Less than 18 months ago, life seemed all sunshine and smiles for Corin Ashley. He was taking the latest turn in a pop path that had been brightly lit by sunburst melodies, chiming guitars, and creamy, cloud-filling harmonies that stretched back more than a decade.
Prior to embarking on a long and winding road of solo music-making adventures (that, yes, even took him to the famed Abbey Road studios), Corin was a longtime mainstay of the thriving Boston music scene and had led the high-energy mod-pop outfit The Pills through three albums and countless shows across the U.S., Europe, and Canada. During their years together, the Pills shared bills and stages with the likes of the B-52s, the Libertines, Sloan, Supergrass, and, as he puts it, pretty much every alternative-radio one-hit wonder “with a number in their name.”
When the Pills called it a decade, Ashley released a couple of solo albums including 2006’s “Songs From The Brill Bedroom” and “New Lion Terraces” in 2013, and two years later played bass on Martin Carr’s (ex-Boo Radleys) album, “The Breaks.” He also toured the East Coast as bassist for the ’90s cult chamber pop crew Cardinal, and did some recording sessions at Ardent Studios in Memphis with Jody Stephens, drummer for another cult band of some renown, Big Star.
Additionally, Corin began writing and recording the follow-up to “New Lion Terraces” and collaborated on a catchy new song, “Wind-Up Boy,” with Grammy nominated singer-songwriter-guitarist Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, Breeders, Belly). He even opened shows for FM radio stalwarts Foreigner and Styx (true!), and personal heroes such as Robyn Hitchcock and the Kinks’ Dave Davies, after the latter had marked a return to music following a debilitating stroke (brace yourself for a terrible irony).
Then, on January 6, 2016, an awful thing most 40-somethings like Ashley don’t ever think about happening, happened. Corin suffered a stroke that paralyzed the playing fingers of his left hand and all but wiped out his vocal cords in one fell swoop. Suddenly, just like that, from a hospital bed far away from the stages he had stood on since he was a teenager, Ashley didn’t know if he’d ever speak again, much less sing or play. A critical, core part of him that had been with him his entire life – had defined him, in fact – had been ripped away. He worried about his wife and young son. He worried about what the rest of his existence was going to look and feel like.
But, skipping ahead a bit (because the middle part of the story is below), that was then and this is now, the first day of April. Amazingly as it seems to him (and us), the “now” includes celebrating the significance of finally finishing that follow-up album, titled “Broken Biscuits.” (No, this is not an April Fool’s joke). In fact, the record comes out next week (and yes, for the vinyl junkies among us, it will be available on LP as well as CD).
And for readers who live nearby or are up for an impromptu road trip, tomorrow (Sunday, April 2) afternoon starting at 4 p.m., Corin will hold a CD-release party for “Broken Biscuits” at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, Massachusetts (http://www.atwoodstavern.com) . Oh yes, it’s also being billed as a birthday show (Ashley turned 49 this past week, and given what he’s been through the past 15 or so months, celebrating this particular occasion seems to us a thoroughly wonderful idea).
“Broken Biscuits” carries all the hallmarks of a Corin Ashley record and then some. The bracing opener, “Little Crumbles,” features a rousingly spot-on Carmen (as in Eric)-meets-Macca (as in Paul) account of chance meetings and fleeting glances. “Wind Up Boy,” with its protagonist “dreaming of connection, but drowning in reality,” speaks symbolic volumes (echoed by the dueting Donnelly) about Ashley’s dire predicament.
Elsewhere, the plaintive, paisley acoustic shadings of “Magpie Over Citadel” and “King Hollow” bow deeply to Ashley’s lifelong love of British Invasion popcraft. A Zombies-meets-Nazz vibe pulses through the fizz, fuzz, and keys workout of “In Appropriate Fashion.” Perhaps the album’s finest moment can be found in “Junior Partner,” a sumptuously bitter portrait of a steadfastly un-celebrated employee quietly “harboring delusions of gratitude.”
Corin and I sat down one evening last week near ‘RPM’ HQ to talk (that’s another thing that most of us take for granted) and even laugh about the extraordinary sequence of events that led him to embark on a fraught and sometimes frightening path that wasn’t so nearly brightly lit as before; a road of rough-terrain routes and detours marked not by choices but necessity – and of course music that, for the first time, felt as much daunting challenge as it did inspiring possibility.
RPM: Congratulations on ‘Broken Biscuits.’ It sound like a very British-sounding title. I’m guessing, given what happened to you, that the biscuit is you?
CA: Yeah, it’s the silliest thing. I read this story in a really tawdry tell-all book that Ron Wood’s first wife (Jo Wood) wrote. She was saying that when she was a teenager her first job was working at a ‘Broken Biscuit’ counter at the Woolworth’s in London, selling the broken biscuit cookies after Christmas. And later, even after she married Ron Wood and was on the Stones payroll because she was the only one who could get Woody to a gig on time, whenever Mick Jagger would see her he’d say, ‘Hey broken biscuit, how are you?’ When the stroke happened it became this whole other analogy for me.
