Recorded over the course of a 4,000-mile cross-country roadtrip, Taylor Ashton’s gorgeous new album, Stranger To The Feeling, is a sonic odyssey through the heart of America, one that works its way chronologically and geographically from coast to coast as it meditates on the meaning of closeness and connection in an age of increasing isolation. The performances here are warm and inviting, anchored by Ashton’s deft guitar and banjo work and rich, easygoing melodicism, and the recordings—helmed by producer Jacob Blumberg and captured with a mix of old friends and new collaborators—are alternately sparse and lush, with arrangements often serving as aural reflections of their physical environments. From a blanket in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to a trailer in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest, from a backyard in Wisconsin to a spiritual vortex in Arizona, the settings are inextricable from the songs, and the result is a moving, transportive collection that manages to evoke both the gentle virtuosity of Nick Drake and the buoyant wit of Paul Simon, all while forging its own distinctive path through a landscape at once foreign and familiar.
“After so much time apart, it was really powerful just making music with friends again,” Ashton reflects. “Pulling into someone’s driveway, hugging them, sleeping on their couch, all these things that used to feel so normal suddenly felt very precious, and I wanted to celebrate that.”
While Stranger To The Feeling marks the celebrated songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s first trip all the way across the United States, Ashton’s no stranger to the road. Born and raised in Canada, he got his start fronting the beloved Vancouver five-piece Fish & Bird and spent most of his late teens and early twenties touring heavily throughout his home country. In 2015, he moved to Brooklyn, where he began busking in the subways to make ends meet, and in 2018, he teamed up with Courtney Hartman for a collaborative album that Rolling Stone proclaimed “packs a punch in today’s mainstream.” Two years later, Ashton released his long-awaited solo debut, The Romantic, earning widespread praise alongside dates with the likes of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Madison Cunningham, The Wood Brothers, and more.
“That whole time I was just pushing myself to write as much as humanly possible, to create something new every day without getting in my own way,” Ashton explains. “By the summer of 2021, I wound up with a folder on my computer that had more than 200 songs in it, and that’s where a lot of this album ended up coming from.”
Inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Ashton initially envisioned traveling to different hotel rooms around the country and recording by himself on an old four-track tape machine. As lockdowns began lifting, though, a more collaborative concept emerged that would allow Ashton to record with a series of friends from New York to Los Angeles.
“When I told Jacob what I wanted to do, we sat down with a map and started to sketch out what our route might look like and who we’d stop to visit and record with along the way,” Ashton recalls. “We kept it purposely loose, though, and we often didn’t decide what we’d record until we got to where we were going, which left a lot of room for improvisation and spontaneity.”
A chance encounter in a Santa Fe hotel bar, for instance, led to a duet in a new friend’s living room. A surprise phone call from an acquaintance in New York, meanwhile, turned into an impromptu performance in Sedona. Rather than working out of studio spaces, Ashton and Blumberg recorded in the field, inviting the outside world into the performances and incorporating it into the bedrock of the music.
“We didn’t want to be tied to an outlet,” Ashton explains. “Sometimes we used a battery-powered tape machine from the 1960s, sometimes we used a laptop with a digital interface, and sometimes we just used our phones. Jacob knows how to get a hi-fi performance from a high end mic, but he’s just as great at leaning into raw, lo-fi situations and capturing something really compelling.”
That much is clear from the start on Stranger To The Feeling, which opens with the mesmerizing “Strong Hands.” Recorded near the Loeb Boathouse in Prospect Park, the track features Ashton’s wife (Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive) and a group of friends (including Vulfpeck’s Theo Katzman and Late Show bandleader Louis Cato) all singing in harmony as birds chirp and a sea of humanity ebbs and flows around them. Like much of the collection, the song is an immersive dose of elegantly understated chamber folk, one that explores the complicated power of human connection and all the joy—and confusion—it can bring. The tender “Green Moon” (recorded with Nora Fox amongst Sedona’s Seven Sacred Pools) contemplates the ways in which we can feel close to someone even when they’re physically far away, while the intoxicating “Honey” (one of two tracks recorded with Mipso’s Jacob Sharp in the Joshua Tree desert) surrenders to the high of complete and total infatuation. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the dreamy “Stranger” (recorded in Mount Washington, Los Angeles, with Monica Martin) reckons with the feelings of alienation that can come when a relationship has run its course, and the bittersweet “Denis” (one of a pair of tunes recorded with Courtney Hartman in Eau Claire, Wisconsin) wrestles with the uneasiness that often accompanies ill-fitted intimacy.
“Closeness isn’t always pleasant,” Ashton reflects. “Sometimes you get close to another person thinking it will make you feel more connected to them, but instead it forces you to face things about yourself that you’re uncomfortable with, that you’d rather not see.”
Rather than shy away from such revelations, though, Ashton ultimately embraces them as essential. “If you feel something say something,” he sings on the charged “Love Something Leave Something” (recorded with Big Thief’s Buck Meek in Topanga Canyon). “If you need something be something.” Life is too short to waste hiding from what makes us human. Sure, vulnerability will always open us up to hurt and disappointment, but as Stranger To The Feeling reminds us, it’s worth the risk to see and to be seen, to touch and to be touched, to love and to be loved, no matter how many miles may separate us.