ASHNIKKO has always taken us on big, brash, bombastic journeys that cut to the bone. With her debut album ‘WEEDKILLER’, though, we’re heading to a whole new world.
Words: Ali Shutler.
“I love telling very human stories in a fantastical world,” says Ashnikko. “Creating someplace to escape into is a big part of that.”
The alternative musician has spent the past five years transporting people via bold creations, but their upcoming debut album takes that to the next level. Inspired by a short story she wrote, ‘Weedkiller’ takes place on a different planet, in the wreckage of a destroyed civilisation. The lead character is the sole surviving faerie. The enemy is the Weedkiller.
“I’ve put a lot into it,” says Ash, still recovering from an ambitious Coachella performance that saw dance routines do battle with a 12ft tall robo-puppet. “I can’t wait to take that show on the road in a less pressured environment.”
She goes on to describe ‘Weedkiller’ as a visual endeavour as well as a musical one. There are no plans to share the original short story with the world, but she is working on a graphic novel. “I’ve always written narratives in my music, but this feels like an evolution.”
The album features tracks reminiscent of their previous releases, but there are also many “different” songs on ‘Weedkiller’,” says Ash. “I try not to listen to other music when I’m writing and recording because you run the risk of sounding similar,” she explains. It’s hard to think of anyone making music quite like this.
Ashnikko “approached the album like we were scoring a film”, pulling influence from fantasy novels, Studio Ghibli’s fantasy epic Princess Mononoke, Japanese art film Angel’s Egg and action role-playing game Horizon Zero Dawn. The result is something cohesive and surprising, beautiful and visceral.
‘Weedkiller’ is “kind of” a concept record, according to Ash. Songs like ‘World Eater’, ‘Super Soaker’, ‘Possession Of A Weapon’ and the title-track are very much in that realm, but other songs are “very sexual and very much about body autonomy. There are also very autobiographical stories from my childhood,” they explain. Sonically, everything is part of the same world, and the concept really comes to life through the visuals.
That fantasy world is “definitely a lens through which I can write personal songs,” says Ash. “There’s a lot of catharsis on the album. It’s me reclaiming my sense of self, stepping into my selfhood and growing as a person.”
They go on to say that the Weedkiller represents a lot of different characters from her life. “It’s me grieving over the natural world being decimated, it’s me speaking to my abuser, it’s me reclaiming my autonomy in my life.” The hope is that others can confront their own demons through ‘Weedkiller’.
“I can choose to put myself in healthy environments. No one’s out to get me”Ashnikko
Broadly speaking, the ‘Weedkiller’ era is already tackling themes of control and freedom. “I have OCD, so that makes sense,” Ash explains. “I won’t go into detail, but finding my spiritual, emotional and bodily autonomy was very important because it’s not something I had growing up.”
Ashnikko has been on a journey of self-discovery over the past couple of years. At age 25, she realised she could treat herself nicely. “I can choose to put myself in healthy environments. No one’s out to get me. I can receive love,” the 27-year-old reflects. “It feels like a crushing tonne of weight has been lifted off my shoulders, but it’s still a process I’m working through.”
“Life is crazy right now, but I definitely feel way more rooted in who I am as a person now than I did when I began my journey as a musician at 18 years old,” she adds.
Back then, all Ashnikko wanted was to tour. They released their debut EP ‘Sass Pancakes’ in 2017, while follow-up ‘Unlikeable’ came in 2018 alongside the first of their annual Halloween tracks, ‘Halloweenie’. Breakout EP ‘Hi, It’s Me’ followed in 2019 and featured the viral smash ‘Stupid’. Coming into 2020, Ashnikko had plans to put three immersive gigs at London’s 320-capacity Omeara, but COVID had other ideas. By the time they finally got to play a headline gig in the capital, it was two sold-out shows at the O2 Forum Kentish Town to round out a world tour, thanks to the ‘Demidevil’ mixtape.
Ashnikko “definitely” wasn’t expecting ‘Demidevil’ to blow up like it did. “That first year that things really popped off was really hard on my mental health,” she explains. “It was just super overwhelming.”
