Known for her wistful voice and originating the role of Sonya on Broadway in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Brittain Ashford, the once-front woman for the band Prairie Empire, has released a new album of original music under her own name. A follow-up to 2019’s Drama Club, a collection of musical theatre songs “run through a David Lynch filter,” Trotter (which shares her late father’s surname) sees Ashford looking back at a period just after her Broadway debut. In true Ashfordian form, the crooner of melancholy manages to find strange optimism in the grieving process.
Full disclosure: an old friend and collaborator on a myriad of projects, I spoke to Ashford about what led her to this record, being an actress in commercial theater, and the magic of house concerts. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Charles Quittner (Rail): This is your first full record of new songs by Brittain Ashford in a long time. Why have you left your Prairie Empire moniker behind?
Brittain Ashford: Coming off of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and Ghost Quartet, I realized that I had a little name recognition. Truthfully, I was Brittain Ashford when I was first performing but created Prairie Empire to make it easier to book shows. Like, “I am a band” versus “I’m a singer-songwriter.”
I think this album feels authentically me; the Prairie Empire stuff was, too. This is just older me, wiser? It deals with heavier topics while holding a lot of optimism.
Rail: Hot take: I think we could use a little bit of optimism right now, especially through the darkness, which the album guides the listener through.
Ashford: I think “The Sway,” for sure. The tagline on that song is, “To know the truth and be okay with it / Hold it in your hands and walk away from it.” And in “Tea Leaves” too, the idea that you can look for something and find it, or not. I feel that there’s a sense of tremendous optimism in that.
Rail: How are you touring the album? How are you getting the show to the masses?
Ashford: I’ll do a couple of West Coast shows in August and then come September, October, November do some touring. I’m hoping to do Europe in the fall. A London house show with you?
Rail: Your house concerts! What you’ve done over the years to generate that sort of community interest has always been fascinating and inspiring to me. When did you first start doing home concerts and why?
Ashford: When I was going to UW [University of Washington], I played this show in the basement of this house with some new music friends. And I just remember it was so cold and I was wearing fingerless gloves, trying to play my classical guitar. I really appreciated that energy, that scene, that it wasn’t about being cool. Like, it was cool, but it wasn’t like going to the hip bar in town where people are going to be seen. You’re going because it’s your friends and maybe there’s a band being hosted from out of town.
When I started touring in my early twenties, there were places where it’s like, “Oh, we don’t know anyone in Sacramento,” or, “There’s not a real venue in that town.” But maybe someone knows someone, and they really love music and have a bunch of friends who love music. I think that’s when it got into my head: house shows can be a successful tool for touring.
In moments of desperation I might go to couchsurfing.org and search for people who listed music as an interest. It was a website that was meant for people who were traveling to just randomly have a place they could crash, but as a bandleader I was like, “Hi, Jim in Cincinnati! you listed Joni Mitchell as someone you really like to listen to on your bio. I play dulcimer. This is a long shot, but would you be interested in hosting a house show?” Feels truly insane now.
Personally, I love hosting people. I love hosting people. I think the same way you enjoy hosting people. There is this magic: that moment in the backyard where everyone’s sitting down and the playlist has been turned off, and this thing happens as you witness other people witnessing art and music being presented in a way that’s so intimate.
Rail: Both an unlikely and obvious place to have a show.
Ashford: People can get distracted by the idea of prestige and lose sight of community. And I’ve been there, too. I’ve certainly had moments where I’m like, I really want to play at X venue. When I was planning my release show I became obsessed with the idea of playing in the “perfect” room. There were all these barriers I made for myself because I wanted it to be perfect. A release show feels like a special thing, but I think it’s easy to get hung up on the idea of finding the place that feels perfect to do the thing, when sometimes it’s just convincing your friend who lives in Buffalo to have it at their house on a Saturday night because they know cool people who like cool stuff. And even if nobody in Buffalo knows who you are, there will be at least ten people there. And that’s an audience.
