I have a place in my heart for the sad sweet songs that tend to come out of the young women who record at the Red Tree Recording Studio. I still hold Kathryn Hallberg up as one of the best acts to have ever graced Houston, and I continue to wait impatiently for a followup to Alyssa Rubich’s debut EP. Alas, both of them have now scattered out of the city, but that has cleared room for 16-year-old Magnolia native Mason Ashley.
Ashley has been singing and playing all her life, and was a regular attendee of Kyle Hutton’s songwriting camps. It was there that she caught the attention of Jeffery Armstreet and the rest of the Red Tree family, entering the studio to craft the five tunes that make up her first EP, Into the Song. It’s a little cliché to say that she writes beyond her years. Ashley may still be in high school, but has pursued formal songwriting education since she was a pre-teen. Is it really odd to find that a good student should excel at her craft, tender though her years may be?
Most of Into the Song is a breakup record, but it avoids the pleading, friend-zoning vibe of something like Taylor Swift’s early work. Instead it manages to be more down to Earth and closer to straight country. Ashley has a gift for enduring turns of phrase that give her a wisdom and also the ability to deliver cutting barbs to the subjects of her songs. Part of that likely comes from a very solid emotional place that Ashley inhabits. For all the lost love on the EP, Ashley isn’t some wailing Juliet.
“I think people assume that there has to be some sort of big emotional reason to write a sad song,” she says. “That’s not me. These songs come from a lot of different emotions. From being mad in one place and sad in another. I pull pieces from all over to write these.”
The music on Into the Song is solid folk for the most part. Ashley discovered Bob Dylan and Tom Petty several years back and started incorporating aspects of those famous journeymen into her tunes. It’s impossible to miss the influence of Petty on a track like “Sometimes Romance,” what with its catchy pop beat and tone of romantic chagrin. You can also feel the Dylan in “Untied Ends,” which echoes dark-hearted ballads like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”.
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It’s the title track, though, that is the record's shining star. It has a somewhat plodding pace, to be honest, but the melody grows quickly on you in a way that you can’t ignore. It’s also by far Ashley’s most lyrical tune, with an almost Robert Frost approach to setting the scene. Overall the song is a tribute to song itself and the power of music. Backed by a powerful violin line, Ashley invites a listener to dance with her and dispel inner turmoil. It’s as sweet as singing a scared child a lullaby.
Into the Song is a solid debut for an upcoming artist, and Ashley is definitely someone to watch. She’s already crafting a followup and hopes to enter the studio again soon.
“I felt so empty after finishing this,” she says. “Honestly I was worried that these were all the songs I had. Now I’ve got two more finished and a third I’m working on. It’s my dream to just record music and play all over the world, even if it’s just in little coffee houses. This is my passion.”
Into the Song is out now.