Stephen Ashbrook
Stephen Ashbrook With most records, it’s all about the endpoint; Stephen Ashbrook’s latest release is all about the journey. The path to White Balloons took Ashbrook through multiple states—and states of mind. At the time of Ashbrook’s last studio album, 2002’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 town’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 “First Time,” a direct response to his son’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 Droge’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 Ashbrook’s previous recordings—the rock solos and steady backbeat—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 Droge’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 Ashbrook’s introspective folk-inflected songwriting married to Droge’s spacey, warm arrangements. The album’s title track showcases the collaboration perfectly, with a steady acoustic guitar blending with swirling electric tracks and atmospheric synths, all supporting Ashbrook’s resonant voice. “Barstar” ups the ante as an anthem of Ashbrook’s success, chugging keyboards tempered by an echoing vocal that reflects Ashbrook’s tempered vision of his younger days, while “21 Young” explodes with a hook that’s pure pop perfection. But it wasn’t all easygoing—a polyp on Ashbrook’s vocal chords threatened the record’s completion by forcing throat surgery and a three-month hiatus for recovery. When it came time to choose the album’s opener, another potential throat surgery threatened more than just the record. “Pete vowed he’d drive down to Portland and slit my throat if I didn’t open the record with ‘Carelessly,’” says Ashbrook with a laugh. Like every decision made with Droge’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 Balloons—a trek into the northwest wilderness that expanded Ashbrook’s artistic sensibilities—felt Odyssean at times in its wanderings and hardships, the record shows that Ashbrook’s journey is one any music fan will be happy to join.