“Learning about and growing into my own gender identity while simultaneously doing interviews where everyone’s like ‘what’s it like bEiNg a WoMAn in the MuSiC InDuStry?!?!’ is very strange,” they tweeted in 2021. “And to clarify, I am pansexual and genderfluid. I just didn’t feel ready to tell the internet yet, but I guess now’s a good time since everyone’s doing a dissection into my sexuality and gender identity,” they added, following the release of ‘Clitoris! The Musical’, a song that does everything the title promises.
“I am from a very small, conservative, patriarchal town in the Bible Belt in the United States, so for me, feminism was very radical when I first discovered it late in my life,” she says today, with her older material helping explore that.
“But then I had more time to sit on the concept of gender, learn about it and deconstruct it in my own head. I definitely identify with womanhood, but I just realised it’s more than that for me. I’ve done a lot of research and self-reflection as I’ve moved through my 20s. My sexual orientation and my gender identity has definitely evolved.”
“I am so grateful people really connected to ‘Demidevil’, though. It changed my life.” Ash isn’t sure why it resonated (“I have a very hard time like looking at my music from an outsider’s perspective,” she admits), but its giddy blend of fearlessness, humour and empowerment were hard to ignore.
Following the global success of ‘Demidevil’, Ash admits they “maybe felt a bit pigeonholed to make that type of music forever, [but] there are so many different facets to my musical journey and what I enjoy.” It’s where that sense of assured freedom comes from on ‘Weedkiller’. “I try not to think about what other people think about me as an artist. I try to only care about what the people I love think about me and what I think about me.”
“Trying to outdo that success of ‘Demidevil’ is always playing on my mind, but I’ve always tried to outdo myself,” she shrugs. Still, it never feels like Ashnikko plays it safe on ‘Weedkiller’. Instead of toning things down to reach more people, the album is more abrasive.
“I don’t feel interested in being a pop star, in the traditional sense of the word. That much exposure to the world feels very dangerous to me. It’s something I’m very terrified of. And being palatable is something that I don’t think would feel right.”
In the past, Ashnikko has made more pop-leaning songs, but they’ve always felt “at odds” with who they are. “I feel like my body is very good at telling me when I’m doing something against my nature.”
“I know my record label would love it if I made an album with very advantageous features and if I did certain remixes to help me ‘level up’ in music, but that game really stresses me out,” she admits. “I’m not very good at playing the game, and it never leaves me feeling very fulfilled.”
“The actual purpose of music is to bring people together and make actual magic. I only ever want to make music for the joy and love of it. If my music connects with a large number of people, then fab, but that’s not what I’m trying to do.”
It’s why she hasn’t thought too much about what she wants this record to mean to others. “When you release music, you have to relinquish control over it. For me to then tell you what I hope the fans get from it, that feels like I’d be trying to control it still. For me to happily put my life’s work out into the world for consumption, I just have to be happy with what they’re going to take from it. I’m really excited for people to tell me how it relates to their lives.”
“I’ve done a lot of research and self-reflection as I’ve moved through my 20s”Ashnikko
“There’s still humour on ‘Weedkiller’, but I’m just telling different stories”
Ashnikko’s world has always been driven by personality, and that still shines through on ‘Weedkiller’, despite the overarching narrative. “There’s still humour on ‘Weedkiller’, but I’m telling different stories. I’m not taking myself any more seriously than I did before. I’m still an extremely silly guy in real life, and I think we’re having a very silly human experience right now. If you can’t laugh at it, then what’s the point?”
That self-deprecating humour is one of the reasons their music connects with so many people, but Ash has always said it’s a defence mechanism. “I just laugh through trauma,” they told NME back in 2020. For perhaps the first time, though, ‘Weedkiller’ features actual joy.
“There’s so much rage and vengeance on the album, which is so much easier to channel than forgiveness and hope,” they explain. “There’s definitely a through-line of striking back against someone or something that is causing you extreme harm, but at the same time, I was trying to inject a feeling of hopefulness in there. I wanted that sense that things can get better and be rebuilt.”
It’s why ending the record on ‘Dying Star’ was such a deliberate move.
