Ashley Argota: A Septuplet Threat
By: Taylor Gates
I. It Goes Against Human Nature to Sound Good While Singing in the Car
Less than a week after I arrive in California, Ashley Argota picks me up for coffee. We settle on her favorite spot—an artsy little joint nestled within a small, bustling theatre community. “It’s been too long!” she exclaims in her usually perky way as I climb into her car. She’s right. It’s been almost a year since I convinced my dad to drive me six hours in the nightmarish maze that is Chicago rush hour for a brief meet-and-greet outside Willis Tower for what I thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Though Argota frequently flies over the Midwest in order to get to Los Angeles and New York City, it’s not often she stops down in corn field territory. But against all odds, I am now here on her turf—and she makes sure to give me a proper welcome to it.
The first thing she does is plug her aux cord into her phone and blast exactly what she knows I want to hear: a song by Someone’s Little Sister—a fictional band of which she is the lead singer. She sings along as we merge onto interstate, crawling through notoriously suffocating traffic from Glendale to Pasadena. It’s surreal listening to her impromptu live performance accompany her recorded one. Besides the fact that she’s adding some extra flair, some improvisational harmonies, it sounds exactly the same which just proves how truly effortless she is. She’s not trying to put on a show or impress me: she’s just your average 20-something screaming along to music as she drives. Well, your average 20-something with over 350,000 Twitter followers, 20 film credits and a fan mail address that is.
II. Baby on Broadway
Ask Argota what her favorite musical is and her answer will always be the same: The Lion King. She’ll admit she’s the slightest bit biased. When she was eleven years old, she played young Nala in the North American tour of the musical. She wants to complete the circle (pun fully intended) by playing big Nala someday.
A YouTube video from 2005 shows footage of Argota singing “Circle of Life” and speaking Zulu backstage on her second-to-last day in the production. The stamina required to put on such a performance is obvious. Argota hops and dances, laughs and chants, dazzles and charms her audience in a homemade costume as comfortable as she would be in her living room. Though there’s no doubt Argota has evolved tremendously as a performer since then, her genuine spirit has remained the same,and her love of performing has not faltered. Despite being exposed to Hollywood and running in the Nickelodeon and Disney Channel sphere for years, it has amazingly not affected her. If anything, it’s only made her even more sure of who she is.
Her other favorite musical? Wicked. “I know it’s cliche, but I love it,” she gushes. I’ve tried many times to get her to post a video of her performing “Defying Gravity,” but every time she just laughs in response. Even for Argota, the belting and energy required to sing that song is daunting. But the request is only a joke to her—everyone who’s heard her for more than five seconds knows she’s more than capable of such a feat.
III. That Album She Wants to Forget Ever Existed
Every few months or so, someone will post an old photo of Argota on Twitter. Without fail, Argota will reply with a mortified “WHY?” or “OH GOD.” Who among us doesn’t when our 13-year-old selves come back to haunt us? And most of us don’t have to worry about a Google image search churning up thousands of these didn’t have red carpets and paparazzi documenting out every move. But, for the most part, she handles the gentle teasing in stride when bombarded with old snapshots of herself in a brown plaid barrette or decked out in cheetah-print from head-to-toe. You won’t have to scroll far down Google images to see her 2008 album cover appropriately titled Ashley. The cover is adorned with a picture that wouldn’t feel out-of-place among the JC Penny photo shoots everyone’s mother made them do. She smiles over her shoulder, gazing at the sky, clad in pale blue jeans and a beige sweater.
It would be easy to dismiss the album as a purely juvenile endeavor, write it off as nothing more than a silly project by a preteen. But that would be a mistake. Though it’s definitely geared towards teenyboppers, there’s still a passion infused within it. And Argota’s range, both vocally and tonally, is impressive for someone so young. Though “Pop Princess” and “Diva” have a very Kidz Bop vibe, “Bring It” and “Everything Changes” have definite R&B influences and veer into 90s-sounding territory. Even with the basic, relatively generic musical accompaniment, Argota manages to make the tunes both fun and memorable, particularly if you’re a middle schooler. Lyric-wise, “Dreams Come True” is a cute, inspiring anthem that could easily be included on a soundtrack to a princess movie.
It’s clear Argota has learned an incredible amount since then and her voice has naturally become a deeper, more sophisticated version of itself. Her first album isn’t vastly different than hundreds of other young starlets’ candy-coated, sugary debuts, but if you listen—really listen—there’s a spark there. A hint. A seed just beginning to germinate, getting ready to blossom into her powerful pipes of today.
