Taken from Cross Rhythms (Nov 29, 2017)
Ashton Lane: Scotland’s award-nominated modern country duo
Tony Cummings spoke to Esther O'Connor of Glasgow's ASHTON LANE
by Tony Cummings
Ashton Lane: Tim & Esther O'Connor
The recent single "Breathe You In" by Ashton Lane has been playing on Cross Rhythms radio. This husband and wife duo won't be entirely unfamiliar to Cross Rhythms readers. In fact back in 2008 we wrote about Esther O'Connor, one half of Ashton Lane, under the heading "the Scottish singer/songwriter with a hard to classify style." Now that style has been well-and-truly labelled. "Country" is what critics and fans have decided best suits the music emanating from Esther and husband Tim. Last year Ashton Lane performed at the famed Country To Country festival in London and they have received nominations in two categories (best duo and best song) from the British Country Music Awards. Clearly the time has come to catch up on the hard working Glasgow-based duo and here's what Esther told me.
Tony: Tell me a bit about the single' "Breathe You In". How did that song come about?
Esther: Sometimes we do writing sessions with different folk and this song has an interesting story because we wrote it with a girl from America, she lives in Nashville now, Jacqueline Platt. We knew the folks who are connected to her music and we offered to do some songwriting. So we write a song around some story or idea or lyric. Jacqueline had always wanted to try her hand at songwriting so we came up with the idea of the song together and then as a band we wrote the song and kind of really brought it to life and it turned out to be a really brilliant song, one of our favourites and one that we went on to choose as a single which came out on 27th October. It's a song that means a lot to us. I think sometimes you sort of crave getting out of the city and getting somewhere where you can really connect again and find that quiet place, think clearly and breathe a little bit more deeply.
Tony: It's interesting because you're a big city girl yourself. You haven't got a rural background have you?
Esther: No, I don't. We live in a very, very busy part of Glasgow so I think it's all the more important to take those times out. Glasgow is cool because within 30 or 40 minutes you're out by the lochs and by the mountains. You can go for these amazing walks by Loch Lomond; you're in the middle of nowhere. So I kind of love Glasgow for that, cos it doesn't take long to get out and we do that a lot as a family. I've got two young kids and we like to head for the hills.
Tony: Back in 2008 when you were recording as Esther O'Connor we began an article saying the critics around were trying to label your style naming acts like Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, KT Tunstall. How does the label "country" sit with you guys?
Esther: To be honest, I think a lot of those influences that you've mentioned, for example Sheryl Crow, there's a real country, Americana sound to it. I was brought up very influenced by Americana music and a lot of strong singer/songwriters so that's where I began my journey. I think the development into pop country has been an interesting one because things haven't really changed. The music I've done has stayed pretty much the same in lots of ways. When Tim and I went to Nashville in 2010 it was like finding a musical home because that's the music that I'd been writing and I think in the UK, when you say country music, many people thing old school country and western. But that isn't what country music is now. That's an element of it but most of the country music scene is modern pop country, which is pretty much what I'd always been doing: a singer/songwriter with an Americana influence which is there in my music today.
Tony: Did Ashton Lane begin when you married Tim? Was that the start of the group?
Esther: Tim and I began making music and gigging shortly after we got married. Originally it was under Esther O'Connor simply because before I met him I'd been gigging as a solo performer, under my own name. When we got married it was just a natural progression. When we went to Nashville in 2010 we were still promoted under Esther O'Connor. At that time it was myself, Tim and my brother Jamie. So we decided to take a band's name to reflect the fact that it was a group. Ashton Lane was the name of a band that I had had since my late teens and we always liked the name so we just kept it.
Tony: Is there actually a street called Ashton Lane?
Esther: Yes, there is, a little lane in the west end of Glasgow.
Tony: Presumably, there are some photos of you standing there?
Esther: No, we don't have any photos of us in Ashton Lane but there are lots of nice little gig venues there, it's kind of a cool place. Tim and I spend a lot of time there; we've played quite a lot of gigs in Ashton Lane so it seemed like a natural name for the band.
Tony: Ashton Lane have done two albums - 'Count The Stars' and 'Nashville Heart'. Which came first?
Ashton Lane: Esther & Tim O'Connor
Esther: We released those albums very close together. We released 'Nashville Heart' about two months before I had my second child - the album was released in November and my baby was born in the January. 'Count The Stars' was a couple of months after that. It was like a partner album effectively to 'Nashville Heart' because there were so many songs for 'Nashville Heart' that we couldn't choose. It was already quite a long album and we had so many songs we'd written that we loved so we put out 'Count The Stars'. It was kind of a Christmas album, it came out around Christmas and I had a couple of Christmas songs on it.
Tony: Where were all those recordings made?
Esther: They were all made at the Foundry Music Lab, just outside Glasgow, in Motherwell, which is run by my dad, Graeme Duffin.
Tony: Was it difficult working in a studio where your Dad's there all the time?
Esther: No, not at all. We've worked together since I started recording music. I don't think there's anybody I would feel more comfortable recording with.
Tony: When you do gigs with a full band, your dad's there sometimes isn't he?
Esther: Yes, he is. He's playing guitar.
Tony: Do you find the audience for your music changing?
Esther: Yes, and it's interesting when you see the people who come along. When we played at Buckle And Boots Festival and Country To Country there were so many young people and I was quite surprised at that. I almost think of it as being adult contemporary music and I was really surprised at the number of really young folk, like young teenagers and older teenagers who were at these festivals. It's something the festival organizers are astonished about as well. It's good to see.
Tony: How much does your faith inform your music? Are there songs in your set which are specifically Christian message songs?
Esther: There are. We don't do it in a way that's contrived at all, if you know what I mean. We don't think we'd better try a couple of Christian songs for any particular reason other than it's a natural part of who we are. It comes out in our songs. And our albums are mixed. Some songs talk about faith, only because that's a natural part of who we are, but then other songs talk about relationships and some songs are based on stories that happened to me or other people. It's a big mix, just like the way life is, I suppose. And that's another thing I like about country music: it's quite a natural genre. You have the country gospel type stuff as well. It's a natural genre to speak about your faith and it kind of fits stylistically as well. It makes sense. So it's nice to be doing that kind of music because you can easily write about your faith in it.
Tony: You've now released a Christmas project.
Esther: Yes, it's an EP called 'Winter Star'. There are two original Christmas songs and two acoustic Christmas covers. One is a version of the hymn "Who Come This Night". We'll do a few fan concerts where we play for people in their living rooms and we often do them around Christmas time. They are really nice. It's a nice opportunity to get your neighbours and friends in and if we do them around Christmas we do a few Christmas songs and a couple of our own sets, drink some mulled wine, have a mince pie.