TARZANA, California — After the made-for-TV boy band O-Town disbanded in 2003, blond pretty-boy Ashley Parker Angel cashed his profits and immediately moved to Los Angeles to launch a solo career.
Eighteen months later he was broke, living on his girlfriend's mother's couch.
"One of the downsides of being in O-Town was that we had to sign very binding contracts," Angel explained recently. "Everybody around us was taking a piece of the pie so that when it came down to the guys in the group, there was almost nothing left. I wanna be really clear: I didn't frivolously spend the money I made. I made good money for my age and I was really smart with it, but it really only allowed me to live a year and a half in L.A. before I had to go, 'All right, what am I gonna do, because I've got rent to pay.' "
Even more frustrating for Angel was that he was feeling artistically broke as well.
"I came away from O-Town feeling like I had a lot to prove still because of the way that we came together, it was extremely contrived ... it was a total media creation and we really didn't gain a lot of respect or credibility," he confessed. "I grew up in a very musical environment. My mom was a piano teacher, so I started learning how to play piano like almost as soon as I started talking. And my dad was a drummer in a band and he encouraged me to start learning guitar when I was 13. And I always had a knack for songwriting that I really felt I didn't get a chance to showcase being part of O-Town."
So as Angel went around Hollywood from meeting to meeting, he brought a guitar with him, playing his own tunes for executives.
"There is a certain impression and a certain stereotype that comes from being in a boy band," he said. "It was a challenge for me to get in the room with these people and really convey to them that I was so much more than that spiky blond-haired guy that they probably remembered me as."
Angel, who now sports Kurt Cobain-esque hair, eventually found a taker in Blackground Records, Aaliyah's former label and home of JoJo and Toni Braxton. Around that same time last year, MTV also tracked Angel down and, compelled by his riches-to-rags story, began following him with cameras.
The result is "There and Back," a reality series debuting Monday that follows Angel's continued struggle to reinvent himself.
"My only reservation at first was like I'm coming from a reality TV show and I don't want to be looked at as a one-trick pony," Angel said. "I want people to know that I'm the real deal and I was able to go out and get a solo record deal without the power of a television show ... and one of the things that [the show's executive producer, Rod Aissa] said that really made sense to me and is, 'What better way to show people how much you've grown and how different you are now as an artist and personally than to do a show like this?' And ultimately I completely agreed with him."
Like the first season of that other Ashlee's reality show on MTV, "There and Back" chronicles the making of Angel's first album (see "O-Town's Angel Ready To Spread His Wings With Solo LP"). He co-wrote all the tracks, working alongside top producers like Clif Magness, Soulshock & Karlin, Max Martin and the Matrix.
"We took a meeting with Ashley and at the meeting he picked up a guitar and played and sung and it was all there," the Matrix's Graham Edwards said. "I loved it because it was a little bit Oasis and a little bit Coldplay, even though he is an American artist, and I love those bands. It smacked of that for me and I got really excited."
"I think it's been surprising for producers to hear my sound," Angel added. "That was one of the things MTV said when I initially met with them was like, 'We expected the guy from O-Town to sound a certain way. Don't take that offensively, but your music is really a complete departure.' "
Along with following Angel from studio to studio, "There and Back" goes home with the singer, getting up close and personal with his pregnant girlfriend, Tiffany.
"One of the things I learned about doing reality TV is that the times when you don't want to the cameras to be there, the like most private, embarrassing moments, that's the times when they gotta be there. 'Cause that's you, and if you try to hide from the cameras or you try to censor yourself, ultimately you get this very wishy-washy kind of version of who you are and I didn't want that to happen," Angel said.
"I won't lie: When I found out I was gonna be a dad I was so scared," he added. "It was at a time when there was like so many unknowns ... but I embraced it and I'm so glad that I did because it's a miracle. And everyone says that, but people will get a chance to see on 'There and Back' my baby be born. We were open and honest. We let the cameras into every aspect of our lives. They're in the delivery room with us. And I'm pretty sure this is the very first baby actually born on MTV."