Back in March 2010, I posted here about a recent (for me!) musical discovery going by the name of Esther O'Connor. Since then I've been following her music and been a regular listener to the live sessions posted by her band, Ashton Lane, on their YouTube channel. Well worth the ear-time, ladies and gentlemen.
Anyway, readers of this blog will be familiar with our occasional attempts to shine the spotlight on fellow creative spirits. Until now, it's been all about members of the writing fraternity, but today we're all about music and I'm honoured - nay, massively chuffed - to be able to say that Esther herself has graced us with her presence.
This interview mostly concerns her band, Ashton Lane's prior release, Other Side, but it's worth noting that they have a new release, Magic In The Air, due out very shortly - an album I'm listening to as I write this up. Fantastic stuff, well worth checking out, so I'll be pointing you to the appropriate links at the end of the post, but for now, over to the lovely Esther O'Connor.
* When I first discovered your music on Myspace, you were going simply by Esther O'Connor. So, why the shift to the band name and why Ashton Lane?
Ashton Lane is the band name for Tim, James and myself, Esther O'Connor was my own name for solo project stuff (although to be honest, we have all worked
on it all which is why it made sense to change it into a band name!)
* Musically, what can I expect to have changed between Esther O'Connor's 'Right Here' - which I love - and Ashton Lane's 'Other Side'?
Other Side is very much an 'Other Side' to what we do, most of our music is pop, upbeat, little country tinged kind of thing and 'Other Side' isn't that at all, we recorded it as a side project. I've always loved soul and gospel music too so this album is influenced by that style of music.
We have mostly original songs on there but one or two covers of traditional gospel songs that we have done our own arrangements of. It was a very creative project! Our very latest album (just released for pre order this week) see's a return to the 'Ashton Lane/ Esther O'Connor' pop/ country sound and is a very clear follow up album to 'Right Here'
* Once upon a time, I read that critics loved your music but couldn't easily pigeonhole your sound. In reviewing music, they'd fall back - as is often the case (and I've had to do it myself) - on comparisons, with BBC Scotland, for example, describing you as somewhere between Suzanne Vega and Sheryl Crow. Not bad company to be in, but I know the publishing industry does love to pigeonhole and I imagine the music industry is the same. Do you find that a hurdle in promoting your music? Would you ever compare yourselves to anyone and if so, who?
I actually think its really important to compare yourself to other artists and to encourage critics to do the same, especially when you do so much online as we do
if someone is finding your music for the first time they have to have something to pin it on... ie if you enjoy 'Lady Antebellum' you might enjoy 'Ashton Lane' that
kind of thing. If someone is into death metal there's probably no point in them checking us out!
When you are being introduced to new fans and industry being clear about who you are similar to is important. (I also love Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega so like to be compared to those artists on a creative level too!)
* Esther, you were signed to a record deal at the tender age of 17. How did that colour your perspective on the 'music biz' and is that why you've thrown heart and soul into independent releases? Do you find it's more music and less biz?
I think it was an important experience for me, as it did confirm that it was the area I wanted to work in and gave me the bug to to music full time.
One thing I learned since being independent is how important direct to fan interaction is and we work really hard on that. It's less 'biz' in the sense that
musicians cannot afford any longer to be aloof with their fans as the strength of a career comes now with long term strong bonds between artist and fan.
Its better for us though as we are 'people people' and like engaging, I also think its more real than it was in years gone by!
* Of course, these days Myspace is so last decade, but as a band you've made great use of other social media networks - Twitter and Facebook - as well as YouTube and so on, even giving away free songs on your website. Were you all internet-conversant or was this a case of finding your way? Do you see this as the primary means for artists to reach their audiences these days and do you have any promotional tips to offer other young singers, songwriters and musicians?
It's been lots of trial and error, it kind of feels like we are in a stage that the music business is changing but no-one exactly has it all figured out yet,
can be a bit of a case fumbling about in the dark till you hit on something that works. For us youtube has been amazing, facebook is also really important too.
You need to figure out how to use each network as they all have different principles and rules, best advice is ask a 13 year old niece or nephew, they usually know about youtube/ facebook/ twitter/ myspace etc inside out! For me its been a case of having to learn this stuff from scratch.
The free song page has been a crucial bit of our online efforts as we give away a free song in exchange for an email address...
* You've given away free songs on your website (thank you!). Would you ever consider 'doing a Coldplay' and performing a whole concert live to the internet?
We are discussing that at the moment, so watch this space!
* You've performed a variety of covers for your Tuesday Live sessions and I'm always blown away by how some familiar highly produced songs can translate so well into exquisite acoustic versions. How do you pick your songs - is it just a case of someone says, "Oh, I like that one"? Are there any songs that you like but wouldn't go near because they just wouldn't strip down so well? Or are there songs you'd never cover because you love the originals too much?
We pick something that's out in the charts that we like the basic song. My theory is that if a song is good it can break down to an acoustic guitar and a vocal
we only do songs that translate well to a stripped down version and have to just rely on the melody and the lyrics
* Who are your key musical influences?
Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Carol King, Joni Mitchel, The Civil Wars, Ryan Adams, Lady Antebellum, Adele, the list goes on. I do listen a lot to 60s and 70s singer songwriters, I love classic songwriting that stands the test of time.
* There always seems to be a warm, cosy atmosphere in your kitchen, but I imagine, as with any group of friends, a band is about the differences as well as the common ground. So do you have your share of creative differences and if so how do they get resolved?
We do all get on great. James and I (brother and sister) can creatively spark sometimes as we can have differences of opinion, it usually works to get the best result in the end. Tim is the peacemaker!
* Can you tell us a little about the songwriting process on this album? Was it a case of jamming sessions in the studio, playing with phrases, ideas etc or does someone wake up with a tune and/or lyric in their head and you take it from there?
For the 'Other Side' album a lot of it started in our basement studio with me and James, we'd then take the files out to my dads studio at the foundry and develop the tracks. Some of them were late night sessions in James's studio, we got our friend Sam West (amazing singer) round to our studio in the middle of the night to do some vocals so that was fun!
* When it comes to approaching a new album, do you have any overall mood or feel or theme in mind or is it purely a matter of the individual songs? And on the subject of your new album, why 'Other Side' - what does title that mean for you?
This album developed very organically, we just kept writing songs with a soulful/ gospel feel that didn't fit in with our other material, we loved it though and wanted to just put the songs together as a project in themselves, we'd also started performing some of the traditional gospel songs in the live setting and they were going down really well so we wanted to include some of them too.
* Finally, with so many high streets hit by the recession, what's the near future looking like for Ashton Lane?
We focus most of our energy online, i think CD shops are really becoming a thing of the past but CD's online are still very relevant, especially when you personalize your product, signing them, etc etc. CD's at live shows too also really significant part of the income.
There is still plenty of income in music, its just the areas you earn it that have changed a bit.
Thank you, Esther.
Go check out news of Esther's - and Ashton Lane's - latest album on their new official site. Including the various brilliant tracks from the 'Kitchen Sessions' and of course details on how to order their albums. Pre-orders of Magic In The Air include a signed CD, instant download (which is what I'm listening to here, so I'm very much in a position to recommend it :-) ) and free EP. Expect to see a review here before too long.
Meanwhile, I think I'll just hit play again...