I still do house shows when I’m hosting someone from out of town because it is this sweet entryway for them to build their own audience in New York. I can invite people, and then if the artist wants to collect emails or people follow them on social media, it’s a win. If it’s a 10 dollar suggested donation, the artist gets to walk away with 200 dollars, which is way better than they’re going to get playing literally anywhere else in New York when they don’t have a following.
Rail: Seeing Dave Malloy’s musical Ghost Quartet in that living room on DeKalb with like twenty-five people was so special, it solidified a bond with the performers and the piece with everyone in the room. Formative for me. It was Brent’s living room, I think?
Ashford: Yes, when he was living in the DeKalb space! Funny enough, I’m going to do a show there at the end of June.
Rail: Was that the first time y’all did Ghost Quartet in an untraditional space?
Ashford: Ghost Quartet is already a wholly untraditional show because we don’t need a proscenium stage. That was definitely the most low-fi version of that show. The thing I love about a house show is that most living rooms aren’t that big; you can’t get more than fifteen feet from the performer. With Ghost Quartet that’s something we were trying to do, even in a larger space. The idea that you’re never going to be more than fifteen feet from any given performer.
And then there was Mount Tremper.
Rail: Everyone I know who saw that show said it was the most magical thing they’ve ever seen, like being amongst the wilderness and having the sun come down on the show during the “lights out” act.
Ashford: We did it similarly at the DeKalb space. We’re like, “we know when it’s going to be dark in Brooklyn.” We did the same thing up at Mount Tremper for that notorious lights-out moment: timed it to the closest we could to the sun officially being below the horizon.
Rail: Ghost Quartet is decidedly now a fringe hit.
Ashford: Ghost Quartet is definitely my favorite theater performing experience. And I miss doing that show. Sometimes when I hear that the show is doing a really cool presentation, I’m like, oh, man, I wish I were in London! There is a little wistfulness. I love that other theater companies are doing it; I wish there was an opportunity for us to do that show that made sense.
Rail: Crow-eyed viewers will surely catch you in your Rose costume for the “Hand Wringing/In The Wings” music video.
Ashford: Yes! I owned that skirt before Ghost Quartet; that is the actual skirt I wore in the Bushwick Starr, the first production. At the McKittrick remount, I wore an alarmingly similar skirt. It was not the same skirt, but…
Rail: A manufactured costume based on something you own… a costume of a costume.
Ashford: It’s also worth noting that there are some Great Comet nods in that song, both visual, which are very subtle, and musical, less subtle.
Rail: The song is so universal to anyone feeling that melancholy stasis after finishing a long run.
Ashford: For sure, I mean, that song is about my time in Great Comet. The album as a whole is about a fairly specific period of time between when my father passed and the ending of my engagement and then the subsequent emotional processing of that. Right off the top of the song, “For a long time I was stalled / wringing my hands after the final curtain call.” It’s about being done with a show, sabotaging my relationship, and then just not knowing what the fuck I was doing. I didn’t know who I was. I had spent so long building Great Comet, building that world, and the fallout of everything, the fallout was impossibly hard to process.
Rail: The fallout being the infamously patchy producing folly of just replacing actors with celebrities willy-nilly leading to a fiery closure. I’m so sorry, that must’ve felt terrible.
Ashford: I was devastated to be asked to step aside, even though I knew it was for the fundamental good of the show, that it was bigger than me. And I couldn’t really talk about it, because to talk about it puts the show in peril. To talk about it puts the other actors in a place where they might feel they need to take a side. To talk about it might color the view of some people in the theater community, which is ultimately part of what tanked the show.
Rail: And the producers did exactly that again to another cast member like a month later.
Ashford: I’m not going to say it was the exact same thing, but ultimately the producers decided that there was someone who could sell more tickets. In any endeavor that is meant to make money, there’s a little bit of denying the needs of the performers. I want to make this very clear: I do not want to throw anyone under the bus. This is not an exposé. I can’t speak to the larger issue, only what it did to me…
Rail: This isn’t the Sara Porkalob Vulture piece. But I don’t think Cometgate ever really got your side.
