Female Friday: Ashlie Amber

Written by Cillea Houghton
Female Friday: Ashlie Amber
Ashlie Amber; Photo credit: Sara Lee Saleh

Ashlie Amber had just wrapped up a 21-hour video shoot when she picked up the phone for this interview, and had a laundry list of tasks waiting for her after we hung up. If she was tired, you would never know it, as she expressed genuine enthusiasm for all the goals she’s accomplished and the ones that were waiting for her on the horizon. This is merely one glimpse into the tireless work ethic that has carried Amber through an illustrious career that began as a bright-eyed teen growing up in Colorado where she fell in love with country music. With a strong appetite for musical theatre, she later proved her acting chops with appearances in The Color Purple, Rent and more, further catapulting her career by headlining the Whitney Houston tribute show, I Will Always Love you, aboard the Celebrity Edge cruise ship. Now dividing her time between Las Vegas and Nashville, the blossoming artist is planting seeds in country music, connecting her back to the genre that helped ignite her passion for music. In this edition of Female Friday, Amber opens up about the moments in her childhood that inspired her to pursue music, what it means to be “Country Vogue,” and offers words of wisdom that make a compelling case for her to become a motivational speaker.

When did you first feel a spark for music? When did you know that you wanted to make this your life’s work?

Music has always been a massive part of my life. My parents were huge into music. My dad had quite the record collection, and there’s a photo of me at three-years-old with my headphones on right next to the record player with the biggest smile listening to music, so it was very clear that music was definitely going to be a part of my life from a young age. It was about when I was six, I was riding in the car with my mom and dad and I was singing along to the radio at the top of my lungs in the backseat. My dad turned off the radio and I kept singing along, and he turned the radio back on and I was in the same exact place as the song and still in the same key. Then he turned the radio back off and he looked in the rearview mirror and said ‘did you know you could sing?’ And I was like ‘uh huh’ [laughs]. So that’s what started my musical journey was my dad being like ‘girl, you can sing.’

I was singing everywhere, but I didn’t really do it full-time until a little bit later because we were a sports family and my dad coached us in basketball, soccer, softball; we used to travel all over the U.S. and do these big soccer tournaments. My dad got really sick and then 11 months later, he passed away. That’s one of the biggest reasons behind being so passionate in music is the memory of my father and always wanting to make him proud and keeping his legacy alive. He was the one that encouraged me, so that’s always stuck with me. That’s the biggest core reason why I do what I do. It was after that I didn’t want to play sports anymore because I was so used to having my dad there that I turned to music and I really engulfed myself into music. That’s when I discovered Whitney Houston. I had listened to her because my dad had her records and loved her, but I never really appreciated her until after [his passing]. There’s just something about her voice, and I think being a little Black girl in an all white neighborhood, to see somebody like Whitney be such an icon and so beautiful and powerful on stage and not have to be anything other than just stand there and sing, she was really who got me through a hard time.

Right around that time is when I started hanging out with my friends more and I discovered country music because all of my friends growing up in the suburbs that’s what they listened to. Everybody listened to country and Top 40, so that’s when I got to discover Shania Twain and Lee Ann Womack and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks and [The Chicks]. I used to listen to these songs on repeat and they were always on pep assemblies and the football team would always dance to them. Then I fell in love with the music and the stories. One of the things I love most about country music is the stories. It’s one of the few genres that really tells stories, and that’s really how my singing career began. It was through my early teens and into high school that I decided that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I’ve always said I wanted to be a singer, but it takes a strong decision to be like, ‘I don’t just want to be a singer. There’s nothing else I’m going to do. I’m not doing anything else in my life. This is it.’ I made that decision in high school, and here I am today.

What did you learn from those artists that you now apply to your own songs and songwriting?

