by Rapha Grumser
The songwriter/producer dynamic is a delicate one. It’s a partnership; and like all partnerships, songwriter/producer teams come in a supermarket array. You’ve got your Michael Jackson/Quincy (top-shelf classic), your Sade/Robin Millar (near the imports), your Billie Eillish/Finneas (at children’s eye level, with the Trix)—all different dynamics, relationships held together by their own kind of glue. It’s a bit like dating. As an artist, there are an endless number of working combinations to pick from; so many, in fact, that it can be easy to succumb to option paralysis and end up doing it yourself.
Singer-songwriter Ashley Mayorquin and guitarist-producer Ian Michael met in Nashville, where they forged a partnership whose music is characterized by intimacy, a playful levity, and an interest in disparate genres. I first met Ian back in college, when he was playing an overdriven Stratocaster in irreverent “traditional noise jazz” groups like Blood Meridian and doing soft Arto Lindsay covers in warm, bouquet-adorned living rooms. I met Ashley in Nashville in 2019 when she was pursuing an acting career and writing the songs that would later become the singles “Argentina” and “Who.” Ian and Ashley now share an apartment with their dog Mitski, where they make music together, listen to Fleetwood Mac, and endearingly call each other stupid babies.
Ashley’s debut EP, Big Dumb Baby (out today via The Shot), is a 5-song collection of three previously released singles and two new tracks, all produced by Ian. I spoke with the songwriter/producer team about process, pet names, and subtext.
RAPHA: Big Dumb Baby. What’s that about?
ASHLEY and IAN: [Laugh]
ASHLEY: It just kinda had a ring to it. One of my college roommates, Guillermo, and I used to sing “Real Love Baby” by Father John Misty. And just to annoy our other roommates we would sing “Little dumb baby / Baby real love baby,” dumb stuff like that. And the words came into my head one day: “big dumb baby...big dumb baby–that has a ring to it.” So I called Ian and he was like “Yeah, it’s not bad!”
“Big dumb baby” sounds a bit like something you might say to your partner, in an intimate jokey way.
ASHLEY: Yeah, exactly. And It’s so funny that some people’s reaction to it is “Aw, you’re not dumb,” to which I say, “I’m dumb and stupid.” It doesn’t feel like an insult; to me, it feels like a very endearing phrase.
DOG (background): [Barks]
Could you talk a bit about the song, “If Michael Was a Dog”?
ASHLEY: That also came out of a joke. These are all phrases I throw around sometimes. I always try to assign people their appropriate dog breed when I meet them: “Oh, this person’s a lab,” or ”Oh, this person’s definitely a schnauzer.” I had written about four different songs with these basic chords, and I started playing them in a slightly different way. We were in Rochester at the time visiting Ian’s mom and I started singing them to Ian: “If Ian was a dog, he’d be a very dumb dog.” But all dogs are dumb in my book. See, that’s a loving term. People call their dogs stupid, but no, they’re dumb. And Ian whipped his head at me and said “KEEP GOING WITH THAT. THAT’S GOOOD.” I have these ideas for songs and I keep playing around with them until one day, the real idea hits me in the forehead and I go somewhere else with it.
The term “pet name” came to mind when you were differentiating between dumb and stupid.
ASHLEY: Well in Ian’s case, he’s both dumb and stupid.
IAN and ASHLEY: [Laugh]
ASHLEY: No, but it is true; they’re all pet names in my head. I love a good insult as an endearing phrase. It’s better than honey or sugar, which, you know… To each their own. But yeah, “If Michael Was a Dog” was born out of a chord progression that I’d already been working on, and me and Ian’s neverending teasing of each other, and also my obsession with dogs.
Could you talk about your songwriting process?
ASHLEY: Ian and I talk about this quite a lot. I know what I don’t want to be as a songwriter, and that is someone who takes a small idea and makes it too complex. Or takes a big idea and dumbs it down too much. I like writing in a way that seems authentic and not pushed. I like taking a moment in time, rather than talking about relationships as a whole, and a lot of my music comes out of the moment when I fucked up someone’s coffee table. Or Ian asking me “Hey, did you see where that shirt went?” “Oh, in the dirty laundry.” I think there’s a lot of subtext in all of those moments, and I think that’s more interesting than talking about how much you love someone right out.
The EP starts with you digging a hole on “Sounds Nice” as skronky guitars burn in the background. To me, the way you write is very visual.
ASHLEY: I don’t think about that when I write, because I hate when I listen to a song and know that the song-writer was trying to “paint” too much. I think I do have a strong image in my mind when I’m writing, though. I think it mostly comes from my acting background. I like to always set a scene in my head: Where am I? Who am I talking to? That sort of thing. But I don’t think about it too much when I’m writing, which I’m glad about, because I can’t stand when people show their work too much.
