Sound healing is a type of therapy that's said to improve a person's emotional and physical well-being through the application of healing frequencies around the body. It's a practice that dates way back to Ancient Greece, but over the past few months, it's made its way into Ashton Irwin's house.
"Matt calls himself a scientist, and I agree," Ashton's talking about his housemate and co-producer of 'Superbloom', Matt Pauling. "His main goal in life is to create something that can heal people through sound and frequency." That's sort of exactly what's been happening for Ashton since February.
Since finishing up tour with his usual band, 5 Seconds Of Summer, at the end of last year and finding himself with little to do as the pandemic took hold, the opportunity to create a solo album he'd always considered presented itself, and with it a chance to rediscover himself. The album – titled 'Superbloom' after he noticed the wavelengths of the tracks looked like, y'know, flowers blooming, and in reference to how he's quickly grown as a person lately – is an exploration of masculinity, depression, childhood, addiction; every corner of his psyche that hadn't been on display before.
A solo venture had always been on his mind, so getting locked down with his producer housemate became a chance to reach that goal. "[Paul] kind of looked at me and said, 'Well, should we just make an album' in February, and my inner self latched on to that idea as a saving grace at the time. I was like, man, I need to do something, to keep on pursuing new ideas, original thoughts, new songs, new perspectives, and keep learning things whilst I'm in this environment, otherwise it's going to be a total downhill thing for me."
Ashton's chatting with us from the very place he made the record, his home studio in Los Angeles, which was set up just for the recording of this album. But let it be known, Ashton doesn't want this to be thought of as a 'quarantine album', it's just a record he made while he had the time. It was also time for him to put to the test what he'd learned in his ten years in the industry – a ridiculous thing to say considering he's only 26 – and figure out how to make an album alone, with a little guidance from his favourite producer.
"I've always been a singer and a songwriter, foremost, that's kind of always been my strong point," he says from his room, surrounded by keyboards and cables. "I'm a creative person who sees things visually and transforms them into records. I transform them into places and multiverses for fans to live in and enjoy, and that's what I really love about my role.
"I'd always thought about making a solo record, but the constructs that were pre-existing around the band didn't see fit for me to do that though, at that point in time. During this year, it was like, oh my god, everything has changed, our reality has changed, and maybe I can actually do this now? Maybe I can actually create a record and release it independently from my house, and see how much I actually have learned in 5 Seconds of Summer, and how far can I take it just on my own as a solo artist?"
Of course, as Ashton notes too, plenty of artists make records in their bedrooms now, but 'Superbloom' bears no resemblance to the bedroom pop we're used to. The result is a sprawling, grungey, glam rock record that pays homage to an era Ashton barely knew. Picking up influences from various major 90s bands like Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots, and his mother's CD collection, featuring Alanis Morissette and Counting Crows, his solo material is a far cry from the pop bops he was writing as part of 5SOS.
He mentions his efforts to step away from Spotify and just listen to music physically throughout the creation of 'Superbloom'. Over our chat, with how passionately he speaks about the music he listens to in his own time and how often he talks about becoming truthful to himself, the sense that he might be doing exactly what he wants to do for the first time in a long time creeps in.
"I think not being influenced is the best influence - step away from everything and forget it all, forget what's popular, forget who is at the forefront of music, forget time and when it was released and just listen to music as a fan. Follow breadcrumb trails like an old school music fan you know, you buy vinyl, you work out that band was influenced by this band and this band, and you go back, and you just follow, you work out where shit came from."
He continues, "You need to try and have original thoughts in your life. There are such great artists out there that have these incredible individual thought processes towards creating, whether it be paintings or music or anything like that, you know, and I just aspire to be speaking with a truthful voice, and being curious about my craft, about songwriting, about the recording process, and how I can deliver my individual music as a solo artist."
Those themes of feeling unable to live his truth and growing up in the spotlight are discussed on closer 'Perfect Lie', a squealing and swirling psychy number where Ash sings "everybody loves it 'til they hate it", that drills in the album's final takeaway – that he's gone through hell behind the scenes over the past decade, but he isn't giving it up yet. That isn't to say there's any kind of animosity towards the people he spent those ten years with (if it wasn't for the pandemic, he says he'd be back in a room with them making another band record), but it's obvious how much of a release creating a solo album has been for Ashton.
"The reason that I wanted a solo project is to go away and be with my thoughts and be my own person and dive into my kind of school of thought and see what I can deliver as a vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist. I really look up to people like Lenny Kravitz, who are a part of the production, the writing, the lyrics, the performance, the creative approach, and releasing a record like that, you know. I'm into, like that old school, making it myself, writing it, recording it and releasing it as the purest form of art. There's no one else dipping in and giving their opinion on what I'm trying to cultivate. And that's what I needed in my life, it makes me feel fulfilled and happy and joyous, and I think it spreads through the music I make to other people."
