Friday, July 20, 2007

Ashley 1st, Singing It in New York City

Ashley Furst. The kind of name that sticks with you. I remember the first time I heard it: I was a 14 year old curly-haired sprite of a teenage boy, trying to get by during my freshman year 0f high school. She was in my English Honors class, and her name would be called shortly before mine, given the nature of the alphabet and last names. When she spoke up in class, her voice cut the air with what I would now describe as: a warmth, carried by a nonchalant precision, and steered by her curious-passionate approach to literature. We maintained a fine respect of each other's skills and personality throughout those years, and though we haven't seen each other in some time, Ashley is the type of person you hope to hear from one day, and for whom you wish the best circumstances and luck.

With this in mind, I did what so many bask in during "unproductive" parts of the day: I googled and myspace-searched for her. It was both a surprise and a refreshing testament to her earlier focus and fire that she has thrown herself into a musical career in that cultural mecca, New York City. After hearing her songs several times over, I contacted the adult version of my old friend, my fellow curly-haired classmate. As you might imagine, she enthusiastically told me about her songs, travels, and times at local dessert spots. She also hipped me to her new moniker, Ashley 1st. Tune in below, and if you like what you hear, catch her lively show at Crash Mansion on Tuesday, July 24.

I end up scatting at the end.

CE: Hey, Ashley.
AF: Yeah.
CE: So you’re driving from LA. What were you doing in LA?
AF: I came up to meet my saxophone player actually, who ironically enough, had a gig out here in LA. Since I was in California, I figured I would drive up today.
CE: What did you guys end up doing today?
AF: Well his band just landed and they had not eaten yet. He said, “We’re going to this place, California Chicken Pizza." I said, "Okay, I'll be there!" So, ate with him, and ended up talking forever after.
CE: What did you guys end eat at California Pizza Kitchen?
I got a regular cheese, and he had Chicken Caesar Sandwich. Had some lemonade, coming in by the pints, or whatever. Then we just stayed outside. We were out on Sunset and— ch, chh, chhh— Crescent Heights. He showed me some music on his laptop, from the other bands he's in.

CE: I see. I noticed your voice goes all over the place. Do you ever, go up to him, and play off each other?
AF: A little call and response? You know, my band definitely inspires me to do so. Sometimes, when I do that in practice, they help me with it. They'll say: "If you're going to do this, we're going to do that." That's how I end one of my songs, "Let me Love You," on stage. I'll do a call-and-response with the sax player. I don't think of myself as a pure scat artists, but, if by the end of the song, you're feeling it, it's fun to ad lib, and sometimes it comes out like that.
CE: Has that become the token way you close that song?
AF: Well, most of my songs end up starting in one tempo and then ending in an entirely different tempo.
CE: I meant, for example, with Ani DiFranco, everyone is so taken by her jamming. But when you're on the road for that long, you end up doing token jams, you know? Or Van Morrison, when he was very young, with Them, he would end with a 20 minute version of "Gloria," and often play his sax on the floor. It's always a creative, impromptu thing, but it also becomes the way you end a certain song or close a show. I was just wondering, is that the way you always end that song? Or, are there other routines you do with other songs?
AF: With a couple of my songs, I end up scatting at the end. What's funny is, sometimes the middle of my songs will change. If on stage, I meant to follow a certain melody, but it comes out an entirely different way, it opens a door to another room that I never thought of playing in. Although I may cringe on the inside at the moment on stage, when I look back at the live recordings of my shows, I think, "Oh no, that's not so bad." There's actually new stuff I get to do!

How would you like to play a show at the end of the summer?

CE: You've played at The Bitter End a couple times. Tell me about your top three shows you've recently seen there.
AF: Do they have to be shows only at The Bitter End?
CE: No.
AF: This sounds silly, but I go to the shows of the guys in my band, because they each have their own groups that they compose for. So I end up going to see them play in their element. As good as they are, with my band— I think oh, they're great— and then I see them with their own band, playing their own material, they g crazy, and I get to see a whole new side. I will actually name the bands: Saint of the Day [guitarist Sergio Ortega], Nevereven [bassist Gary Pickard], In the Caul [drummer Benjamin Woodbury], oh then my keyboardist, Dominic Fallacaro. My saxaphonist, Michael Seropyan, plays with industry bands.
CE: I was listening to Dominic. He has a great take on jazz.

