Versatile violinist Ashley Holmberg thrives in Wine Country
Ashley Holmberg listens to the opening chords of “Hotel California,” eyes closed and head nodding slightly before lifting a violin to her chin and launching into a soaring rendition of the famous Eagles song.
Rather than copy the haunting melody and its legendary guitar coda, she adds her own riffs, jumping in and out as she adapts to the original music blasting from her iPod speakers.
It is Holmberg’s impromptu interpretation of the 1976 classic, released more than a decade before she was born, one of several requests from guests at a private dinner party in Healdsburg. She gamely responds to calls for titles like “Barracuda,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven.”
Such nimbleness is not unusual for the Healdsburg musician who, over the past decade, has performed across four continents, playing Thai fiddle in Thailand, two-step violin tunes in Colorado, classical compositions in Alaska, Mapuche music in Chile and virtually any other style from Gregorian chant to Gershwin, Americana to Afroman.
“I love it when I’m out of my comfort zone,” said Holmberg, 29, at her Victorian home in central Healdsburg. (She has since settled in Cloverdale.)
She moved to Wine Country in spring 2016 but already has become a fixture in the North Bay music scene, partnering with the Americana band Cahoots of Healdsburg and recording an album with Sonoma County-based progressive rock band Brix. Her first album with Cloverdale folk band Two Lions, featuring Holmberg on two songs, titled “High Waters,” came out earlier this month.
It may seem a far stretch for an artist who trained in the classical genre while growing up in the 32,469-person town of Fairbanks, Alaska, and performed during a Vatican Mass while touring Europe with the Alaska Festival Singers choir.
“I’ve always wanted to be an integral part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “I think I’m a creative entrepreneur, and I’ve developed ear training now instead of reading notes. So I’m trying to integrate into more music cultures and have more organic musical conversations.”
Holmberg has been deeply immersed in music since she was 5 and heard a family friend play violin.
“I was mesmerized,” she recalled. “I went nuts listening to the radio and movie soundtracks. I bugged my parents endlessly and finally got my first violin at 8. It was half-size, student size.”
By third grade, Holmberg was studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, participating with their symphony program. Later, she trained under Gail Johansen, founder of the Fairbanks Suzuki Institute.
By 2000, she and her family realized this was no fleeting pastime, and they moved to Colorado, where Holmberg joined the Dairy Arts Center, a repurposed Boulder milk factory that now houses music stages, art galleries and theaters. There, she studied with internationally recognized violinist and violist Barbara Barber. She also worked with Juliet White-Smith, an international soloist, chamber musician and former president of the American Viola Society.
The viola soon caught Holmberg’s attention. It’s slightly larger than a violin and produces a lower, deeper sound. At the same time, she was thinking about getting into education herself.
“I wanted to shape young minds to appreciate music like I did,” she said. “I graduated college with a K-12 education degree and the idea of starting a pedagogical career.”
Holmberg found that opportunity in Thailand during a post-graduation vacation. Fortuitously, the College of Music, Mahidol University in Phutthamonthon, Nakhon Pathom in the western suburbs of Bangkok was looking for a teacher. The innovative school operates three campuses in shopping malls, designed to increase public awareness of music and prepare prospective students for entrance into university music programs.
“It was a culture shock,” Holmberg said. “I had 200 kids in my high school graduation class, and now I was living in a city of 12 million.”
When a friend planted the idea of doing international performance, Holmberg reached out to local organizations and spent 18 months playing with the Thai Philharmonic Orchestra and the Southeast Asian Youth Chamber Orchestra.
As thrilling as it was, the self-described “cold climate lady” missed the snow and moved to Carbondale, Colo., to teach at a 700-student academy.
“Why not?” she said. “Going from playing Thai fiddle to Colorado country two-step, sure. I was expanding my craft.”
A visit to Wine Country changed her path yet again. “I knew as soon as I saw Healdsburg, I fit in. Everyone here is so real and dynamic, and it’s so beautiful, I fell in love.”
Life as an artist is constant discovery, and often challenging, but that’s just part of the joy, Holmberg insists. She pays her bills by performing at weddings, corporate events and with local bands at parties.
She also works as an executive assistant for The Harvest Summit, which produces invitation-only gatherings in Knight’s Valley for innovators, influencers and tastemakers.
“It’s been incredibly unique how everyone here has welcomed me into the community and been so willing to integrate me into their ensembles,” she said.
Which means her path is now winding again, leading to a budding performance career. Her house brims with violin, viola, piano, guitar, ukulele and percussion tools, and she’s curious for more.
“People put new instruments in my hand, and I love it,” she said. “Rhythm, modern music, R&B, pop, rap, I’m all in.”
Currently, Holmberg is learning to play ambidextrously.
“Each day is new growth,” she said. “It can be hard to find the confidence to express myself and get over intimidation. But that’s the most beautiful part, learning to not be afraid to make mistakes.
“It’s terrifying to be exposed, but I really think people appreciate that.”