Ashley Cleveland Gets Gritty

If the term “Christian rocker” conjures sonic images of simplistic, overproduced pop-radio fodder, prepare to redefine your views. Ashley Cleveland—who appeared on more than 200 albums before her 1991 solo debut, Big Town, and won a Grammy in 1995 for Lesson of Love—not only eschews the trite clichés that many associate with the genre, but she also sounds like Aretha Franklin raised on a steady diet of the Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell.
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“I got tossed into that crowd because I write songs about issues of faith, but I’ve always been a fringe person there,” says Cleveland. “It’s not that I’m edgier, but the way I deliver—the way I say things—is grittier than where they’re coming from.”

Cleveland just released her seventh studio album, Before the Daylight’s Shot [204 Records]—a bristling, raw-toned manifesto that finds her acoustic rhythms powering a full-throttle rock band that includes husband/lead guitarist/producer Kenny Greenberg.

Before the Daylight’s Shot features a butt-kicking band, but you tour solo. Why?

Kenny and I have three kids, and the music business is so unfriendly to family life, that you have to be really creative about it. Taking a band out is pricey, so I just take a couple of guitars and fly out on weekends. Riding around and sleeping in a van is for young people [laughs]. This way, I can fly to all my dates, stay in decent hotels, do my thing, and still make money.

Do you have to rework your songs for solo guitar?

No, but I’ve gotten pretty creative about it. Unless you’re an amazing guitar player—and I’m decidedly not—it’s just dull to listen to a regular old guitar after a while. So I use a lot of tunings to make the songs more interesting. For instance, “Queen of Soul” is tuned down a full step. I use DADGAD a lot, too.

What gear do you take on the road?

I like to rock, and I believe the acoustic guitar is the ultimate rock and roll instrument, but you have to have the right acoustic. You don’t want shimmery tones, you want a percussive sound, and Gibsons definitely have that. I have two custom 1990 Gibsons: a magenta J-180 and a turquoise Dove. A lot of people put sophisticated little mics inside the bodies of their guitars, but I need something that’s sturdy and functions well with a variety of sound systems—from state-of-the-art to pretty close to tin-can-and-a-string—so I equipped both acoustics with L.R. Baggs undersaddle pickups. I keep one guitar tuned down a whole-step, and I use the other for standard and other tunings. I use a Boss tuner as an A/B box for the two guitars. In the studio, I use a 1965 Martin D-35, which is pretty unbeatable.

Who are some of your influences?

My greatest influence is Neil Young. I just love the emotion of his songs and his playing. Neil, along with Stephen Stills and Keith Richards—their guitar playing is just it. I love their rhythms and their feel. I also grew up listening to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and the Kinks, as well as Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.

Your songs are pretty raw for most faith-based music.

I consider that a great compliment. At one point, I intentionally tried to fit into the Christian scene, and I failed miserably. It really cost me something as an artist. It compromised my natural sensibility about what I have to bring to the table, and I’m unwilling to do that ever again.