Last year, I experienced that moment when I saw Ashley McMillen in the upstairs of Para Coffee.
Now, mind you, my Pandora and Spotify playlists have near-to-no trace of Country music, but Ashley is an exception. With her powerful innate ability to tell a story and sing directly from her heart, I can’t help but listen and fall in love with her songs. The Belle of Belmont, as The Local’s Songwriter’s Circle likes to call her, has made every right move and worked hard, and after recently opening for Sara Evans at The Paramount, she can proudly say it is paying off.
I had the sincere pleasure of asking Ashley some questions about herself and her big gig tomorrow, June 27th, opening for Gary Allan at The nTelos Wireless Pavilion.
A Q&A with Ashley McMillen
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m from Morgantown, WV (Mountaineer territory) and I’ve lived in Charlottesville for 2.5 years now. I initially moved here to finish my Master’s in Social Work at VCU, but I realized that if I ever wanted to try out my original music, Charlottesville was the place! I put graduate school on hold (and don’t plan to go back anytime soon…) and I’m so glad I did! 🙂
When and why did you start playing music/singing? What instruments do you play?
My grandfather was an electric guitar player and pedal steel player in a country band during his service in the Air Force (long before I was born). After retiring from the Air Force, he continued to perform frequently in WV, mostly in church and in local jamborees. I absolutely loved watching him play and perform. He taught me a lot about music, singing, old gospel hymns, etc. I started singing in church when I was very, very young, definitely before I could read. I was never afraid to be on a stage. I actually loved it and frequently joined him during his performances. Everything musical just seemed to continue to grow. I loved all the sound tracks to every Disney film, especially “The Little Mermaid.” When I was 10, I learned to play the violin, which I practiced all through college. I don’t play much anymore, but I’ll always be grateful that I took the time to learn that art. As a teen, I taught myself guitar, just basic chords. I learned a little piano as an adult and still sometimes use piano to write songs. The rest is history!
Most influential artist.
My answers do not necessarily relate to who was popular at the time, simply what I was introduced to and what I loved, if that makes sense. And, I’m going to be completely honest…
Child: Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Janet Jackson.
Teen: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Marley, Patsy Cline, Reba McIntire, Led Zepplin, Stevie Wonder, this could be a really, really long list…
Adult: Lori McKenna, Emmylou Harris, Florence and The Machine, Bon Iver, Katy Perry, Sugarland, Fleetwood Mac (always)… this is a hard question!
When did you write your first song/what was it about?
I wrote my first song while I was going to school at Monmouth University in Long Branch, NJ. I was driving to class one evening down Ocean Boulevard in my old 240 Volvo and it was freezing outside! I was going through a very big transition in my life. I was far from my family and I was in a really crummy relationship. Most of my songs start with simple dialogue between me, myself, and I, which usually morphs into a melody, and that’s what happened that night. I had about a 20 minute drive to class. The only thing I had to write on was a paper napkin and so that was my canvas. I wrote a lot of the lyrics while driving (very unsafe!!!). When I got home, I sat down at the piano and finished the song. The song is about being in such an unexpected, tumultuous, and toxic state of affairs that you can only wish that all of it is the title itself: A Dream. I’ve never performed it in public. It’s my first baby and I keep it close to my heart. I’ve never even played it for my band.
What influences your writing?
I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother as a child, Nanny. I love her more than words can describe. It was totally normal for her to spend most of the day talking aloud to neighbors, to me, to herself, it didn’t matter. She always came up with clever things to say and she always made me think. Now, I do the same damn thing! I talk to myself all the time and that’s where most of my hooks come from! As for present day influence, I think I’m mostly influenced by observing others, listening, and feeling. You can’t write a good song if you don’t feel something. And, the stronger and deeper the feeling, the better the song (well, that’s just my opinion).
What aspects of life excite you and stir your affections, fuel your passions?
Music. Bar none. I listen to music constantly, either live, radio, online, all of it. I’m always trying to support independent, local artists because that’s where the music starts. All those top 40 hits on the radio came from people just like us! 🙂 I’m fascinated with different writers’ play on words, structure, emotion, energy on stage, perspective, all of it. I love it. I love it more than anything.
Also, most people don’t know this about me, but I’m a counselor for children and families. That’s the job that pays the bills. 😉 There is no other feeling in the world than being able to help a child grow into a good person and, Lord knows, we could always use more good people in this world.
When did you play your first gig as? what emotions and thoughts ran through your head after finishing?
I’ve performed most of my life. However, I consider my first original music “show” to be my gig at The Local in Belmont back in April of 2011. Adam, one of the owners, heard me sing “Momma” at one of the Cville Songwriters Monday night open mic’s and immediately booked me. I spent weeks going through shoe boxes of tunes to play that night. I was terrified of what people would think of my original music. It was an absolute BLAST. When it was done, I’m sure lots of drinks were consumed, toasting the victory! 🙂 That was the first night I ever played with Rusty Speidel, who’s become one of my greatest music mentors.
Do you get pumped or nervous pre-show?
I acutally don’t get nervous much at all. Although, when I opened for Sara Evans at The Paramount back in May, I can honestly say I was terrified until the moment I stood on stage. The Paramount is such an amazing listening room and if you’re on the stage, you better be damn good! 🙂 Rusty and I nailed our performance and it was fabulous! I think I get pretty pumped. I’m usually full of energy and any tiny bit of nerves that I typically have go away as soon as I’m on the stage. I LOVE IT!
What does a day in the life of a modern day songwriter look like from your perspective?
I think it’s different for everyone, but for me, I am constantly, constantly, constantly writing songs. I’m either singing them into my recorder on my iPhone, writing them on a paper napkin, or writing them on my arm (yes, this is true). I get frustrated because I feel like daily life sometimes gets in the way of me being able to finish my songs. I have a fabulous day job working with children and families (about 35 hours a week). I handle every ounce of music business for myself and band, which consumes at least 25 hours a week. Then, when you add in rehearsals and performances and radio work, that’s probably another 15 hours a week, at least. Don’t even think about travel time, trips to Nashville, etc. etc. etc. UGH! I sound like a crazy person as I type all of this out. Let’s just say I am working about 10 hours a day 7 days a week. I wouldn’t trade a thing, however. I think all of my hard work is paying off. 🙂
What do you want people to take from hearing your music? What do you want people to take from experiencing your live show?
I want people to feel strength from my music, to be inspired, and to feel like they can do whatever the heck they want in this crazy world. I feel like I have the opportunity to be a messenger and I try and sing about empowering topics. My 2 most recent radio singles speak very strong, positive messages, I think. I especially feel obligated to be a strong, positive, female role model to my fans. It is VERY important to me to ALWAYS be appropriate and respectful on stage and I always do my best to stand at the door at the end of my shows and thank my fans. As much as I want to go lay on the floor, the fans ARE the reason that all of this is working for me. Without them, I’d still be playing my songs to my dogs in my living room!
What does the not-so-distant future hold for Ashley McMillen?
I’m opening for THE GARY ALLAN! I’m so so so excited to be a part of this show! I’ll be playing guitar and singing lead vocals while Rusty Speidel joins me on guitar and back up vocals. It’s going to be AMAZING! I’ll be hanging out at my merchandise table for a lot of the show, so come out and say hello!
Describe myself in 10 words or less:
Life is beautiful, yet short, and, Momma, you were right.