Think Joni Mitchell meets contemporary Celtic and you’ll get something like the creative force of Ashley Davis, an American singer-songwriter whose musical imagination invites the world into her eclectic sphere. While this mash-up may classify her work, Davis’s unique ability to capture and cross musical traditions ultimately transcends comparison. Her soft-spoken music conjures a genre and world all of its own. Good Morning America, for instance, describes the Ashley Davis Band as “new music springing from ancient roots.” A culmination of the many influences that have inspired her over the years, Davis’s songwriting has captivated audiences on either side of the Atlantic—has invited them, instinctively, to dream. She has excelled in Celtic folk, Americana, and even electronic, proving she can turn any musical style into a spellbinding story. In the words of Academy Award winning composer Philip Glass, Ashley Davis has “as much musicality as anyone could wish for.” Davis’s latest album, “When the Stars Went Out,” written collaboratively and recorded in isolation, is a collection of acoustic, roots ballads whose lyrical depth will hold you still in time.
A native of Kansas and graduate of the University of Limerick’s World Music Centre, Ashley Davis writes music that lives between continents and speaks to two national traditions. Between her background in American roots and love of Celtic folk, Davis possesses a unique talent for conjoining ancient history with modern, intercultural interpretation.
As a performer moving between Nashville, New York, the west of Ireland, and even the Isle of Man, where she served as Artist in Residence in 2006, Ashley has always applied her distinct Great Plains perspective to a range of genres and cultures, forging songs out of the moment when different minds and backgrounds meet. Given all the time she has spent traversing the Atlantic, it is unsurprising that Davis’s music exhibits an inherently ethereal and aqueous quality. Her songs seem to exist airbound above the ocean, merely waiting for the current to direct them toward shore.
Much like water, Davis’s music is fluid, always escaping categorization. While New Age, Celtic, roots, bluegrass, country, electronic, and indie have all described her music over the years, none of these descriptors comprehensively characterize Ashley Davis today. She is, in her own words, “a songwriter, who likes particular sounds surrounding my music.”
Like all globetrotters, Davis has been bold in her creative exploration. Launching her career under the mentorship of artists like Clannad’s Moya Brennan, Davis released her first Irish album, “Down By the Sea,” in 2011—a unique iteration of Irish folk distinguished by her background in American roots. It is difficult, if not impossible, for an outsider to infiltrate traditional Irish music circle, but Davis has proven herself one of a select few to manage the feat. Her haunting interpretations of traditional ballads like “Raglan Road” and her uplifting original melodies like “Down By the Sea” asserted Davis’s rightful place in the Irish music community. Since then, she has worked with Irish music legends, such as John Spillane, Moya Brennan, Paddy Moloney, and Eileen Ivers.
Ashley followed the success of “Down by the Sea” with one of the best seasonal albums available today, “Songs of the Celtic Winter” (2012). Making quick work at the writing desk, she then released her fourth studio album, “Night Travels,” two years later in 2014. “Night Travels” proved that Celtic music could be inventive, honor history, and all the while spread magic. Songs like the title track, “Alone with Me,” and the heartbreaking “In the Blue” are some of Davis’s masterpieces. It is in this 2014 album, particularly, that the songwriter poured her heart into her compositions, sharing herself bravely and selflessly in her writing and performance.
Having reached a pinnacle in her Celtic music career, Ashley sought new adventures in her 2015 and 2018 albums. “The Christmas Sessions,” a collaboration with guitarist John Doyle, joined Irish folk and jazz to make a playful collection of Christmas standards. The album is now considered a classic in its own right. In 2018, Davis stretched the limits of her vocal and arrangement skills by experimenting with electronic music. With this album, Davis proved she could do it all—that her voice, so at home in the Celtic tradition, could migrate to new plateaus and adopt new musical perspectives.
Ashley Davis’s latest venture, “When the Stars Went Out,” is perhaps her most creative and challenging yet. Under lockdown in her home state of Kansas, the singer set herself a new task: to write songs that leaned toward the country music tradition of her childhood. “If you’re from a roots background,” Davis explains, “you start to crave that space—the quiet and the purity of it.” To this endeavor she added a further challenge: recording collaboratively, yet apart, in isolation. Davis composed each of the songs in partnerships with her band members: Dave Curley, Colin Farrell, Will MacMorran, and Duncan Wickel. Ashley’s songwriting has long been inspired by the experiences of friends, but here, her musical colleagues became her co-writers, as well as her inspiration. From there, the album reached out to an even wider community: Davis is joined on tracks by Irish and American artists like Heidi Talbot, Tim O’Brien, Tony Furtado, John Doyle, Mick McAuley, Shane Hennessy, and Grammy-award winner Shawn Colvin.
The genesis of each track on “When the Stars Went Out” is a tale of halves: either Ashley or one of the collaborators would bring a melody or story, upon which the other would build, conveyor belt style, until the song was complete. With each song recorded from the artists’ homes, there was a natural volleying of creativity as the songs were built piecemeal from distant places. Hailing from Appalachia, Ireland, and Northern England, the Ashley Davis Band members (Curley, Farrell, MacMorran, and Wickel) and their multi-instrumental skills contributed an eclectic mix of influences to the writing process. The result is an album of distinct and diverse personalities, linked cohesively by Davis’s tender, emotive vocals and the pared-back acoustic style of her country roots.
But this album is much more than a Kansan’s return to American roots or a collection of collaborations. It is an exercise in how to create, how to make poetry with notes. Upon the first listen, the melodies tell their own sonic tales of heartbreak, loss, and wonder—and on the second, Davis’s lyricism begins to unfold, the poetry of her words speaking deep, layered meanings. Take, for instance, these lines from “Here By My Side”: “The shifting of the sands now that scare you / are the tides bringing you home.” Furthermore, in a stunning duet with Heidi Talbot, “Burning House” (Cam cover), the singers’ combined harmonies almost combust into emotive poignancy. While the album’s country roots style documents an expanding American folk music tradition, particularly audible in “Dry Cloud” (with Tim O’Brien, co-written with Duncan Wickel), the details in individual lyrics carve out that personal, quiet space of expression Ashley had been seeking.
Finally, “When the Stars Went Out” is, in its own unique way, a living, singing archive of the pandemic, of sharing creativity together while also in pensive isolation. This album will forever serve as a musical footnote in Covid-19’s history book.
The music of Ashley Davis offers cultural history, daydreams, heartbreak, and unbound imagination. “When the Stars Went Out” is but the next piece of evidence that as a songwriter, Ashley Davis is always ascending. Even when grounded in her roots, this singer-songwriter takes flight.