven in early high school, finished my first EP in college, and have been writing and performing ever since.

Where do you find the inspiration for your music?

When I was a teenager and first taking myself seriously as a songwriter, I wrote songs inspired by the thing most of us are inspired by – heartbreak. It worked for a long time, until, as my dad always says, “It’s hard to write when you’re happy”. The lightning-strike inspiration of a bad breakup or a desperate plea to get some asshole to pay attention to you tends to peter out when you’re happily married and fairly stable.

Now, I’m guided by that classical training. Instead of waiting around for inspiration to strike, I sit down with a disciplined practice every day. I read tons of books about songwriting. I sit at the piano, guitar, or a piece of classical music for 30 minutes a day. I practice writing for a chunk of time every day and am really working on strengthening those habits. It’s making me a better musician than the one who used to wait to get sad enough to write something, that’s for sure. Now I don’t have to be so sad all the time. It’s nice.

The lightning strikes still come after a great show, though. When we’re lucky enough to co-bill with a great act (Jesse Terry and Kaiti Jones are both incredible New England singer-songwriters we get to play with a lot), it’s a sincere privilege to watch their shows for free. I almost always find myself scribbling on a napkin during a great show. COVID has messed that up a bit, but the songs are a lot easier to write once you’re surrounded by amazing musicians.

What is your songwriting process?

I’m working my way through Pat Pattison’s “Writing Better Lyrics” right now, and using the tools from that book to improve my lyric-writing. I try to write a few lines or a poem every day. That book really inspires the creation of really great poetry, and I’m learning how to turn those poems into songs. I’m reading some books about melody, too, and this academic methodical approach to writing is working well for me lately.

More typically, however, I start with a few lines or a verse I like, and get to the guitar or piano immediately. I find it tricky to turn a really great poem into a song. I have to introduce the lyrics to their chords quickly or the whole thing falls apart. Songs can slip through your fingers.

Eric and I write separately – not as a strict rule, but it’s pretty set in stone. We tried to write one song together in our entire seven years and it didn’t go well. I’m a really private writer and uncomfortable with sharing the vulnerability of writing with someone. We share absolutely everything else in this life; tour together, live together, eat together, but I can’t seem to let him in on that area of my life.

What’s your go-to guitar for songwriting?

For college graduation, my mom – in a really nice gesture – bought me a pretty expensive Taylor. Buying guitars for people is tough. I really didn’t enjoy the sound. I don’t remember what model it was, but it felt really tinny and bright. Maybe great for finger-picking, but not the chordy singer-songwriter stuff I was writing at the time. My husband played Gibsons and we started our duo career both playing Gibsons. The Taylor collected dust, sadly.

There’s a 100-year-old guitar shop called “Union Music” here in Worcester, Massachusetts. One day, two days before leaving for tour, I walked into their guitar room and randomly started playing. I’ve always been so uncomfortable with how self-absorbed people seem when they walk into a guitar shop and start wailing on a Fender they can hardly play. That’s most likely a *me* problem, but anyway… the shop was empty and the humidified guitar room was behind a glass door, so I went for it. I picked up this nice, tiny mahogany Martin 00-15 and wrote my song “Brother” in 10 minutes. The guitar picked me. Weirdly, the Taylor my mom got me was the exact same price, so it was a perfect trade-in. Now, it’s the one I write every song on. Every once in a while, I pick up one of the Gibsons, but I have the best luck on that little Martin.

Music to me is…

Music to me is “flow”. When I’m absorbed in music, it’s one of the few places I can go to find “flow”. Working on a classical piece on the piano can make an hour feel like seconds. I resisted my love of practice for a long time, but COVID gave me the gift of time, and I was able to get disciplined again and find joy in practice. Finishing a song is like working on a tricky sudoku, but one without any answers. It can be infuriating, exhausting, and completely overwhelming at times. But when you figure that line out, or you play just the right chord, there’s really nothing else that can fill me with so much pride and excitement. I run into the studio where Eric is mixing and yell, “Listen to this!” like a little kid with a macaroni painting to put on the fridge. Getting to do that for crowds of people is nothing short of my life’s miracle. It’s been a rough couple of years to be an independent musician, but there’s still not a day that goes by that I take it for granted.

Connect with Ash and Eric

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