The November 2014 issue of WNC Woman Magazine featured a condensed version of the following interview
between Kelly Pearce and musician Ashley Jo Farmer. Here's the transcript of the interview in it's entirety:
MUSIC AS HER MUSE
By Kelly Pearce
Our lives start somewhere, and encompass much along the way. Our travels through life are as diverse as we are human, but as women with passion for the world, ourselves, and our families, sharing our talents, struggles, and achievements are done in the hopes of enhancing beauty and joy, easing suffering, and making the most of each day. We all have a different road we travel to get there, and each one is as diverse and exciting as we are. So we work hard, stand bold, and reach for the stars. And somewhere along the way, we realize success is born of a feeling that comes from giving to the world and allowing it to give back. What we make of our lives, and what we make happen, is the measure of success and as Ashley Jo Farmer so charismatically and insightfully shares in our interview, she is enjoying the gift of doing just that, with music as her muse.
AJF: I make my own Christmas gifts every year. I'm a BIG TIME crafter. I've made all sorts of homemade gifts out of wood and photos, and several years I've painted personalized family plaques for my loved ones. One year I had very little money, so I bought a large box of Mason Jars. I created labels on my computer that read "____'s Joy Jar" -- one jar for each family member -- then tied a ribbon around the top for decoration, and gave them out to everyone. Next, I handed everyone some blank strips of paper and a sharpie marker. We all wrote personal notes to each family member and put them in our Joy Jars. Now, whenever a family member is feeling lonely or down, they can pull out their Joy Jar and read all the notes from everyone they love. I've learned that sometimes it's the least expensive gifts that last the longest and mean the most. I also created a Facebook page called "Say It Out Loud First" to start a grassroots movement to collectively try to end the use of dehumanizing behavior on the Internet by promoting more self-accountability when posting. It's been slow to gain attention, but I think it's worth the effort. People are so mean in the comment sections of posts! Wouldn't it be great if we could end that trend? [https://www.facebook.com/sayitoutloudfirst]
KP: Wow, you have such an amazingly rich history of music in your life. I see you have been using your gift of music since childhood. Your performance in middle school in 1990 singing “Where the Boys Are” was so good!
AJF: Thank you so much Kelly! That was the first school solo that I ever performed, and I was scared to death! My father has always loved that song, and claims that my middle school performance of it is still his favorite of all my performances. To this day, he watches the video of it quite often, singing along and beaming with pride. *sigh* I'm such a daddy's girl!
KP: It seems you have spent your life making a career of performing and enriching other people’s lives with your music. Your Bio information is amazing for someone who hasn’t even reached the age of 40 yet!
AJF: I've been very blessed, that's for sure. I come from a very large, tightly-knit family, and we all love music! Growing up I was surrounded by all kinds of music, from opera to country-western to rock-n-roll. Most of my family members incorporate music into their daily lives in one way or another, whether it's on a stage, in a church, in a classroom, or just in the shower! I was fortunate enough to have parents that always displayed great faith in me, and constantly put me in social situations that would allow my love for music to bloom. Having a solid foundation of people that encouraged me to follow my dream enabled me to comfortably embrace the idea that I could make a life out of doing what I love. Honestly, I still pinch myself every day when I think about how lucky I am to have experienced all that I have. Music has enriched my life beyond anything I ever imagined.
KP: Obviously you have been making music, but it also seems you have been making a family life and a platform advocating for equal rights for gay marriage as well.
AJF: It's true! I tour quite a bit with the Billy Jonas Band, which means that I'm away from home a lot. I have two great kids, one in elementary school and the other in high school. The only reason I am able to do all that I do is because I have an incredible husband who believes in me enough to "weather the storm" as a single dad when I'm gone! My husband and my children are the reason I wake up in the morning, and the only thing that keeps me going when I feel like giving up. Life is hard, and having a family that loves me and supports me is essential. That's why I'm so passionate about marriage equality. I feel so blessed to have been able to marry my best friend. Everyone should have the ability to experience that kind of bond, no matter who they are or who they love.
KP: What I’d like to know more about, to share with the readers of this issue, is how your musical work provides a platform for you to influence people, inspire them, create awareness of causes that matter, and how that is being done in your work. The song you wrote, “I’d Marry You” is a notable example of that, and I wonder if your songs “Begin Again” and “Virginia” are thematic of how you reach others and share your powerful beliefs for living a life that embraces all the things you note influence and inspire you: “Nature, Family, Love, Equality.”
