• Changing Channels with Ashley Broder

    Ashley Broder

    Ashley Broder is at the forefront of a new breed of mandolinist, millennials, many classically-trained, pushing beyond bluegrass in favor of taking the instrument to new places.

    Based in Santa Barbara, Calif., Broder is not at a loss for gigs. Described as a "mandolin phenomenon" by the San Diego Tribune, she currently performs with five acts, allowing her to explore different avenues of sound; and she carries a full teaching schedule, as well.

    Broder began violin at age eight and studied strings up through community college, where she added cello to her résumé. Mandolin came very early, too, and Broder found ways to apply the rigor of classical technique to fingerboards and fretboards, subtly adapting bow strokes to the pick as well.

    "I just put all of my violin repertoire, whatever I happened to be working on, on mandolin," she says.

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and Good Things.

    Her exceptionally clean technique is well displayed in "The Race," a recent composition filmed for David Benedict's Mandolin Mondays vlog (NOTE: special for this interview, Ashley's PDF transcription of "The Race"). And a Vimeo performance by Fire & Grace & Ash — featuring Bach, Bill Monroe and "The Cuckoo's Nest" — plays like a crash course in fun and finesse (available for viewing later in the interview).

    That trio, featuring violinist Edwin Huizinga and guitarist William Coulter, "mushes together" classical and folk, according to the mandolinist.

    With her own Ashley Broder Trio, the young picker divides her focus between electric and acoustic mandolin, performing original compositions with similarly genre-crossing bandmates fiddler Ben Schreiber and cellist Aria DiSalvio.

    Ashley Broder Trio

    L-R: Ben Schreiber, Aria DiSalvio and Ashley Broder.

    Ashley Broder Trio

    "I like to write chamber music, so making the strings work together and letting the mandolin shine in that percussive role without having a guitar in the group is really nice."

    Perhaps Broder's longest association (almost a decade) has been with traveling contra dance standard bearers Syncopaths, which The Irish Herald dubbed "nothing short of a Celtic supergroup."

    Occasionally, she still gets to pair with Samantha Harvey (now living in Ireland) in the unexpectedly mesmerizing duo Sam 'n Ash — "I love playing mandolin with accordion, it's one of my favorite combinations."


    Ashley's composition "Stardust" with Aria DiSalvio on cello.

    Broder also makes time, as many weekends as she can, for The Sunday Drivers, playing the straight up Irish tunes that remain close to her heart at a regular late afternoon pub gig at Dargan's in Ventura.

    As charming and kind as she is relentless, Broder does all of this on top of a full plate of compositional work. Her 2016 album Two Trees, with Broder layering herself on many tracks, is a great place to start, with tunes like the serpentine "Stardust" and the gently electric "Sea Smoke" displaying just a few of her many sides.

    Two Trees

    Ashley Broder - Two Trees

    She is also deep into an ambitious eight-movement suite for the Channel Islands Chamber Orchestra, with each element dedicated to, and inspired by, the ecologically diverse locales off the coast of southern California.

    "No mandolin content," Broder says of the epic work. "Not so far anyway, I've finished seven without it."

    Do you find it liberating to not follow the bluegrass path, but investigate so many other styles?

    I do love bluegrass, but I don't think it really fits my personality. I'm kind of a soft-spoken, introverted person. Playing in bluegrass, you know, you step up and you take your loud, ridiculous solo, and that really just doesn't work for me. I don't want the attention, I kind of just want to hide in the corner and play my pretty thing that I like the sound of, so I did avoid those types of tunes. I think that's why I gravitated more towards Irish music, because it's more community oriented. It's not about solos, it's a little friendlier and I like the tunes better. I feel like they're more intricate. I also really like old time music; I lived in Asheville, North Carolina for a while. I'm getting a little more into bluegrass now, because it's such a distinct sound.

    With Syncopaths, you play for dancers. How is that different from other gigs?

    I don't feel the same kind of pressure that I do in concert. You're much more self-conscious at a concert, people are looking at you. But people dancing are really involved with their partner and they just want to feel what you're providing. It's about the groove and how everything syncs together. As a group, we're all watching the dance, and we're seeing how specific tunes and grooves fit, which makes it really fun for the dancers. It's fun for us because the dancers are having a good time.

    Ashley Broder with Syncopaths

    Ashley Broder with Syncopaths, November 18, 2018 performance at the Lawrence, KS Barn Dance Weekend. The tune is "Sobriety." Because the video was intended for Instagram the filming was restricted to 60 seconds, Instagram's maximum limit, and ultimately served as the inspiration for this interview.

