It’s late afternoon in The Narrows and Brooklyn singer Ashley Strongarm is looking at me, waiting for an answer. Vehicles with modified exhaust systems are speeding down Flushing Avenue, spitting sharp, thick bursts of noise at the surrounding buildings.
Strongarm’s music could be described, generally, as americana, a blending of folk and southern rock that’s carried by her intimate, singer-songwriter delivery. Warm, sliding guitars guide the records through understated verses that lift into soaring, hypnotic melodies. While her voice is invitingly tender, Strongarm’s lyrics often carry with them the darkness of someone who has discovered that she can renounce but never escape elements that have formed her.
She tells me, “I’ve always felt like I had the wrong brain in my head.”
After meeting at the foot of a large apartment complex in central Bushwick, Strongarm and I spend 15 minutes trying to decipher a set of directions on her phone. We aimed to go to a kava bar in the area. Neither of us had been, and it seemed like a nice adventure to embark on together. There are always people smoking cigarettes and talking to one another outside a kava bar. It feels tight-knit.
The bar, it turned out, had not yet opened. So Strongarm and I continued on, settling on The Narrows, a dim, leather-laden cocktail bar near the intersection of Wilson and Flushing Avenues. After she tells me of her misbegotten brain, Strongarm recalls life as a teenager, in a Southern Baptist school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
She’s quick with a joke. Sentences fly out of her as if trying to emancipate themselves from the suffocating confines of whence they came. And her southern twang can be heard sometimes at the end of her playful retorts.
For Strongarm, the South is both fuel and specter. It is what she is running from and the place in which she feels most at home.
“It was like I didn’t not have friends,” she explains. “But I always felt like I was trying to figure out the right rules, you know? The right ways to act and the right person to be. And it wasn’t coming naturally.”
She describes the setting of her formative years as defined by a ‘Southern fraternity vibe.’
“I just felt like the odd man out,” she says. “I tried really hard to be the sorority girl. I tried to bend myself, but I couldn’t figure it out.”
By the time she left for New York, she says she was shaking with resentment.
“I left the South being like, ‘that’s not me,’” she recounts. “‘I’m not going to wear dresses anymore. I’m not going to be decent or pretty. And I’m not going to have any Southern influence in my music.’” But she says somethings can’t be outrun.
“All the things I ran away from are still there,” Strongarm says. “They’re in the music. They’re in me. I’m not them fully, but I can’t get rid of them. I’ve tried, but they come back in full force.”
My lager just about empty, I ask her: “So, do you believe in God?”
“I don’t think so–-I don’t know what I believe in,” Strongarm says. “I’m a person that’s walking around….” She flails her limbs in the air above her head. “It’s wild and I don’t know where all this came from, but I don’t think there’s a white man in the sky who doesn’t want me to have sex.”
“Oh Honey,” which Strongarm self-released this past Friday, is her fifth song with producer Justin Craig. It is the last piece in a series of songs that will be wrapped up into an EP that she’s putting out called Good Mourning, which brings the listener through the five stages of grief. “Pushing Daisies,” the first song on the EP, for instance, is about denial.
“Oh Honey,” she says, is about acceptance. “The whole song is like, ‘the sweetest thing you told me was goodbye’ –– because it would have just kept being bad. It’s supposed to be a final farewell to a person. ‘This is good that this ended, thanks for leaving…I don’t think I would have called it quits, we spend our whole life trying to make it fit.’”
Image via Ashley Strongarm.
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