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A Conversation with Ashley Albert of The Jimmies

It’s been a long four years since the Jimmies treated us to their last release, the CD/DVD extravaganza Make Your Own Someday, but the wait for new tunes ends today with the debut of their new album, Practically Ridiculous.

For fans of the band, Practically Ridiculous offers more of what you love: eclectic, full-bodied arrangements, quirky lyrics, and the reliably adorable vocals of Ms. Jimmy herself, singer Ashley Albert. Ashley was kind enough to take a few minutes out of her day to discuss songwriting, the ins and outs of being a kindie performer, and what the heck took so long between albums. Read on!

So what’s cookin’?

You have a new record coming out.

I do! Have you heard it?

I have. And my daughter, who is five, already knows the words to “Bonfire.”

Really? You know, someone else told me the same thing, and I was a little worried that “Bonfire,” of all the songs, was going to be sort of the least popular. That one is really special to me.

I’m guessing you thought the underlying message of the lyrics might go over some heads.

Yeah.

And the first time I listened to it, I thought the same thing — and so did my wife — but our daughter just latched onto it, and she keyed right in on those lines about being strong, and about being yourself, and about loving who you are.

I love that. That’s definitely the most meaningful song on the album for me, and I wrote it as a message for kids — I didn’t sit down to write an adult contemporary ballad. I just didn’t know if kids would be receptive of the message or not, so that makes me really happy.

What’s your writing process like? Where do you look for inspiration?

You know, it’s a relatively ragtag operation I’m running over here. I write fairly quickly, and it tends to happen when a word, or a hook, or a chorus pops into my head — I’ll just keep singing it over and over until I add onto it. I sing out the whole song, usually into a voice recorder or my phone.

Although not that long ago, I had one particular hook in my head that I didn’t want to lose, and my phone at the time didn’t have a voice recorder function, and because I was underground on the subway, I had to wait until I got my cell reception back before I could call myself and leave that hook as a message — so I was just sitting on the train, singing over and over again to myself. And then this mariachi band comes onto the train, so I’m sitting there trying to sing louder than them. It was quite a New York moment.

But that’s how I do it. I sing them out, starting from small fragments, and it usually takes me about a day to finish.

So you don’t set aside a specific writing time for yourself?

I haven’t in the past, but I’m doing that more and more. We’re making a Christmas album right now, and we need to get two more songs before the end of the weekend, so it’s just…I mean, I don’t know what it’s like for you, but I know for me, I can go months without shopping, and then all of a sudden I go through this period where I feel like doing it all the time. That happens with songwriting, too, where I won’t do it for a few days or a month, and then all of a sudden, I’ll write four songs in a week.

You’ve sort of alluded to the challenge of finding a balance between the artistic side and the business side of the band — and for all intents and purposes, you are the Jimmies.

Yeah.

But it doesn’t seem like a ragtag operation at all. There’s a lot of production value to the Jimmies’ stuff, from the music to the videos to the artwork.

Thanks. It’s one of those things where…I certainly didn’t know that the business end of it would come naturally to me. My day job is doing voice work, and that doesn’t require a whole heck of a lot in terms of marketing or business savvy. So it was a surprise to discover an affinity for it when I started getting into making music.

But I also suffer from perfectionism, so it’s probably more of a burden than it might be for someone who actually enjoys running a business. I want things to be perfect, so it’s hard for me to delegate; I’m learning, as the years go by. Some things don’t have to be perfect, and some things can be done by someone else. But for a long time, I had my hands all over anything that came out of Jimmies HQ.

In the pop music world, the amount of downtime between Jimmies albums would be nothing at all, but in the kindie world, it’s an eternity.

Right.

Is that perfectionism the reason you’ve released albums at such a deliberate pace?

Well, we did have the DVD in the middle, which took almost three years to make. We definitely took a long time to make the first album, and then three years to do the second, and then I started working on the new album almost a year and a half, two years ago — that’s when I went into the studio to lay down the basic tracks. And then I got really caught up in pitching these two television shows.

It sent me off in this completely different direction, and this world where I had to be traveling all the time and taking meetings with all these different companies, but in the end, I realized I might not even want to make television! I missed my Jimmies band. I use the analogy that I came to Madison Square Garden with a soccer ball and I knew all these cool tricks, and then someone handed me a basketball and said “Hey, you should go join the NBA!” so I did that for awhile, only to realize I couldn’t do the soccer tricks that I really love.