    Video credit: Scott Tichenor.

    Tell us about the title track of your solo album. Was there a direct influence?

    The inspiration for "Two Trees" came from jazz guitarist Gilad Hekselman. He is a super tasty, beautiful jazz guitar player. In "Verona," he has this pedaling technique, like a little drone, throughout the melody. I found it so beautiful, and I thought the mandolin could totally do that. As a writer in general, if we're talking classical influences, I really love minimalist composers. I like Henryk Górecki a lot. Philip Glass is great. I love all the Russian dudes. It's hard to choose.

    As a solo piece, "The Race" really highlights your talents.

    When I feel like I want to write something, I often get really irritable. My boyfriend, Bill, likes to call it my uncomfortable hum. I feel like I just need to noodle around and find something to work on very intensely. One of those times, I started writing this little motif that was minor-y and kind of mean, and it turned into this really cool mandolin tune that will soon be a trio piece — I sent a solo take to David Benedict for Mandolin Mondays, but it will probably be on an upcoming Ashley Broder Trio CD.

    At first, Bill thought it was like a cowboy movie. I asked one of my students what she thought, and she mentioned something very similar. I didn't actually want to put cowboy or a horse in there, so the common thread with both of their suggestions was that it was like a race. I thought that was a good description of it.

    Fire & Grace & Ash - Live at Folktale Winery

    Live Performance by Edwin Huizinga and William Coulter (Fire & Grace) with special guest Ashley Broder. Recorded live at Folktale Winery & Vineyards, Carmel, Calif.

    What does playing Bach do for a mandolin player?

    That is a very technical question. I think it's sort of like eating your vitamins every day. It's like going for a run every day. It should be what everybody does every day for their technique if they want to have a nice, clean sound. But he puts you through the ringer. It's sort of like an obstacle course, and you have to figure out how to make it work. There's no budging. You have to do what he wrote and make it sound good.

    You do play very clean, with a smart fist.

    I hold the pick very loosely, and I just tuck my little fingers in there. I'm constantly thinking about trying not to tighten anything up in my right hand or my right arm or my right shoulder. As soon as you tighten up, everything just slows down or the tone starts suffering in some way. It has to be nice and loosey-goosey. As far as the fist, yeah, I feel like if I dangle my fingers or anything, I'm just taking away from my momentum.

    From a classically-trained viewpoint, how important is pick direction?

    I am very aware of it, and I feel like it's become instinctual at this point, weaker beats with an upstroke, stronger beats with a down. I don't really have to work it out anymore, unless there's some really weird situation like a slip jig. Jigs are usually the culprit with me, anyway. I've never been a fan of the down/up/down/down/up/down/down/up. I don't like that sound at all. I usually end up alternating all the way through, depending on the tune, though I probably end up doing a lot more ups in jigs than reels. With Bach and pick direction, it's more where you want your emphasis in the phrase. It's not necessarily so much about groove, rather than accenting the nice, harmonic highlights that he's written in there. His patterns are so wonderful. Because contra dance is such a big part of my professional life, I feel like I would have done the hard work on it even without the classical background.

    Palm muting, is that a sound you love?

    I think it is. When it comes to harmony, you only want so many things to ring through before it becomes a big mess. I like the percussive aspects that can be done with a mandolin, all the options that are there.

    Fire and Grace

    Violinist Edwin Huizinga and guitarist William Coulter with Ashely Broder as guest.

    Ashley Broder with Fire and Grace
    Photo credit: Shmuel Thaler

    You don't seem to employ tremolo as often as other mandolinists.

    I had to do some last summer at this festival for a piece. It was actually written into the score, and I thought, 'Oh darn, I should probably work on that.' It's never been a sound I really enjoyed. I just never really took the time to master it, but I do think it has its place. I would like to work on it more, and try and achieve the sort of mellow tremolo I hear in my head, which I can't do quite yet.

    I am messing with it, though, seeing where I'm squeezing in my hand, and if I'm tightening my wrist or not. I want an easy-going, but still rhythmically accurate tremolo, which is hard. So, I put on a metronome, and I kind of work it up slowly, trying to make sure that I'm not tensing up anywhere with my right hand, and seeing if I can make keeping the downs and ups as even as possible. That's where I find I start going haywire after a while. The downs are inevitably stronger than the ups.

    I'm also trying to work phrasing into it, like crescendo and stamina, seeing how long I can keep the tremolo going consistently, and then working in swells to get some more expression out of it.

