That Ashley Webber named her new project Ashley Shadow is a stroke of genius. Over the last decade and a half, she’s laid down the low end as the bassist of early-’00s postpunks the Organ, performed in the live iteration of twin sister Amber’s synth-folk unit Lightning Dust, and sung backup on an album by U.S. alt-country icon Bonnie “Prince” Billy. After playing supporting roles with these artists, Webber is now coming out of the darkness, if you will, to stand in the spotlight herself. It’s an apt narrative arc, but the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter says there’s not much back story behind the Ashley Shadow name. Simply put, it’s her birthright.
“My middle name is Shadow, there’s no secret weird thing,” she says bluntly with a smile, while spending a late Sunday morning with the Straight at Fraser Street’s Prado Café. “I’m obviously a twin. I was born second, so I got Shadow. My sister got Erica, which was my mom’s favourite aunt’s name.”
Webber’s sipping a creamy iced coffee beside cookie-chomping bandmate Ryan Beattie the day after a release party for the group’s self-titled debut LP at the China Cloud. The singer calls the packed show the best the band’s had yet, though adds that it was only its third overall. And all of them took place recently. The first was for 20 regulars at a bar in Roberts Creek, and a follow-up show at Broadway drinking spot the Lido—where both Webber and Beattie tend bar—wasn’t actually advertised.
The buildup to Ashley Shadow’s debut was likewise low-key, given that Webber had attempted to get a solo effort off the ground five years ago. After she penned a few cuts she now calls “throwaways”, a career shift toward working with women in the Downtown Eastside at the supervised-injection facility Insite put her music aspirations on hold.
“It wasn’t really coming together, and then I was distracted by thinking that I wanted to work with women in addiction,” the artist explains, adding that her time as a coordinator for the nonprofit was often tough. “I got into that full-time, but then I realized it wasn’t for me, so I got back to songwriting.”
Reinvigorated, Webber’s next shot at music yielded the folksy cuts that now make up her album. While her current backup band comprises Beattie, Acorn restaurateur Shira Astra on keyboards, and drummer Matt Skillings, she recorded the album with a crack team of musicians, including Ladyhawk’s Darcy Hancock and Black Mountain drummer Josh Wells. This was all captured at the latter’s Balloon Factory studio in early 2015.
Popping up online a year before the rest of the record, album opener “All for You” is an acoustic track that finds Webber’s soft vibrato lamenting the southbound trajectory of a relationship. On it, she solemnly reflects: “It could never last for me, you’ll be better off by feeling free.”
“It’s basically about men that date women that are younger than them. The women basically have their whole lives ahead of them, and they’re just pathetic 40- to 50-year-old men that are dating 20-year-old women,” she says of the introductory strummer, adding that it’s sung from the male perspective. “They’re clearly dating someone that doesn’t have a lot in common with them.”
Running throughout the nine-song release are reflections on a number of personal experiences. “Sun” was inspired by a dream Webber had following the death of her great-uncle, and plays out as an Icarus-like tale with its foreboding delivery of “Don’t get too close to the sun.”
Elsewhere, Ashley Shadow can handle romantic heartbreak, or hint at the songwriter’s time at Insite. The dusty “Another Day” has Webber weighing in on women she met on the job who, she explains, fell into addiction “to kill whatever pain they were dealing with”. “Tonight” is mauve-tinted psych-country filled with rustic guitar patterns, ear-bleeding bass fuzz, and crushing harmonies about being “taken away from your family”.
There’s a heaviness threaded into Ashley Shadow’s debut release, but the struggles presented are intended to be overcome. Webber mentions that there’s a general theme of female empowerment on the LP. From the start, she’s faced music-industry misogyny, but she’s determined to push through the bullshit and piggishness for her craft.
“When you’re playing music and you’re a female, it’s kind of a bummer sometimes. Being in the Organ, and having sound guys come on-stage and tweak my amp the way they like… You’d never do that to a dude! Stuff like that throughout the years can get you down.”
She reflects on her art and all of its obstacles for a moment before adding, “But getting past all that and still doing an album…I’m not going to let that get in the way.”
Ashley Shadow opens for Black Mountain at the Commodore Ballroom next Saturday (May 21).