Ashley Monroe and engineer Gena Johnson were sitting on the front steps of historic RCA Studio A, located on Nashville’s iconic Music Row, where the two were recording Monroe’s 2018 alum, Sparrow. Nursing a bottle of Mexican Coke, Monroe handed Johnson her pair of rose gold sunglasses as she told her, “‘the world looks so much better through these. You have to put these on for just five minute and embrace it, take it in.’” Unbeknownst to the friends and artistic collaborators at the time, the seed for Monroe’s new album, Rosegold, was planted. Those seeds come into full bloom this week with the LP’s April 30 release.
Not long after Sparrow was made, new melodies began coming to Monroe’s mind that were a far cry from the traditional country sound the 34-year-old established since moving to Music City from her native Knoxville, Tennessee as a teenager. Intent on creating a “very specific sound” that deviated from her critically acclaimed 2013 sophomore album Like a Rose and Grammy-nominated 2015 follow up, The Blade, the songs took form after she left her record label, allowing her an artistic freedom where she deeply connected to the songwriter within. “Something was inspiring me in the songwriting core of myself of ‘create this feeling that you’re feeling and amplify it and freeze it and reverb it and layer it and harmonize with it.’ I wanted it all to be very different,” Monroe defines to Audiofemme in a joint phone interview with Johnson. “I wear rose gold sunglasses, so I feel like that’s what it feels like when you put this record on.”
Replacing her signature twang with synthesizers and strings and adding pop beats where bluegrass-style instruments used to be, Monroe called upon trusted confidant Johnson to engineer the project. Johnson, whose extensive credits include serving as engineer for Chris Stapleton’s 2020 album Starting Over and Brandi Carlile’s Grammy-nominated By the Way I Forgive You, along with assistant engineer on the late John Prine’s Grammy winning 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness, made history at the 2021 ACM Awards by becoming the first woman nominated for Audio Engineer of the Year.
Johnson recalls getting a phone call from Monroe early on in the album’s writing stages, and that Monroe described the new songs as “full of joy” and “full of love.” “I was blown away,” Johnson recalls of hearing “Flying,” the first song of the new batch that Monroe sent to her. “I was hooked from the very beginning.”
After penning the songs, Monroe would take them to Johnson’s “lab,” the two spending hours dissecting the songs and adding the right effects to bring them to life. The longtime collaborators trusted the process throughout, allowing the creative energy to take force – like adding a melody to “Groove” that came to Monroe in a dream days before mastering was complete, or Johnson going so far as to purchase new sound equipment to elevate the melodies. They also added little tricks along the way, such as the sound of a camera flashing on “See,” or whale noises layered over a hip-hop beat on “I Mean It.”
Each song was given a treatment that emphasized its meaning; for instance, the pair consciously made “Flying” feel exactly like its namesake when the piano and strings meet the pop bass. “I really work with emotion and experimentation,” Johnson explains of her process. “It was inspiring to be able to go out of my comfort zone and what I wasn’t used to doing as much and really go 100 percent in what feels good and not what it is right for a specific genre. Not having those limitations was epically creative and opened a door for me, too.”
Perhaps just as distinct as the sonic evolution is the lyrical one. Monroe was intentional about leaning into lightness with Rosegold, a contrast to the heartache and sorrow that was wrapped around her angelic voice on her previous records. Many of these darker tales were inspired by Monroe’s real-life tragedies, such as when her father passed away from cancer when she was 13 years old. “My life was bad, and I’m not saying that lightly,” she says with a slight chuckle. “Shockingly, it went from great to bad times, and then I held onto music in a different way.” The East Tennessee native was adamant about making a “joy-based” record this time, a by-product of becoming a mother to three-year-old son Dalton in 2017, whom she was pregnant with at the time of making Sparrow. “I think that my last record opened the door to this new part of me,” she says. “This love switch has been turned on inside of me and set on fire in a sense that I haven’t felt in a long time.”
Monroe brought this joy-based mindset into the lyrics, a direct reflection of the quiet moments she experienced at home with her husband and son during the COVID-19 pandemic, sprinkled like gems across the project. “There were a lot of moments of stillness with the sunshine shining in the windows that I was trying to hold on to,” she details. “Lyrically, I wanted all of the words and all of the things I was saying and all the melodies to line up to take people away and freeze time for everybody for a second. I was hyper-focusing on words and talking about love that also provided the feeling that we were going after, that warm feeling, that moment in time when everything is okay and you’re just drenched in joy.”
Those moments of pure joy shine through in such potent imagery as “you’re a California/Pourin’ that sunshine on my soul” on “Gold” to the love-soaked “I Mean It” where the singer feels deeply present, Johnson purposefully accentuating all aspects of her voice as she sings, “I’d be in the dark without your light/When I tell you I can’t live without you baby/I’m not talking crazy/I mean it/Your love’s the only breath I’m breathing.”
Then there’s the gentle “Til it Breaks” that Monroe wrote with a friend in mind who was going through a challenging time. Though written pre-pandemic, Johnson says she was brought to tears by the encouraging number that feels like a hopeful hand extending through the darkness, as Monroe reprises in a meditative manner, “let it melt away.”
Monroe brings her own inner odyssey to light in the introspective album closer, “The New Me.” Co-written by Monroe and her longtime friend and songwriting collaborator Brett James, she spent hours re-working until her distinct vision was met. “Take a peak inside my soul/All the rust has turned to gold/It’s different now/I can’t wait ’til you see,” she beckons, the eclectic ballad serving as a symbol of rebirth. “It means reborn on the inside,” Monroe says. “Once you truly understand how to love, and the power of love, and once you are humbled by it and surrender to it in a way, you’re a different person.”
It’s no coincidence that an album built on purity and light ends with a choral of angelic vocals leading into the words “I’m alive and on fire/Now that I’m ready to love,” sending the listener out with the chills that Monroe and Johnson felt while making the dynamic project. “We both know what a gift is and what something you’re born to do is, and we both feel like we’re doing what we’re born to do,” Monroe reflects.
“I think setting our intentions and being really intentional about having joy and leading with positivity, and knowing where we’re at and having big conversations and getting in the right mindset, was huge. It’s all emotion to me. Anytime we could get goosebumps ourselves, we knew we were doing it right,” Johnson observes. “The record to me feels like love through and through. From the beginning to the end in different stages, it embodies it.”
Monroe initially believed that Rosegold would only be a collection of five songs. But it later doubled in size to encompass 10 tracks as experimental as the woman who created them, one who embraces the artistic process at every step. “I always like to give people chills. I think that’s a good sign. That means that you’re connected to the spirit when you can supply a set of chills to someone. I wanted all of these to be constant joy chills,” Monroe proclaims. “I felt like it was telling a complete story.”
Follow Ashley Monroe on Facebook for ongoing updates.