Ashley Monroe has been writing songs since she was a young kid, which means she's been carrying around that bucket for a loooong time. This bucket is her "idea bucket." By her own admission, Monroe is never not a songwriter. She's always thinking about songs, so whenever she goes out (much to the chagrin of her husband), she's always attuned to her environment, its sights and sounds, for song ideas. And that's why she has her "idea bucket." She carries it everywhere she goes, and in that bucket go the song ideas that she gets by being hypersensitive to everything around her.
Read my interview with Ashley Monroe after the video for "On to Something Good," off her incredible (really, it's incredible) new album The Blade, which sits at #2 on the Billboard country chart.
What kind of creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
I journal sometimes, especially when I'm going through something really heavy or when I have a lot going on. I journaled almost every day on the Train tour. When I have a lot going on, it’s just good for me to sit down and write about what happened that day, all the thoughts in my mind. I love going back and reading those entries. Like my first entry on the Train tour, I wrote about how nervous I was and how I hoped I would find some friends because I felt so out of place. Then the second entry was completely different: I wrote about how great of a time I was having and how much I liked everyone.
So you still keep all those journals?
Oh yeah, I have every one that I've ever kept since I wrote my first song when I was about thirteen.
Do those journals entries ever give you any song ideas?
They honestly never have. There’s too many rambling insecurities. Laughs. There are other pages where I write down song titles or song ideas, but that’s separate from the journal.
Is there a way a typical song starts for you?
It’s always different. I've never had two come about the same way. Sometimes I have a title, and I'll pick up a guitar and just start playing to see where that takes me. I’ll get in a chill zone and see if the melody comes to me. When that happens, I might start humming that melody, and that humming turns to words. But sometimes they come to me in the middle of the night. The melody and lyrics all come to me at the same time. When that happens, I can't write it down fast enough.
Does that middle-of-the-night inspiration happen often?
Oh yeah. It’s almost like there’s a boombox in my head playing the melody and the lyrics all at once. Like a complete song. That happened with the song “From Time to Time” on the new record. I had been asking for a sign from my dad that he was going to be with me on my wedding day. Then one night I woke up in the middle of the night and the words just came to me. I had to find the chords on my guitar because I heard the melody so strong in my head. That’s why there’s no one way to my process. It’s whenever a song calls to be written.
Do you have that trusty pad and paper next to your bed to write those lyrics?
Well, now it’s called an iPhone. Laughs.
So you're not a pen and paper type of person when it comes to your lyrics?
Honestly, there’s a pen and paper in every room in the house for my lyrics. But my phone is handy when things come to me quickly and I need to record a vocal melody.
How often do you feel the need to write about a certain topic?
That happens sometimes, but I normally don't force myself to write. Often I'll just walk up to my guitar or piano and just start playing. But I really don't sit down with the intention of writing. It’s a hard enough process as it is, and I don't want to overanalyze it. I overanalyze everything else in my life, so breaking down songwriting too much kind of scares me. Laughs.
How do your songs differ if you start writing them on the keyboard as opposed to the guitar?
They’re absolutely different. It’s so funny how I can go upstairs and sit down at my keyboard, turn it on, play a G, and a completely different melody comes out than if I were to play a G on the guitar. For whatever reason, I just don't go there. It’s the same with my mandolin. I can play a few notes on it, but even when I pick that up, I get a different idea. If I do play on the keyboard, my melody tends to get really big.
How sensitive are you to your environment when it comes to song ideas?
I’m so sensitive to my environment. My husband makes fun of me all the time. We’ll be driving down the road and all of the sudden I just get in my own little world. I might see something on a billboard or hear something someone says on the radio. My antenna is always up, and I can't turn it off. It’s not possible for me to go out and say to myself, “I’m not going to think about songs.” I just can't do it. I’m always thinking about song ideas. It’s easy for me to sit in my house in silence—no TV, no phone, no anything—and just pay attention to what’s happening in my own heart.
How important is your environment when you write?
I can write pretty much anytime, but I really like writing in my house. It’s harder for me to write with a lot of distractions, so I really need quiet. I can write on the road, but it has to be a quiet place on the bus.
How much revising do you do to your lyrics?
I don't revise that much. Once I feel good about what I wrote, I close the book. I’m a pretty fast writer, so I like to get inspired, stay in the moment, and get finished. I rarely change anything.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Not really, but I go through phases. I have what I call my idea bucket, so there are times when I just need to live, and that’s when I fill my idea bucket. I observe and absorb everything around me, and I don't really write during this time. Then when the bucket is full, I go through about a three month period when I do nothing but write song after song after song. Then the cycle repeats.
It seems like writer’s block happens not because we don't know what to say, but because we don't know where to begin. Then the anxiety begets more anxiety.
When that happens, I just remind myself that when a song is supposed to be written, it’ll show itself to me. It always does. If a song doesn’t need to be written, I won't write it that day.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
I normally write when I’m heavy-hearted. Not so much sad, but heavy-hearted. There are times when it’s almost like I feel something coming on, and I think Uh oh. I need to write a song. And it’s a sense of relief when I'm able to write something.