He's funny during his shows, too. He'll classically arrange, maybe Brittany Spears's "Toxic" or Abba's "Dancing Queen." He’ll take any song you wish, and he turns it jazz, he turns it on hits head. It's hilarious, cunning, and brilliant.

CE: Was Dominic the one that helped you start the band?
AF: The bassist, my music musical director, Gary Pickard, found me all the boys in the band. Although, our first keyboardist got too busy, he had too many commitments and couldn't do my band. The keyboardist we have now, Dominic Fallacaro, was found by my drummer, Benjamin Woodbury. They went to New School together. CE: Spell out the history of your band a little more. Tell me what it was like during all those professional, "industry" shows. Then how you and the bassist got to know each other and play together.
AF: I met him through a corporate band . They would hire me as one of their lead singers. He was one of the routine players. I just knew he could play bass, saxophone, clarinet, guitar, drums, even a little piano. I just thought, one day when I start a band, I want him on my team. I knew that he's multi-faceted, chill to work with, and had a good ear. Then, once I actually had my own things recorded, to the point of going out and playing with a band, I asked him, "Hey, Gary, do you have time to take on another band? Would you like to be in mine?"I started providing him with my songs— some of them were fleshed out, some of them were not. I was lucky in that most of his colleagues were music gradates, and he's been playing out for so long that he knows a lot of musicians. I didn’t have to Craigslist it, get a rehearsal room for a day, and cold-call a bunch of strangers. I didn't have to ask them questions like: "How often do you do drugs or alcohol". Gary was a great way that I could screen guys that I knew were going to be professional and great to work with.

When I bring in the songs, if they're not written down, I'll write down all the notes, and he'll name all the the chords for me and make up the lead sheets. During practice, if I' m not sure where to take the song, he will help me arrange it. Also, he gives me options, and sometimes I'll speak up and say, "No, that's not the way it's going on in my head." He's kind of the older, know-it-all brother. He may be right most of the time, but he's not right all the time. And I'm the
feisty younger sister that will make sure that he knows when it's some of the time. Every now and then, I'll pipe up and put my foot down, and say, "No, we're going this way." He's a great musical director. Sometimes I call him P. Diddy, you know, because of the way P. Diddy has fashioned his own band.

Sorry, I forgot the root of your question, because I went off on this tangent. You asked how I started this band: Gary found the other guys, and we started practicing once a week, and having shows in the fall, when we were ready.

CE: How long have you been playing, as a full band?
You know what's funny, Shahin? I called these guys up and said, "Hey, would you like to play a show at the end of the summer? I just need a band to play one show!" You know, having no idea what a musical career entails. We started practicing last August, and we are still practicing this July, coming into August. So, I've adjusted my sights now. We're now a year strong.

I fuse those melodies, I fuse those harmonies.

CE: I had some questions regarding your songs . I was wondering, do you know Laura Nyro? "Ain't Nothin'," when it slows down, and speeds up, and slows down, then slows down again, really, really reminded me of Laura Nyro. In the sense that you might have listened to her and had been influenced, but not like it's a copy at all. You would lover her. I mean, you might really like her. You should get New York Tendaberry. It's all about her and New York; it's a singer-songwriter concept album about the city. Her voice is an acquired taste, but she does a lot of what you do with your voice in that song, how it trails up and down these stairs, and then gets all antsy and kind of R&B then goes back down.

AF: I just kind of thought of it when I was in the box. Sometimes I get to the studio and I just think of a melody, or I do it on the fly— however it comes out in the box. I was actually listening to a lot of Alicia Keys around that time. I thought, "Gosh, I love that sound. Gosh, I want something like that."

You know, I should prepare more of my music before I go to the recording studio. But what's funny is, it's not until I get those headphones on my ears, I'm standing in front of the microphone, and looping the track maybe 5, 6, or 10 times, that I am provoked. I fuse those melodies, I fuse those harmonies. I don't know if it's the headphones and the environment, but magic stuff happens off the cuff and in the booth. I don’t know why.

