Musical Pairings

A Conversation with Stephen Ashbrook Cellars

For those of us who love music, there is something special that happens when you discover an artist whose songs feel like your own thoughts. All of us, at one time or another, have found that artist, that somehow seems to put into words the emotions we feel, but are unable to voice or express: like a dream that you can feel but not describe. Personally, if I had to choose one who over the years has in many ways provided the soundtrack to my life, if would be Stephen Ashbrook.

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I first started listening to Stephen in the same way many of his fans did; I discovered him at Long Wong’s on Mill Avenue in the hay day of Tempe’s college scene. Long Wong’s was less than a half mile from the Northwest corner of the Arizona State University campus, where Stephen had donated much of his time to their musical production department. Students got to hone their craft, and Stephen was able to record his first EP: About Last Night, while completing his undergraduate degree in fine art photography. Every Thursday, Stephen had a standing gig at Long Wong’s, and for a couple of years, my wife would go early every week and secure a table at the front. When my friend Royce and I got out of classes at 5, we would run over to Mill where we would usually have a table and pitcher waiting for us. Those were indeed good times.

After graduation, I headed north to teach high school in Pinetop, Arizona, and shortly after, Stephen moved to Portland, Oregon, but I never lost touch with the singer/ songwriter with the golden tenor voice. I would make the trek to see him play the several times a year he would return to play Phoenix or, and I even saw him once at Portland’s The Green Room. But, of course, the fabled Spirit Room in Jerome, Arizona is the best place in the world to see Stephen Ashbrook.

 

And it was this connection to Jerome that kept us close and connected over the years, even though the distance had grown. In 2017, as I was completing my first book, Spirits of Jerome, for my new publishing company, Ghost Writer Press, there was only one person that I wanted to write a forward for the book: Stephen Ashbrook. Nervously, I sent a request to Stephen, and much to my amazement and joy, he accepted! Additionally, he offered to do duel signings with me at his Arizona shows on release. It was a dream come true.

 

So when Stephen announced a two night stand in Jerome, Arizona, I asked if we could sit down and do an interview ….. basically, catching up with Stephen Ashbrook. He and his wife, Kristi, graciously accepted, and on a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Jerome, we sat in the raised park at the stone table where I had written several stories in the book, and talked about wine, music and the meaning of success.

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Ryan B. Clark {Ghost Writer}: So, how does one go about starting a winery? Do you buy a vineyard, start from scratch: it seems like a huge endeavor?
Stephen Ashbrook: Well, what was it Kristi, about 2 years ago that we moved into the new house?

Kristi Ashbrook: Yes, about that.

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Stephen: So, yeah, we moved into a new house in Portland, and the seller told me, ‘by the way, the vines in the back yard are Pinot Noir grapes’. So the house had existing vines, and some of the vines were very mature. About half of the vines were trellised along a deck that ran along the back of the house, but the rest of the them were more or less feral, growing on the ground along this berm behind the house. That first year, the vines didn’t really produce a lot of grapes, but by the second year I had built trellises at the back of the property so that those vines could grow properly. So yes, about two years ago, the interest just kind of took off. I figured, well, I have these grapes, I might as well try something with them! I went to a brewery and wine making shop. In Portland there are all tons of winery supply stores, things like that, so I got all of the equipment, I bought a couple of books and watched a lot of YouTube videos.

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Ryan: It is amazing what you can learn on YouTube!
Stephen: So we made a Pinot Noir from just the grapes that we had, and… it was awful. It was terrible: just totally undrinkable.

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Ryan: I always imagined it would be scary to make wine.
Katie: Yeah, right!