RPM: One of the things that really struck me about this record is that while you never come out and say ‘I had a stroke’ in an openly confessional, vulnerable, singer-songwriter-ly kind of way, that theme of crumbling runs through the album, of being ‘broken into jagged bits, puzzle pieces piled in the wreckage,’ and ‘struggling to recreate what was easy before.’ And it’s also in the songs without the word ‘crumbles’ or ‘biscuits’ in them.
CA: Having the stroke made me think of things that I would never have considered, like writing about mortality. I usually wrote stuff about psychedelic ladybugs. Usually, if there’s any depth coming from my lyrics, they’re from interesting incidentals and imagery. But I thought, ‘How do I do deal with this thing that’s happened to me that’s so significant and profound without saying ‘Woe is me’?
RPM: What’s a kind of poetic irony to me is the sense that, despite the catastrophic circumstances, and all the debilitating and massive physical limitations, the experience that you’ve had to overcome actually seemed to serve as a creative catalyst for you, a liberating force in a way.
CA: Strangely, although it was really devastating, I wasn’t down for most of it. I was like, ‘Let’s tackle this thing.’’ I credit a lot to my family of course. I have an 11 year old son [Harrison, named after George of the Beatles] who was 9 when it happened. And the way I looked at it was, if you’re here, and you didn’t die, you don’t have the option of not being here, of not being a daddy. You’re in. It happened Jan 6 (2016), and Harrison’s birthday was on January 20th. My face was slumped down and slack, but we still did a birthday party for him. I slept through most of it (laughs). I became a champion napper!
RPM: It certainly sounds like your outlook was as good as it possibly could be, given the situation.
CA: There was something really psychedelic about what happened. You’re looking at your left hand and all of a sudden it doesn’t move anymore, and that is the weirdest thing, man.
RPM: Like you’re looking at a disconnected limb?
CA: Yeah, like I was disconnected from myself. You can tell that when I get upset, the left side of my face still droops a little bit. I still have a little nerve disconnect between my brain and this side of my face [points to his left cheek]. I was always the kid who was getting sent out into the hallway for talking out of turn, and my smile allowed me to pull shenanigans my whole life. And all of a sudden, you don’t have a smile. Everything I said was taken at face value (laughs).
RPM: So can you tell me the circumstances of the stroke? What happened?
CA: I was at the gym on an elliptical machine, and I was kind of mad because I didn’t get the spot I usually get, and when I was watching (TV), my head was tilted to the left and it was annoying my neck. I had been on a low dose of blood pressure medication for a few years and, you know, I’m a heavier guy. My doctor’s always saying ‘You gotta watch your blood pressure.’ I forgot to take it that day — which I had done before, and there were no (negative) results. But I was working out, not paying attention, bringing my heart rate up and then down, and all of a sudden I got a grey stripe, like a scrim, across my eye, vertical. That’s strange, I thought. Then, when I went to move my left hand, it felt like jelly. I sat down. And I was actually texting with (singer-songwriter) Kay Hanley, and she said ‘How’s it going?’ And I was joking and said, ‘Is it normal to smell toast and not feel your hand?’ And she said, ‘That’s not funny.’
RPM: That does sound very scary. What did you do?
CA: I decided to stop the rest of my workout and go home, and when I was operating the turn signal (in my car) with my left hand, it still felt numb. I thought I better get this checked out. So I went to the hospital, and what they figured out was that I had a very small dissection in my carotid artery. They said to take it easy for a couple of weeks and it’ll heal itself, you’ll be OK. But they wanted to keep me overnight for observation. So I got to go in an ambulance for the first time in my whole life … They decided to do a CAT scan and an MRI, and when the guy put an IV line in, I immediately started getting very nauseous. Then he put the contrast dye in the IV and slid me into the CAT scan and I immediately got super nauseous and couldn’t breathe. I started shaking and got hives all over my head and neck and face, and started scratching — completely out of control. My eyes and lips started swelling up. Luckily, my wife saw something was wrong … (Later) I had to go to the bathroom and I stood up out of my wheelchair and I fell face first and hit my head on a toilet and bounced off a wall. I remember seeing flashing black and white. I could tell something very bad was happening, and was trying to say ‘very bad,’ and it came out ‘Aaaawwwwwrrrrrr …”
RPM: Did you have some kind of allergic reaction to the dye? Did that trigger the stroke?
CA: What caused the reaction was Anaphylactic shock from the contrast dye. I never had it so I had no idea I was allergic to it. It’s hard to pinpoint when the stroke happened. It was somewhere around the time when I hit my head on the wall. Now, as far as strokes go, considering that it wiped out what I make a living with – my hands and my voice – I still think it was kind of a lucky stroke. As it turns out, the guy who was on duty at Beth Israel Hospital was Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a German doctor who had studied at a conservatory in Cologne to be a classical pipe organ player. And then he realized there weren’t many pipe organ gigs left anymore. So he went to graduate school to become a neurologist. And he spent over 20 years studying how artists recover from traumatic brain injuries. Isn’t that insane? What are the chances of that?