IV. I’ll Cover You
Argota hasn’t released another album since then, but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped recording and working. In fact, she’s been busier than ever. One of her more recent projects has been sporadically posting a round of covers on YouTube. Among Q&As and her traditional “end of the year video” where she highlights her favorite moments from the previous 365 days are videos of her singing popular hits ranging from Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches” to Halsey’s “Colors.” Accompanied only by a soft acoustic piano in the background, these videos showcase Argota’s voice and her uncanny, chameleon-like ability to sink her teeth and find her footing anywhere, regardless of genre. Not a lot of people can say they went from Lion King to Tove Lo with such grace and natural ease.
But with Broadway being the way it is right now, what with the unprecedented success of Hamilton and unlikely cultural icon that is Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s more important than ever to have that adaptability—the pressure to be not only talented but also marketable across multiple mediums and demographics is higher than ever. And Argota manages to do just that so seamlessly it’s a wonder she ever finds time to sleep. Her YouTube covers are just one ball of her juggling act which also includes frequent film, television, online and stage work.
The consistent covers are a paradox in a way, serving to both quench the thirst of her fans while also igniting a more vigorous hunger for more material. Connecting to the buzz of well-known tunes incites curiosity with the masses, not just her already established adoring crew. She can both expand her base while proving she cares about her loyal audience—Heck, she’s even asked for song suggestions on various social media sites more than once.
She knows what will draw people in. She understands the game. But it never feels like she’s playing it; it never feels like we’re pawns being manipulated, as there’s an undeniable sincerity in everything Argota does. It’s clear she’s working hard, but it never feels like she’s trying too hard. It’s obvious she’s not craving fame—that’s merely a side effect of the job she so loves to do.
Even her social media accounts reflect this. In today’s world, the stakes are high when it comes to online presentation and internet persona. CoverGirl model James Charles recently landed in hot water after racist remarks surfaced on his Twitter. Adele’s management banned her from her own account after some drunken escapades. And everyone knows of Donald Trump’s disastrous 140-character rants. In a world crammed with tea advertisement and force-fed clothing lines, Argota’s use of the web is a burst of fresh air. From live-tweeting her experience watching Grey’s Anatomy and trying to kill a spider to posting pictures of her latest trip to Taco Bell or cookies she spontaneously baked at three in the morning to Instagram, it’s clear Argota isn’t trying to sell an inauthentic, highly edited version of herself. She’s just trying to save some memories, spread some joy and make some friends.
V. Fake Band; Real Music
I am visiting The Fosters set the one day this year Argota is also there, because of course I am. I’ve now been in California for over a month, during which we have run into each other many times at various theatre shows and press events. Today she is shooting a scene in Long Beach at a music festival with her fake band comprised of actor/musicians David Lambert and Jordan Rodrigues.
Sure, the band is fictional, but don’t let that fool you. The music is as real as it gets. When ABC Family (now Freeform) released an EP of four of the “band” Someone’s Little Sister’s songs it made moderate waves. The release hit #19 on iTunes alternative charts and nearly cracked the top 100 overall, peaking at #101.
I’m going to be honest with you: I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of The Fosters seeping into rock band territory. Many a teen drama has paddled into those risky waters with lackluster results. The majority have left its viewers looking at their watches, wondering how long it’s going to be until the grating musical number is over and the show gets back to the plot. I, along with multiple of my friends, are guilty of fast-forwarding entire tedious Glee scenes. More often than not, they’re a time suck: poorly written, forgettable and hopelessly out-of-touch with the audience they’re trying to connect to.
But alas, I stood corrected. Someone’s Little Sister songs are interesting, catchy and well-done. The actors can actually sing and not only do I never feel the urge to skip the songs, but I listen to them outside of the show as well.
Argota takes a backseat in the first song, a duet called “Outlaws,” but her echoed harmonizing adds an air of maturity and depth. She gets her chance to shine on the rest of the album, which veers into more chill, alternative/indie-rock territory. Several crowded layers of dynamic instruments surround Argota’s vocals in “Tomorrow’s Never Gone”— a twangy bass, prevalent electric guitar, versatile keyboard and percussion elements popping in and out—yet she still manages to make what she’s singing stand out. The lyrics aren’t cookie cutter either, moody and metaphoric: “I’m salt water/And you’re the ocean floor.” Within the same vein, “Never Fading Out” keeps the same vibe, a teenage anthem.
“Sweet Piece of Candy” meshes well with the other songs but slows and relaxes the tone even more, going for a more muffled instrumental, dramatic piano and bigger, more drawn-out notes. It’s also slightly sultrier, a suggestive sexiness. “All I see is your face/All over my face,” Argota says, beckoning the one she’s serenading to “Tempt me/Like a sweet piece of candy.”
