Music

String Theories

Brittain Ashford's Folk Tales

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Unless you're one of the lucky few who popped out of the womb clutching a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico, then you likely owe your good taste in music to a pivotal artist who showed you the way at an impressionable age. For Brittain Ashford, that artist was John Darnielle. With the Mountain Goats, Darnielle delivered Ashford from the showtunes and angsty '90s alterna-rock that soundtracked her early adolescence. From there, the Seattle-raised songwriter was a van full of exotic instruments (and a journal of quiet thoughts) away from the sprightly, lyrically dense folk she now makes in Brooklyn.

"My family was pretty musical," Ashford says. "I took piano lessons and my dad played guitar around the house. But it wasn't until I was 15 that I realized he was just playing the same three chords over and over. It was funny because, by then, I knew a lot more than that."

Soon after, Ashford explored stringed instruments beyond the guitar, from zithers to dulcimers. It's this variety—a parade of acoustic smallness—that defines her sound and impassioned live shows. One minute Ashford furiously strums an autoharp, the next she exacts delicate harmonic surgery over the top of an Appalachian dulcimer, her brow furrowed.

It's a different story on record, where Ashford pulls our attention close to her lyrics. Though she released an EP called Geek Love in 2005, it wasn't until she moved to Brooklyn the following year and released Four Songs in 2007 that Ashford's touring repertoire started taking shape. This is where her teenage Darnielle epiphany—that "songwriting is about writing"began to surface in her work with fantastic results.

For Ashford, words are what make a song stick. A listener leaves her most recent release, 2008's There, But for You, Go I, carrying the kind of Gotham-centric imagery one finds in indie romcoms, with Manhattan valets brushing up against Brooklyn insomniacs. It's Ashford's ear for stories and situations that makes her capable of these wryly rendered scenes of lovelorn New Yorkers. Yet, it's hunched over a dulcimer that Ashford the listener becomes Ashford the writer.

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