September 10, 2009

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From Rihanna to Reba
Hometown girl finds Heaven on Earth with country
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Ashley Alexander has been onstage at the Palace Theatre before, when she was 17. However, it was under much different circumstances than her Thursday, Sept. 10, appearance, opening for country hunk Chuck Wicks.

“I was in a production of Grease. I was Sandy – oh, Sandy,” Alexander said with a laugh, on the phone from her Manchester childhood home.

In that musical, a good girl trades her white sweater and pearls for a tough leather jacket look. Ashley Alexander did that in reverse before heading to Nashville last year to record her first solo album, Heaven on Earth.

For most of high school, Ashley and her younger sister Arsha performed as the teen-pop duo Fantasy. The pair specialized in beat-infused funktronica, full of come-hither lyrics (“why you trying to play me?/you used to call me baby”) and a pose more Rihanna than Reba McEntire, Alexander’s childhood idol.

It was a successful run. Fantasy made a few records and toured the country with a team of backup dancers, opening for boy bands like O-Town — all before graduation.

At Berklee College of Music, Alexander majored in performing and the business of music.

“I planned on that coming out of high school, I wanted a college that would have both aspects for me,” Alexander said. “I wanted to learn about the business so I’d know how to take care of myself.”

In college, she dabbled in different genres, acquiring a love for blues and singing jazz in a cover band.

“I had a well-rounded musical education,” she said. She also interned at Warner Brothers Records and did marketing work for a concert venue in Los Angeles, where she moved after completing her degree.

But along the way, she never forgot the night her father took her to see Reba McEntire.

“I was eight years old, and I thought — I want to be just like her,” Alexander said.

To that end, Heaven on Earth relies on themes familiar to Reba fans, with songs about empowered women (“Good Luck” and “Goodbye Cry”), love gone wrong (“You’re Right, I Left”) and steel-eyed determination (the husband-snagging romp “Too Bad You Don’t Know It Yet”).

The title track, an ode to positive thinking, was co-written by producer Bill Cuomo, who won a Grammy for his work “Bette Davis Eyes,” Little River Band’s Beeb Birtles, and Nashville newcomer Britt Adams.

 “Everyone thinks they’ve heard it before,” Alexander said of the song. “People were stopping and staring when we did the video shoot for it, saying ‘I know that girl, I know that song’ — even though it hadn’t been released yet.”

The familiar chorus — “dance like no one’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one is listening, love like it’s heaven on earth” — has been credited to everyone from Mark Twain to Sunday school teachers, though Alexander is uncertain of its origins.

Alexander’s turn to country has paid big dividends so far. One whirlwind week last spring she opened for Chuck Wicks in Keene, then headed to over to Gilford to play before her first-ever Meadowbrook crowd as the lead-in to Willie Nelson’s show.

“I’m still pinching myself,” she said of the appearance with Nelson. “It was very exciting and a real honor.”

Her well-received opening Keene set led to the Palace gig, where she’ll perform acoustically with guitarist Johnny Duke.

Alexander plans to savor every moment.

 “It’s gonna be really exciting to get up on that stage again and perform for family and friends who can come and see the show because it’s right here at home,” she said. “It’s gonna be a trip.”

Though she lives in California, Ashley Alexander continues to keep her heart in the Granite State.

“I’m still a hometown girl.”


Ashley Alexander
Who: Chuck Wicks and opening act Ashley Alexander
When: Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m.
Where: Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St.  in Manchester, 668-5588, www.palacetheatre.org
Tickets: $29.50 to $39.50