CHARLOTTE, N.C.—When Jimmy Brown came to North Carolina from his native Belfast, Northern Ireland, his wife-to-be, Ashlee Hardee, was already performing music. When they fell in love and decided to get married, they figured it would be hard to stay married if they were both on the road, going in different directions. So their marriage also gave birth to the band Matrimony. They decided it keep it a family affair by enlisting Ashlee’s brothers Jordan and C.J. Hardee, along with bass player Ethan Ricks. The band just signed a recording deal with Columbia Records and earlier this month played the massive Bonnaroo Music Festival, Manchester, Tenn.
I sat down to talk with Jimmy and Ashlee Brown in Charlotte, the day after they played an album release concert in front of an appreciative crowd of 2,000 hometown fans.
Tell me about Matrimony.
Jimmy: There’s a lot of singing. It’s a full set-up: drums, banjo, mandolin, keys, acoustic guitar. We write some songs and we like to play them for people.
You’ve got a banjo and a mandolin in the band, but I hear Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty more than I hear Earl Scruggs or Bill Monroe.
Jimmy: We never tried to sound like Tom Petty, but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is probably my favorite band at the moment, so that’s cool.
How does the songwriting work?
Jimmy: Ashlee and I write a lot of the stuff. Then Jordan and C.J. come in and help. We usually get the initial idea going, but we work on it together after that.
Does it start with lyrics? A melody? How does that work for you guys?
Ashlee: It happens differently every single time. Sometimes one of us hears a melody and we start singing it and we record it on our phones and we put chords and lyrics to it. Sometimes we’ll start off with lyrics and put melodies to that. Sometimes we’re all just hanging out together and playing music and we come up with something.
So do you guys sit down and say, “OK, tonight we’re going to write a song together,” or, “This weekend we’re going to carve out some time to write songs”? Or do you do that separately and bring it together?
Jimmy: I don’t feel right about myself unless I’m always working. I make myself go to the studio and start writing—write lyrics, write melodies. Ashlee is way cooler than I am. She’ll just kind of let it happen. When it happens it’s always awesome. I always just try to make it happen. I’ll re-write and re-write and re-write and then eventually I’ll figure out that I’ve got something. I think it’s cool because we both come at it from very different angles. We help each other out. So far so good. It’s pretty effortless and enjoyable.
One of the things I know is not effortless for anybody is maintaining a marriage. You’ve been married for three years. I know you just signed a major label deal and you’re having some success, but I’m guessing there are probably still a lot of times when you’re driving through the night and sleeping in vans and airplanes. How do you maintain a marriage in all that?
Ashlee: After loading in for the day and before the time we play, we always try to go hang out together on our own. Just kind of catch up and just talk. When you’re touring it always feels like a swell of things happening all the time. But I feel like our relationship is good. We love each other a ton and we communicate all the time and try to spend time together whenever possible.
Jimmy: We started our band so we could be together. We both love to play music, but we always put our marriage ahead of our music.
What’s different now that you’ve signed a deal with a record label?
Jimmy: It’s a big, huge corporation, so getting stuff approved, getting stuff done, takes a little more time than it would if you were just doing it yourself and just had to make some calls. But on the flip side of that, you’re dealing with people who have done it a million times before. They have so many more connections than you could ever have yourself. They have money to back up what they say they’re going to do. So we’ve really enjoyed working for the major label. Things have taken a little longer than we would have liked but, looking back, I’m glad things have taken a little longer. It’s given us a chance to develop and write more songs and get better at playing live. So now when we’re starting to play in front of bigger crowds, it feels like we’re ready to do that. I’m glad that we weren’t playing Bonnaroo a year ago. But a year ago, all we wanted to do was play Bonnaroo. Having a major label helps you set the tone for your career a little more because they have more experience and they know how to navigate the whole thing.
As I listen to your music, I hear pop love songs. But I also hear issues of faith, issues of doubt, issues of reality, authenticity. Where does that come from?
Jimmy: The whole point of making music, for us, is being truthful, being real. We always try to find that with the lyrics, with the melodies, with everything. But also, at the same time, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything. Making music and writing songs, when that’s your life and you put everything into that, you really are on the edge, always trying to be available emotionally to connect with something greater than yourself. That’s where we’re coming from.
Ashlee: I think our goal is just reality. Trying to write songs that are real and true to us. We’re trying to write songs about the human condition. I’ve always believed that artists have a sound that’s inside of them and I think being true to that is the greatest thing you can do as a musician.