CE: What's the story, or what were you trying to get at with, "Ain't Nothin'"?
AF: I think I was missing something I had tasted once before. This song was a reprise. I was delving into the reserves, if you will. Scooping a ladle from that well or that chapter of my life. Sometimes, my songs are about what's happening now. Sometimes, I have to look back on past years. Is that too vague?
CE: No, No, Be as vague as you want to be. I mean, you don't need dates and times.
Bottom line: I was thinking of the past and enjoying it again.
CE: That's good. I was thinking how your songs go different places, for me. Knowing your background, "Ain't Nothin'" feels like a gospel song.
I don't have money to bring in a gospel chorus, but that's where harmonies go: I end up layering it like a gospel choir. I’m glad you feel a spiritual churning, or a sense of a soul behind the songs.
CE: To me, it's easy to personalize this song, as well as the others. Or at least,
AF: You know, you’re so right. At the end of the day, that’s my purpose. I just want to make a song that people can listen to if they need to, that people can listen to and identify with. I just want to make music that will help people express their feelings.

CE: Definitely. Is “You're Just so Good” your pop song? Because it sounds like the most produced, layered and playful of the songs.

AF: I always thought of that song as my single. It has some blues chords in it, but I'm glad you think of it as a pop song. That you think of it as appealing to mainstream, on the radio. That's great.

It's a song that happened to come to me in two days. Most of the songs, I get the music first, then I have to pull— like teeth— I have to grasp for lyrics. But that was one of mm-mm-maybe two or three songs that’s ever gotten where it was music and lyrics at the same time. And it just came in fifteen minutes. Oh, and you start writing like a free write, and when you look at the lines, they rhyme. You didn’t even mean to do that, but they do. I remember, I got the verse one day, and I got chorus the next day. No wait, I’m sorry, I got the chorus to that song first. I usually get the chorus to my songs first, I don’t know why. I get the theme or the, you know, thesis, before I fill out the verses.

Again, not to sound like a broken record, but with that song, I thought of the harmonies and everything in the box, when I was in the recording studio. I’ll tell Ray, “Hey Ray, loop it one more time, I have to use the harmonies. Or, "Ray, could you play the second verse one more time, I’m not done adding things.” Let’s see. Although, I’m sorry, you’re making me think out loud, things that I’ve never been asked before so, never been asked to contradict myself.

CE: Oh, that’s more than fine.That’s part of the game.
If I showed you my iTunes, it would be funny, because you’d see maybe 20 different drafts of “You’re Just so Good.” And the very first time I brought home a draft of “You’re just so good” from the studio, I remember it was only 19 seconds long, and all I had was the chorus. And it was as you hear it on myspace: those types of harmonies, those types of bluesy notes. So, you’re right. From the get-go, it had that layering sound.
CE: Are all the female voices you, or when you call in your girls, are they other people?
On all these songs, the vocals are me because I’m not big time enough to hire up back up singers or a choir, yet. So yeah, me doing six parts or whatever. Heh-heh. That’s me, over and over and over.

CE: Ok, I’m going to ask about “Master,” because it’s a song that sounds like you need to know, well, you need to hear a few more times to kinda feel it. At least for me, which is a good thing.

AF: “Master”: I literally walked up to the wall, which had a map on it, a world map, and I was thinking of someone that was in a particular corner of the world. I just walked up to that country on the map and pictured... you know how The Beattle’s “Back in the USSR” starts, with the plane landing. You know, that song starts with the plane going CHHHh, Wheeew!” I walked up to that corner of the world, where that person was, on the map, I just heard the plane wheels coming down and the plane starting to land. I thought,, "What if I pulled it off, what if I pulled off the ultimate feat of just jumping ship for a weekend, and going to visit, incognito, undercover, this corner of the Earth!"