There is a certain theatricality to some of the songs, especially on “Kentucky”: the artwork for the single, the laughs on the beginning of the track, the line “Do you really want to die in Kentucky?”
ASHLEY: As much as I try to leave my musical theater senses behind me, they trickle in in interesting ways. On “Kentucky” I was totally fine with us making it as theatrical as possible, because it is a kind of melodramatic song. If it weren’t for it being theatrical, it would just be kind of sad…
IAN: It would be oddly morbid…
ASHLEY: But I feel like I’m always going to have some sort of self-consciousness about being pinned as a musical theater girl.
Your songwriting seems to be an attempt to distance yourself a bit from that world.
ASHLEY: Oh, yes. Something I always hated was having to learn music and having to sing it exactly the way it was on the page. Now I don’t even write songs on an instrument where I know what I’m playing. I always try to give myself full permission to change it all at any moment. In my singing style now, I use a lot of vocal techniques that my teachers would probably cringe at. I love to use vocal fry in songs. I love to use talk-lyrics.
IAN: I think the writing is also a form of rejection. I always felt that a lot of the material you were writing for this EP was breaking those rules on purpose. I think the vocal style falls into that as well. A bit anti-song. Even “Kentucky,” the way it was approached was trying to break rules of what you learned in school.
It sounds like you’ve moved in quite a different direction—in terms of both songwriting and production—from the earlier loose singles, like “Greenest Thumbs” and “Argentina,” that you released before the EP. On Big Dumb Baby it feels like every track is in its own sonic world, and yet they’re all related somehow.
ASHLEY: That’s a discussion I’ve had with Ian. Like, “Do these all belong together?” Even though I wrote them all at the same time. That can be a leftover theater thing for me; I love to just pick a genre sometimes. But I guess writing these for myself and Ian producing them is the main throughline.
IAN: When we were first working on the stuff [for the EP], I asked myself if these would work together, and I thought, well, it’s all made on the same equipment, the same stuff. Yeah, we might change styles from song to song, but it’s all essentially made of the same DNA. Another big thing we focused on a lot was track order. There was a bit of uncertainty about it for a while, wouldn’t you say?
ASHLEY: Yeah, and then someone else picked it for us. It was great!
When I first heard the “Water Glasses” single, now the closer on the EP, I thought that it sounded like the last song on something—an ending song.
ASHLEY: That never meant to be a single. That was going to be such an album song, like second to last or something. But we ended up releasing it as a single, which I’m okay with because it ended up being a good pivot away from what my other music sounded like. I love the song, but I just think it’s such a boutique song, you can’t really place it anywhere. And I am glad that I’m not writing for an album. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that all my songs don’t sound similar, because I can get really bored when songs on other people’s albums all sound similar.
Is there an album on the horizon?
ASHLEY: I’m working on some songs right now, and they’re all happy. [Laughs] Big Dumb Baby was kind of my “I’m having a mental breakdown but I’m falling in love” record. But the songs I’m working on now are a lot more upbeat. It’s funny: I started releasing music because I had written a few songs and Ian and I wanted to make something together. I never really anticipated doing an EP or even music [as a career]. But we do think about the next project quite often.
And you’re moving to New York?
ASHLEY: Yes, in August! Our lease here ends in September and we, um, refuse to stay in Nashville. Don’t get me wrong; we have a lot of friends and have met some great people here. It’s just hard to find the right people to work with. Nashville is a pop-country town.
Were all of these songs written during the lockdown?
ASHLEY: Pretty much everything on the EP was written during the pandemic, except for “Sounds Nice.”
What music are you excited about right now?
ASHLEY: I’ve been really excited about the band Toledo lately.
IAN: Yeah, they’re fucking good.
ASHLEY: This past year I’ve been really inspired by Shintaro Sakamoto; also the new Fionna Apple record and the Stephen Malkmus album Traditional Techniques. Basically all the CDs that I have in my car right now. Ian, from a production standpoint, what has influenced us?
IAN: Yeah, a lot of the records in your car have been propelling us while we were working on this stuff. A lot of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
ASHLEY: Yeah, wow. Honestly, you gotta listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in a car on CD.
IAN: I was into a lot of Fleetwood Mac when I was mixing the EP. Was kind of channelling my inner Lindsay Buckingham on “Water Glasses” in particular—how I tracked the guitars, in this kind of style that, well, I thought sounded like Lindsay Buckingham. [Laughs]
ASHLEY: Ian alone at home putting chopsticks in his guitar thinking “I am Lindsay Buckingham.” Everything that we’ve been recently inspired by was actually written a while ago. You gotta listen to Dog Eat Dog by Joni Mitchell. You gotta give it a shot, because you start it and think “what the fuck."
IAN: And there’s a Michael Mcdonald collab on there.
ASHLEY: And a lot of coke in the room.
IAN: A lot of coke in the room.
Rapha Grumser co-edits Laid Off NYC's Music section. Get to know him better: @raphagrumser