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Stephen: Well, the nice thing about wine, is that anything that ferments can’t poison you. But one of the guys at the local shop told me that I should start with kit wines, where basically, it’s the juice in a box with instructions and chemicals: everything you need. You still have to have all of your own equipment and hardware, so I did one of those.
Katie: It was a Pinot Gris
Stephen: And it turned out really well. We even shared it with a neighbor of ours, who owns a winery in Walla Walla called Walla Walla Vintners, and he even said, ‘wow, this is drinkable.’ We burned through that first batch of Pinot Gris pretty quickly, gave it away to friends and family…

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Katie: And drank some of it. {She smiles slyly} It turns out it was quite drinkable.
Ryan: So, you have a few kit wines under your belt, enough personal grapes to get several gallons, what is the next step? Is there a Stephen Ashbrook Winery on the way?
Stephen: Well, what we did is we started our own wine label, first called Ashbrook Cellars, but it turns out that there is a winery out of Australia called Ashbrook Estates, and our graphic designer/ wine label consultant up in Seattle suggested calling it Stephen Asbrook Cellars to avoid any issues with them. In the meantime, I had been posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram kind of chronicling my successes, and more often failures, but I started getting all these messages, comments, and emails asking, ‘where can we buy your wine?’ At first my answer was, “no, it’s just a hobby, something to share with family and friends”, but the emails kept coming. So I started thinking, well, why not?

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Ryan: Sure, why not just go for it?
Stephen: Yeah, exactly, and I started wondering, if I made a white label wine, or worked with another wine maker to create a wine, I wonder if anyone would actually buy it. So that is really the impetus of the project, and started Kristi and I talking about what the potential for this is. What is interesting about this, is as I was learning how to make all this wine, there are some folks that we met at a farmer’s market in Lake Oswego who owned Monte Faro Winery. He has a vineyard on site, at his property, but that is just wine that he makes for his family and friends. He then works with a winemaker down in Willamette Valley that he makes a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay. He sources those grapes from different places and work with the winemaker to say, ‘I want the wine to be like this’, or ‘I want it to have this kind of blend’, and then they kind of taste and try it together. I started learning a lot about what he was doing, and then started talking more to my neighbor, who owns Walla Walla Winery, and I just asked him, ‘Hey, could you and I do something like that?’ And he said ‘yeah, absolutely.

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Kristi and I are actually going out in two weeks, to Walla Walla to just taste through a bunch of wines and come up with a blend all our own, and that will be Geronimo.

Ryan: Very cool, you are going to call it Geronimo after the song on White Balloons? That is awesome!
Kristi: The labels that we have been doing for the wines have been using the artwork from the White Balloons album, with that cool, elegant balloon on it, so we thought that choosing songs from that album would be fitting.

 
Karla Clark {Mrs. Ghost Writer}: That is cool; what a great idea!
Kristi: We are also doing a Rose’, we are calling it Carelessly, because it is such a great Rose’ name, kind of light and free.
Ryan: I love that song, but I have to tell you; it came out during a particularly difficult time, and there isn’t much light about that song. In fact it was one of the great, ‘Stephen, get out of my head’ moments. It creates quite a juxtaposition in that context. So tell me, back to wine, can you tell where a wine came from by drinking it, or is that an urban myth?

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Stephen: {laughing} I certainly can’t.
Karla: I don’t think they are necessarily tasting the differences in the actual wine, it is that you know that this particular region delivers these particular characteristics. You become somewhat trained to look for those characteristics.
Kristi: Absolutely. Education about different grapes, different types of wine, adds to those characteristics.
Karla: So Geronimo is going to be a red?
Stephen: Yes, a red blend.

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Ryan: It is a thing right, there is a thing going on with celebrities, rock stars, and wines, liquors and spirits. You have Maynard right down there with Caduceus, Dan Akryod has Skull Vodka, Roger Clyne with Mexican Moonshine, my buddy and I Jason just bought Ozzy’s wine, Solar Red, at Sturgis for crying out loud…. it even came in a coffin.

 


Stephen: {laughing} Did it really? That’s marketing genius, right there. The interesting thing about the wine business is it’s super crowded, it’s super competitive, and it’s actually very hard to make any money, but what is different about what Kristi and I are doing, is to really market this wine to the music listeners, and make it kind of about the music.