So I sort of put the TV stuff on hold and went back to finish the album. And here I am, excited and focused. I might go back to the TV projects later, but I just lost sight for a little while of the whole reason I showed up at Madison Square Garden in the first place.

You mentioned doing voice work, and I know you’re the voice of the Nick Jr. promos. You’re also on Bubble Guppies now too, right?

That’s right.

I imagine there are a lot of kids like my daughter, who has grown up listening to you with the Jimmies, and when they find out you’re also a voice in a TV cartoon, it sort of blows their mind a little.

[Laughs] I do all sorts of voiceovers — that’s my thing. So you probably hear me all day long, for Dunkin Donuts or McDonald’s, or because I’m the little girl in all the General Mills commercials — I do all those “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids”-type lines, and I’ve been doing that for about 10 years, so if you watch any amount of children’s television, you’re hearing me.

So you’re in the belly of the beast in terms of children’s marketing — and some of the stuff that drives parents nuts.

Right. I know. I do all these cereals, and the message is “This is a very special thing that people are going to try and take away from you, and you need to do everything in your power to attain it. It will be a long, arduous journey, and you must do everything in your power to maintain your grasp on this cereal.” There have been some occasions when I’ve been unhappy to be a part of campaigns.

How do you reconcile that with your status as a children’s entertainer?

I love voiceovers. When I was a kid, I’d take out the ads in the paper long before the comics, and pore over the coupons to see what was coming out. I always loved that stuff. And I also understand that most television programming, in the most cynical view, is just there to fill space in between commercials. That’s really the point of programming, is to keep people watching until the commercials come on. If you want high-quality content, it needs that support.

I imagine that your professional life contains a lot of manic voices and goofy sound effects, and it wouldn’t be surprising if someone in your position reacted to it by making quiet, acoustic music, but the Jimmies are very energetic.

I think in general, even when I’m not working, I live a fairly manic, goofy life anyway. Someone asked me once if I ever thought about writing adult music, and my response was that I don’t feel like I write kids’ music. I just write music, and it just so happens that it’s most relatable to a third-grader, because that’s my sensibility. I’m not thinking about anything from a marketing standpoint, I’m just thinking, “I feel like writing a song about a hamster today.” You know?

How has the band configuration evolved? Most of the instruments on this album were played by one person, right?

Yeah, well, for the first album, I flew down to my dad’s incredible hardcore hip-hop studio in Florida, and used these amazing session musicians for the songs. And when it was done, I came back home and held auditions, and had this utopian vision of “We’re gonna be a band!”

But the problem with that is, because I started the project and wrote all the songs, it was sort of like having a boyfriend move into your apartment with all of your stuff. You want it to feel like a joint thing, but that’s still all your stuff. So it never quite felt like a true group effort, and at one point we let our bass player go, and then our guitarist, who I adore and who we still play with quite a bit, graduated college and moved back home to Austin, so we lost him.

So then it was just me and my drummer Dan, who I’ve had since our very first auditions, way back when, and we moved to a work-for-hire situation. And Dan has added drums to things we’ve done in the studio, on a remote basis, but most of these tracks were handled by an amazing musician named Steve Gordon, who my dad has worked with for years — he played with Betty Wright, and was a staff producer for Atlantic. He and my uncle worked together on a bunch of projects.

You’re touching on one thing I find really interesting about the Jimmies’ music, which is that even though the vibe you project is really fun and happy, when it comes to the arrangements and the production, you aren’t messing around.

Yeah, I think it goes back to the whole perfectionism thing. My dad did everything he could to keep me away from music — he wouldn’t even let me play an instrument — but when it comes down to it, I know what I want things to sound like. I don’t have the language to express it, but because I have a clear idea of what I want, my dad and Steve give me an amazing amount of trust and support.

I’ll say, “It goes like this,” and Steve will say, “But music doesn’t work like that — it’ll fall over on itself,” and I’ll say, “But that’s how the song goes.” So he’ll do it, and it’ll work, and he’ll say, “I don’t know how your band is going to play it. Good luck!”

Have you given any thought to the next record? Have you been able to stockpile any material at all?

Yeah. For the next one, I’d really like to do a musical. It’s an idea that’s been sort of marinating for a long time — I wrote this story called “Jelly and Peanut Butter,” about Jelly wanting top billing, so they break up. I read it on XM a long time ago, and got a lot of requests for it, and I think it’d be a natural for a musical.

So I think there will be a much shorter wait for the next one. When I got back to working on Practically Ridiculous, I thought, “I have to get back in there in a hurry, because the kids who listened to our first album are getting to be too old to care about the new one!”

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