Now She Knows
Morgantown singer/songwriter Ashley McMillen makes a name for herself in the music industry.
To the untrained ear, Ashley McMillen’s recently released EP, Now I Know, might sound like country. In fact, it might sound “very country.” But play the tracks again, and you’ll hear the layers—influences from gospel and blues and hymns to ’80s pop. “A lot of folks have said I’m similar to Emmylou Harris, which is unbelievable. I take that as a huge compliment,” says the Morgantown native. With all the usual suspects—vocals, guitar, bass—Ashley and her band round out their sound with full drums, electric guitar, and a pedal steel guitar, not to mention the occasional violin, piano, organ, and harmonica. “We’ve got a great sound, and you can hear that on the EP,” she says.
Though her recent musical success has seemed to be fast and furious, Ashley’s musical journey began as a child. She grew up singing along to Disney soundtracks and in church with her grandparents, though she admits she was always really nervous to sing in front of a crowd. Then she found her mom’s old Epiphone guitar in a closet—she’d had no idea her mom ever played—and learned how to play from friends and online tutorials. By the time she reached Morgantown High School, Ashley was playing classical violin for the school orchestra and making the rounds in the local band circuit. “The first time I ever sang backup was with a friend’s band for a battle of the bands competition, and we sang ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia.’”
Ashley finished three years at WVU on the pre-med track before following love to New Jersey. Her years there turned out to be some of the most formative of her life. She completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology and half of a master’s degree in social work and found herself in an emotionally abusive marriage. “The only way I could express myself, the only way I could stay sane, was to sit by myself and write songs. And that’s what I did. Every day,” she says. Thirty songs later—lyrics, melody, and all—she finally took her mom’s advice. “The song ‘Momma’ is essentially poking fun at the fact that my mother told me to get out of this relationship for eight years and I didn’t. I sort of just have to laugh about it now because—what else are you going to do?”
The singer/songwriter headed to Charlottesville, Virginia, for a fresh start—she had family there and plans to complete her master’s at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She recalls, “When I got to Charlottesville, that’s when I thought, ‘Well, let me play this stuff live. Nobody here knows me, nobody knows anything about what I have been through.’” Her musical career took off before she ever made it to VCU. “In New Jersey, during that relationship, I really did sort of think it was over—that my dreams of music were gone,” Ashley says. But she decided she wasn’t going to let anyone steal her dreams from her. “I thought, ‘I’m going to do everything I ever wanted for myself.’ And I did. And it worked.”
“Momma” was the first song she ever played live in Charlottesville. “People loved it, so I just kept going back, and success just sort of came out of nowhere,” she says. She’s been in Charlottesville just over a year now, and that year has been spent picking up the best musicians in town to join her band, playing music festivals and gigs on a regular basis, winning competitions, making appearances on radio shows, and even gaining the interest of Dave Matthews Band’s management company, Red Light. “Charlottesville is really close-knit. All the musicians are like a family, everybody knows everybody and supports everybody else,” Ashley says. “The first few months I would play live, people would just come up and say, ‘Where did you come from? We’ve never seen you. We’ve never heard about you. But people are talking about you.’”
Ashley credits her “crazy brain” for all of her songs, though she’s quick to add, “I have a really great band; they’ll make suggestions about repeating a chorus here or trying this there. They’re some of the best musicians of their kind in Charlottesville. I’m so lucky.” The singer/songwriter has other tricks up her sleeve, though, when it comes to songwriting. “I have to be feeling a really intense emotion—whether it be ‘I’m so sad’ or ‘I’m so happy’—it’s almost always associated with a feeling. And I talk out loud to myself all the time—I got it, I think, from my grandmother. My nanny talks to herself all the time.” That’s how most of Ashley’s songs start—with whatever phrase comes out of her mouth. “It usually ends up being the chorus, or the first line,” she says.
Her EP, Now I Know, was released in January 2012 after being recorded and produced in Charlottesville with Jeff Romano of Jimmy Dog Studios and band member Rusty Speidel. “There was so much work that went into that EP—so much work. I had no idea how hard it was going to be but Jeff is hilarious. He made it really fun,” Ashley says. And now, she has a product she can give people. “For all these years, I’d be somewhere and say, ‘Yeah, I’m a singer,’ and people would look at me like, ‘Yeah, sure you are.’ It’s really cool to be able to support my statement.”
Ashley is the first to admit her wildest dream is to win a Grammy. “Winning any award would be—oh gosh, to stand on that stage and cry as they call my name would be unbelievable,” she says. But more than anything, she hopes to someday be recognized for her songwriting. Her band may go its separate way, things with Red Light may fall through, but she’ll always have her voice and she’ll always be able to write her songs. “If somebody in 30 years was like, ‘Wow, Ashley McMillen was a good songwriter,’ that would mean everything to me.”
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