Every release we are going to do is going to be based on a song title, because it will have those characteristics.

Kristi: It’s really a musical pairing.
Ryan: I love this new vibe that mixes and intermingles art forms. My own work very much does the same thing. That is an awesome plan.
Stephen: The other really cool thing that I learned, is that there are winegrowers and winemakers, and then sometimes they are one and the same. There are a lot of people who do vineyards. They focus on growing the grapes. Then there are winemakers, even a lot of great winemakers that don’t actually own any vineyards. They just look for these characteristics in my wine, and source the grapes from all over, and different vineyards looking for those characteristics.

In that way they are almost like a mad scientist, and that actually interests me more than the actual growing of the grapes. I mean how cool is that!

Ryan: So last night we heard a new song, there are two new songs on the Soap Box set, where does this new music fit into these wine label plans?

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Stephen: I definitely want to do another album, but there really is no timeline to it. We are really focused on this wine label, and writing songs as they come is kind of what I do. But right now, we are kinda in the dip-a-toe phase, where we are really wanting to try this, and see if it strikes a chord. No pun intended.
Ryan: No, keep that pun. That fits, that’s a great pun.
Stephen: When it does come to an eventual new record, I’d like to do something more acoustic, I think.

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Ryan: Like Navigator then?
Stephen: Yes, Navigator, or Double Live. See, here’s the thing. Double Live has outsold all of the other records combined. There is just something about that record.

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Ryan: It is because you captured a sense of a place. A magical place, and it is gone. If you go down to Mill now, it is nothing like the Long Wong’s on Mill days. You captured the magic of a place that people loved, and remember very fondly.

When you look back on your life as an artist, what is success to you Stephen?

Stephen: You have to be able to find joy in the journey. Happiness is not a destination. Success is not a destination. So success has come from the journey. Nobody holds a dangling carrot out in front of an artist more than the artist. Everyone, I guess, would love to say I just want to keep being able to do this forever, but one has to step back and be realistic as well and have realistic goals and expectations.

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But also, really, what I find to also be true; is, you change. Your interests change. Life changes. And then you pivot.

There was a time, I remember I was in Brooking, South Dakota, and I was playing this Bash in the Grass Festival, and I was playing another show after that. Something just snapped. I had been touring, my oldest son, Ethan was five, I had been a full time touring musician for, let’s see after graduating from ASU with my undergrad in ’94, and this Bash in the Grass was 2008 or maybe 09, something like that, so yeah, I had been tourning for at least a solid fifteen years, and I realized, I just didn’t want to be away from home as much.

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So the next thought, is, well, then what do I want my life to look like, so you are just continually and totally reinventing yourself to live the life that you want. To me – that is success.
Ryan: Tonight you play a full band set, but you mentioned a future record would most likely be solo; what is the best part of playing with a band?
Stephen: I can’t think of another art form: painting, drawing, even dancing, another art form, where people are simultaneously creating art together. That is in harmony and unity with each other. There are times when that just gives you goosebumps. Nobody is telling each other what to create, you are just synced and locked in, and there is really just no other art form like it. Playing with a band, live, on stage, there are goose bump moments like that.

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Karla: There is definitely something about the way that you in particular work with the crowd though. You have this ability to convey that not only that you are the soundtrack to this particular moment, but also that you know so many of each of them personally and intimately. There is an intimacy to your performances.
Ryan: Knowing you and following you for so long, it has been awesome to see a real life example of this life as a process. This life we navigate is continually changing; it is organic.
Stephen: Indeed, and interests change. Even Maynard here in Jerome, obviously his interests have changed. He still loves music, still tours, but he had a passion for wine, and after a while you’re like, ‘Why not? Let’s try it!’

Getting back to that snapping moment in South Dakota, I started to realize I really wanted to do something with Kristi, we were kinda looking for something that we could do together.

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A lot of the reason we have made it this far, married for 19 years now, is because of Kristi, her patience, her sacrifice.
Kristi: No, {slightly blushing} I don’t think so. I wouldn’t say that at all, it has been because of your patience and your strength.