My own songwriting is very quirky. My single “Those Nights” definitely is more of a sexy ballad, but the other songs we’re going to release throughout the year are much more quirky, bringing back Faith Hill when she sang “This Kiss,” it was just fun and positive. As a writer, we write our feelings down and a lot of the times we write down our hurts, which is a great way to release pain, but I’m a very optimistic person. I’ve been through a lot of things in my life. I may be new to the Nashville scene, but I’m not new to the music industry, so my music, it’s bringing back the positive things. I like to keep things really positive because the world has so much negativity going on. Instead of looking at the bad side of a breakup, I’ll write about the good side of it. Even though the person who inspired ‘Those Nights,’ we’re not together anymore, I don’t ever want to take away from the amazing moments we did have just because it had to end, so all of my songs moving forward are very similar. One of my songs, it talks about this guy that I [was] totally in love with for seven years and we’re still really good friends, it’s just we both want different things, so we had to end things. But instead of talking about how heartbroken I was, I was like ‘let’s talk about the good things and the positive things of how you made me feel when we were in that relationship,’ so that’s what my writing is. I take that from artists like Faith Hill and Shania Twain who write these really amazing, positive, killer songs, and that’s really what my brand is. It’s all about positivity and just being who you are. My type is not the normal type in country music. I’m always like ‘country music is the one genre where I can be myself’ and I always have to say ‘I know that sounds crazy because there’s nobody like me in country music,’ but when you look across the board of some of the really big artists in country music, they don’t follow the standard formula that the rest of the industry follows. It’s really more about the music.

You’ve described your brand as “Country Vogue.” What does that mean and how did you develop that concept?

It’s a combination of who I am. I’m country at the core as far as how I grew up, the music I listened to, I love to sing the music I’m writing. But at the same time, I’m not the typical country look. I do rock a giant frohawk and I’m very curvy and I’m far from conservative with some of my outfit choices on Instagram. People kept being like ‘you’re not traditional country’ and finally I realized ‘they’re totally right. I am not traditional country. I am Country Vogue.’ I’m country, but I’m also fashionable. I can cross genres. Country is heavily influenced by R&B, hip hop and the pop market, they’re constantly trying to get their artists to crossover. So I was like ‘you guys don’t have to accept me as traditional country because I’m Country Vogue,’ and that’s how the whole thing started. It was already there before it had a name to it, because when you look at Shania Twain [she] is far from traditional country. She doesn’t have the traditional twang, she’s very sexy. When she came on the scene, she was pushing all kinds of boundaries, and you also have artists like Maren Morris. Country Vogue is country, but it’s also fashion. It’s also boss women proud to be boss women and unapologetically themselves. That’s what Country Vogue represents and that’s who I represent.

Tell me the story behind your single “Those Nights” and how you feel like it’s setting the stage for the next phase of your career in country music?

I’m so excited about this song. I was so busy traveling and performing, I didn’t have a lot of time to really focus on writing because I was always in different countries, different time zones on stages, having to travel for 36 hours without sleeping. So when you have a constant schedule like that, it can make it very difficult to be in the right space to really put down your thoughts and turn it into a song. I recorded “Almost Love,” “My Revenge” and “Fight With You,” who were pitched by other writers, which are all incredible songs, and they all represent me and what I want to say. But this particular song was born because I had met with somebody in the industry and they made a comment about me not being authentic enough and being too Vegas. Instead of getting upset, I said, ‘I’m going to show you authentic,’ and I wrote 14 songs in 14 days and “Those Nights” was the first one of the 14 that I wrote. I remember sending it to my producer Jamie Tate, and he was like ‘You just wrote this last night?’ This song is amazing, keep writing,’ and then I busted out 14 songs. Out of the ones that I had written already, we narrowed down our four favorites and “Those Nights” was the first song that we recorded. So I felt like it was only fitting for it to be the first song that we released in 2021 and introduce a new side to Nashville and the world as not just a singer, but also as a songwriter. It’s a great song. It’s catchy, it’s got such a fun vibe and it’s surrounded by such good company to have Jamie Tate, who’s got Grammys and Emmys and who’s worked with everybody. My co-writer who wrote the music, Morgan Matthews, he just landed a No. 1 single with Alicia Keys [“Show Me Love” with Miguel]. It’s really hard to describe because this is a moment I have been dreaming about my entire life. I’ve always wanted to be able to write my own music and record my own songs. Growing up, people love to tell you that it’s not possible, and there were times where I believed that it wasn’t possible and I had to go other directions because I don’t have the traditional country music background. But everything I did was always to lead me back to exactly where I wanted to be, and it just so happens that it led me at the right place at the right time. Everybody’s journey is different, and age or not, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Ashlie Amber; Photo credit: Sara Lee Saleh

That’s a great place to be in and I’m so happy that you’re in that space. What is it about this song that you love so much?