AJF: Kelly, you've hit the nail on the head. Almost every song I've ever written has been inspired by someone that I care about. I love to connect with people emotionally through music. To me, music is therapy. No matter what I'm feeling at any given moment, there's always a song that I can listen to that will help me embrace or work through that moment. As a songwriter and a performer, my hope is to reach as many people as I can; to inspire and empower those that are struggling, to entertain and amuse those that are in need of a smile, and to show understanding to those that feel isolated or alone. Music gives me the ability to connect with people in a way that nothing else can.
KP: Your first solo album “Wise Up House Love” may have some elements of that as well. Another example is the webpage you noted in your Bio that you developed that aligns with educating people about the injustices of this demographic of people. Are you involved in any local groups or organizations or projects that are currently advancing this passion, and how does your music and songwriting tie in?
AJF: Promoting self-empowerment is definitely a passion of mine. Over the last decade, marriage equality has become increasingly important to me, and creating the website was a way to publicly show my support and bring about awareness of the subject. For several years now I've been performing at Pride Festivals up and down the East Coast, and I also enjoy performing for local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays) events. I'm also passionate about empowering and uplifting victims of abuse as well, specifically those of domestic and spousal abuse. I'm one of several local women (friends) that founded and host a special fundraiser called CHICKWEED every year to raise money for the Rowan Family Crisis Council -- our local battered women's shelter. [Please see article: http://www.salisburypost.com/article/20130711/SP04/130719945/]
KP: Many women juggle career and family and children, and are forever needing to be inspired with what works for others through this sometimes challenging balancing act. As a touring musician, this adds even greater challenges, both personally and professionally. Can you talk about your beliefs, values, work ethic, and perhaps inspiration to hold tight to your personal and professional development as you maneuver this journey, as so many women do, sometimes at the expense of themselves and their dreams?
AJF: Raising a family and chasing my dream is definitely a balancing act that I am still trying to master, but I've never been one to run from a challenge! It's important to me that my children see how much I love what I do, and that they learn from my actions. I believe that if you want something bad enough, and you work as hard as you can to achieve it, you will be successful. However, I also believe in the power of hope, and the magic of believing in that which you can't predict or plan for. You can't always physically make your dreams come true, but if you keep hope alive in your heart, magic can happen! Sometimes it's just takes being in the right place at the right time. The important thing is that you keep your mind open, and stay ready and willing to try new things that take you outside of your comfort zone. Traveling with the Billy Jonas Band has, at times, presented great challenges in my life that I have learned from and grown through. Being an advocate for equality has come with it's own challenges, too, but I believe that it's the difficult things that we go through that make us stronger, more compassionate humans. The fight for marriage equality doesn't affect me personally, but it does affect many people I care about, and I'm fighting for them.
KP: You also have background performing for the politically based parody program on Sirius radio. Although you note those views don’t particularly express your own, are their similar public formats in the entertainment industry that you are interested in creating or aligning with, that allow you to use your musical talent to reach people? Are there any particularly in Western North Carolina?
AJF: I'm always excited about working on a new project, and I welcome the idea of working with any organization that shows interest in using my music to further a cause that I believe in. I would love to work one-on-one with Equality NC or the Human Rights Campaign. I strongly support both organizations, and would love to team up with them. I'd also love to work with the Campaign for Southern Equality in Asheville. I've heard great things about the work they are doing, and would be proud to align with them. Also, you may have heard of the "It Gets Better" project, created by Dan Savage to inspire hope in young people facing harassment, especially those in the LGBTQ community. I wrote a song that serves as my own submission to the project, in an attempt to try connecting with anyone who may be experiencing this kind of abuse in their own life.
KP: An aspect of the Billy Jonas Band seems to be geared toward school presentations that draw children in, allowing them to see the connection the magic of music can make in storytelling, teaching lessons, self-empowerment and unity with others. How much of that do you play a role in as far as development of the content, and how influential was that in your decision to work with the Billy Jonas Band full time? Are you interested in expanding your own forum to weave this message into performances for young adults that highlight the plight of equality for gay marriages?
