Journalist/Rocker Dan Ashley Reports on the Human Condition Through Song
Written by Michael Molenda • Photos Provided by Dan Ashley
“What’s your point?” asks Dan Ashley.
He’s not taking issue with one of my interview questions—even if it is a bit intimidating to speak with someone whose “day job” is anchoring the ABC7 news in San Francisco.
An esteemed and respected journalist (who was won numerous Emmys and been presented with an Edward R. Murrow Award, among other honors), Ashley has interviewed President Obama at the White House, along with scores of celebrities, politicians, active military and veterans, first responders, and everyday people.
But right now, Ashley is talking about songwriting—a subject extremely dear to him. Music is so essential to his being, in fact, that while Ashley has a more than full-time job as a newscaster, he blissfully expends significant time to write and record songs, lead a band, and jump on stages to perform.
Ashley’s music career ain’t no side hustle, either.
Dilettantes do not headline major venues; open for chart-topping acts such as Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, Melissa Etheridge, and the late Eddie Money; or collaborate with industry heavies like Narada Michael Walden, Neal Schon, and Dionne Warwick.
If Ashley envisioned music making as a hobby, he probably wouldn’t serve on boards such as Music In Schools Today (MUST), and he certainly would not go to all the stress and logistical hassles of producing an annual benefit concert, Rock The CASA, that supports court-appointed advocates for abused and neglected children, as well as a camp for underprivileged children (Friends of Camp Concord).
No way. Ashley—aided and abetted by his songwriting partner, lead guitarist, and musical director, Bill Bentley—is all in.
Which brings us back to “What’s your point?”
As a professional communicator, Ashley finds much the same thought process is necessary to effectively deliver an important news story over the airwaves as crafting a song to engage listeners.
“I always tell young reporters that clear writing is the product of clear thinking, and the same is true of songwriting,” he says. “You have to know what you're trying to say before you say it. You could start throwing lyrics down on paper, and those words might even sound good, but what's your point? If you're not sure about that, it's going to be difficult to deliver a truly well-written song that resonates with people.”
Songwriting is obviously a major component of your life. Can you share a peek into your creative process?
Sometimes, I'll sit down at the piano or play my guitar until a song starts to show itself. But, a lot of times, I hear things in my head when I’m driving to work—a lyric, a melody, or even a title. The part may not stay exactly the way I hummed it to myself on the way to the television studio, but a lot of times, the original inspiration makes it into the finished song.
Are you constantly driven to write something?
I don’t write every day, but I write a lot. I probably need to be more disciplined about sticking with one song and finishing it, but I want the experience to be organic and authentic. So, if I'm not feeling something, it can be tough for me to kind of push it through and get something that's good.
In addition, I’m always trying to be more sophisticated with my songwriting and my melodies. If my first impulse doesn’t get there, I work a little harder to develop something more melodically interesting.
On the other hand, I think some of the best songs are the ones that come naturally and easily. So I don't want to interfere with that process. I don't want to complicate my writing just to complicate it.
Can you share an example of one of those moments when a song simply appeared in your head almost complete?
Yes. “Lucky Stars.” I wrote that in 20 minutes at 2:00 am. I woke up, looked at my wife Angela, and thought about how fortunate I am. That song just wrote itself.
There are some artists, like the Rolling Stones, who famously have a million ideas sitting unfinished on studio tapes. Then, there are somewhat miraculous types—the most famous examples being writers such as Carole King and Gerry Goffin who worked in New York’s Brill Building in the 1960s—who seem to be able to pen a genuine hit every day.
That’s a special talent. I guess I could come up with a story each day, but getting the music just right can be challenging. It can take a while to find the magic.
Are you one of those writers who has a million little song snippets recorded on their phone, or do you prefer to sit down and start from scratch?
I keep notes, because I always have a bunch of song lyrics going all the time. It’s good to have something to refer to, because I might look through the notes, and go, “Wait a minute. I never did finish that one,” or, “I liked that one. Let me see if I can finish it.”
Do you have a kind of personal stress test that you impose on your songs to know if they are truly finished or not?
How I judge a song is mostly asking myself if it’s authentic. Does it seem real? Am I expressing how I really feel? The second thing is whether I think it's catchy. If a song passes those two tests, then I’ll take it to Bill, and he will help me polish it. That’s one method.
Sometimes Bill and I write together. I might go to him with lyrics and an idea for a melody, and he’ll come up with a chord progression and an arrangement.
But what you call the stress test is usually a gut feeling. I just know. For example, maybe I came up with a line because it rhymed, but, you know, it ended up sounding fake. That’s a judgement call, of course, but I know in my bones if something is real. If it’s not, I toss it out.
Also, I always believe a song can be better. I don't think I've ever written a song where I felt it was done—nothing left to do, and no more improvements to be made. I don't have all the ideas, you know, and my songs can always be improved by the talents of the musicians I play with. I always leave the songs open for the them to interpret. The demo version of a song is more like, “This is what Bill and I hear, but do what you think works best.”
That’s very generous. Some writers and producers want the musicians to stay pretty close to their own vision of a song.
