Ashnikko: Weeding Out the Competition

Interview Ashnikko: Weeding Out the Competition

Having spent the last three years cementing her status as one of music’s most unique and uncompromising characters, debut album ‘WEEDKILLER’ is here to underscore Ashnikko as an alt-pop artist like no other.

If you already had Ashnikko down as an alt-pop artist of rare imagination, then debut full-length ‘WEEDKILLER’ is about to raise her own fantastical bar into the ether. Based on a short story written by the visionary singer-rapper, it’s an enthralling “half-concept album” set in a dystopian realm populated by “fae-like” people called Nym. “They have a beautifully symbiotic relationship with the trees and all the plants in the forest,” she explains, speaking over Zoom from Prague where she’s about to play a festival. “It really is one big breathing community and entity.”

This idyllic-sounding realm becomes dystopian because of a destructive force that could be interpreted allegorically; certainly, the story’s antagonists sound like a representation of very contemporary concerns surrounding technological progress and the impending environmental disaster. “To simplify the story,” Ash continues, “the forest is kind of mown down and has all life sucked out of it by biomatter-eating machines called Weedkillers.” These machines don’t view the Nym as a community, Ashnikko says, but simply as “something to harvest and be controlled.”

Whatever you take from the album’s overarching narrative, though, there’s no denying it makes for bracing and uncommonly evocative music. An inescapable sense of doom and destruction looms large on the menacing title track, which features the sound of cocked guns followed by shot after shot. “We always knew it would come to this / That I would be the one to eliminate you,” Ashnikko sings, presumably giving voice to the malevolent Weedkillers.

An avid devourer of fantasy video games, graphic novels and books, as well as the dystopian literature of Margaret Atwood, Ash says she has “always been fascinated by apocalyptic stories” like the one she weaves on her debut. “For me, it’s the ultimate test,” she says. “I like writing about the creativity and survival instinct that people have in those moments.”

Ashnikko: Weeding Out the Competition

“Music is magic, and to profit off of it is kind of the antithesis of what music is for.”

Where much of the record sits within this narrative, she explains that others made the cut for the record because “they just made me feel very in touch with my roots”. Born in North Carolina, the area gave the musician a deep appreciation of nature that clearly informs the storytelling on her debut. “I grew up in the countryside, playing in the creek and climbing fruit trees and stuff,” she recalls. “So yeah, I definitely love being outside – I grew up in the mud.”

In recent times, she admits that her nature-loving side has “faltered” due to the pressures and stresses of becoming one of the alt-pop world’s brightest new stars. “But I think I’ve definitely come back to that,” she adds. “Like, my love for the outdoors and just reminding myself that I’m an animal has circled back for me in the past three or four years. And [it makes me] feel like a kid again, in a way, which is nice.”

As such, the fantasy world she creates on ‘WEEDKILLER’ is informed as much by her bucolic childhood as it is her fondness for the apocalyptic. In the middle, where the beauty of the natural world and the ravage and rampage of our modern one battle each other, seems to be the sweet spot where the singer most keenly sits. “I grew up making little fairy houses in my backyard out of sticks and moss, and pressing flowers on my notebook and writing little fairy stories,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated with both [of those things], so I put them together in one story.”

As a teenager, Ash moved with her family to Estonia and then to neighbouring Latvia, where she was the only American student in the public school system. In June of this year, she wrote an incredibly moving Pride Month love letter to the LGBTQ+ community, in which she spoke about the cumulative impact of growing up in the Bible Belt and a “notoriously homophobic” Baltic state. “Being queer in those environments is one of the greatest heartbreaks of my life,” she wrote. “It will stay with me forever. I have sanded over the rough edges of it, made it hurt less, but the weight of it still sits in my chest, a smooth marble.”

When she was 18, she relocated to London, by herself, to pursue music. It was here, she wrote in that letter, “that I started to find my people in the queer community, that I let the roots take hold and my growth began”. Since December 2021, she has been in a relationship with another musician, the Mercury Prize-winning singer-songwriter Arlo Parks.

When DIY asks if London now feels like home, Ash says she’s still figuring it out. “That’s a question I ask myself all the time,” she says. “I’m definitely kind of caught in the middle. But I’m happy having two homes. It’s all about the people. And I have such a beautiful community of family and chosen family all over the world. So yeah, I feel at home in multiple places.”

“I would dance naked through the forests and swim in streams. That’s how my ideal year would pan out.”

