Ashleigh Flynn Channels Wild West Women on 'A Million Stars'
Ashleigh Flynn, center, at live recording of "A Million Stars." Photo by Karen Kuhn.
By Byron Beck, PQ Monthly
STAR POWER:Â Ashleigh FlynnÂ is an artist, an activist and one hell of a singer. She recently completed work on her new album,Â A Million Stars, which she will feature at a concert on Friday night at Alberta Rose Theater. I had a chance to hear the album and speak to Ashleigh about her new music and upcoming show that will include a band made up by members of The Decemberists, Black Prairie, and the Stolen Sweets. And, oh yeah, there might even be an appearance by Portland's infamous "Prohibition Rose." Well, I will just let Ashleigh tell you: PQ: Ashleigh,Â I love your new album! Flynn: Thank you, Byron. It was lots of fun to make! PQ: How would you describe your style of music? Cowboy? Honkytonk? Cowboy Honkytonk? Or something completely different? Flynn: Hmmmâ€¦..Wellâ€¦.Iâ€™m calling it GAY-MERICANA!Â Americana music (which is a pretty straight genre) made by a gay person. Americana is a mix of country, roots, bluegrass, folk, rock, bluesâ€¦.a mutt of a genre which is uniquely American. PQ: What is it like to perform this style of music? Flynn: For me itâ€™s easy to make this style of music because itâ€™s what I grew up loving as a kid (along with Motown)â€¦ culturally, it can be a little more challenging in some places, and actually feels sort of like a social action when I am in venues which lean on socially conservative ideals.Â But I love that! Especially when the 50-something men come up to me afterwards and buy my CD for their youngest daughter they say I remind them ofâ€¦ PQ: By the way, how long have you been performing your own tunes? Flynn: It all started on a dark and stormy night at an open mic at Baba Yagaâ€™s Dream (a queer coffee shop in Eugene which, little did I know, sold dildos in a secret back room!) about 15 years ago. I was the only gay person there for the open mic â€“ the rest was straight DUDESâ€¦.it was great! But eeesh, was I terrible... PQ: Can you tell us what the inspiration is behind "A Million Stars?" Flynn: Yes! I was hanging out with my nieces a few years back, and they were really into painting with watercolors.Â I found a painting that was sort of tossed numbly on the floor of their playroom. It was of a cowgirl on a Palomino under a western sky.Â It led me to wonder what had inspired her to paint this picture, since there really arenâ€™t that many wild west heroines for her to know of. That led me further, on a quest to discover them, because I knew they had been part of U.S. History beyond the stories of pioneer mothers who starved on the wagon trails, wives of husbandsâ€¦.Â I knew about Calamity Jane and knew there had to be others like her. I found Cattle Annie and Little Britches. Once the law found out that they were actually girls passing as men and running a successful whiskey thieving deal, they got PISSED and became solely obsessed with bringing those two gals downâ€¦.it seems kind of pathetic given all the other violent stuff happening out in the Territories during that time. PQ: What is the story behind Prohibition Rose? Flynn: Well she was an elusive racketeer with nerves of steel who ran opium dens and speakeasies in Portland during the Prohibition â€“ which was not your usual occupation for a woman of that era.Â Same deal here, the law was so befuddled by Rose and her empire that they became obsessed.Â Legend has it that once upon a time she got tipped off to a big sting about to launch, that she had her minions gather up all the liquor bottles and stash them under her skirt. And when the cops broke in, she stood high and mighty in the middle of the room, with gallons of hooch under skirt, and read upon her bible. PQ: How do you mix your politics with your prose? Flynn: Wellâ€¦.I just kinda do.Â I was brought up in the south and raised by atheists and Southern Baptists â€“ so I had as much fear as I did skepticism about heaven and hell.Â I live my politics, Iâ€™d say â€“ but politics to meÂ isnâ€™t just using words to make promises or tricks, itâ€™s standing up for what I believe in by telling stories that hopefully make folks more thoughtful, and in the process also make folks feel joy or sorrow. PQ: â€œSee The Light,â€ which features a blistering bridge by Todd Snider as a preacher, calls out those folks who take the Bible word for word. Do you ever worry you might have "concerned citizens" protesting outside of your concerts? Flynn: See That Light is a â€œlightâ€ little ditty that I imagine [is about] a lost gal of that era who is cast out by her family and religion because she wants to wear pants and boots and ride the rodeo cross saddled and gets caught for having a crush on her sisterâ€™s best girlfriend.Â I only intended for that bridge to call out the silliness of taking the literal word of man as the literal word of god and creating a whole way of life, informing entire cultures and beliefs and behaviors as a result.Â Weâ€™ve gotten ourselves into quite a mess. But sure, thatâ€™d be great to get concerned folks out. Bring it! PQ: Do you ever change your set due to the town or audience you might be playing to? Flynn: Only if I played for the same folks two nights in a row, really, or if itâ€™s a loud bar, I play all my loud stuffâ€¦or I try to get them to quiet for the quiet stuffâ€¦ I try to let the moment steer me too. And when I am calm, I go to where my heart calls me, where I feel joy or sorrow (I think in a way these are the same feeling with different colors/thoughts attached to them). PQ: The band for your upcoming show will include members of the Decemberists, Black Prairie, and the Stolen Sweets. What's it like to work with such a diverse group of musicians? Flynn: Wellâ€¦.working with those guys is a royal pain, I mean, seriously, Funk needs to have his amp so flippinâ€™ loud, and Nate needs his beer a certain temperature, andâ€¦.. KIDDING! I am totally spoiled by the both the caliber of musician and quality of character in each of them.Â They are all incredibly talented, lovely, fun folks, and it is my true privilege to call them collaborators and friends. PQ: Do you plan to hit the road with this band formation? Flynn: Black Prairie is taking me down to Cali with them for some shows, and after that I hope to play with them whenever possible over the next year as I promo this record to the world. PQ: What does the near future hold for Ashleigh Flynn? Flynn: Hopefully beau coup sales of "A Million Stars" and lots of new fans and gigs! I will do some shows with Todd Snider this spring, and after that we shall see! PQ: And five years from now? Flynn: Well, I have touring as support for k.d. lang on my bucket list (if you know her, please be sure to pass that along!), along with making more records and playing more showsâ€¦.oh, and giving away my day job because I am able to make a living as a â€œgay-mericanaâ€ troubadour. PQ: Anything I miss? Flynn: Hopefully not my love and gratitude for you and all your readers for giving "A Million Stars" a chance! A version of this interview was previously published at byronbeck.com.