Ashford: When I went to Boston for the out-of-town Comet my dad had passed only a few weeks prior. I can look back at it now and go, “Why was I there?” Nobody told me that I didn’t have to be there. My dad passed and then, after not sleeping for four days, I got on an airplane and I showed up in San Francisco directly to tech for Ghost Quartet. After that run I went straight from San Francisco to Boston for Comet. I was trying to negotiate when the service for my dad was going to be. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, like I’m going to miss two days of rehearsal. And I went to the team and I said, “I got to go.” And they were like, “You can’t. That’s tech.” This is the thing that hurt me so much when I was asked to step aside from the Broadway production, what I was told in Boston: They needed me. They could not do it without me. And in that moment, they didn’t need me. And that’s what fucking destroyed me.
I understand fundamentally that this is the way it works. Because at the end of the day, you’re trying to sell tickets to a thing and you need to put the people in the seats. And again, I fundamentally understood at the time that it was bigger than me, that it wasn’t personal. I could have been anyone. And as we saw later, I was one of two. And would they have done it to the whole cast if they could have? Absolutely. Because that’s just the way it works. It’s not personal.
For me, that was the moment that I was able to grieve and I was grieving everything. And the other thing that was stupid, I hadn’t really taken a vacation in years, and I was being told to go on a vacation, I couldn’t actually enjoy any of it because meanwhile, back in New York, the show is falling apart and I’m not even there to help. I can’t be part of it. That also killed me. It was this thing I helped build.
So this is really at the center of my new album: the grief, the disintegration, the processing.
Rail: I remember there was a Kumbaya media moment between you and Ingrid Michaelson. What was that like for you?
Ashford: When I was told Ingrid would be stepping in I agreed to have a conversation with her, with genuine, complete goodwill. I think they had told her that I had asked for the time off, but I was honest with her, “I did not ask for this time. But I do believe that this is what is best for the show.” We talked on the phone for over an hour, and I gave her my full support. I believed having her come in would allow all of my cast mates and colleagues to keep their jobs, the ushers and the stagehands: If this will allow everyone to keep their jobs for a little bit longer? Of course. And we made that video together. I don’t have bad feelings towards her at all, I think it was a great opportunity for someone who saw something they loved and wanted to get involved. She didn’t do this, you know?
Doing Great Comet was such a lark from the very beginning—I don’t consider myself a theater person at all, so when I was asked to do a workshop for a musical based on Tolstoy’s epic, War and Peace? I had to think about it for a bit. There were definitely some critics who were like, “very strong cast, except for that girl.”
Rail: That’s a hot take. I was gutted, mystified, and enchanted by your performance at the Kazino tent, as was, like, everyone I know. Such a special rawness…
Ashford: But it was very divisive. There were plenty of critics who loved me. And this is not me being egotistical, but I think people who didn’t like me in the show, who liked everything else about it, maybe only like one kind of theater? Comments like, “They seemed a little raw…” or I remember this woman on Twitter being like, “I couldn’t understand what she was singing in ‘Sonya Alone.’” You don’t need to know the words that I’m singing to understand what is happening in that scene. It is so crystal clear. Like, tell me all the words to like, I don’t know, “Wooly Bully”? Like, nobody knows it, right? What are they singing about? Nobody cares. It’s rock and roll.
But I love theater, it was my first love. And I recognize how hard it is and how competitive it is and how it is a team sport, and yet a team sport you must be picked for. Like, I can be out here making my own music and booking my own shows and doing that, and I’m doing it on my own terms. And it’s so much harder to do that with theater. I feel like, in interviews, people have asked me, “What’s your dream role?” And I’m like, my dream role was Sonya in Great Comet. And I built it. I did it. I performed it who knows how many times for who knows how many people, and what a fucking dream. And would I do it again? [She takes a sip from a glass of water without really answering the question.] I want to reach people. I want to touch people with my music. I would love to do something new and special in theater, but I’ll wait for the right thing.