Ever since she dropped her fabulously-titled debut EP, 2017’s ‘Sass Pancakes’, Ashnikko’s music has pulsed with a plain-spoken potency. She dares to say things on record that other, less fearless artists wouldn’t. ‘You Make Me Sick’, the visceral first single from 'WEEDKILLER’, harnesses the musician’s rage but also showcases her brutal sense of humour. “You fucking loser / Red meat deadbeat, you fucking tumor,” she raps over a buzzing industrial beat. “Can’t believe I let your hands inside my bloomers.”

Ashnikko says she wrote the savage banger “about an ex, in classic ‘me’ form” and likens it to “releasing a toxin”. “I just really wanted to scream. I just wanted to have a little explosion [and] a little catharsis and kind of be a little cruel,” she says. “I wrote it, and then the feeling of resentment I had dissipated. It was a huge release for me. And I love that song; it’s really fun to play live.”

This sentiment has been a running theme. On 2019’s ‘Stupid’, a swaggering number with Atlanta rapper Yung Baby Tate that became her first viral hit, she taunts a deluded “stupid boy” by rapping: “I know you think about me in the shower... think about me with your hand down your trousers”. In addition to collaborations with Grimes (‘Cry’), Princess Nokia (‘Slumber Party’) and the genius use of a Kelis sample (‘Deal with It’), 2021’s ‘Demidevil’ mixtape then included the alt-pop smash ‘Daisy’, which has now racked up 446 million Spotify streams. “Fuck a princess, I’m a king / Bow down and kiss on my ring,” Ashnikko raps with casual confidence.

Today, she’s on far calmer conversational form, but admits that she has “always been a very laser-focused person” who knew she wanted to be a musician from her teens. Where does this drive come from? “Capitalism,” she replies with a knowing laugh. “I don’t know; I really have a very obsessive personality.” Interestingly, she also suggests that her ability to take failure well has been a key ingredient in her success. “I just keep pushing onto the next [thing]. I don’t really register it as failure,” she says. “And I think that has been quite helpful for me.”

Ash also hints that this ambition could be channelled into other avenues at some point in the future, with a love of short story-writing currently keeping her busy during her brief moments of down time. “I just always wanted to do something in the creative realm, and I think maybe that will evolve outside of music to new mediums,” she says. “But definitely I am a creative person through and through.”

Having thrown herself fully into the pop star job since emerging at the turn of the decade, the inherent ironies of the music industry – one that conflates art with chart positions and turns soul-baring into salary slips – are hardly lost on the musician. “I have had successful songs and the pressure to follow up with ‘even better, more and more’ is super-high,” she says. “Music is magic, and to profit off of it is kind of the antithesis of what music is for. And, yeah, I think putting numbers on something that is so intrinsically tied to who I am... it feels wrong sometimes. But I’m grappling with it.” She views her purpose as a musician as being “just to make art and express myself”. Fundamentally, the aim is to “connect to different people and share in the ineffable magic.”

Ashnikko: Weeding Out the Competition Ashnikko: Weeding Out the Competition

“I am a creative person, through and through.”

Other ‘WEEDKILLER’ tracks will show Ash’s more vulnerable, reflective side - an opportunity for her fans to see the sensitivity behind the strength. On the frenetic, deceptively peppy ‘Cheerleader’, she crisply eviscerates the unrealistic beauty ideals of the social media era by rapping: “Filler, snip and glue / Am I fuckable enough for you?” She says this song was sparked by the hopelessness of “feeling that the world is just so obsessed with youth”.

“No matter how much self-love I engage in, no matter how much work I do, there’s still an onslaught of messages every day that there’s something else that I could be doing better,” she continues. “There’s always some other way for me to change how I look.” Is this feeling exacerbated from being a high-profile musician with a sizable Instagram following? “Yeah, it’s definitely exacerbated because of my career path,” she replies. “But I mean, you see the effects of impossible beauty standards affecting everyone who lives part of their life online.”

When DIY asks what her ideal year might look like, Ashnikko evinces a very relatable yearning for a more simple, offline kind of life. “I would go live inside of a little tree and eat little acorns and drink little little cups of honeysuckle nectar,” she says, playfully riffing on her reignited love of nature. “And I would dance naked through the forests and swim in streams. That’s how my ideal year would pan out.”

It might not be an entirely realistic plan for right now; from September through December, she’s got the North American and European legs of the ‘WEEDKILLER’ tour to focus on, including a huge headline show at London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace - her biggest in the UK to date. But even away from the fairies and the Nym of her own imagination, there’s plenty in the real world that Ashnikko’s embracing too. “Being able to meet the people who support me and listen to my music, and to share that very human interaction of playing music and singing together, that’s really beautiful,” she says. “Being on stage is my favourite thing in the whole world.”

‘WEEDKILLER’ is out 25th August via Parlophone.

Tags: Ashnikko, Features, Interviews

As featured in the July 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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