Emerald Cocoon

Ashley Paul


December 20, 2011
We first met Ashley Paul when she was passing through LA on tour with the equally brilliant Eli Kezsler. We were hipped to her existence by the Lucky Dragons, who told us “you, of all people, should go to this show”, so we did, and as they so often are, the Lucky Dragons were right indeed. Her set seemed to condense the entire history of avant-garde music into a half hour procession of one extended technique after another as scored for a one-woman orchestra of acoustic instruments. Byron Coley described the ‘Hidden Face/Leave Mine' 7” Ashley did for our Alone Together series as ‘the ghost of an avant chamber orchestra dragging itself through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’ - and he’s not wrong. Slowly rising reed shrieks and ringing crotales creepy slowly around light breathy vocals – a tremoloed teisco twangs and erupts into sudden slides… Ashley is fusing soundworlds that have no business being fused: conceptual/physical, improvised/composed, avant/folk, mind/muscle - and as such sounds like no-one else but herself. We harassed Ashley via email to ask her a few questions about her methodology and influences. Read onwards, but rest assured that after all questions are answered her music remains permanently and unassailably alien and beautiful…

Ashley's 7" is still available at Emerald Cocoon.

Emerald Cocoon: How are you finding your new home in Brooklyn? What takes you there? Musically how does it compare?

Ashley Paul: Brooklyn is great. Eli and I moved here in July but are just now starting to feel settled. Its funny, you know, I really hesitated for a long time on whether or not to come back here but now that we are here it really feels right. Providence was awesome but finding work there was really hard. It was just time for a change and this seemed the natural progression. I was playing here a lot and was totally sick of the middle of the night commutes back home after shows, you know?

EC: It definitely takes time feeling settled. We moved to a new place in June and are still unsettled. Are you originally from New York? I know you've toured extensively in the US and you were on the West Coast playing the On Land festival in San Francisco, what are your thoughts regarding the differences in approach to this kind of music on the east and west coast?
AP: I am from Des Moines, IA. I moved east for college and stayed here. Hmmm, I don’t really know how to answer about the differences on each coast. There are some, it seems, but I don’t really know how to put them into words…

EC: Your music seems to be a mix of elements from many disparate sound worlds - what do you find yourself listening to for inspiration?

AP: Its kind of weird but all I really listen to right now is old jazz. Johnny Hodges, Jelly Roll Morton, early Ellington, Earl Bostic, Ace Cannon…you know, with the smatter of Cage, Feldman and Conlon Nancarrow; been listening to Nancarrow a lot! Oh, and the new Geoff Mullen LP “Accidental Guitars”. Its so good.

EC: How did you get into early Jazz? Did you start with free jazz and work your way backwards or was it vice versa? Isn't your father a musician? Did this have an impact on your playing?

AP: I have a very musical family. My grandfather was a clarinetist and saxophonist, my dad is an amazing rhythm guitar player and my sister is a vocalist. My house was always full of music whether it was Chopin, opera, jazz, or musical theater. My first true love was Paul Desmond. He is the reason I play the saxophone. I wanted to play like AP: Paul Desmond and my dad to play like Jim Hall and I started transcribing all the RCA Victor recordings when I was ten or eleven. I became increasingly into more experimental musics as I got older. First Roland Kirk and Ornette, then No Wave and it sort of a spiraled out from there. I sort of lost it the first time I heard Arto Lindsay. I'm a big fan. I feel very lucky to have been raised in such a musical household. I think just being surrounded by so much music at an early age, and then having an incredibly supportive family had the largest impact.

EC: In terms of recording, which came first, Aster or your solo work?

AP: Solo work. It basically started with me fooling around on garage band. I was terrified of recording, it seemed like this totally complicated impossible thing and then I realized how amazing it could be. Learning how to record completely changed my music. It was a revolution! My first solo CD (DOL) was recorded all on garage band using the internal mic on my computer. That was all I could do. Since then I’ve learned a couple more things and I guess have figured out a system I like and that works for me. I love mixing. I spend hundreds of hours mixing. Its compulsive! As far as Aster, Eli and I record most of those live. We set up a bunch of mics and record a whole album in a few days, then sort of take turns mixing tracks, passing them back and forth till they are done. With my solo work, I record one track at a time piecing albums together little by little, sometimes holding onto tracks for a few years until I feel like it’s the right place on an album for that song to fit.

EC: The first Metal Rouge release was recorded entirely on an internal computer mic too. Surprising how well that works! Do you find yourself altering/re-composing the mix or are you just trying to get an accurate representation of what you played and recorded (or composed beforehand)?

AP: Oh no. For me part of the art of recording is the ability to make it as perfect as you possibly can. I spend hours and hours fine tuning little details.