And that’s when I go into Walter Mitty’s— The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, if you’ve ever read that book or seen that movie— I go off into a little daydream land . And as soon as I thought that thought, that’s when the verse came in, like “oooh”: I picture myself walking out of the airport, alone. Nobody knew I was in that part of the world. Nobody knew I was, you know, not sitting at home in my apartment in New York.

And that’s when “I’m a master, I’m a man/ Try to find me if you can,” came on in my head. And everything started rhyming, I thought, “Oh, I need a pencil, I need a pen, I need something!” And I’ll just grab whatever the nearest thing is, I’ll start writing on a napkin— I don’t care— just to get the lyrics while they’re coming to me. What’s funny, I actually made that thought come to fruition one weekend when I knew my sister was going to be gone. I actually jumped ship. I wrote the third verse in the airport, at JFK, when I was sitting by myself (with my little carry-on) and nobody else knew that I was about to jump on a plane for the weekend, and, yeah.

Songs that molded or shaped my life?

CE: Hello. Let’s talk about songs that really matter to you, Ashley Furst.

AF: Songs that molded or shaped my life?

CE: Yeah, or a range. Let’s stay, let’s start with…

If you’re ready to keep talking at length, we could do it that way. Or, I could just throw out questions: “a song you like to sing in the shower.” Which one do you prefer?

AF: I like that question. That’s a great question.

CE: Ok, what is a song you like to sing to in the shower?
You know, it’s The Best of Eydie Gormé Y Los Panchos. They're Mexican drinking and folklore song. My mom likes Eydie Gormé, she’s a great classic singer. She does some Latin albums, as well. The Best of Eydie Gormé was a staple during my formative years. Any one of her songs, “Noche de Ronda,” “Piela Canela,” or “La Ultima Noche.” Any Eydie Gormé song is a shower staple.
CE: Your favorite song to listen to when you’re sad, your favorite album. Album is more appropriate, in that case.
Oh gosh, nobody’s pulled at the heart strings. That stings. Lenny Kravitz’s Let Love Rule. Yeah, that can make me sad. It’s probably because I think of where I was when I listened to the album most, and how, now, I don’t have what I used to have. Uh-huh, yeah.
CE: Was that in high school? I remember you liking him then.
AF: Really, that album into my brain in college. It got a whole new meaning in college.
CE: Do you know the song “Butterfly,” off Mama Said? It’s like the last song off Mama Said. It goes, “You are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Blah blah blah. “You’re my butterfly, fly high!” It’s a capella, I think. My friend used to cover it, that’s the only way I know it.
AF: Oh, I have failed him as a fan. I have to go look that up now.

CE: Yeah, it’s a beautiful song to cover. It would sound pretty if covered by a woman, actually.

Now, an album you listen to with your high school friends, still? Or sister, since you’ve lived with your sister so long.

AF: Gosh, the common olive branch between our musical tastes would have to be The Rolling Stones. Which album? Hot Rocks.
CE: Is there a song you wish you would have written, or one that fits your world view a lot, or fits what you think a good song should be? Are there a couple songs you could think of?

AF: Okay, number one is um. Not number one, I don’t have an order thing. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, the song “As.”
CE: Oh my god, yeah.
AF: David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” There’s a toss-up, if I’m going to go instrumental, between Rhapsody in Blue and Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.”

CE: What is it about Rhapsody in Blue, for you?

AF: Oh my gosh, every time I hear that, it makes me go to the piano. Or kind of like, when I saw with Amber, the movie Ray: it made me go to he piano, it made me buy the soundtrack and start playing along.

It’s like an alarm that goes off inside of me. When I hear Rhapsody in Blue, I have to go to the piano within five minutes, or when I get home, and work on being a better musician, being a better pianist. It makes me eat my own words, wish I didn’t quit in seventh grade. That’s when my mom said, “You’ll be sorry you quit your piano lessons!” Something in Rhapsody in Blue. And you know that was the first record I played from Bleeker Street Records. When I went home and bought a turn table— the first day— that had to be the first test record. Oh!
CE: Wow.
AF: When I hear that come over the Krix speakers, the Black Ash Equinox, I don’t know.
CE: Do you have the one with Bernstein conducting?
AF: Yes, yes I do have the one with Bernstein conducting and playing.
CE: And the cover is him with his baton, shaking it.

