Slowly but surely in the change-averse environment of the Nashville music business, the definition of a “songwriter” is evolving. Whereas for generations the term “three chords and the truth” epitomized the role and views of most professional songsmiths in Music City, technological advancements and pop influence have changed the conversation (and the expectations) for songwriters. Enter Ashlyn Willson ’15, who is a California native and one of the brightest young talents in town.
The 22-year-old arrived In Nashville and has become the walking example of the kind of young artist that has kick-started Nashville’s recent renaissance. After only six months on the scene, Willson has established a reputation as an exceptional songstress. But her ability as a producer and track-writer—a rarity for a woman in a generally male-dominated field—is helping her make inroads faster than most new arrivals.
As a high-school student in San Jose, CA, a life in music was not on Willson’s radar. She had taken piano lessons since the age of six, and began toying with writing her own songs toward the end of her high school career. Beyond that, she really had no idea what she wanted to do. After a brief stint at community college she decided that the pull of music was too strong to ignore. “It was Berklee or bust,” she relates.
Willson arrived at the Berklee beach in the fall of 2012. She loved singing, but her interest in becoming an all-around musician prompted her to choose Contemporary Writing and Production as her major. Learning the strategies, art, and the impact of quality production on songwriting set her on a path that would help open doors for her in Nashville.
As graduation approached, she turned her attention toward launching a career in Nashville. She relates that in part, it was because “it just seemed like Nashville was a place where being a good person really matters.” As it turns out, being incredibly talented helps as well.
She has been cowriting with established writers, including Emily Shackelton ’07 and emerging talents Cali Rodi, Kristina Kidd, and Emily Haber. Willson’s technical know-how and ability to produce tracks during a songwriting session is the latest in-demand talent in town. But it’s not what comes most easily to her. “Writing is my first love; producing is really hard work,” she admits. But that work is paying huge dividends. Her production skills give her an edge over other singer/songwriters in a city where an estimated 100 people arrive daily with hopes of making it in the music business.
Willson’s work ethic has also taught her the importance of diversification. In addition to her Music Row sensibilities, she writes and performs electronic-pop music under the stage name Ashe.
Watch Ashe perform "West Coast" live at Berklee:
With the Internet, she has ignited further career opportunities half a world away. Famed Swedish DJ Ben Phipps heard her music on SoundCloud and reached out to collaborate with her. The duo’s single “Sleep Alone” has been streamed more than 800,000 times. Their new single dropped on January 19. All this spawned a growing demand for her services with European and Canadian DJs and artists.
“I try to do it all and see what happens,” Willson explains. “There is no model anymore for how you become successful. I think that’s inspiring—especially for new arrivals [to Nashville].”
As the saying goes, it’s hard to argue with success. It’s clear that however Willson might define herself, she’s doing something right. It will be a welcome surprise for all to see what comes of her journey down this road.