Ansley Dougherty ends many of her sentences with reassurances. After answering a question about a specific song or life decision, she will say, “Yeah, yeah,” as if she is agreeing with what she has just said, or trying to speak it into existence. It’s probably the latter.
In the last year, the Fort Worth singer-songwriter has become more intentional than ever about her life and career, and that has already yielded results. She has a boyfriend she loves, a band she loves, a producer she loves and songs on the radio. Oh, and she’s moving to Nashville in less than a week. She’s nervous, of course, but happy about it.
“My boyfriend is going with me, and I probably wouldn’t even consider going by myself,” she says of her big move. “But still, it’s kind of crazy.”
As she talks, Dougherty looks around at the boxes scattered across her house, boxes that contain clothes, trinkets and memories from her time in Fort Worth.
“I just think the time is right to make the move, you know? Yeah, yeah.”
Dougherty is a singer and songwriter who has done just about everything you can imagine a musician doing as they launch their career. Original bands? Check. Cover bands? Check. Jingles for a logistics company? Check.
“There’s something about singing a song about trucks and airplanes and shipping stuff that I couldn’t resist,” she says.
Her latest work is a step in a decidedly different direction. After growing up with a folk duo and thrashing her head (and detaching her retina twice) as the frontwoman for Fort Worth rock band Panic Volcanic, Dougherty is experimenting with a new sound that is, above all else, happy.
“We’re sort of cursed, as artists,” she says. “We’re destined to feel the shadows a little more than other people. But I’m getting away from that, because I’m actually happy now. Now I like to write songs that you think, ‘Oh, it’s about this,’ but really it is about something else entirely.”
Dougherty grew up listening to Death Cab for Cutie and Regina Spektor and others that fall under the umbrella of what she calls “cute indie music.” At 17, she started a folk duo called Mind Twins to make her own cute indie music, but college and the allure of rock ’n’ roll shifted her priorities.
“I discovered rock, and I realized that was what I wanted to make. That’s where Panic Volcanic came from,” Dougherty says.
Panic Volcanic was a three-piece band that, according to Dougherty’s producer Taylor Tatsch, invested in the “hard” part of “hard rock.”
“I saw them live, and could tell right away she was committed to that style,” he says. “She put her body through the tortures of hard rock because that’s the kind of artist she is. She goes for it.”
If you go back long enough, you can trace the name “Dougherty” to a group of Vikings known as “Destroyers.” Dougherty’s onstage antics earned her the moniker “The Destroyer,” a name she lived up to when she literally detached her retina (twice!) from too much headbanging.
Panic Volcanic’s album Speak Your Evil sounds like what you’d expect from a Texas hard rock band, but it’s really about claiming your demons and not letting them claim you. Specifically, Dougherty and her bandmates were writing about addiction, a force they tired of seeing consume their friends. It was during the recording for that album that Dougherty started thinking about pursuing solo projects.
“No one had shown up to the studio yet, so I sat down at a Wurlitzer piano and start writing a song," she recalls. "Slowly, I started writing a few more here and there.”
Dougherty also met guitarist Eric Webb, who started writing guitar parts to go with her songs. They eventually took one of the songs into a studio, just to see how it went. Thus, Dougherty’s nine-song debut, Rituals, was born.
The album is a far cry from anything resembling “hard” or “rock.” It’s a little folk, a little pop and a lot of piano-driven melodies supercharged by Dougherty’s mellifluous voice. Still, most of it was sad.
There’s “Crown’s King,” which sounds like it’s about friendship but is really about looking back and thinking about how much bigger something could have been. Then there’s “Lucky Strike,” the single, which sounds like it’s about starting anew, but is really about not being able to catch a break.
“It’s mostly what I call ‘sad bastard’ songs,” Dougherty says, a shadow of laughter creeping into her voice. “Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty fucking sad.”
Rituals was also a big step for Dougherty’s evolution as a businesswoman. Newly solo, the singer learned the hard facts about not having bandmates with whom to divide labor. Like many other solo artists, she became a one-woman PR machine, gathering contacts, pitching herself and handling all her own marketing. She became more strategic, and that translated to her songwriting.
“I’d say artists have to consider the audience before we make art,” Dougherty says. “With Panic, we had a niche target audience: rock ’n’ roll fans. And that may not fit with everybody. When I went solo, I cast the net a little wider, so maybe people that like indie music or pop might like this, too.”
Yet her quest to write broader tunes hit a snag when she fell in love. Good for Dougherty the person, bad for Dougherty the songwriter. She had to search for new inspiration, new ways to engage fans, and she found a blueprint with Peter Gabriel.
“It’s all about engaging with the audience, and finding ways to tell a moving story that isn’t necessarily about lost love,” she says. “Peter Gabriel does that perfectly. He tells stories, and very few of them are about love. I have to make the music twice as good to make up for not writing about something that’s heavy, emotional and big.”
Thus far, it’s worked out OK. Ansley the band consists of the singer, drummer Matt Mabe, guitarist Webb and bassist Kris Luther. Ansley will play a “goodbye for now” show at Main at South Side on Friday. Their new song, “For the Last Time,” has already earned air time on local radio stations like 91.7 KXT. The track is an electro-infused pop tune with lyrics that allude to a newfound confidence, a resistance to ever again being caught off guard. According to Webb, the song is also an attempt to be mainstream.
“She’s still that same singer-songwriter that she’ll always be, but there’s a focus on being relevant,” he says. “I think it’s intelligent. When we write songs, we’re thinking, ‘What can we put out that KXT will want to play?’”
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Dougherty hopes that intentionality will help her in Nashville, though she is realistic about the work it will take once she gets there.
"It’s going to be a lot of people saying 'no,' and I'm prepared for that," Dougherty says. "I’m prepared for the year and a half of straight up 'no,' a year and a half of voicemails and ignored emails.”
Dougherty plans to continue writing, continue gigging, trying to break into the tough session musician game, and becoming even more of a one-woman marketing and music machine than she is in Fort Worth. Meanwhile, she will keep in touch with her Cowtown friends, including her bandmates from Ansley and Panic Volcanic, which never officially broke up or even went on hiatus.
“I just don’t want to look back in 10 years and think, ‘What if?’” she says of the move. Much like her new song “Time Wasted,” which sounds like a downtrodden lament for missed opportunities, but is really about living life to the fullest.