Arts & Poetry, Faith

Our faith informs our music

Lead singer of British Country Band, Ashton Lane, Esther O’Connor, talks to Alastair McIver about combining faith, family and music

Think of Country and Western (C&W) music and many will immediately think Nashville, the birthplace and internationally renowned home of this hugely influential genre which was birthed way back in the 1920’s in America.

However, for someone reading this who is relatively new to C&W and who primarily identifies country music through the likes of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, there is great danger that we do a disservice to the journey that has brought different creative offshoots of C&W to these shores in recent years, capturing huge new international audiences of followers and fans alike.

The UK is one such country which is turning its collective ear to the joys of country music, in all of its forms. A resurgence this century has seen the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Shires headlining major venues, while even the aforementioned Dolly Parton headlined at Glastonbury back in 2014. This is, indeed, a new and exciting era for C&W in the UK, something which is being reflected by the numbers of bands that are making an impact into the country scene.

One such band is the Glasgow based Ashton Lane. Coming from a musical family heritage, the band has made serious incremental strides into the Americana scene in recent years, and is poised for even greater things in the future.

Ashton Lane comprises husband and wife duo, Tim and Esther O’Connor as well as Esther’s dad, Graeme Duffin, who, for those of a particular vintage, will recall his part in the success of 80s super band, Wet Wet Wet (currently on a nationwide tour of the UK).

Therein likes the heritage, which has birthed Esther’s irresistibly clean and powerful voice, a voice which offers what I would call ‘hints of country’. Such a gift is ideally suited to the accompanying vocal harmonies which husband Tim carries out to perfection. It’s a dynamically appealing combination, driven by probing and thoughtful ‘life’ lyrics, and has established them as a primary force in country music, highly acclaimed in both the media and the industry.

Before you wonder how a fabulous, faith filled C&W band can emanate from under the shadow of Ibrox, you might want to reflect on the city’s Country and Western heritage. The ‘dear green place’ – as Glasgow used to be known – is also home to its very own Grand Ole Oprey, founded 45 years ago and still one of the largest C&W clubs in Europe. It has hosted several iconic names in its time, as well as the Americana Festival of Music, in 2015. So the heritage is there, even in Glasgow!

Esther’s country singing career wasn’t developed in her youth, though. That came later. Her singing talent was aired long before that, in the local church.

“I was really quite young,” she says. “My dad and I would sing in church when I was about 5, in front of maybe 500 people. Then in my teens, I would do some bits and pieces and then some recording then there was some interest from a record label. I had a recording contract when I was 17. It all seemed to come together.”

Not surprisingly, with her dad established in the business, the process of introducing the next generation of Duffins to the industry all seemed to come quite naturally.

And then she met Tim.

I was doing some community work and Tim was working for a mission organisation which focused on youth. As a church we used music in our community work. In my early 20s we would drive a camper van to pubs and clubs and music venues around Scotland, and we were doing more and more gigs. Live music was paying our way, so we gave up our jobs.

Music was not only in the household but also now in her relationship, and for Esther, there was an inevitability about becoming part of the industry her father knew so well.

She was destined to sing. But Country and Western??

I was surrounded by music growing up but it was a bit later on that I came to country music. To be honest, the country music scene is quite new to me. Tim and I went to Nashville in 2010, and that developed my passion, especially looking at the way they wr0te songs.  We met a really famous C&W producer, Elliott Mazer (who worked with Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin), out there. We got a bit of funding to record and all of the time we were listening to stuff by Lady Antebellum, Rascall Flatts, The Band Perry, Taylor Swift and the Shires, and it just grew.

2016 was something of a breakthrough year for Ashton Lane, with a No 1 country single, which helped them to reach a whole new audience. The band also received two nominations at the BCMAs (British Country Music Awards), for best duo and best song as well as playing at McEwan’s Party at the Palace in the summer of that year. They also appeared on BBC’s Songs of Praise. And all of this fitting in around their European tour.

“2016 was certainly an important year for us,” says Esther. “We were grateful for lots of small wins, lots of little breakthroughs.”

The following year was also exciting for the band, with their Christmas EP, ‘Winter Star’ coming in at No 2 in the iTunes Country album chart. They followed that up with their first iTunes Country Number 1 single with ‘Breathe You In’.

More gigs followed and the band performed at the Hard Rock Café stage at the Isle of Wight festival as well as headlining at the Millport, Scotland’s biggest independent country music festival, in the west of the country. European travels took them to Germany, Austria and Denmark. 

Their brand of Americana (‘more C&W should sound like this’, says Esther) was making the band new friends, and their online, ‘direct to fans model’ was building their support base.

Their most recent album, Nashville Heart was offered for download direct to fans, a move which has helped them secure 25,000 album sales to date, while their uniquely personal ‘Kitchen Sessions’, which seek to profile both covers and new songs, have racked up 2.5 million viewers at time of writing.

“The Kitchen sessions were both of our ideas, mine and Tim’s,” says Esther. “It was a simple idea to just do some covers and it kind of took off. And it suits us. We are kitchen people first and foremost… friends.”

With so much success in what is oft-considered a tough industry, you might well wonder – even with dad Graeme’s experience – how Esther and Tim cope with their rise to country and western prominence. As much as music was all around her at a young age, so was church, and Esther is happy to acknowledge her faith as foundational in the band’s success to date.

I grew up in church. My family were church goers and we went to a local Vineyard church. Faith was always important to me, and as a teenager I developed a real and personal faith. For me, it’s the only way the world makes sense. It’s always made sense to me and given me a meaning to life. It’s something I’ve always had, a real sense of God’s spirit and closeness. He’s always been there for me, and I am inspired and feel it when I am around people who are close to God.

The dividing line between faith and fame is narrow, but for Esther and Tim and the wider family, the former helps keep the latter in check. So does she have any advice for other Christians looking for a career in music?

Well, my experience has been really positive. Whatever industry you choose will have its challenges, and in ours there is not much good advice around. It’s a hard balance to strike but I would say stay connected to a small faith community. My house church meets every week in small groups and we engage in community based projects, local lunches and so on. Relationships are real. Tim and I are back at the church where we met… for us, local is important, though I might go on the odd spiritual retreat to Iona, or the West coast (of Scotland). Life is busy. I know I should switch off a bit more.

So with that in mind, what does 2019 and beyond look like for this likeable duo?

Our main focus is the UK. We’re building something here, all of our work is in the UK. I think that CD and online sales are becoming very important for us. We need them. My focus is sales online. But I also love gigging, and song-writing and recording. I enjoy different sides of the business. We take the children with us most places we go, but our eldest child starts school this year, so that is another reason we are relatively Glasgow based. We may do the odd bit around Europe but there is so much to do here.

‘Our faith informs our music’ was originally published in Woman Alive magazine, Spring 2019

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