With most records, itâ€™s all about the endpoint; Stephen Ashbrookâ€™s latest release is all about the journey. The path to White Balloons took Ashbrook through multiple statesâ€”and states of mind. At the time of Ashbrookâ€™s last studio album, 2002â€™s American B Sides, the singer-songwriter had been a star of the Tempe, Arizona scene, with sold-out shows, major label attention, and even a request from President Clinton for a personal performance. But Ashbrook had grown restless in his environs, and he traded in the dry desert landscape for the vibrant green of the Pacific Northwest.
Immersing himself in the burgeoning Portland, Oregon music scene, Ashbrook distinguished himself from the townâ€™s hordes of indie rockers with a unique blend of pop, rock, country and folk, drawing packed crowds to his weekly residency. He slowed his touring schedule after the post-B Sides birth of his first child and used the time to reflect on the changes in his life, channeling those thoughts into songs like â€œFirst Time,â€ a direct response to his sonâ€™s birth. When demos of the new tracks made their way into the hands of acclaimed producer and songwriter Pete Droge (a member of songwriting supergroup the Thorns), the beginnings of White Balloons were born.
The journey then led Ashbrook to Drogeâ€™s Puget Sound retreat on Vashon Island, a forested oasis removed from the grind of the music industry Ashbrook had felt pressure to appeal to. Working in collaboration with Droge, Ashbrook opened up the arrangements in a way that allowed the songs to breathe with a new energy. Gone was the straightforwardness of Ashbrookâ€™s previous recordingsâ€”the rock solos and steady backbeatâ€”replaced instead with a lush, textured sound that mirrored his sylvan settings. For the next few months, Ashbrook would drive north every few weeks, board a ferry, and spend weeks in Drogeâ€™s Puzzle Tree Studios, taking breaks to explore the expansive property and sometimes camping out in a teepee. Ashbrook and Droge became close friends as the record progressed, and as they grew closer, the record became an imprint of their relationship, the perfect coupling of Ashbrookâ€™s introspective folk-inflected songwriting married to Drogeâ€™s spacey, warm arrangements.
The albumâ€™s title track showcases the collaboration perfectly, with a steady acoustic guitar blending with swirling electric tracks and atmospheric synths, all supporting Ashbrookâ€™s resonant voice. â€œBarstarâ€ ups the ante as an anthem of Ashbrookâ€™s success, chugging keyboards tempered by an echoing vocal that reflects Ashbrookâ€™s tempered vision of his younger days, while â€œ21 Youngâ€ explodes with a hook thatâ€™s pure pop perfection.
But it wasnâ€™t all easygoingâ€”a polyp on Ashbrookâ€™s vocal chords threatened the recordâ€™s completion by forcing throat surgery and a three-month hiatus for recovery. When it came time to choose the albumâ€™s opener, another potential throat surgery threatened more than just the record. â€œPete vowed heâ€™d drive down to Portland and slit my throat if I didnâ€™t open the record with â€˜Carelessly,â€™â€ says Ashbrook with a laugh. Like every decision made with Drogeâ€™s support, the resigned rebuke to a heartless lover opens the record with just the right mix of sly sentiment.And while the journey to make White Balloonsâ€”a trek into the northwest wilderness that expanded Ashbrookâ€™s artistic sensibilitiesâ€”felt Odyssean at times in its wanderings and hardships, the record shows that Ashbrookâ€™s journey is one any music fan will be happy to join.