Musical Discoveries: Please tell us about your music education, vocal training and the evolution of music work that led to your debut album.
Ashelyn Summers: I was born and raised in Orange County, California. My musical background started early; I have taken vocal lessons since I was seven. My first teacher was Miss Cornell, who taught me a great deal about technique. My early repertoire consisted mostly of Italian arias and show tunes and I performed in a many recitals, both as a soloist and in groups.
In high school I was mentored by Brian Dehn, a noted conductor and an outstanding tenor soloist himself. Mr. Dehn taught me about the passion and raw emotion of the human voice. He expanded my horizons about classical music, introducing me to many seminal composers such as Sergei Rachmaninov. His "Bogoroditse Devo" remains one of my absolute favorite pieces.
So how did you assume your current artistic direction?
At the same time that I was learning more about classical music, I also wanted to perform pop music. I was fortunate to find Thomas Shepard, a former Broadway performer, to help me in this new quest. Thomas guided me in finding my personal style. Classical music is all about structure and precision; you are always singing someone else's point of view.
With Thomas, I found my own unique voice. He also helped immensely with the recording of this album. Before I went into the studio, I would always schedule a voice lesson with Thomas. He helped me shape the tone and emotions that I wanted to project in the song that I was recording that day.
My compositional skills have been greatly influenced by the two songwriting classes I took with Christopher Sampson, the founding director and associate dean of the popular music program at the USC Thornton School of Music. Both "Ambiguous Mess" and "Angel" were begun as assignments for these songwriting classes.
What else did your music education include?
I have also taken numerous music theory classes, musicianship--the implementation of music theory--composition and arrangement, and piano classes at IVC and Saddleback Colleges. I was in the composers club at IVC, where I shared "Willful Amnesia" and "Sunday Morning" and received feedback on these songs.
Outside of my formal training, I have been strongly influenced by Nobuo Uematsu, the composer in charge of the soundtrack for the Final Fantasy videogame. I loved the games themselves, but more importantly, I loved the piano collections he composed for the series. This is what inspired me to start playing piano. And why every song in Key To My Heart starts with the piano.
In addition to the carefully crafted recordings that have been heard online the past year, what other recordings have you done either as a solo artist or with other bands or music organizations?
I am currently working on multiple collaborations. My most recent project was an electro pop track called "Devoid" created with producer / songwriter Dave Meredith, which was released last February. And I just recently finished writing and recording vocals for "This City" with producer Michael Conway. You can listen to "Devoid" on my website here.
Aside from styles we have heard on your debut album, have you sung other genres, for example, have you done any classical work other than your "Ave Maria" bonus track?
I have worked in many different styles, but I have not done any other recordings besides the two Christmas releases of "Ave Maria" and "O Holy Night." I was a member of the Sage Hill Chamber Choir, and performed many pieces of classical choral music, and I have been trained in the style of musical theatre and Italian arias as well.
How did you meet the people that collaborate on the album?
After trying a couple of different studios in Orange County, I decided to work with Mike Troolines at Sound Asylum because of his skill and professionalism. He also knows some incredibly talented session musicians. I will be forever grateful that he introduced me to such world-class players as pianist Jervy Hou, violinist Hiro Goto, cellist Irina Chirkova, bassist Dave Stone, guitarist Mick Taras, bass guitarist Drew Allsbrook, and drummer John Ferraro.
The photographer Marissa Grigonis happens to be my sister. She is also the website designer and creative director for our projects.
What led do the approach of releasing one track a month for the past year in the run up to the debut album?
Serialization has been around for a long time; even Charles Dickens first released his great novels a chapter at a time in magazines. Providing new material more often helps to engage people and to keep them engaged. When the fans know that a new release is coming out, they look forward to it, rather than wondering months or even years later, if they wonder at all, whether you will ever release another album. Furthermore, when you release an album one song at a time, you get feedback throughout the process instead of just at the end. This ensures that not only will each song be better than the last but that the eventual product will be the best that it can be.
Was the design of the website, individual album covers, debut album booklet all a vision from the start?
The overall imagery--the key theme and color scheme of black, white, and red--were part of the original plan, but the nuances were applied as each song was written.
How important do you think "image" is to an emerging female recording artist this days?
I believe that image is important to an artist of any caliber, even when it comes to an auditory art like music. You want your image to directly incorporate into the theme of your music. When someone hears your song, that image should come to mind and vice versa. I consciously try to develop the theme of both the image and the song simultaneously to create this kind of compatibility.
How have your fans influenced the project?
I have opened my work completely to the fans. I provide access to lyrics, scores, demos, studio bounces, and alternative versions of the artwork. And in addition to being able to see the work in progress, I also give the fans a voice in the direction of that work. While it may be difficult to open myself to criticism, particularly in the early stages of a work, I know that it makes the final product that much better.
People that would like to see these materials, should sign up for a free fan account on my website.
Tell us more about the musicians that appear alongside you on the recording and the studio that you use.
I have had the privilege of working with some extraordinary musicians for this project. Jennifer Takahashi is a brilliant pianist and she has helped me immensely in developing my skills as an arranger. Jervy Hou is a talented multi-instrumentalist and is responsible for much of the arrangement of "Masquerade."
Mick Taras came onto the project for the song "Now or Never."He took the lead on the track and was instrumental in the creation of all the rock songs on the album. Drew Allsbrook played a key role in the formation of the song "Ambiguous Mess." His skills as a bass player compliment his abilities as a producer and songwriter.
John Ferraro is an unbelievably gifted drummer. He can walk in, hear a song once and immediately play it! Want another style? Just ask and he'll play that too! Hiro Goto is not only an amazing violin and viola player but also a brilliant arranger, filling the songs with multiple parts for strings.
Irina Chirkova is a world class cello player, who has been featured in many orchestras, symphonies, and television shows. Dave Stone is a professional and skilled bassist worth his weight in gold. And of course, last but certainly not least, is sound engineer / producer Mike Troolines, who brought the whole project together.
Will you perform in front of live audiences to promote your new album?I hope to spend this summer doing as many shows as possible all across Southern California.
What can you say about your live performances to date?
My goal when performing live is to bring the audience into my world for that short duration of time. I want them to experience the emotions of the song along with me, to bring them into a different state of being. I donít have a different on-stage persona per se, but I try to access a different emotion for every song that I sing. And of course, everyone is welcome to come see the real me afterwards.
How has the internet influenced your career as an emerging female recording artist?
I would not have been able to reach so many people so quickly without the internet. I have been fortunate to have already had some success on sites such as Last.fm, YouTube, OurStage, thesixtyone, and StereoMood. Not only have I found an audience online, I have found other artists, including filmmakers and video game producers.
"Willful Amnesia" will be featured in the Indie film Rag Doll coming out this summer. The instrumental version of "Masquerade" will be used in a trailer for a new browser game. And "Now or Never" is currently playable on JamLegend, an online music game like Guitar Hero or Rock Band.
In addition to your music, what else rocks your world these days?
I am a volunteer for the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which trains local members of the community in emergency preparedness and provides assistance in the event of a disaster. Fortunately, there have been no disasters to date! I also like to participate in runs, such as the Irvine Lake Mud Run, which benefits the Gavin R. Stevens Foundation, which is searching for the cure for Leberís Congenital Amaurosis (LCA).
I'm also quite interested in East Asian languages and cultures--it was my major at USC--especially learning the languages. I've taken several years of Mandarin and Japanese, and I hope to add Korean to that list soon.