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The sorceress: Ashley Pond.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Uncovered

Albany’s slowcore sweetheart Ashley Pond does things her own blue-tinted way

By Mike Hotter

 

‘When the depraved are in the ground/I’ll be happy.”

Twenty-three-year-old Ashley Pond slips that attention-getter into “Instrumental,” the fourth track on her debut CD, Dala, almost as if it’s a secret she doesn’t know is being overheard. Confessional in their own encoded way, Pond’s songs keep their mystery because, to paraphrase the Emily Dickinson adage, they tell the truth, but tell it slant. While mainstream media titillates with constant news about the shallow, the vapid and the vulgar, an ever-growing group of young underground artists are forging what I like to call the “new authenticity,” tales of the unsung lived beyond the scope of the big cities and bright lights. As Pond puts it in her song “Too Low”: “My guess is to lay low/And avoid the puppet show.”

Born and raised in Malone, an Eastern-Central New York town of 15,000 that has “a lot of barns, and a lot of used-to-be barns,” Pond has been singing since, as she puts it, “as soon as I could talk and recognize that notes were going on.”

“To me, an influence is someone you learned something from,” Pond says. “The Sound of Music—as a kid I thought [that] was pretty great. I learned a lot about how to sing from that movie. Julie Andrews had an amazing voice. I think it just came along at a really crucial point in life.”

Since her parents weren’t big music consumers, the young Pond found herself studying and singing along to whatever music was close at hand. “I didn’t have access to much music as a child. I used to sing along to this Sherwin Williams promotional tape that my dad got on a business trip. There was an E.L.O. tape hanging around for the longest time. I just took what I could get.”

Her parents were reluctant to buy their daughter a guitar, so, in true DIY fashion, Pond scraped up enough money on her own—by winning a karaoke contest—and walked out of a country store in Churubusco, N.Y., with a hard-won acoustic grasped in her 10-year-old hands. The start of high school coincided with her first attempts at songwriting, as well as the consummation of an unrequited musical love for a certain world-famous, but until then still-mysterious, rock band.

“I felt like I wasn’t cool enough to like them, but I got my courage up, listened to an album—I claimed Led Zeppelin for myself!”

Deciphering the sorcery of some of Jimmy Page’s acoustic tunings inspired Pond to incorporate increasingly sophisticated tunings into her own music. Delving deeper into the esoteric British folk music of the 1970s, Pond later found kindred muses in the likes of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Roy Harper’s Stormcock. Regarding Drake’s often coveted tunings, Pond reverently says, “I don’t touch them—I leave them to Nick.” Harper’s influence can be heard all over the middle section of Dala, specifically in the expansiveness “Never Seen Your Face” and the aforementioned “Instrumental,” where Pond is not afraid to change moods and rhythmic cadences mid-tune, employing chord progressions that venture way past the circle of three or four chords many other singer- songwriters (including many famous ones) like to stick to.

After high school, Pond moved to Albany to pursue a degree in music education at the College of Saint Rose. As someone who had been working intensively on her own music for quite some time, she found some of the classes a tad bit constricting.

“We had a songwriting class, but it was extremely basic—very specific guidelines per project. I guess if you’re going to be writing for hire, it would be valuable. I’m very rebellious, kind of ‘do your own thing.’ ”

“But,” she adds with a laugh, “going to class to write a song is pretty cool!”

Soon after arriving in Albany, Pond started hitting the local club scene, first with appearances at the Paddy Kilrain-hosted open mic at the now-defunct Larkin Restaurant, then at one-off gigs like the annual Caffe Lena benefit show, where she started to rethink her self-imposed policy pertaining to cover tunes. Of course, she chose to hit for the bleachers with a version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

“Yeah, that whole orchestral part, where it kind of crumbles? That was difficult,” she laughs. “But I’m beginning to appreciate covers. I used to be hardcore, like ‘Why don’t you just write your own songs,’ you know? But I’ve been learning that you can channel it and still make it your own.”

Matt Mac Haffie, a local music devotee who was working at Saint Rose at the time, remembers a Pond performance from those days. “I first saw Ashley Pond on stage in the Saint Rose dining hall,” says Mac Haffie. “The only thing that shone brighter than the hateful fluorescent lighting was Ashley’s brilliant vocals, and illuminating lyrics. What I saw was a young artist brimming with potential.”

After several such performances, a rolling buzz started to circulate about the petite young lady with the cool guitar technique and the sultry, bluesy voice. One quickly enraptured fan was Harith Abdullah, proprietor of local record label The Rev Records.

“Everyone plays guitar and sings,” says Abdullah, “but some people have a certain extra something that you can’t put your finger on. . . . She just seems like she inhabits her music; that it’s not something she does, but an essential part of her being. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the moment you see her play, this sentiment is undeniable. So last year, when I started The Rev up, Ashley was one of my first thoughts.”

Dala, released by The Rev Records last month and the subject of a CD-release party this Saturday at Valentine’s, was recorded—as part of a class project—by Saint Rose alumnus (and Pond’s boyfriend) Ryan Slowey, who also contributed lead guitar on “We Don’t Give Up.” Saint Rose vocal coach Kelly Bird provided harmony on Dala’s opening track, “Too Low.”

“This recording is a compilation of songs I wrote between 2004 and 2006,” Pond explains. “I wanted to make a really succinct album, minimal in instrumentation, and decidedly personal. Dala was a title I came up with based on a song I wrote called ‘The Dala Horse.’ It’s a symbol of holding on and letting go.”

A touch of the supernatural had a profound effect upon one of the album’s most intriguing songs.

“‘We Don’t Give Up’ was written two winters ago,” says Pond. “My aunt had just passed away, and I was feeling defeated. She was a brilliant woman, and I admired her tremendously. It was such a blow. Some time went by after her passing, and then I had this strange dream—strange in that seeing-dead-relatives sort of way. In the dream, I was sitting in an empty auditorium. My aunt sat down beside me, looked me square in the face and said, ‘If you’re going to do it, just do it.’ It’s just a dream, but it reminded me of something she might say. That ‘take charge’ kind of mentality. It was a push in what I think is the right direction.”

Speaking of new directions, Pond has also started to broaden her music’s framework by bringing new musicians on board. “I’ve been working with Sarah Clark [of area rock band Charmboy] on bass and Scott Smith on drums,” she says. “It’s really coming together well, and I’ll be featuring them on a few new songs I’ve written at the CD-release show.”

With appearances and airplay on local radio stations like WAMC and Exit 97.7, and a win for Metroland’s Best New Solo Artist in this year’s Best Of issue, Pond’s budding musical career has been gaining an impressive amount of momentum. To Abdullah, it’s a testament to Pond’s personality as well as her innate talent.

“Ashley is a dream to work with. She’s motivated and hard-working, and she has such clearly defined goals. She knows what she wants done and she has no trouble communicating that to us. I just couldn’t be happier about this record.”

For Mac Haffie, Dala is part of what he first noticed long ago in that school cafeteria performance. “She has always had great vocals, but her skill on the guitar and tone of her playing has just exploded. . . . Ashley Pond is truly a musical force to be reckoned with.”

Ashley Pond will celebrate the release of her debut CD, Dala, Saturday (Oct. 6), at Val en tine’s (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany), with special guests Space Lounge and Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned. Doors open at 8 PM. Admission is $5, and CDs will be available for a discounted price. For more information, call 432-6572, or visit www.myspace.com/ashleypond.


ROUGH MIX
- No Rough Mix this issue :-(


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