July 10, 2018 was like any other day; nothing was out of the ordinary when Ashlee Hardee’s 21-month-old daughter Cecilia lay down for a nap. And then she just didn’t wake up.
Hardee’s mother, who was babysitting at the time, found Cecilia unresponsive and called 911. MEDIC rushed her to the emergency room, but it was too late. While Ashlee still wonders if there was some kind of cardiac arrest or abnormality that led to her daughter’s passing, the official cause of death is “undetermined.”
The loss of a child is the worst nightmare of any parent, all the more so when it comes without warning. Finding a way past that loss takes time, and for Charlotte singer/songwriter Hardee, music.
Her tragic loss fueled the creation of The Cecilia Moon Project — a foundation to benefit the Levine Children’s Hospital and LifeShare Carolinas, an organization that coordinates the recovery and distribution of life-saving organs, eyes and tissues for transplantation. It also sparked Hardee’s return to songwriting, leading to a number of new songs that tackle a range of emotions.
She’ll perform some of the new music at a listening party that will also serve as a launch party for the charity foundation entitled An Afternoon of Music, Art and Inspiration Honoring the Life of Cecilia Moon. Though the event is still in the planning stages, Hardee hopes it will serve as more of a listening event than a party, per se.
“I want to bring awareness to families who have suffered through loss and give light to what parents go through,” Hardee says. “I’m passionate about it because I was that parent — I am that parent.”
Hardee is well-known around the Charlotte music scene for her time spent in the band Matrimony, along with her then-husband Jimmy Brown and brothers CJ and Jordan Hardee. Longtime Matrimony fans longing for a return to the sound that gained that band national recognition should ready themselves for something new, however.
“My music is different than Matrimony,” Hardee says. “It’s not folk. It’s more introspective, dark, pop and lyrically focused. This is me, naked as an artist. I call it pop noir because it even has a hip-hop influence. It’s me, in my bedroom, not giving a fuck. The music is raw, real, organic and in-the-moment.”
While songwriting provided an outlet for Hardee’s emotions, the resulting content wasn’t focused solely on her daughter. In fact, she says, there’s only one verse that specifically mentions Cecilia. She wanted to leave her music open to interpretation while allowing it to be relatable to a larger group of people.
The music, which is piano-driven, is meant for people who have undergone any kind of loss, stress, struggle or hardship while steering them toward a way to get through it.
“If I can get through this, you can too,” Hardee says. “I hope everyone can leave feeling a little bit more elevated and validated. We’re all the same and we all deal with the same struggles. It’s about human nature.”
Hardee gave a small preview of her new work during a recent R U OK, CLT? event at the Evening Muse, an event themed around battling all types of depression. A few people in the audience could be seen tearing up at the lyrics, while others reached out to Hardee after the show to thank her for her openness and honesty.
“At first, I shut down all my social media,” Hardee says of the time immediately following the death of her daughter. “When I finally got back online and shared my story, a lot of people contacted me and told me I helped them. That gives me motivation — knowing I was helping other parents or people who had friends dealing with loss.”
PART OF ME
When Hardee found out she was pregnant in 2016, it was a bit of a surprise, she says. The revelation inspired her to immediately change her focus.
“I started doing whatever it takes to make myself the most healthy person I could for my child, no matter what anyone else was doing,” she says. “I put myself on a spiritual path. I knew I was going to protect her and give her the best that I could. I used to have dreams that I would have a child that would die — but I was going to nurture and have a connection no matter what and do everything I could for her.”
While pregnant, Hardee would perform for the baby growing inside of her, playing music and singing whatever was on her mind.
“There were certain songs I would sing to her that she would respond to,” Hardee says. “Normally, when I’d play piano, she’d stop moving and be at peace. One song, though, she’d do flips and respond so much. I recorded it on my voice memo and still have it. It’s turned into the song, ‘Gravity.’”
It’s fitting that Cecilia would respond to a song about the galaxy and the moon. Hardee chose the name Cecilia before learning it’s the patron saint of music, with meanings that include being a light in the dark and lily of heaven.
“Cecilia Moon — I just knew that was the right name,” Hardee says. “I felt like I didn’t choose it, but it chose me.”
Not yet 2 years old, Cecilia was constantly drawn to music. Hardee shared videos on social media of Cecilia singing, dancing and trying to play piano. It’s a bond between mother and child that was built in the womb and still lingers beyond dimensions.
Matrimony made waves in the local music scene for years leading up to the band signing with Columbia Records in 2014. (Full disclosure: They performed at this writer’s wedding in 2011.) The band’s debut album, Montibello Memories, received recognition in national publications, including Rolling Stone and Billboard, as well as song plays in national commercials and the HBO show, Girls.
By 2016, the band was on hiatus as Brown focused on his side project, Bassh, and Hardee prepared for Cecilia’s arrival. Hardee would still write music from time to time, but being a mom became her priority after Cecilia’s birth on Oct. 8, 2016.
She attended hypnotherapy school as a backup plan to help provide for Cecilia. She currently has her own hypnotherapy practice, Creative Transformation, with offices on Park Road.
While she never gave up on songwriting, she just didn’t understand what her subconscious was trying to tell her in her lyrics at the time, she says. She worked on music a bit while living in Tennessee in 2016 and Ireland in 2017. Only recently did she start to look at the lyrics through a different lens.
“I wrote a lot of introspective songs,” Hardee says. “Some of them I’m now using. When I look back, it was very telling of my current emotional state, but I wasn’t able to see it back then. Lyrics had a way of coming out through the pain and process even when I wasn’t seeing it that way.”
Her song “Load” includes the line, “I’ve been shaking under the load, I’m feeling all this pressure.” On “My Way” she sings, “Let me go my way. If you love me, let me go/Say that you need me, but it’s all for show.”
Even looking back at the Matrimony song “Giant,” Hardee said she only realized later on that the lyrics about the toxicity of her parents’ relationship were more prevalent than she originally planned.
“It’s like my deep inner mind is saying things before I realize what’s being said,” Hardee says.
While Hardee spent the first few months after the loss of her daughter in shock, she eventually turned back to music as a form of therapy.
“The way I was able to cope was to sit outside in the sun and have a notebook and start writing lyrics or sing or play piano,” she says. “Those moments are what became the songs that I’ll be singing at the upcoming event.”
The songs Hardee has written may end up as an album or EP down the road — Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene has shown interest in producing an album for her — but Hardee’s current priority lies with the Cecilia Moon Project.
A Facebook page is up and she’s working hard to bring awareness to the cause, which will raise money for the vascular department at Levine Children’s Hospital and for LifeShare — Cecilia was an organ donor.
The upcoming event, which was originally scheduled for July 27 but had to be delayed, will feature Hardee discussing each of her new songs before performing them. Artists and friends have donated moon-themed art to sell to raise money, as well.
“I want it to be a quiet listening room to honor her life and be a place where people can really come and listen to the songs and message,” Hardee says.
In addition to shirts and hats for sale at the Muse, there will be various items from numerous artists, including local visual artists Arthur Brouthers and Sarah Dawn Hellser as well as jewelry maker Megan Escalante. Organizers will also auction off a signed vinyl copy of Amos Lee’s new record, My New Moon, which deals with Lee’s own grief and loss.
Down the road, Hardee hopes to play music for children in the hospital — something she did while performing with Matrimony. She’s also working on creating Moon Buddies, crescent-moon-shaped support pillows for kids confined to hospital beds.
Whether helping children in the hospital or individuals and families who are dealing with loss, Hardee’s foundation and music will be keeping Cecilia’s memory and spirit alive, while keeping Hardee herself moving forward.