For a long while, Ashley Paul has made music that hits me like nobody else. Her songs are filled with open spaces that feel like invitations. There are elements of whimsy infused with pensiveness and cathartic reflections, all wrapped into strange, remarkable sonic experiments. Intricate banalities transform into organic, sprawling vistas where the possibility of magic revelations exists at every turn. Her latest album, I Am Fog, is obliterating. Despair runs through its veins, permeating every softly-dynamic stretch while simultaneously welcoming us to sit with it for a while. It’s a beautiful, haunting record.
So I always like to ask people about their earliest memories of music and sound. Are there any particular songs, albums, or environmental sounds you remember hearing when you were a kid that made you stop and think, “Oh, that’s different? Or made you feel something that surprised you?”
I come from a very musical household. My sister, who is 8 years older than me, was always practicing piano and voice, my dad plays jazz guitar, and my grandfather was a saxophonist and clarinetist. So there was pretty much always music around. I remember that when I became aware of Paul Desmond (sometime around age 5 or 6), I began to tell EVERYONE that I would grow up to be a saxophonist. This near-obsession with Paul Desmond lasted into my twenties. I started transcribing his playing when I was ten. First song was “Skylark.” Other favorites are “Hi-Lili-Hi-Lo” and “Taste of Honey.” I think he instilled a strong sense of the importance of melody and the power of understatement in me. His work is perfectly distilled and crafted with absolutely no excess.
Related to that, are there specific ways you try to expose your daughter to different things musically? I feel like I live in this world where my kid is super into the Frozen soundtracks but also wants me to put on live Miles Davis jams. It’s hilarious at times but mostly pretty fantastic.
Yeah, well, it’s the Trolls soundtrack in my house. But she’s equally obsessed with Captain Beefheart, Jonathan Richman, and Duke Ellington, so we’re trying to keep a balance. We try our best to expose her to a lot, but it’s kind of hit or miss. She prefers music with a beat… we have a lot of dance parties.
She gives me advice on my music too. Mainly that it should be more fun, haha [Editor’s Note – I love this SO much], but I do find her humming my songs all the time, so that’s kind of sweet.
Okay, getting off that – your work has evolved these last few years, especially as the RAY ensemble has come together. Can you tell me how you first met Yoni and Otto and came to start playing with them?
About five years ago, I saw Yoni playing with my friends Usurper (Ali and Malcy) at Cafe OTO. A couple days later, I was walking in the park by my house with my daughter and saw Yoni with his partner and son. I yelled after him; I was so desperate to have friends with kids ha. Our families became instant friends. We started playing music together not too long after that. I had put a band together to do some of the songs off Lost in Shadows. I quickly came to see how special Yoni is as a musician. He’s totally up for anything, like doubling bass clarinet and piano…or the brilliant alto sax/ bass clarinet Roland Kirk style thing he does.
Otto and I met through our mutual friend Laurie Thompkins who runs the Slip label. Laurie was putting on a show at OTO and asked Otto and I to do a duo. We began to play on occasion, first in a more free capacity, then slowly moving more into more expanded songs.
At some point, I started imagining us all playing together… This was the beginning stages of what would become the album Ray. I had no idea at the time Yoni and Otto were already playing together. When I started formulating ideas for the album, I imagined trying to record it more like live, stretched-out song, but then the pandemic happened. I was totally bummed and thought the trio thing would probably be tabled indefinitely. But as I began composing, I just kept hearing them being part of it, so I sent both of them tracks and parts, and as we were all stuck in our houses, it came together super quickly.
Speaking about Ray, but more specifically the album Ray. One thing that still sticks with me about the album is how it’s this mix of a sort of everyday whimsy and dealing with the depths of last year’s isolation. How did writing and making this album help you process and get through the lockdowns, uncertainties, etc?
Ray was composed during the first lockdown. It was a very odd time. The world seemed as though it was falling apart outside, but inside my house, it was magic. My partner and I were both off work, spending days playing with our daughter, having BBQs, planting flowers… Drinking a lot of afternoon cocktails. It was a really special time for us, the most time we’d had all together since Cora was born. I had this fury of creative output first recording Window Flower for Cafe OTO’s TakuRoku releases. Then I just couldn’t stop and almost immediately began composing and recording the music for Ray.