AF: It awakens something in my soul that pulls me to the piano like a magnet. That’s what Rhapsody in Blue is. Somehow, Rhapsody in Blue is the magnetic field that pulls my body to a keyboard. And I think everybody has something like that: some song that just straps and awakens an alarm inside of you and pulls you to the instrument, after you hear it, if you’re so compelled.
CE: Definitely, definitely. There are full albums for me. It’s been two years since I’ve had a working violin. I loved playing to someone’s voice: Joni’s voice, or Van Morrison’s voice would make me play like nothing else.

Okay, how about a song you used to sing with your parents in the car, or with your sister in the car?

AF: My sister in the car—you know, she was older— so she had to drive me. Abba’s “Dancing Queen," or any Abba song off the album Oro, or the Gold album. With my parents in the car, let’s see: Dad was more The Rolling Stones, Mom was anything off K-RTH 101, anything from the oldies stations. That’s how I get my oldies repertoire. Everything from “Return to Sender,” to “Splish Splash I was Taking a Bath.”

CE: Does you guys still have that really big, white van with all the TVs?
AF: Oh, it was fun. In high school, it was the family van you can take to track meets, you can take all your friends to wherever. No, after high school, they didn't have any use for it. They sold the van once Amber and I left, once we didn't have tons of track meets and friends to carpool.
CE: I remember, it must have been at the end of high school or the first summer of college, we took that van, and we watched Sabrina on the TV's.
I remember we took that van to the OC Fair, with Brittany Wheeler and Anna.
Oh, that's right. Shahin, good memory. That was fun.

Oh, I would be a dessert baker.

CE: Okay, you’re not a professional singer.
AF: Excuse me?
CE: Let’s say you're not a professional singer: what are three other jobs you would like to have?
AF: I wouldn’t mind being a writer for a TV show like Saturday Night Live. I think of hypothetical situations in my head. And sometimes, I wonder if they would work for a comic strip, like two squares on paper, or whether they’d play out for five minutes. So yeah, I would love to be a writer for a comedy show like SNL.

Let’s see, I don’t sing, so I must? I’m kind of neat. No that’s boring, don’t say organizer.

I like to run, and motivate people. My friends, if they’re feeling lethargic and need a workout buddy, they’ll just call me up and say, “Hey, I need to get off my bum. Come with me and run.” I don’t know why I totally love to motivate people with pep talks and running beside them and doing whatever they want me to with them. Pay me to be your motivational buddy?

Oh, I would be a dessert baker. I love making desserts. I end up baking them without a timer, actually. I have this innate clock that tells me. I love making a presentation out of anything, whether it’s the way you spill out the powdered sugar so it makes a pattern or design, or you know, formulate the cut-up strawberries to create a 3-D structure. Singing it

CE: I guess that leads to two questions at least. First, where do you like to run in the city?
AF: It’s gotta be the Park [Central Park], because I have to get away from tall buildings. It reminds me of home actually, the wide open spaces. And the trails are softer on your feet, anyways.
CE: Where in the Park?
AF: Let’s see enter at 69th, and go all the way to The Reservoir, because I know in my little head that’s 1.58 miles. If I get tired of that route, I will go up to the east side of that park, up to Harlem. Then, when I miss water— I miss running on the beach or being near it— I’ll run by the Hudson because it’s body of water.

CE: And how about desserts in the city? I mean Boston has its fair share of fancy cuisines, but I’m sure New York has five times as many places to eat a good dessert. I’m in New York for the weekend, and I need to take a new girlfriend to 3 dessert places. Where are they?

AF: What you want to do is start at Beard Papa, on79th and Broadway, because it’s just like Japan: they make Cream puffs from scratch— with chocolate filling or regular custard. I recommend the regular custard. I always have to take it home so I could melt a Hershey's bar over it. Like I need chocolate on top of the éclair. Beard Papa makes the freshest éclairs which are amazing.

Another dessert place. I sound silly saying Cold Stone Creamery because it’s such a chain franchise, but I personally am addicted to Birthday Cake remix, which tastes like cake batter.