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Ryan: Regardless, for me, I find your success, your journey inspiring. These marriages, these partnerships, are rare, in today’s world. They happen less and less often. It is truly inspiring to me to hear a song like Good Life, and know the couple, personally, that were its impetus. For me, in my life, that kind of commitment, and success, has shown itself to be rare. So it is special.
Kristi: Relationships, too, are things that you are constantly working on. They are constantly evolving.

 

Ryan: Perhaps there is a musical pairing for the wine that this could be, someday. Do you have a favorite song, a song that kinda conveys this idea of success and pivoting journey?
Stephen: I really like You Are Here. It’s a good grounding song for me, that line: ‘you’re not too far away‘. Even when you feel completely lost: you’re actually not that far away. You just find your footing, perhaps pivot, and start again

 

Karla: So being from Portland, are you planning on going with bottles, or some of these new methods?
Kristi: There is nothing like a bottle of wine.
Karla: Right!

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Stephen: I’m kind of nostalgic. I like having a bottle, and right now we are trying to decide if we are going to do a a foil capsule on top or if we want to hand dip, each bottle in wax. Which would be kind of fun, since Geronimo will be a small run.
Kristi: Everything we have made, up to this point, has been hand dipped.
Stephen: But really, all glass is really recycled anyway mostly these days, and there are some really great synthetic corks. So we are really looking at marketing and packaging options right now.
Karla: That is super cool. I have one quick music question, if I may, this place, Spirit Room Jerome, Arizona. This vibe, this is your super base, these are your people. Is there something akin to this, in Portland?

 


Stephen: It’s a place called Mississippi Studios, but before that, back when I was playing full time, there was The Green Room. The Green Room was the weekly recurring gig in Portland, similar to Long Wong’s. The place would get completely packed. And it was a free, weekly show, and it really built up the fan base, but I knew if I eventually wanted to play for say $15 a ticket, The Green Room wasn’t going to work anymore, and eventually it ended up closing. But yes, there is definitely a strong Portland contingent, there are even a few that flew down to see this show actually.

But I put a post out, on Facebook a while back, that Spotify shows you a breakdown, a list of your top streaming cities. Phoenix is still definitely at the top of that list, but Portland is listed at like number 7 I think, and that is absolutely not representative of the vibe up there. Oregon is definitely similar, and only second to, Arizona in that regard.

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The Green Room, was definitely Portland’s Long Wong’s, and I think as you are talking to new bands, I cannot underestimate the importance of a residential gig. Even if it is once a month, or once every other month, but something that is very regular. People just know, that ever Sunday night you are gonna be at [The Rebel Lounge] for example.
Ryan: Speaking of advice from the Arizona old school, what is your opinion of streaming?
Stephen: Something interesting about streaming is there is a purity to the information they create that is not based on artificial radio plays that record companies pay for. You can see who is being streamed the most, and it has nothing to do with record labels or the music industry. It is people. People listening your your music. So a Spotify Top 40 chart, is a pure, un-payed for, chart.. This is really, what people are listening to, and that is good information.

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Karla: So I am probably screwing them all up by playing Dead Hot Workshop all day?
Stephen: No, that’s great! So yeah, with Spotify, every play puts an artist higher on that master, universal chart.
Ryan: Stephen, Kristi, thank you so much for your time, and we are definitely looking forward to news of Geronimo’s release later this year, perhaps this Fall, from Stephen Ashbrook Cellars. Best of luck to you.
Stephen: Thank you.
Kristi: Yes, thank you so much. We will see you tonight.

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April marks the one year anniversary of Ghost Writer Press and Keep the Greasy Side Down Magazine. I cannot think of any better interview to kick off that year, than with a long time friend, whom I admire, talking about the launch of a wine paired with taking risks, closing one’s eyes, and leaping into an uncertain but exciting future… and being ready to laugh…. and pivot.

Keep the Greasy Side Down My Friends !

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