I appreciate that. I feel strongly that the whole point of having these amazing players with me is to let them do what they do. I don't interfere unless it's something I really don't like—which has never happened to date. I’ll provide some guidance—maybe suggest a tempo or describe an overall sound—but, ultimately, my direction is, “Do whatever you want.” If a player is inspired to create something, I know the parts they come up with are going to be amazing. I don't want to mess with a great musician’s creativity.
Regarding Bill, it must be wonderful to have a collaborator you can respect and trust with your music.
Bill is one of the most talented guys I've ever known. He had decided he didn’t want to pursue music so much, but three years ago, he came back and started performing with me. He told me, “You know what? I think I can add to what you're doing.”
Do you have any songwriting influences that are always in your back pocket, or have evolved beyond those influences?
At this point, I'm not trying to mimic anybody. But I’ll hear something, and say, “I want a song with that kind of vibe.” Maybe I’ll wish I had a song that sounds like “Drops of Jupiter” by Train—which is incredible—or John Mellencamp’s “Minutes to Memories.”
My song “Feel the Heat,” for example, is a version of something the early Rolling Stones might have come up with. Whereas, “River City” is my interpretation of a Bruce Springsteen vibe. I also like Tom Petty and R.E.M. I gravitate to all kinds of music, but Americana-style rock and roll tends to move me the most.
Does your training and experience as a journalist inform your songwriting?
It really guides it. And not just my experience in communications, but all my years in journalism, as well, because what I do on my job is tell stories about what is happening. So, as a songwriter, I feel I’m mostly a storyteller. In fact, a song we haven’t released yet is entitled “Janet,” and it’s about a homeless person I know.
As a journalist, when you look at a story—whether it’s about a homeless woman or the situation in Ukraine—you try to find something deep that’s unique to yourself. I think an ability tell a story in a singular and captivating way is why certain news people are popular. It’s key to getting a song across, as well.
You have a chill, inviting, and very personable vibe to your performances—much like how you appear during your TV newscasts. Do the skills you acquired during your career as an on-camera personality ever inform how you work the stage as a bandleader?
I would say I have learned to become more authentic on stage. What do I mean by that? I've been on television for years, and I don't think twice about it. It’s just what I do. But when I first started as a performer in an amateur band, I found I was trying so hard to be a performer on stage. I thought, “What does a rock star do? How should I hold the microphone?” Everything I did at that early stage was deliberate and a little clumsy.
Happily, I’ve now played enough shows where I can feel the same as I do when I’m on television—which is act natural. I'm not trying too hard. I'm not trying to be somebody else.
Although I want to be entertaining, I’m not trying to put on a “show.” I just want to be me. And that took a while to get to. It takes a while to find out who you are as a singer and performer.
What do you feel is your main job on stage?
I think a lead vocalist’s job is to drive the bus a little bit. You need to stay focused and do your part—no matter what is happening around you. I think if the frontperson can keep it together, the band will hang together, as well.
What about the goal or purpose of your songs?
I want to uplift people with my songs—sort of like Bon Jovi. Their songs are usually very positive, but not every song is necessarily upbeat. I believe good songs are relatable, whether they are positive or not. Sometimes, a song that relates to how someone is feeling—whether good or bad—can be uplifting.
Overall, I’m an optimistic person, and my outlook is always positive. I look at the bright side of most things, and I want my music to reflect that, because, again, that's authentic to me. But that doesn't mean I don't write songs that reflect some challenge, difficulty, angst, or loss. “River City” is about the divide in our country right now, but it's also about what brings us together. There’s power in sharing information and understanding.
As you also play guitar on some songs, what is your usual rig?
I’m pretty straightforward. I plug right into the amp without any effects. My guitar is an ocean blue burst Schecter Omen Extreme-6. I usually bring a small Fender amp to shows, or have one provided for me if the venue backlines the band. I’d love to be more of a guitarist, but so much of my focus is becoming a better vocalist. I play just enough guitar to get by and be dangerous. Singing is my main job in this band.
Do you go for a specific guitar tone to complement your singing?
I tend to like a ’50s and ’60s tone—warm with a little bit of reverb—and I pretty much stick with one sound. I’m not an expert about these things, so I don’t like to mess around too much.
What is the best moment for you when you’re on stage?
I have a few. I love it when I first get to a venue, and the gear is all over the stage, and the crew is setting the lights and dialing in sounds. That moment is like, “Wow—we’re putting on a show tonight.”
I also enjoy the time just before we start to play—especially if I feel like we’re ready, we’re in good shape, and there are no real problems to overcome.
Then, halfway through the show, I love the feeling when the band is settling in. Even if there are rough spots or something went wrong, I can sense we’re still in control and in command. In fact, I don’t mind if sometimes the show goes a little sideways, because it’s like a test—“Let’s see if we can keep this crazy thing on the road.”
Finally, one of my favorite moments has nothing to do with my performance at all. It’s when the headliner hits their first notes at the annual Rock The CASA benefit. It’s like, “We all did this work. We’re all playing on this stage. Everyone is on fire and the audience is loving it.” That’s extremely satisfying. Walking onstage to entertain people is such a privilege.
Learn More: https://danashleymusic.com/
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