Guest Q&A with Ashley Cleveland

Photo credit: Taylor Smith

Photo credit: Taylor Smith

What led you to play and pursue a career in music?

Music was a lifeline to me.  My family collapsed early on and I sat squarely in the role of the scapegoat, acting out our collective pain and dysfunction.  I got a lot of attention but not much of it was positive.  I also inherited a strong tendency towards addiction in the family DNA and eventually became an alcoholic and drug addict.  When I discovered music as a teenager it became something of a lifeline to me.  It expressed the sorrow and anger that was, at that point, inarticulate. It engendered positive responses from others and it functioned as a marker, or, in my opinion, a gift from God that maybe I had a purpose and reason to be in this world.

You recently published a memoir titled Little Black Sheep, can you tell us a little bit about it and why you decided to write it?

 I came to prose with a great deal of resistance and reluctance.  I have enjoyed a long career as a songwriter and consider myself a discerning reader and lover of books.  In light of those things the thought of writing my own book was daunting in the extreme but frankly I had much encouragement from different sources and one woman, an author and poet in Texas, literally hounded me until I surrendered to the idea of maybe a chapter.  The chapter went well.

You are a pioneer for females in your industry. How has it changed since you first started out and is there anything you still wish were different?

Obviously the biggest change in music is that the industry model I grew up with has collapsed and the recording industry is, for many artists, no longer profitable.  I have to say though that I am largely unaffected by the changes in record sales, publishing, radio play etc because I’ve never had a big commercial career.  My career has turned and thrived on live performance—which is still going strong.  For me what has changed in the last few years is that my job description has expanded. Rather than strictly concert work, I am now booked to speak, read and teach along with providing music.  I play churches and festivals but also clubs, conferences, women’s retreats, addiction treatment facilities and anyplace that a message of life and recovery would fit well in.  I suppose I am my own cottage industry but it suits me and I do love the opportunity to invite people to swim in deep water because I tend to dwell there.   

The thing that I most wish was different—and what is an interesting perspective to bring to this event with Christine is that I would love to see more dissolution of the boundaries in my work.  I have operated equally in the Christian and secular music for many years but belong to neither.  In my experience with Christian music, songs were discarded for being too worldly; in my experience with mainstream music, songs (or entire albums) were discarded for having too much message and not being worldly enough.  The minute I identify as a follower of Christ I am lumped in with a political ideology and a set of assumptions that have absolutely nothing to do with who I am or what I’m about.  I would love to see those walls come down and an opportunity for Christian artists to participate in the broader musical landscape.  By the same token, I would love to see Christian music become more diverse and reflective of the tremendous variety of faith perspectives that exist. 

When did you and Christine Patterson become friends?

Happily, I have known Christine since she was born.  Our parents were good friends and she is very much part of my childhood memories in Knoxville.  As we have become adults our paths have continues to intersect and we have discovered new ways to connect in life, friendship, family, faith and art.

What connections do you see between the music you make and the work Christine creates?

 I I think art usually contains references to time and place—either explicitly or implicitly.  Both Christine and I lovingly represent Tennessee in our work (particularly in her series from the back roads of our state); both of us chart the brokenness in our own families of origin in our work; both of us are pursuing faith in our work and expressing what we know and believe thus far.  

Why do you think the art both of you and Christine are making is important?

For me, the creative life is a vehicle to and outlet for the deepest parts of my identity.  I consider it a success if I can capture my own elusive inner voice that is often hard to pin down.  I consider the work important if someone else responds and makes it their own.  Christine’s art has a vast ownership. 

What is the best advice you have ever been given?

That my creative life ends when I am no longer teachable.  Part of understanding the language of my own soul is recognizing that while there are things that I do know, I certainly don’t know as much as I’d like to think I do and that the best way for me to be in the world is with an open hand-along with the ability to take what I like and leave the rest.