Ashley Monroe's 'Hands On You' Exudes Quiet (And Thirsty) Confidence Monroe sounds more sensitive, sensual and comfortable in her skin than she ever has on her upcoming album, Sparrow.
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Songs We Love: Ashley Monroe, 'Hands On You'

Ashley Monroe's fourth album, Sparrow, comes out April 20. Hannah Burton/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Hannah Burton/Courtesy of the artist

Ashley Monroe's fourth album, Sparrow, comes out April 20.

Hannah Burton/Courtesy of the artist

Ashley Monroe was barely old enough for a driver's permit when she first began making the rounds on Music Row, trying to get her country career going and envisioning the inevitable progression it would follow.

"When I came to town, you see it play out in your head a certain way," Monroe tells NPR. "Move there; get discovered; get a record deal. Then soon after, you get a bus, surely. Then you tour and you're on the CMAs and the ACMs. After that, you're gonna win a Grammy."

Even back then, the seasoned industry vets who heard her marveled at what an old soul she was, at what a gift she had for mining profound melancholy with the delicate shading of her melodies and the exquisite Appalachian quiver in her phrasing.

Now 31 years old, Monroe's spent half her life in Nashville, winning over country elders, stylistically diverse collaborators, decision makers and music critics alike. She has weathered cycles of anticipation and disappointment as she released albums to much fanfare and watched them barely register an impact via the standard measure of mainstream country success: radio airplay. Along the way, she's not only continued to refine her expression, but accumulated valuable perspective and re-calibrated her aspirations.

"My gosh, my last two records I made with one of my favorite artists of all time in any genre; Vince Gill," she marvels. "That's making it in my book. I have overcome things personally and grown and learned from them, and I'm married to the love of my life and I have a baby. That's success."

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Monroe is preparing to put out her fourth album, Sparrow, due out April 20, and is "not worried" about what will happen with the record.

"I'm finally not worried about it, I guess, because I feel like I've already been blessed with so much," she says. "And I just have this quiet confidence that it'll find its way."

When Monroe's PR team invited a handful of writers to the control room of historic RCA Studio A where she'd recorded to listen to some of the new tracks through professional-grade speakers, she seemed more giddy than nervous about the prospect of letting people hear the stuff. Conferring with producer Dave Cobb about which songs to cue up, she introduced each with a snippet of background.

Before playing "Hands On You," which NPR Music is premiering today, she explained that she drew the song's inspiration from a weekend beach trip. A stomach bug had confined her to the hotel bed, sucking down Gatorade, while her girlfriends went out on the town and returned with tales of handsome men they met. Applying more than a little imagination, Monroe spun the experience into a woozily forward, R&B-leaning fantasy of sexual desire.

On that song and the 11 others that round out the track list, many of which frame her voice with sumptuous strings, Monroe sounds more sensitive, sensual and comfortable in her skin than she ever has.

In a corner of the studio arranged as an audiophile's lounge — complete with mod furniture, a vintage hi-fi and vinyl bins — she sat down with NPR for her first interview about her most affecting work to date.

Jewly Hight: Did you have a sense of freedom with this album that you haven't felt in the past?

Ashley Monroe: 100 percent. It's interesting that I needed to get pregnant and go away and have a baby to feel like this, and that these songs were written right before. I feel very different. I feel confident in a healthy way. What people thought used to bother me ... it just doesn't anymore. I just feel like my whole world's different. I'm proud of myself for overcoming a bunch of stuff, for hangin' in there. And now I have [my son] Dalton, and I want to make him proud. I want him to look at me and go, "Wow, my mom is a badass."

Talking with artists who've become parents for the first time, you find that they're affected by it in any number of ways. In some cases, they feel torn between their life's work and parenthood. It's interesting to hear you say that it fed your confidence in your artistry.

Obviously, yeah, it does change your life. I'm gonna have press [events] in New York and LA and I still don't know what I'm gonna do with Dalton. But I know that it'll be figured out. My husband [former White Sox pitcher John Danks], thank God he's retired from MLB and he can just be a really great dad, which he loves doing. Really, I don't have to panic in any sense in my life. Everything kind of took care of itself.

I had a moment towards the beginning where I was feeling a lot of anxiety and a lot of, "Who am I?" I went through every scenario in my mind: What if you just stopped music? What if you just want to stay home and be a mom? I could hear Dalton ask me, "Mom, why did you quit singing?" And me going, "I wanted to stay with you." And him going, "Why?! I wanna travel the world! I wanna watch you sing!" I literally had that scenario play out in my mind.

Women, you can do both. You just can. I was watching that [animated series] Mike Judge Presents: Tales From The Tour Bus. In the George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette] episode, Tammy had three kids and she got up and left [her husband] and went to Nashville. You just figure it out.