AJF: Working with Billy Jonas for the last nine years has taught me so much about the positive influence that music can have on children. Billy is incredibly gifted at writing songs that will draw children in and encourage them to explore making their own music with whatever they have around them. He invites us to contribute to his songs whenever inspirations hits us, and we all love working together. Together, we brainstorm lyric ideas and create intricate harmonies and unusual or elaborate musical parts to the songs, but he is truly the genius behind the music. I've learned more about songwriting and performing from him than from anyone else. This is a big part of why I decided to work for his band full time. Billy encourages us to feel a sense of ownership in the music we are making, which keeps us emotionally invested in what we are doing together. We all feel like we're part of something special. It's truly an honor to work with Billy, and sharing his music with the world is very important to all of us. I've often thought of ways that I could take what I've learned from him and apply it to my music. I would love the opportunity to use those skills to help young adults with their own personal struggles. In some ways, I feel I have already. The responses I have gotten over the years from young people struggling with their sexuality has been overwhelming. They have expressed true appreciation for having someone give them a voice through music, and my songs "I'd Marry You", "It Gets Better", "Pride", and "It's Not Me" have all served as reminders that they aren't alone, and that they don't need to fear or reject who they are inside. That gives me great joy.
KP: At the end of your Bio you mention that your focus in life right now is making a name for yourself in the musical arena and the political arena. Can you share some of your goals and dreams for expanding upon that, particularly within the region of Western North Carolina, where you live and work?
AJF: I think I need to update my bio! Haha! Honestly, my focus in life right now is to live life to the fullest, experience joy, and show compassion to everyone I come in contact with. There was a time when I felt it was important to "make a name for myself" in the music industry, but these days I'm more interested in reaching people with my music, and having a positive impact on their lives. It's so easy to get caught up in the idea of fame and fortune, especially when you're a struggling musician trying to support a family! But the truth is, I'm already truly wealthy. I've experienced love and loss, and I've got an incredible family and support system. I think that's much more important than fame and fortune. If I can share my experiences with people through my musical performances and touch their hearts, I feel I've already achieved success. As far as politics go, I simply insert myself into the political picture when and where I feel the need to be. I prefer not to claim membership with any particular party, but I always vote for candidates that support the causes I believe in. I think it's important for every citizen of the United States to vote. The only way to have any real influence on what happens in our government and our country is to vote, and too many people let their opportunity to be heard slip by. As a musician, I welcome any opportunity that would allow me to influence voters in a positive manner, through my music or with my actions. I'm especially interested in participating in events and opportunities that will have an influence on the Western North Carolina region, because I feel such a strong connection to the area. I attended Mars Hill College for a short time after high school, and I now travel to Asheville every week (that we aren't on tour) to work with the Billy Jonas Band, so it feels like home to me.
KP: How much personal information are you comfortable sharing? (How long you’ve been married, children, etc.)
AJF: Anyone that keeps up with me on social media already knows that stuff, so I'm okay with sharing it all. I've been married for fourteen years. I have two kids -- Sarah and Ben, ages 15 and 9, respectively. Tommy is my second husband. I had a very rocky start in my early adult life, got married way too young, and had my beautiful daughter at age 21. Six months into our marriage my husband left me, and Sarah and I were on our own. We lived with my parents (who were, at the time, living in Salisbury) until I met Tommy (a Salisbury native), who fell in love with both of us and chose to spend his life with us. Having Sarah truly saved my life, which was, until she came along, riddled with bad decisions and a terribly unhealthy lifestyle that revolved around drugs and selfishness.
KP: You noted that you and Billy Jonas connected musically and hence your long career as a vocalist in his band. What does that feel like to “connect musically?”
AJF: When I met Billy, I instantly knew that I wanted to make music with him for as long as he would let me and I knew he felt the same way. From the start, our voices blended together like two rivers pouring into the same sea. I felt his songs in my soul, and knew I wanted to be a part of the musical journey he was on. He welcomed me into his life, and here we are, nine years later! He's an amazing friend, and someone I truly look up to and admire. I can't imagine my life without his music and his friendship in it.
KP: Growing up as a working, professional, touring musician is a “road less traveled” for most. What was that like and how has it brought you where you are today as a woman?
AJF: Being on the road all the time can be very difficult, but incredibly rewarding. I've learned so much about the importance of having patience, and being a team player. I've learned that kindness is powerful, especially when it comes to interacting with the people that are in control of how you look and sound on stage. They can truly make you or break you. I've learned that I don't know very much, and I'll never stop learning. Being open to learning new things on a daily basis is key in surviving on the road. You have to be ready for anything to happen at anytime. I never imagined I would get to do the things I've done, like perform at the White House, or have the privilege of meeting First Lady Michelle Obama. I've seen some of the most beautiful parts of this great country and I've met many wonderful people along the way! I've also gained immeasurable respect for those musicians that have paved the way before me, for they are the reason I get to do what I'm doing now.
