By Jennifer Stanley
Ethereal, genuine, soulful, artistic: these words accurately describe the music of Ashley Sullivan, a local singing/songwriting ingÃ©nue. Her music embodies a modern day Janis Joplin and is reminiscent of Jewel, one of her influences. However, rather than her talent being the result of years of disciplined practice, Ashley didn't pick up a guitar until she was 16 and didn't start singing until 17. She is now 18 years old.
The Conway native and daughter of Bart and Robbie Sullivan attended Conway's St. Joseph's school, from which she graduated. She is the youngest of three sisters, including Olivia, 23 and Emily, 21. Ashley is currently taking general education courses at University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, which she enjoys for its small class size and relaxed atmosphere.
She freely admits that college is not her life's dream; that distinction belongs to her passion for creating music and performing. Having lived her entire life in Conway, she cites the small-town feel and the fact that all of her friends and family are here among her favorite parts of the city. "That's the thing," she says, with a bittersweet tone in her slightly husky voice. "If anything were to happen with the music, my friends and familyâ€¦" she trails off.
So how does one transition from having no musical aspirations to having a goal of a music career as her primary focus in such a short time? "I started by watching YouTube," she says. She watched a video of a girl playing guitar and was intrigued. "I had to do that," she says, "and I knew I could do it." Though she admits "I had tried every other instrument for a few months at a time but quit because I didn't like them." The guitar was instantly an infinitely different experience - she could play well immediately.
"My dad heard me playing and singing and said I was really good, so he started booking for me to play at different places. I started at Gusano's, then played at Vino's in Little Rock, then Soundstage and Juanita's," says Ashley. Then came her coup de gras: a gig at the Whiskey A Go-Go in Los Angelesâ€¦as in California.
Ashley's dad, Bart, who also owns the Bear's Den gas station on Dave Ward Drive, is one of her biggest fans and is also her manager. He handles her bookings and her marketing efforts, and has also overseen her CD production and her music on MySpace Music. A representative from the Whiskey heard Ashley on MySpace and reached out to them to gauge their interest in her performing at their women's night.
Incidentally, Bart was visiting a friend near Los Angeles a few weeks later, and he stopped by the Whiskey, knocked on the door, and talked with them about Ashley. He gave them a CD and asked when she should come play. They called him within the hour, and she had the gig. Ashley's first Whiskey show was opening for LA Guns, the band that pre-dated Guns-n-Roses.
Ashley's next show at the Whiskey is April 14th for Women's Rock night. She routinely flies with a parent on the weekends, plays her show/shows, and returns to Conway to attend her college courses. The majority of her music is original, but she does play some covers, namely Jewel. She doesn't just mimic these tunes, however, she refashions them into her own disjointed, unfazed style.
When asked about her songwriting process, Ashley says, "I just kind of play and sing, making it up as I go." She also says she doesn't feel that she gets her musical talent from any of her family members, saying, "I must have had some ancestors along the way who were musically talented." Having heard her play and sing, it is almost unfathomable that she hadn't played a lick prior to two years ago, sounding as good as the most accomplished and practiced musician out there. As a further testament to her raw talent, her Dad shares, "One day she wanted to play Alanis Morisette for a show, so she went out and bought a harmonica, and she played live that night with the harmonica and guitar."
When asked about her most interesting fan interaction, she responds that it was "definitely in LA. It is full of crazy people, so definitely. We were passing out tickets on the streets, you kind of have to market and sell your own show, and it is pretty easy to do. You have to do it for the first few times at least. Some guy I sold a ticket to showed up, and it was not good. My dad was there, which was a good thing." She takes it all in stride and knows her big break could come on any given night. "I found out - especially at the Whiskey - that producers are always showing up. Women's night has been having a lot of producers show up. That is how Taylor Swift was discovered, and whatever she is doing is working for her," Ashley laughs.
While her life is somewhere up in the air between California and Arkansas, Ashley harbors a deep appreciation for the people of her hometown. "There are advantages of living in Arkansas. People here are so well rounded, and I have so many friends here. People here can help me get work. I've known everyone here forever, and I do have some local connections. That makes it easier in Conway, Arkansas than in big cities."
She also says the music industry's move toward digital media and online marketing helps artists who are undiscovered. There used to be no way to get your musc to the masses; now it is the norm. "It's crazy", she says, "and it's the way I got work in LA. But it is not always a good thing; anybody can put music out there, and it doesn't necessarily take talent anymore."
Her ultimate goal? "My main goal is just to enjoy myself and my music. I would love to be rich and famous too, obviously, and will do everything I can to get my music out there, but it's truly about the music," says Ashley. The getting there part can be daunting. Ashley states her most effective marketing strategy is to get people to come to her shows. "I can hand them a CD but getting people to come to my shows and developing a loyal fan base has worked so well for me," she says.
In the event she does make it to the big time, Ashley anticipates the first step would be redesigning her and putting her in front of a band, a very realistic expectation to possess in a culture of slick marketing and branding. She says, "I am always acoustic and have never performed live with a band, but that is something I am interested in for sure. I would love to hear that! A label markets you, so it isn't as grassroots. My dad would get a break," she laughs.
Ashley also says her music is constantly evolving. Having never had voice or guitar lessons, she is open to the natural progression of her voice and music. She also, "love(s) playing live. It's the best feeling in the world to play songs I wrote and see people sitting silent, listening to it. Best thing ever," she says.
After talking with Ashley Sullivan and spending a few days enjoying her CD in my car and office (and having two coworkers request a copy), it would seem to be just a matter of time until her raw musical talent is discovered. Ashley herself says, "It is timing and talent," so for her, it is just a matter of time.