IN THE SPOTLIGHT WITH ASHLEY CLEVELAND
I recently chatted with two-time Grammy winner, Ashley Cleveland about her music, her faith and her struggles with alcohol and drug abuse. In 2005 she released a collection of updated hymns called Men and Angels Say. Her latest recording, Before the Daylight’s Shot released in 2006. She was just named the ChristianityToday.com “Best Female Vocalist of 2006.”
In addition to her own music, Cleveland is also one of Nashville’s most in-demand session singers, having performed on over three hundred albums, for artists including Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Jars Of Clay, Don Henley, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Delbert McLinton, Etta James, Rodney Crowell, Pam Tillis, Patty Smyth and Michael McDonald.
AH: First of all, I’m dying to hear a little bit about your record, Men and Angels Say. Why did you choose to do an album of hymns?
AC: I was sort of a reluctant church goer as a child and as a teenager I didn’t want to go. So I used to try to annoy my mother by reading the hymnal so she would know I wasn’t paying attention. And somehow those songs … they just wrote themselves on my soul. I always look for arrangements that are kind of true to how I approach music and that sound like me but yet retain the integrity of the song. And so a year ago I had the arrangements that I felt were as supportive of the song and reflective of me artistically as possible and I also had the wherewithal to make the record. So we did it.
AH: The songs are very creative and different. I think the record will speak to a lot people. Nowadays with the contemporary worship movement a lot of these hymns are getting lost.
AC: That is my biggest concern. I’m a self proclaimed crusader to keep the hymns alive in the church and have been for years. I think that would be a tragic loss for the church and I don’t care what denomination you’re talking about. I just think they are so much a part of our heritage and such a precious part.
AH: So how would you define your music?
AC: Well, I’m a child of the 70s. That’s when I came to music, that’s when I discovered music. So the music I play is reflective of that. I would say my biggest influence was Neil Young but there is a decided blues turn in the way I sing. So my music is a combination of rock & roll, rhythm & blues and folk.
AH: Now you’ve won a couple of Grammys. Can you tell me what it means for you personally to be really successful?
AC: Well, the success I’ve had has been more critical acclaim in the way of awards. I haven’t had any huge commercial success. I’m the furthest thing from a household name or anything like that, which has actually worked in my favor because I’ve had a life and I have a great family and I’ve had the time to devote to them and have understood that was my priority from the beginning. But I think what has been the most meaningful to me is just to have somebody, or a group of people, collectively give me a nod of the hat as far as my gifts you know? It’s nice to be acknowledged.
AH: I know you’ve had struggles over the years. Would you share with me about your substance abuse problems and how that’s affected your faith walk?
AC: Well, I am a recovered alcoholic and drug addict from a long line. Really, my family was something of an alcoholic dynasty. I don’t know if I was ashamed of being an alcoholic, I think I was more ashamed of the things I did under the grip of drugs and alcohol. And so there were a lot of voices in my head telling me that a person in my condition couldn’t possibly belong to Christ. … I got so unbelievably ill and was so spun out over one thing and another. I really didn’t think I was going to live, it was that bad. I think one of the reasons that the hymns are the music that I love so deeply and that means so much to me is that in the darkest part of my illness, those songs would float through my mind, unbidden, I hadn’t thought of them for years. They would touch a place in my heart that was so broken and so hopeless. It was like these little baby lifelines from the Lord saying “I have not forgotten you.” … And so without His nearness and presence and really without Him carrying me I would not be here today – I know that
AH: So your faith was affected then?
AC: Oh deeply. I was a believer all my life and do not remember a time in my life when I did not believe the Gospel. But I grew up in a very southern family that was very performance oriented that had that horrible cloud of addiction over it. And there were a lot of bad messages being communicated through our household. One of them was, you know, God was not going to be tolerant of people who behaved badly. In that regard I was batting a thousand. So I just kind of saw God as this person that carried a very big stick and was saving his worst punishments for me. All of which I truly deserved. But when I met Him He was so kind and tender to me I could not believe it.
AH: What are your dreams and plans for the future?
AC: I’m thinking about writing a book which is terrifying to me! And other than that I feel so much like everything that’s in my life is such a gift. I’m kind of living my dream. … It used to be that I just wanted to be a rock star and I didn’t care about anything else. Now I just enjoy …my dreams are a lot less grandiose but they’re a lot more meaningful.
Amy Hammond Hagberg is a frequent contributor to publications around the world. Her first book, How Do You Know He’s Real: Celebrity Reflections on True Life Experiences with God (Destiny Image Publishers) was released in April 2006. The first in a planned three-book series, it is a collection of testimonies from well-known athletes, musicians and actors on how they know Christ is real. The second book in the series, God Unplugged is geared for teens and young adults and was released in November 2006. She is also the author of My Favorite Christmas (Integrity Publishers), which was also released in November 2006. All can be found on her website: http://www.amyhagberg.com.