KP: What was your inspiration for the songwriting and creation of your first album, “Wise Up House Love?”
AJF: Making "Wise Up House Love" was a great learning experience for me. The songs are very dear to my heart, and each one was inspired either by someone I love, or from my own life experiences. It took two years to make because I had to pay for it little by little. The album project was incredibly gratifying to finish, and serves as a good representation of where I was musically at the time it was being created. Some of the songs on the album are playful and whimsical, while others hold very special meanings and stories. "Just For One Night" was written in honor of my cousin who lost her husband to the War in Iraq when their daughter was just a tiny baby. "Virginia" is a song that celebrates the love that my paternal grandparents shared while he was off fighting in WWII. "Take It Back" was written for a dear friend who was going through a very difficult break-up. "Dear Brothers" is a song about my own personal reflections on the devastating effect that war can have on our soldiers.
KP: I saw on your FB page that you recommended people play the song “Return Again” by Shlomo Carlbach, that the Billy Jonas Band performed, to enter a space for “drifting off into sleep.” Is this the way you find balance and meaning in caring for yourself and your dreams through the demands of daily life?
AJF: I absolutely find solace, balance, and peace in music. When I was young, I went to bed every night listening to "Delilah" on the soft rock station on my radio. She played songs that celebrated love, loss, healing and struggle, and I would lay in my bed listening to the songs, imagining that I was the one singing them, alone on a big stage. Nothing else mattered but the music. It calmed me and I would drift to sleep dreaming of love, music, and the magic of the stage. Now as an adult, I still go to music for comfort and solace. My favorite go-to band is the Indigo Girls. They've played the soundtrack of my life since I was fourteen years old. Just listening to their music makes me feel more centered, less stressed, and ready to take on the world. I think everyone can relate to that feeling in their own way.
KP: How does the region of Western North Carolina inspire you as an artist? As your professional music life advances, what do you want to give back to the area that fosters so much for artistic careers?
AJF: Honestly, there is no other place on earth that inspires me more than Western North Carolina, particularly Asheville. I have never been to any other place that is more welcoming and rich in diversity. There are so many aspiring artists and musicians of all ages, each with his or her own voice to share! Being part of a community so rich in the arts is incredibly inspiring and uplifting. And who can deny that the North Carolina mountains are captivating and inspiring, in and of themselves? The land itself, rich in history and unrivaled beauty, has influenced music tremendously throughout time. I would love to see western North Carolina gain more national recognition for the hotbed of musical talent that it is.
KP: You noted that making the new Billy Jonas Band CD “Build It Back Again” (your “latest musical project”) has been the (“most amazing musical adventure of your life”). What makes it stand out as such, and has the creation of it through an Indiegogo fundraising campaign had anything to do with it? This project in itself can be inspiring to others who have a passion and a dream and need a way to fund it and get it out to the world.
AJF: "Build It Back Again" is the first album that we, the Billy Jonas Band, have written and created together. It's the first time that the Billy Jonas fan base will get to hear something that we've all had a hand in making. Every song on the album is one that I'm proud to stand behind and believe in. The album is a reflection of what the band can create as a unit, and for me personally, it's something that I've been waiting nine years to accomplish. It's certainly the richest sounding album I've ever been a part of making. The four-or-more-part harmonies we created together are well thought-out, intricate, somewhat unusual at times, and full of love. The guest musicians that joined us in the studio are all incredibly talented, and the instrumentation is, as always with Billy Jonas, a unique blend of traditional, home-made, and "found object" instruments. Making the album has cost quite a bit! We are currently using an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to try to fund the rest of the production costs. We are almost halfway to our goal already, and we couldn't be more amazed at the generosity that our friends and fans have shown us. You truly can do anything if you put your mind to it, and it always helps to have a great support system like we do!
KP: Thanks so much for your time, Ashley Jo!
AJF: Thank you, Kelly! It's been a pleasure speaking with you!
Portions of this interview were first published and featured in the November 2014 issue of WNC Woman Magazine. Here is a link to that article online:
Kelly Pearce is a freelance writer living in Asheville, NC. She is currently enrolled in the MA in Writing program at the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative Studies, Lenoir-Rhyne University.