RPM: That is an incredibly fortuitous – pardon the bad pun – stroke of luck. What was his assessment of what had happened to you?
CA: Basically what he said to me is, ‘You’re going to do occupational therapy and what they’re trying to do is get you to be able to drive a car, pick up a cup of coffee, use a computer. But you’re a musician and you need much finer dexterity than that. Where the stroke hit you is … the area of your brain that’s adjacent to what controls your fine motor skills. We need to determine how much of that has been affected by the stroke. So he poured out a cup of paper clips and wanted me to put them back in the cup. I spent the next 45 minutes making a pincer motion, trying to pick up the paper clips. I was sliding them up the side of the cup trying to get them in. I spent that time thinking that I was done as a musician, and thinking, ‘Where are we gonna live? Am I going to be a burden to my family?’ But I also felt like an observer of the whole situation, thinking ‘What’s gonna happen to this guy?’
RPM: Do you think that surreal feeling of standing outside yourself and being an observer is a kind of self-protection? That your brain creates a distance or a buffer so as not to overwhelm you with too much information about the severity of what’s happened?
CA: It is! Through the whole thing, Dr. Schlaug was was very straightforward, very motivational, but not down about it. He said, ‘You have suffered a grave insult to your brain, and I do not want you to misunderstand me. You’ve not had a mini-stroke. You’ve not had a little stroke. You’ve had a stroke – and it’s a big one. But I think you can come back if you fight really hard, and you can play music again.’
RPM: That had to have been an incredible relief to hear, as daunting as it was.
CA: The thing that was weird for me was that the strength of my fingers started to come back so that I could press down on a keyboard. But as far as playing bass or guitar, I had lost my spatial relationships between my fingers and didn’t have any sense of what was higher or lower or anything like that. I would try to play and it would fall apart. The muscles and nerves in your hand are fine and your brain is trying to send signals to your hand, but the synapses are burned out, like burned wires. You have to think about how your brain is going to send those signals again. It’s called neuroplasticity, and as a theory [involving the ability of the brain to form and/or reorganize synaptic connections following traumatic injury] it’s something that’s only been studied in the last 25 years.
I remember when I was a kid, my Aunt Helen had a stroke. She regained a certain amount of mobility and verbal ability, but that was it. That was as far as she got. We thought the brain was like a computer, and when the memory was burned out, you couldn’t fix it. Well, what they discovered was that the brain is so miraculous, it will force a new path to your nerve endings. (I was told) that you have to go back to the time to when you didn’t know how to play music but you really wanted to play music. And you have to remember what you did to learn.
RPM: So you had to start over mentally as well as physically?
CA: Yeah. When I was 13, 14 years old, I had more desire than ability to play music. Back then, I learned how to play bass to (the Police’s 1980 album) ‘Zenyatta Mondatta.’ So I would spend hours every day trying to play along with ‘Zenyatta Mondatta.’
RPM: You had started working on the new album [at Q Division Studios in Somerville, MA.] before the stroke happened, and I understand your friends, the graphic design team of Aaron Belyea and Liz Linder [who had worked on Ashley’s previous album, ‘New Lion Terraces’] designed an album cover for you after the stroke, as motivation.
CA: Yeah, I had six songs tracked, and the vocals done for six of ‘em and another three songs kind of started before the stroke happened. And after, when my face was hanging down and I was walking around like a monster, Aaron and Liz said, ‘Come out and have breakfast with us, we want to see you’ even though I thought seeing me would be very upsetting. And over breakfast, Aaron said, ‘If you finish your album, what’s it going to be called?’ And I told them ‘Broken Biscuits’ … So they made it for me as an incentive to finish the album, and I had a really nice blow-up of the cover and I hung it up in the room where I write. For these two people who I really love and respect, I had to make that happen and make it a reality. And [engineer]Ducky Carlisle just kept working on the music and leaving spaces in the songs for me to add my vocals to. He told me he always knew I was going to be able to sing again. But I wasn’t so sure.
RPM: Was listening to, or trying to make music ever a source of frustration? Did you ever get to a point while you were in therapy recuperating that you just didn’t want to hear it anymore?
CA: The voice thing was very, very difficult. There was a lot of speech therapy to go through, and I felt for about six months like there was something between my cheek and gum. It was frustrating when I tried to talk – like I was drunk or something. I did vocal cord work at Massachusetts Eye and Ear with Dr. Phillip Song – his last name was actually Song, believe it or not. And I think I read every stroke book that’s ever been published. I’m such a dude in a lot of ways: Something’s broken, let’s get a schematic, and let’s fix this thing. I tried to keep a real workmanlike attitude about it. That there’s a job to be done.
RPM: It’s pretty incredible to think that, a little over a year after the stroke happened, here we are talking about your new album.
CA: Not to get too cosmic, but I think about how I recorded that Dean Martin song, ‘Powder Your Face With Sunshine,’ which I had always wanted to record – I love Dean Martin, what a great voice. It has the line, ‘powder your face with sunshine and put on a great big smile.’ Well, I recorded it before I had a stroke and couldn’t smile anymore.