“I tend to feel very overwhelmed by bad things that are happening in the world, and I hyper-focus on things that I do wrong. To end the album on this song that is about creating new life on a new planet, in a new love, I think was important for me,” they offer.
The lush, stripped-back track features Ethel Cain because, well, “she’s a genius,” says Ash. “She’s definitely one of my favourite artists. I love her album ‘Preacher’s Daughter’. I love how good she is at telling stories through her music and her visual world.” The pairing “just felt right”, adds Ash. “I had a really good time making that song with her.”
“The journey here was hard; I was almost pulled apart,” sings Ash before the final line. “I’m tired of the dirt and grit; I want something soft.”
“The majority of the songs on the album are this lead character avenging the loss of their home, their loved ones, their autonomy, and their ability to fly because their wings have been ripped out of their back. They’re a hardened warrior with weapons sheafed to her thigh, and they’ve become a being of pure rage and vengeance,” explains Ash of the Faerie protagonist. “Then, at the very end, that hard exterior starts to crack, and they realise they just want a home again.” Instead of revenge, the whole quest has been searching for something soft.
They go on to say how they listen to a lot of flute, harp and ambient music or nature sounds in their free time. “I’m very much soft in my own life, and some of that enters the album, even if it’s in very subtle ways.”
With lines constantly blurred between fantasy and reality across ‘Weedkiller’, is that final line a hint at where Ashnikko is going next?
“I have been thinking about album two a little bit. I still love making abrasive music because it’s very cathartic,” she says before pausing. “I think I can be more versatile than people give me credit for. I was just trying to showcase that.”
It’s something Ashnikko wants to explore more going forward. “I want to diversify my creative endeavours. I’m writing a book. I want to get into acting and do performance art. I really want to learn how to produce.”
“Awards and accolades are not super interesting to me,” she says of future ambitions. “I just want to be able to have the resources to make the visual art and music that I want to make.”
There are also flickers of hope on ‘Miss Nectarine’, a brooding, electro track. As the deadline approached for ‘Weedkiller’, Ash wasn’t sure if they wanted to put it on the album because it’s a song about a very formative moment in her childhood and features “an honest, four-on-the-floor disco beat, which is very weird for me.”
It made the record for the simple reason that she liked it. “It’s super autobiographical and is about my first queer love in a very homophobic small town.” In the interest of protecting the identity of the other people involved, Ash doesn’t want to say too much about the track, “but it was a super traumatic experience for me.”
Ash hopes the song will help others feel seen. “It’s the classic story of falling for a best friend and them just not seeing you that way, which is heartbreaking.” It also tackles “not having a safe environment to even express those feelings, for fear of being ostracised from your community or losing the friendship.”
“There was way more that went on besides that,” adds Ash, who had a really difficult time as a teenager. “I moved from North Carolina to Eastern Europe quite randomly at the age of 13,” she says. “I find it really hard to talk or write about being a teenager because I have a lot of trauma from then. Writing a song like ‘Miss Nectarine’ was a really big step for me.”
Later this year, she’ll get to perform that track in huge rooms for the “beautiful community” that comes to her gigs. “My shows really do feel like a safe space. My fans look out for each other and are really kind and respectful. Every time I go out on stage, I honestly tear up looking out at this wonderful community that they built for themselves.”
Between the visual world and the actual music, ‘Weedkiller’ is an incredibly ambitious project, with Ashnikko pouring a lot of herself into its creation. “There’s always fear and panic over releasing a new album and seeing how people are going to react. I know that I’m basically touring for the next 365 days. Pray for me?”
Ashnikko says that touring is very hard. “It leaves you very unhealthy, both mentally and physically, but I’m so grateful that I get to travel the world and play my music. It’s all I wanted to do when I was younger, and it’s still my favourite part of the whole thing. I love that exchange of energy and live music’s ritualistic element.”
“My aspirations have definitely evolved since I was 18, though. Back then, I wanted to be a pop star. Now, I just want to be happy.” ■
Taken from the June 2023 edition of Dork. Ashnikko’s debut album ‘Weedkiller’ is out soon.