I think it’s pretty obvious in the songs of Ray that there were ups and downs during that time. I definitely wrote the music as a coping mechanism… It’s strange to think back about it now. I mean, it was pretty fucking terrifying for a while. Complete unknowns, and yet I was locked in this cycle of play and gardens.
What was the most challenging part about making the record?
Finding time is usually the hardest part of creating music. Not just the actual time that composing and recording takes, but the sort of mental time. The creative headspace where I can remove my daily life hat and completely focus on making. I’m a bit of a worrier and tend to over plan/ think about everything.
Having Ben, my partner, at home with me over lockdown allowed me to share some of those responsibilities so that I had time to be free and creative. That was brilliant!
The first performance you all did post-lockdown is documented on this new release, Another Sand. How did it feel the first time you all were able to play?
Emotional! It was super intense. And great. And cathartic… I love playing music.
What part of performing and playing with other musicians did you miss most?
All of it, really. Spending time together with people who inspire you. Creating something together. Coffee and jokes and dinner and drinks after the shows.
I’m so excited you’re working with Orange Milk again. That connection is one of my favorite musical collaborations in the last decade. It always seemed so unlikely on the surface, but when I think more about it, that’s why it works. Your solo work often takes familiar ingredients and presents them in unique, unexpected ways – something I think Orange Milk does, too. Anyway, I’d love to know how you connected with them and what it is about working with Orange Milk that keeps drawing you back?
Ah, yes. I love Orange Milk. I’ve always found them to be quite unexpected as well, and I love that they’ve taken chances with me when I’m probably not an obvious choice for the label. They released my very first solo LP, Slow Boat. Good guys!!
I first met Seth while living in NYC through my then-partner, Eli Keszler. I didn’t know that many people in the city at that point. Orange Milk was pretty young at the time, and I was helping Eli with his imprint REL as well as releasing tapes on my Wagtail imprint. We had a lot of overlap in our musical interests and the aesthetics of a label. I would go to Seth’s house, talk about composing, and we became friends and hung out a lot when we all lived there. We’ve kept in touch since then, meeting up a few times in London. It’s been brilliant to watch OM flourish. What they’re doing is really unique, but I especially appreciate how they do it with great kindness, respect, and support for their artists.
I Am Fog is so intriguing to me because – and the write-up the label did really gets at this – it feels so desolate and bleak, but in this wonderfully approachable way. Where was your mind at when you were composing and recording these pieces?
I Am Fog was written in the autumn of 2021. It was a strange time… Covid had been going on for so long at that point; life felt like an endless, monotonous pit of nothingness. No changes, no excitement. Music venues were only just starting up again. Everyone was testing all the time…or getting sick. Trips, concerts…everything was uncertain…and so I had become somewhat numb. Numb to the world outside, avoiding hope to avoid disappointment, I suppose. Just going through the motions of each day. Taking my daughter to school, cleaning…and a lot of time spent alone. Too much time alone.
This album’s backdrop is a sense of endless loneliness and monotony. But there is also a longingness for fantasy, for the idea of the excitement of life before or to come. Freedom, lust, being with friends…intense feelings of any sort. It’s maybe the opposite of Ray. My daily life during Ray was vibrant with color and happiness. Yet, there was this deep underlying sense of fear and anxiety. In I Am Fog, there is simply nothing… dull, grey, numb, yet bubbling underneath with hope and a glimpse of light. “…and just like that, the sun came out”.
And you work with Yoni and Otto again, and of course, it’s terrific. The chemistry you all have is so unique. Can you just take a little bit about what it means to you to play and create with them?
It has taken me so long to find them, and I deeply cherish that I finally have. For me, playing this music requires total trust in the people I’m working with. It is so precious to me, hah. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic… but the actual music is quite simple. There’s melody and some harmony… It’s all about the nuance. Finding other people who are willing and able to get in that space with me, well that’s taken basically forever.
Both Yoni and Otto are technically incredible musicians who are working outside of the box. If I have crazy ideas, there is no hesitation from them. They are right there with me. They are amazing at playing the songs with delicacy yet can totally shred, which is something I love, particularly in our live sets, which bring in more improvisation. The juxtaposition of simple, beautiful melodies and harsh, noisy textures has always been my happy place. Space and noise. Beauty and destruction. But lots of space…