You've dabbled in countrypolitan sounds in the past, especially with the ballad "Has Anybody Ever Told You" on The Blade. What made you finally want to wade all the way into that lush, orchestrated approach to album-making?

These songs had a lot of emotion in 'em. They were written from an emotional place. I'd just come back from an intense 'therapy-athon,' I call it. I dealt with things that happened in my childhood, and forgiveness; for my mother, forgiveness for myself, all these deep emotions. I think strings just bring out such emotions and Dave and I were talking about it how cool it would be to have that around [the songs] "I'm Paying Attention" and "Orphan" and even "Wild Love."

Ashley Monroe, "Hands On You"
Courtesy of the artist

I don't think people necessarily associate Dave Cobb with making grand, string-swathed records. They think of his lean, naturalistic production with Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. Did it feel like you were venturing into new territory together?

Yeah, I guess so. We're both such fans of music. We talked a lot about Glen Campbell records and we listened to Elton John's first record. We listened to records that we loved that all had that similar space. It's all air and then out of the blue it's like, "Whoosh." A lot of those Rick Hall records had that. It just adds a different element of soul, I guess. It pulls at your soul.

We tracked really stripped down. It was just Dave on acoustic, me, obviously, and drums and bass. Then we started tracking with piano. We would just do it all live. Already I could tell, "This sounds great." And then the strings.

I'm glad you mentioned Glen Campbell. Usually when artists draw inspiration from '70s country — especially artists of your generation — they're reaching back to the outlaw era, the harder-edged stuff. But when I heard your album, I thought of pop-style orchestration and disco and soft rock. What do you find in the softness of that era that so many of your peers overlook?

When you think about it, even Waylon [Jennings] on [the song] "MacArthur Park," there's strings all in country music. You know what I mean? Or Elvis, for gosh sakes. I honestly didn't think that much about. I never really do when it comes to music. I just feel it. And working with Dave, we both kind of came upon it at the same time, and it was just like, "This feels right."

I was trying to think, "What are some of my favorite records with strings?" There are some older records, but there's also I Am Shelby Lynne. That hit me the other day. And what [genre] is it? Who knows what it is? It's just Shelby Lynne singing her ass off with these beautiful string arrangements behind her. You know, when people ask me what I would compare [my album] to, I don't know. Somebody said Dusty in Memphis. All I know is that when I heard the arrangements, the strings on the songs, I felt a rumble inside of me like I've never felt.

You were early in your pregnancy when you came in here to record. You've joked that that meant there was no weed or wine for you. How did that change your experience?

The thing I've noticed about when you don't have any wine or weed is that you feel every little thing. But that's a good lesson that I've actually learned in life, is that it's all right to feel it. Pain is so uncomfortable. There are so many different ways we try to treat it. I've tried a lot of 'em. Sometimes, whatever it is, you just need to feel it to get through it.

I would get in that room and I already was feeling a subtle strength just because I knew I was carrying another life. But I also was singing from I guess a more honest place, and I was feeling every little thing way more than [usual]. Nothing was altered other than being pregnant, and slightly congested. When I listen back now, there's times when my voice gets soft. I think it just sounds honest.

Do you feel like your vocal attack was more sensitive?

Maybe. Sometimes when you get a glass of wine, you get real bold and you're like, "Whooo!" [You let loose with] a bunch of licks.

You've been playful about sexual desire in your song "Weed Instead Of Roses," and you've often expressed desire through pining. But there's a very grown-up sensuality to your new songs "Hands on You" and "Wild Love." It's been a while since country music has been known for that. What would you say took you there?

This newfound confidence and feeling like a woman, feeling like a grown-up. I've never really shown that side. It feels so good to be a sexy woman and own it. Women, we have the same desires and the same needs as everybody else. Somehow it kinda gets tiptoed over. And I get it. It's kinda taboo, I guess. But now, it's like I'm a mom. I'm married. I can talk about sex because it's clearly a part of my life. I think that it's cool for women to hear it, too.

You were so attuned to music from a young age. Are you playing particular things for Dalton already? Do you play the album for him?

I play the album in the car, because I really do think he is familiar with the songs. He was inside me when I was singing 'em. If he ever gets fussy, I'll put it on. He loves Eric Clapton, I'll tell you. He really likes some Pharrell. I can tell his moods and I'll put on music. So yes, I really do think that he responds to music.

I'm not surprised. The very first conversation I ever had with you, when you were still in your teens, it struck me that it you already had a profound understanding of how music moves people.

I do think that he has picked that up. Sometimes, I'll just get the feeling the he's overloaded and he needs music. I could see how he would have that because I'm just like that.