EC: You are in several projects, 'Aster' with Eli Keszler, 'Paul and Maurey' with Sakiko Mori, 'Oxtirn' with Geoff Mullen and Keszler, and Anthony Coleman’s 'Damaged by Sunlight'. How does your approach differ in each of them?

AP: Well, in “Damaged” and “Oxtirn” I am more of a side woman. I am there in a supportive role, which is really nice. Less pressure. I also play almost exclusively winds, which I love and don’t really get to do as much anymore. In my solo work and “P & M” I play a handful of instruments, usually simultaneously. It’s a constant challenge, but really exciting. I had to learn how to play music all over again, how to handle playing a saxophone and a guitar at the same time presents weird obstacles…you are limited in so many ways and at the same time have so many more options. I am still always freaked out performing with that set-up. With the saxophone, things are safe and easy, with all the new things I am totally vulnerable.

EC: About playing unfamiliar instruments Ornette Coleman says: "I'll try any instrument. If you're doing something you've never done before, it's easier to feel more relaxed about it. When you're doing something you have done before, and you can't make it any better, then it starts the worry". Can you relate to that statement at all?

AP: Yes and no. Of course I want to push myself, it is so much harder for me to do what I do now than just play the saxophone. I've played sax 22 years. It's part of my body. Playing saxophone and guitar and singing all at the same time in front of people, that’s terrifying. Playing anything other than saxophone in front of people freaks me out. I do understand what he means, you are allowed a different sort of freedom when you play other things because you don’t feel the same weight of the instrument. You are forever changed when you study one thing so intensely. Its hard to let go of all that work and time…all that’s in you head. I think playing other things has allowed me to open up the saxophone to that place though. It is really difficult to describe but I do think playing other things and not worrying, just doing, was super important.

EC: As you release more albums, you seem to be inching closer to "song" - is this accurate? How do you define "song" and what is your interest in it?

AP: I guess song is where I come from. My heroes growing up, and still now, were always super melodic. I definitely needed to pull back from that for a little while, as my interest in more contemporary music and sound art grew, but now maybe I just feel like those two are intertwined. The songs and the sound, they are both there.

EC: So is it safe to say that sound is your primary consideration rather than song?

AP: No. I think making music is my primary consideration. I’m trying not to differentiate. What it is, the label, it is not important. Its not anything really, and a little of everything and maybe just something else entirely…the next wave.

EC: To what degree are your pieces composed/improvised? Do you place much importance on one or the other?

AP: They are composed. There is improvisation, definitely, but they are composed. My roots are in improvisation but I use that now mostly as a tool in order to make these little pieces.

EC: You studied at New England Conservatory yet your music doesn't sound like what one would normally associate with 'conservatory training'. How important was your experience there? What did you take from it and what did you leave behind?

AP: Thanks. NEC was an incredible place for me. It is a real gift to be able to just make music all the time with such incredible people. To be constantly thinking about it, surrounded, challenged. To meet and work with such great people…Joe Maneri, Anthony Coleman, Ran Blake. Three of my heroes. I spent years trying to become a great saxophonist and musician, then reached a wall and just wanted to be myself, to have my own voice…for me, that was process of letting things go. All that work I did, it colors everything. I couldn’t do what I do now without the technical training, but what I strive to do now comes from a different place. It’s so incredibly personal. It’s not about sounding like I have great technique. I’m just trying to be honest with myself I guess.

EC: About the process of finding your own voice: I know it must have been a long process, but was there any eureka-type moment along the way when you knew you had broken that wall?

AP: No eureka moment. It took so long. I spent years totally frustrated. Working. Not working. Gardening. Sitting. Then one day I guess I was just where I needed to be. For now anyway…

EC: You gave us an amazing Twombly-esque image for the cover of the Alone Together 7" that was painted by your mother. I'm interested to know the background to this - were you surrounded by art from an early age?

AP: Yes. My parents exposed me to an immense amount of art, music, dance and theater. They were pretty amazing! Not at all your typical Iowa parents, it kind of blows my mind when I think back on it now. My mom took me to museums and theater and art classes and taught me how to do just about everything craft oriented you could imagine. She didn’t start the oil paintings though until I left for college. Now she is producing incredible work and showing. It is pretty cool.

EC: Do you have any thoughts of touring soon, in the west coast perhaps? CA?.....LA?

AP: Eli and I are doing a little mini tour in march here on the east coast and hopefully heading to Europe in the spring. We have a new Aster record coming out on 8mm. I also have a new solo LP coming out in January on Orange Milk and hope to tour for that. I have been really enjoying playing solo. I definitely want to come back out CA asap. The last few times have been completely amazing!