This is a song that almost anybody can relate to. I’m sure there has been a relationship or two that you had that even though it wasn’t going to go anywhere, you can’t take away from what it was when it was there. You have these beautiful moments and that’s where you learn about what passion is and different sides of intimacy and things like that. That’s what this song is expressing, being in love with somebody and having these strong feelings towards them, but it’s also about your best friend. I sing, “laughing about anything and everything for hours at a time,” so it’s not like we’re just making love for hours at a time. We’re laughing, we’re telling jokes, we’re talking, we’re communicating. We’re also having fun, we’re doing shots and we’re also having some adult fun too because that’s what comes. So it’s this whole side of a relationship, which I think all of us aspire to have. All of us aspire to be in a relationship with our best friend who we can talk to and who we can have fun with and do shots of tequila with, and they’re not going to judge us if we can’t walk to the bedroom later that night [laughs]. We all aspire to have that type of relationship, and that’s really what this song is talking about. Even though they have this relationship, it’s still very flirty when you have lines like “I’m wearing your favorite t-shirt.” Clearly this is a couple that they’ve been dating for a decent amount of time for her to have his t-shirt, and it’s still flirty, ‘we may be together for six months or a year, but I’m wearing your favorite t-shirt, so why don’t you come over because it’s time to have one of those nights.’ I think it’s really fun and sweet and it’s just a positive and really chill vibe. I hope my fans and new listeners want to put it on repeat with their significant others [laughs].

What impact do you hope to have as an artist? How do you hope that your music resonates with people?

At the end of the day, I want people to look at me and be like ‘how awesome is it that this woman didn’t conform? She said ‘this is who I am, take me for what I am. She’s not apologizing because she shouldn’t.’ I don’t have to apologize for who I am. I’m not doing anything offensive, I’m not doing anything provocative. I am who I am and I want that to inspire people to be who they are. I come from a place where I was different and I did get picked on and I was the ugly duckling. I think it’s really important, especially nowadays, because things are getting so much better and conversations are being had and they’re being open and it’s a beautiful thing to see. But it’s also really sad that this is 2021 and we’re still having to force the issue of race and an entire genre of music that is severely lacking diversity. I don’t want to be considered ‘she’s in country just because she’s a Black girl,’ that’s not how I want people to see me. I want people [to] look at my work ethic, my branding, look at all the work I’ve had to do to get here and look at my music, my writing, my team behind me. This was long in motion way before the heavy, recent conversations of race have started, and I want to be a part of that change. I want to walk side by side incredible artists like Mickey Guyton and Rissi Palmer who are really supporting women in general in the country industry and also women of color, because at the end of the day, one of us being successful doesn’t create change, it takes multiple. We all have to be successful in order for the industry to see us as valuable commodities and as assets to the community. I want to be a part of that front line so when I have my little daughter, she gets to grow up never having to feel like she can’t do something because there isn’t somebody like her who’s already done it. No child should ever have to feel that they can’t do something simply because of the way they look, which they have zero control over, and those two things are what I stand for.

I want to make great music and I want to tour the world and meet all of my fans and share my music with everybody. But it’s so much bigger than that. It’s also about inspiration and creating change and doing something and taking action instead of being like ‘they’re not going to accept me, so I guess let me move on.’ It’s like, ‘you’re not going to accept me, well, I’m going to work 10, 15, 20 times harder until you have no choice but to,’ and that’s what I want people to learn. I don’t want people to think that being a different color or being different is a disability. If anything, it’s to be celebrated, and it’s up to you to go out and make change. It’s hard to do sometimes because there’s been a lot of things that have been working against us, but it’s up to us to create that change and to fight for that change and show the world ‘we deserve this because we work hard too and we’re also talented,’ and that’s what I want to show people. That’s for anybody who feels like an outcast or feels different or like they don’t belong, which nowadays is majority of people. They need champions out there to show them that if you work hard enough, you can literally do anything. Your journey is going to be different than the person’s journey next to you — whatever you do, just don’t give up.