And the third place: I’ve heard the Max Brenner Bar is great. I’ve only been to the one in Harrod's in London. But here, Max Brennar is down Second Avenue. It’s called: “Chocolate by the Bald Man.” No wait, Vosges! They specialize in chocolate with wasabi, or curry, or seaweed.

I have no problem with the Mohawk.

CE: By the way, when you’re wiped out, just let me know. I’m going to go until the tape runs out. I might end early, but that’s my only cut off point.

We were speaking of Louis and Ella. Who’s up there as far as jazz ladies, for you?

AF: Ah, Etta James. Ella. Billie Holliday. A little bit of Sarah Vaughn. Linda Rondstadt, but she’s a contemporary.
CE: Do you know her early albums, at all? Just like Jackson Browne and that whole scene, her early albums are great.

AF: Or Eartha Kitt.

Oh, it might too late to turn in this thought, but when you said “jobs you’d like,” I love languages. I would love to be a tour guide because that would make me learn more languages. Right now, I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. But I just love languages and the way they sound.

CE: Too bad you live in New York, because I’m giving Persian lessons in Boston.
AF: You’re giving what?
CE: Conversational Persian lessons, actually, in Boston. It’s a fun time. But to go back to Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend the work she did with Emmylou Harris. She did two albums with Emmylou and Dolly, called Trios and Trios II. They do an amazing “After the Gold Rush,” the Neil Young song. She did a newer album, newer being some years ago, called The Tuscon Sessions. It's just her and Emmylou. They cover U2, Peter Gabriel, and Leonard Cohen. Their two voices, just really soft, and really together it’s something else. And did you know that she does music in Spanish, too?
AF: Yeah, she also does "Sabor a Mí.," like Eydie Gormé has done, too. I guess I grew up singing out of her Round Midnight books, when she was with Nelson Riddle.
CE: Oh, right right. Which I only found out recently. I was working at that record store in Worcester, for a few years.
AF: Yeah, you did.

CE: It was amazing to find all the records and CD’s you hadn’t known. Pat Benetar has a jazz album, it’s not with Nelson Riddle though.

Where are you on the highway, now?

AF: I’m actually parked outside of my sister’s house. I didn’t want to interrupt the interview.

CE: I’m just going to ask a couple more questions, and then we could wrap it up. My last question is kind of a silly, fluffy question, actually. Being a musician is about image, to some extent, right?
AF: Right.
CE: Would you cut your curls, at any point? Or are they part of the Ashley Furst production. I mean, they’ve been part of your life.

AF: I would, actually. As you could see in the album shot, they’re shorter now than they were in high school. When I started this band, I met the boys every week at practice with a Mohawk. I was so into Mohawks. So I was no longer just Curly Sue. Mohawk entails pulling hair away from your face, bending and twisting it. So, I’ve done both ways. When you say cut your curls, how short do you mean?
CE: I meant not having curls, so I guess the Mohawk answers that.
AF: I have no problem with the Mohawk. I would rather cut my hair and have a short mini-fro, than straighten my hair and have it longer. When you have it straight, it’s cool for a couple hours, to look like someone else. And then I look in the mirror and get bored, I’m not used to seeing just straight hair. If I were to change it at all, I would either: a) cut my hair super-short and have a little fro, or b) pull it back, back from my face and have the Mohawk.

CE: Well, one more question. Well, you’ve been away from New York for a little bit. What’s a habit you’re looking forward to?
AF: Sal's & Carmine’s, it’s a pizza joint on 102nd and Broadway. For some reason, the pizza, Shahin, reminds me of the pizza we got growing up on Balboa Island. It’s salty, there’s something salty about the cheese that reminds me of being a little girl. And they’re big slices too, nice genuine slices.
CE: What’s another ritual you’re going to run back to do, when get back home?
AF: I can’t wait to go back to band practice. Being in practice every week makes me want to be a better musician. Each of these guys play who knows how many instruments, and they all speak that music theory language. It’s good being the straggler in the class, among people who are more musically educated. It just pushes me more.

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