Argota had no idea the EP was even happening, but she was thrilled when it did, especially since she was constantly pestered about it by her fans. Unfortunately, she still can’t answer the question of whether the full version of “Crossfire” (a clip of which premiered on the show a few years ago) will ever be released in its entirety, though she still occasionally gets inquiries about it to this day.
Still, it’s music she’s proud of. It allows her to combine her passions for acting and singing. It also introduced her to a man that would come to be a major part of her career a few months later: Bradley Bredeweg.
VI. Juliet x S3
I attend the first performance ever held at Prospect, the newest dinner theatre in Los Angeles, as it is also the first preview of Romeo and Juliet: Love is a Battlefield (Volume II).
It’s true, the plumbing problems have caused the place to take on a slightly sewer-tinged smell. And yes, the lack of signage on the building did confuse both me, my friend and our poor Uber driver. And, okay, the sound system is pretty inconsistent, cutting out in and out for a good portion of the show. But that doesn’t much matter—all its pitfalls are forgiven the minute the spotlight shines on Argota in the opening number.
This is Argota’s third time playing the role. She has remained the sole Juliet from the project’s inception back in 2015 while an array of Romeos have paraded in and out of the production including the likes of Corbin Bleu and Rustin Cole Sailors. This time, it’s Alex Nee who plays opposite of her.
She doesn’t seem to mind her veteran status, as she continues to love and learn from the role and all of her star-crossed lovers. Plus, her fellow cast members have become like family. She and Peter Vogt, who has also been there since the beginning playing her father, have become practically inseparable, making Q&A videos and traveling to England this past year. She still keeps in touch with cast members Jordan Kai Burnett and Nicci Claspell, each owning a cat friendship necklace. And Bradley Bredeweg, the creator of both The Fosters and Love is a Battlefield who personally tapped her for the role after being impressed with her in the TV series, hosted Argota’s 23rd birthday party at his home.
The musical is a mixture of Shakespeare and 80s songs. The first volume focused on primarily Pat Benatar jams, but since its revision there have been some substitutions and additions, including Prince’s “Let’s Get Crazy” and Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Argota smoothly and powerfully sings a multitude of vocally challenging songs along with balancing intense choreography and emotionally draining acting with her signature calmness, control and playful youth. Highlights include the sexy and flirtatious “Heartbreaker,” haunting “I Have Nothing,” and, of course, the energetic titular number: “Love is a Battlefield.” But there is one song that’s the obvious highlight—and everyone knows it.
Argota’s rendition of “Brave” has goosebumps cropping up all over my arms the first time I hear it. And the second. And all eight times after that when I make the trip to the theatre to see it live. I even get chills while watching it back on YouTube (this theatre encourages videotaping), hearing her build in terms of volume, climb to reach those floating high notes. Hearing her flex her effortless ability for vibrato and melisma. Seeing her face contort into tragic pain while hitting every note, spreading her arms out in surrender.
It’s no surprise that she has the word tattooed as a reminder to be strong and fearless. And, knowing the kind of person she is, it’s not surprising she indulges a fan’s request without hesitation after the show, having a sing-along encore on the tiny stage with a girl who has just gone through a particularly grueling breakup.
VII. An Album 95,000 Years in the Making
It’s clear Argota is staying plenty busy. She frequently performs in Rockwell Table and Stage’s popular musical parody show series, playing everyone from Allison in Hocus Pocus to Regina George in Mean Girls. She also reappears on Disney Channel every once in a while, popping in Girl Meets World and original movie How to Build Build a Better Boy. But there’s one thing everyone, including she, is impatient for: her next album.
She’s already built a strong foundation, releases trickling out through recent years. The much-hyped, pop-heavy “Limitless;” being featured on Brad Hooks’ (who also worked on The Fosters and Love is a Battlefield) experimental song and video “Ish;” and most notably, “Hope is in You,” a touching tribute to one of her young friends who passed away from cancer. She’s been good about giving us appetizers, but we’re anxiously craving the main course.
Though it’s been slow going, there’s some reason for celebration. There’s something brewing on the horizon. Earlier this month, Argota performed some new original music at a small venue in Nashville, sharing a few teaser clips on her social media. Among them, a soft pop tune that showcases her impeccable range and polished vocals, “Just for a Chance.”
“It’s been 95,000 years,” she recently said in an interview. “But hopefully it’ll be out before we hit 96,000.” In the meantime, I guess all we can do is enjoy her old material, nudge her on social media and wait.