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10 Questions With Ashley Cleveland

From addiction to salvation, a candid conversation with the triumphant singer-songwriter on her new memoir, Little Black Sheep

Posted in MusicWorld on September 23, 2013 by
Photo: Ben Pearson

There are too many interesting things about Ashley Cleveland. The details of her highs and lows won’t fit into any one article, no matter how hard one tries. Thankfully the singer-songwriter - best known perhaps in gospel music circles, though she says her heart belongs to rock and roll - has written a book, Little Black Sheep, A Memoir, out this month, that chronicles her “brokenhearted” childhood, her battles with eating disorders, alcoholism, and drug addiction, and ultimately her salvation as a singer and songwriter, a wife (her husband is guitarist/producer Kenny Greenberg) and mother, and a Christian. She tells it like it is, writes beautifully, insightfully, and tersely - the mark of a veteran songwriter - bringing incredible light to her own dark narrative. The book is killer and the woman behind it is a triumph, with a story very much deserving of a book’s worth of attention.

1. When did it occur to you to write your memoirs?

It started when my husband started saying, fairly early on in our marriage, that the way I talk and tell stories would make me great at writing books, and I thought, “Well, I can barely get a song cranked out. I won’t be doing that.” But then I met this woman who was an author and a poet, and she had heard me read. I had written short pieces for compilation books and a couple of essays here and there for magazines. This woman had heard me read a couple of my essays and she’d also heard me in concert - and I do a lot of storytelling in concert - and she just, for lack of a better way to describe it, made it her mission to badger me into writing a book. I don’t know why but it sounded like something that was entirely impossible to me to do. I’m a huge reader so I had quite an obstacle in my own head, thinking, “Who do you think you are that you can write a compelling book?” But I enjoyed the opportunity to stretch out and say more, to say what I wanted to say on a larger scale.

2. To what degree did writing this book help you to better understand yourself?

Writing the book really revitalized me - not just as a person but as a woman in her fifties. Because women in their fifties are not, let’s just say, the most popular group of people in our culture. My friends and I talk about how, as you get older, you don an invisibility cloak. People tend to be somewhat dismissive of us as we age. But there’s also this other piece, which is that by the time you get to middle-age, most of us have figured out how to do our lives in a way that works, and we’ve been doing it that way for a long, long time. After a while it ceases to be entirely challenging. For me to sit down and try something that felt not only challenging but somewhat terrifying, and then finishing it and feeling proud of the effort - like I had represented myself well - made me feel so reengaged and a little bit reignited. Nobody puts something out in the public marketplace without wanting it to be a huge success, but I must say, I have already gotten what I needed to get.

3. I can’t help but wonder how the feeling of releasing a new album compares for you with the feeling of releasing this book?

They’re not entirely dissimilar. But I’ve released eight records, and it’s what people are expecting from me. I have a lot of anticipation for this book. People don’t know me as an author. It’s a bit of a surprise, and so far my friends and my family members that have read it - the response has been so wonderful because they’re surprised, and I love that. That part is really fun. There is a similarity in that I know that the book industry is in a similar strait as the music industry, so there’s a whole lot of product in a shrinking industry, and I know what the odds are. So that part helps me sort of temper my excitement a little bit, so I don’t get carried away only to be brought crashing down if things don’t go the way I hope they’ll go. Mostly, the heart of my excitement about anything is when I feel like I’ve done something well. I’m just happy to sail it out there.

4. From the beginning you’ve been pretty open about your past. Was it difficult for you to come clean about your history to those who surround you in the Christian music industry?

No, I have always been a pretty transparent person. I could probably afford to be a little more private. There were things that even my husband and my children didn’t know, so I think they were kind of shocked a little bit. But in terms of other people, it’s not so much what I’ve said, it’s just that I felt that I was vulnerable in the story and that vulnerability feels even more personal than my records in a way. Which is not to say that songwriting isn’t a vulnerable activity for me, because it is. But the other thing about making records is that I have Kenny in there with me, so it’s very much a joint effort, and we have these phenomenal players that we tend to use all the time on our records, so there’s some strength and protection in the group.

5. You had an especially tough childhood and then had your journey with alcoholism and addiction. At what point did your identity as a gospel singer emerge, as it seems unlikely that that would have become your career?

