Ashtyn Barbaree has been a fixture on Northwest Arkansas’ music scene for seven years, playing her unique brand of indie-Americana at gigs ranging from farmer’s markets to festival stages.
But until she began collaborating with the creative forces behind the House of Songs, Ashtyn had never written songs with others artists. And she never had the opportunity to tour internationally.
That changed when the Fayetteville, Arkansas resident connected with Troy Campbell and Graham Weber, who offered her a rare professional and creative opportunity – to immerse herself in songwriting alongside a diverse collection of fellow artists from around the region, country and globe.
“When you are around other writers, you get out of your comfort zone, in a good way. It helps you take more risks, lyrically and melodically, with your music style,” Ashtyn says.
“It is a really unique environment, to have a space where the vibe is so positive and the atmosphere makes it really easy to create songs.”
Troy and Graham run the House of Songs out of a restored 19th-century Victorian in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas.
There, several times a year, the nonprofit organization invites established musicians from regional hotspots like Austin, and international folk artists from as far away as Sweden and Egypt, for weeklong songwriting summits with emerging performers from Northwest Arkansas. Throughout the year, House of Songs has also hosted more than 120 shorter songwriting sessions.
The House of Songs acts both as an incubator for new music and an avenue for artists to expand their contacts in an industry that can seem closed to independent or upcoming performers, especially those not based in traditional music hubs like New York, Nashville or Los Angeles.
It also serves a larger goal: To expose international artists to the musical traditions of the Ozarks and, in turn, help inject new influences into the music coming out of Northwest Arkansas. The Walton Family Foundation supports the House of Songs through our Home Region program.
“The House of Songs has offered me an unparalleled opportunity to expand my personal and professional network, but in a format that invites artistry,” says Willi Carlisle, a Northwest Arkansas-based folk singer who has participated in several songwriting retreats.
“We learn and build on each other’s songwriting process from the ground up. It’s like establishing the roots of an artistic relationship that you hope will grow into a big old tree.”
Both Ashtyn and Willi were among eight musicians – including artists from Nashville, Austin and Canada – at a recent songwriting summit at the House of Songs in Bentonville.
They had each previously done songwriting residencies at the original House of Songs facility in Austin, where Troy was based prior to moving to Arkansas in early 2018.
“Northwest Arkansas has that feeling that Austin had in the early 90s, when the music scene was really starting to take off. There was a lot of hope. There was a community of artists who cared for each other. All we wanted to do was hear great songs,” says Troy, who has been a professional songwriter and musician for 30 years.
“I feel that here now.”
He first encountered Ashtyn during a visit to the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market, where she had played on weekends for several years. He was impressed by her vocal styling – and then later by her work ethic. She performs almost 300 shows a year.
“As I was starting to do things here, I would look to see what artists were really working, like playing every night and trying to make a living as an artist. I watched her really hustle,” Troy says.
We are the envy of musicians everywhere.
Willi credits the House of Songs with opening new doors to him after he took a huge professional leap of faith – quitting his day job to become a full-time musician. He had just released a six-song EP.
“I was driving my car and got a phone call. It was the House of Songs, offering me an opportunity that I never imagined I would receive, to go to Austin and co-write with people who I had been hearing on the radio as long as I had been alive,” Willi says.
“It opened my heart to the idea that there are people who do really want to help you in a career where you are often by yourself.”
The freedom to collaborate and create provided within the House of Songs is “completely uncommon” in the industry, Willie adds. "We are the envy of musicians everywhere.”
The opportunities for both artists have continued to grow.
The House of Songs helped Ashtyn organize a European tour in the summer of 2018, making connections that got her booked for shows in Denmark and Sweden. It also provided a grant that allowed her to bring two band members along for the tour. She is now planning another European tour.
Willi, meantime, is shopping a new album to multiple record labels. He’s booking a West Coast tour and folk festivals in Canada in the summer.
Both Willie and Ashtyn performed in Montreal at a House of Songs stage at the 2019 Folk Alliance International conference, the world’s largest gathering of the folk music industry and community.
Importantly, however, each artist says there are increasingly more options to make a living playing music in Northwest Arkansas, in part because of what the House of Songs is doing to develop musicians and the music scene.
“I have been shocked at how many opportunities we have now and the talent we have in Northwest Arkansas,” Ashtyn says.
“People are passionate about arts and entertainment. They want to help musicians.”
“There’s no reason to leave because the musical ecosystem is growing. It feels prescient, like we get to be at the tip of the spear in creating a really thriving scene,” he says.
“The House of Songs has played a big part in creating a high-quality listening environment with local international talent.”