    When do you choose to go electric?

    It probably has to do with the vibe of the piece overall. Something that, technically, might be boring on acoustic could sound really different on the electric. I like jazz, so when I first got my electric mandolin, I got The Real Book, and started going through tunes and learning about jazz voicings. At first, I only used it as a practice tool. I would record the chords and then play the melodies over them to work on my chops. Then I realized, wow, this has a really cool tone; with some EQ'ing and maybe a little effects here and there, it could have a really cool vibe. I tend to write minor-y, warm, electronica type tunes for electric, which the trio plays occasionally.

    It's so different, in a basic way, from acoustic mandolin. Since the left hand sustains longer, you have to be really aware of picking up your left hand fingers before the note's actually done. Keeping all your fingers down feels more string player-ish to me. And you have to really pay attention to your right hand because you're amplified, and if you don't allow it to ring, it's going to stop sustaining and that sounds really bad through an amp. It's sort of like an electric guitar, tuned differently.

    Ashley Broder with Syncopaths

    Ryan McKasson on fiddle, Ashley Broder on mandolin, Jeffrey Spero on keyboards, Christa Burch on bodhrán and vocals.

    Ashley with Syncopaths

    What she plays

    Broder's main eight-string is an Oliver Apitius F-5 model she scored just as the luthier was winding down production at his original workshop. She works it with a Wegen 120 and favors Elixir medium strings. For contra dance gigs with Syncopaths, Broder uses a Schertler piezo, but for concert work with Fire & Grace & Ash has been employing a DPA 4099. She's fine-tuning placement, but currently favors a spot over the trailing edge of the lower f-hole, which sounds, she says, a "little beefier."

    For electric, Broder plays a 60s Fender 'Mandocaster.' She is not sure of the year, but she is certain that she amplifies it with a custom tube unit built by Seattle luthier Fletcher Brock, who is especially hailed for his guitar-bodied octave mandolins.

    Additional Information

    Ashley in Papua New Guinea

    From 2017, Ashley in Papua New Guinea on a hiking excursion with her Botanist boyfriend who seeks out carnivorous plants in their native environments with a handful of other enthusiasts. The snake is an amethystine python locals captured because it was eating their chickens. It was released shortly after far from their farms.

    Ashley in Papua New Guinea
    Photo credit: Chien Lee
    Comments 14 Comments
    1. JEStanek's Avatar
      JEStanek -
      Great interview and wonderful music to explore.
    1. bbcee's Avatar
      bbcee -
      What a unique voice. "Two Trees" is a knockout.
    1. EvanElk's Avatar
      EvanElk -
      Once again a great piece of music journalism and nice evocative interview with just enough tech talk for the mando geeks among us. Ashley is an awesome composer and musician!
    1. John Soper's Avatar
      John Soper -
      Totally different niche; really a different vibe from the usual bluegrass pickers!
    1. Paul Kotapish's Avatar
      Paul Kotapish -
      Ashley is great -- lovely tone, great timing, cool repertoire.
    1. Alfons's Avatar
      Alfons -
      As said - the interview and the music are wonderful.
      The videos are all great but the Fire Grace & Ash is a killer - hearing the double violin concerto in D minor with mandolin was totally great, and a Bach segue to Bill - how cool is that !
    1. DocT's Avatar
      DocT -
      That was a great interview. She is a wonderful player and it is nice to get some perspectives from her.
    1. darylcrisp's Avatar
      darylcrisp -
      i picked up the album, Two Trees, shortly after Ashley was here on mandolin Mondays. its a great CD, just her and i think the other lady on a few with accordion.
      awesome interview here.

    1. MandoMN18's Avatar
      MandoMN18 -
      I really enjoyed this interview. I hadn’t heard of Ashley before. She is amazing and I’m looking foward to hearing more of her!
    1. lukmanohnz's Avatar
      lukmanohnz -
      Wonderful interview and wonderful music! So much talent in this young musician - it will be fascinating to watch and listen as Ashley's career and artistry unfold.
    1. Gelsenbury's Avatar
      Gelsenbury -
      If you don't like the sound (as opposed to, say, the feel) of DUD DUD, then you don't like jigs.

      Apart from that, it's a nice and interesting interview. I don't know this artist yet. I'll go and explore.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Exciting new project in the works, just announced.

    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Excited to host this fine interview one year ago today. Thanks to Michael Eck for his work!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting today's anniversary of this fine interview.