I did not start out singing Christian or gospel music. My fantasy, and my heart, is as a rock and roll singer, and my deal with Atlantic was a rock deal. But on that first record, Big Town, I had written two songs that were very clearly about faith. So even though that record didn’t even have distribution in the CCM market, Christians recognized those two songs as being songs about faith and began to talk about them. So I began to get a little profile in that marketplace, even though I wasn’t involved with it. In fact, when I told Ahmet Ertegun that the Christians had taken notice of the record because of those two songs, I asked him if he’d ever thought of doing distribution there as well, and he said, “That’s not what we do.” He was very clear about that. So, that was one of the reasons why my management at the time opted to move me off of Atlantic, and I had a dual deal with RCA and then Reunion Records.

6. You talk in your book about having to face a lot of “no’s” in the beginning of your singing and songwriting career. What kept you persevering?

It’s all I knew how to do. Not that I couldn’t have learned how to do something else as a career, but it was all I cared to do. Music was the first thing in my life where somebody said, “Hey, you’re pretty good at that,” and it was the one thing that brought positive response for me. It became larger than life in that way. I thought, “Somehow, I’ll find a way, even if I may not get to do exactly what I’m envisioning.” And as it turned out, I have not gotten to do exactly that. My career looks very different from what I envisioned, as what I envisioned involved a lot of grandiosity. That hasn’t happened for me, but a marvelous career has, and that’s kind of the agony and the ecstasy of the business to me; you really don’t know when the page will turn. On any given day you can be rejected or accepted or awarded something. The most wonderful things for me, over and over throughout my career, have come completely out of the blue, often from things I’d forgotten I’d even done. Once you’ve had a little taste of that, you recognize that you just kind of hang in there. But I also feel like the ones maybe that ought to be in the music business are the ones that cannot not be in the music business. I cannot not invest my heart in this business. It’s just there.

7. You’ve contributed background vocals to hundreds of records. What did you learn from having so much time just outside of the spotlight?

Well, I think background vocals are an entirely different art form. I felt so fortunate to get to do that because I certainly wasn’t at the top of the heap in terms of my skill set, but I thought it was an incredible thing to learn to sing with other people. It’s not about stepping out; it’s about a blend and supporting the singer and supporting the song. As an artist, I’m not particularly given to team playing. I’m a front person, so being a background singer taught me about teamwork. Most of the time, I was in some form of a section, and when it came together with these beautiful voices, it was thrilling. It taught me about serving something other than myself, which is always a really good exercise.

8. Even though your book is an autobiography, you’ve said that it’s not really about you at all, but about something much bigger. Can you explain?

I never set out to be a Christian artist. I still feel like more of a singer-songwriter because I kind of write about whatever I feel like. But the reason that I became increasingly more focused as a writer about issues of faith is because I’d had this experience of God, for no good reason that I could come up with. He rescued me out of the deepest possible hole, in spite of me. I was really doing my level best to thwart that, and I could not get over that kindness and tenderness. I still can’t. Nobody needs a memoir about me particularly, I don’t think. But my goal was to just tell the story about this experience of being deeply, deeply loved and changed and yet I’m still exactly the same. This encounter of such a powerful force of love, it compels me, and certainly it was, to me, the reason to write a book.

9. Do you anticipate having any trouble getting the book to reach audiences outside of the Christian publishing realm?

Sure. The largest problem is that some of the more vocal expressions of Christianity in our culture are some of the least appealing to a whole lot of people. So there’s a stigma. And, also, if I’m meeting somebody that I’ve never met before, people immediately assume that they know quite a bit about me, and that’s actually not true. Christianity can mean a whole lot of different things and can have many different expressions, so I would think the biggest obstacle is preconceived notions. My hope is, in terms of reaching people that are outside my normal sphere of influence, that this will be a word-of-mouth book.

10. Why did you choose to work with BMI?

When I came to Nashville, I knew nothing of the music business. I could not have been more green. I fell in with BMI when someone said, “You really need to find a publisher because you’re a good songwriter.” And I thought, “Well, I don’t know how to do that,” and they said, “Well, call up BMI and they’ll help you.” And I sat down with a guy named Phil Graham who listened to my songs and really liked them. That was literally the first month that I moved to Nashville, in 1984, so from that day forward I was devoted because they demystified this business for me - or Phil did - and have been helpful to me ever since.