It sounds like he's had enough of people sticking their nose in. Right at the start of our interview, he mentions he'd lost his Australian accent after moving to the UK at 17, then to LA at 20, and thanks to a Danish vocal coach who tried to get rid of it for singing purposes. Later he points out he's used this time alone to become his own person. In the years in between, he's garnered international fame, reaching some of his highest highs and lowest lows, dealing with depression, alcoholism, body image, and the pressure of being (as he describes) a cultural spokesperson. Between the lines, this album is a moment for Ashton to take back control of his own life.
"It's an identity thing. I'm pretty newly sober, and I stopped drinking about a year and a half ago. So all this change, all this self-analysis and becoming the real version of me was why I've made a record that is like this lyrically, going through topics of depression and body issues and becoming softer, as a person and as a young man, allowing myself to receive good things from the world and not be so dark and hateful at times. I don't know how I ever became that person when I was drinking a lot, and I didn't like the person I became, so I needed to change that. So this record, it's like meeting myself for the first time, it's like really becoming myself for the first time. I just wanted to show my face."
It's interesting to hear him reiterate how he's feeling about being more truthful to himself and becoming the real Ashton. For someone who shot to fame after supporting One Direction on tour in his late teens, at the height of 1D's pop prominence and just as musicians oversharing with fans on social media was becoming the norm, there's understandably the idea that we've always seen the real him. 5 Seconds Of Summer were a band with a teen audience (who at the start of their careers, were similar ages to the boys themselves), who interacted with their fans like friends, as most artists do these days.
There's obviously a degree of honesty that comes with those kinds of artist-fan dynamics, and that's perhaps why Ashton had always felt comfortable being open about his struggles with depression and alcoholism, but it feels like there was still something holding him back from laying it all out until now. Maybe the hefty chunk of time off and newfound sobriety had given him a chance to process some of the last decade, or it could be that this record sounds far starker because it isn't getting filtered through "four consciousnesses" and sung by someone else.
"Navigating growing up in the public eye is like something that I don't even know how to explain yet. I think I'll have to simmer on it for another ten, twenty years and then I can probably talk about it, but it affects you in a million ways, a million positive ways and equally a million negative ways. It is a blessing, and it's also this really confronting destructive thing at times, but it only prepares you for more growth and more lessons. You digest more opinions, you're seeing that most of the time, the grass ain't greener anywhere. 'Popular artist' goes hand in hand with whatever is popular in the current political, cultural, social landscape, and you're constantly bouncing off it."
And how does he think the fans who've followed him since day one will react to some of the themes on this record and the very different direction he's taken solo?
"I don't know. It's cool to challenge people's ideas of you. But that's all they are, their ideas of me, you know, I have ideas of me as well. So it's like, whoever listens, listens. I am so grateful just for any kind of audience to begin with, I hope this reaches some people I haven't reached before, that'd be cool, just as a new artist, and I understand I'm just starting out on my own too, so I'm patient with it."
The album's first offering 'Skinny Skinny' is a folky number written after a conversation with his fifteen-year-old brother about body image. A bit of a different vibe to the rest of the record, it's much slower and more stripped back, but serves as an introduction to the deeply personal level Ashton reaches on 'Superbloom'.
Going with his gut instinct, he says it felt right to release 'Skinny Skinny' first. "I think I reached a place that was so simple and so obvious, and that's where you try to get to as a songwriter. That concept is so real and heartbreaking to myself, and I wish I spoke to people about it a really, really, really, really long time ago, but I am happy to share those thoughts in a song with people that hopefully connect to it."
Elsewhere on the record, there's sparkly shoegazey opener 'Scar', a message to his family about perseverance, built for a live show it might never see (although he does say 'Superbloom's live show would be powerful, androgynous and from 'back in the day' – "It's a feminine, yet masculine presence. It's androgynous. It's beautiful. It's poetic, and that's what my live show would be"). There's the drudging 'Greyhound' that runs well over six minutes and pokes at the idea of capitalism mimicking a greyhound race.
There's the acoustic ballad 'Matter Of Time' where Ash expresses his fear of relapsing from sobriety, 'The Sweetness', which is by far the biggest, heaviest tune backed by an orchestra and fading out Sonic Youth-style with lots of guitar feedback (phew), and the plucky, airy ditty 'Sunshine' that digs at the US media; the hardest song on the record to write according to Ashton.
"It's about looking at your phone too much and consuming too much news, and it shifting the way you think about your life, the way your mind works, the way your anxious mind works. It's about freeing yourself and remembering that your life is short, and you can't spend your whole life rebuttalling to endless, endless bad news. It is important to keep up but it's also important to manage yourself and to be gentle and loving towards yourself and your subconscious mind."
So with his time off (or not so much), Ashton emerges from his cocoon a new man. He's visibly confident and excited about this release, his own little musical therapy in full swing as he kicks off this cycle (we're the first chat of his day btw). He seems happy to be getting all of this off his chest, and proud too, but as listeners digest this record, he's already started on the next one. He signs off stating, "I'm really stoked to just be speaking about my music from a different perspective and in with different language, and it makes me feel proud of the evolution that's happening currently. It's been good, but a big thing for me is just keep moving on, like, the work is done on my end."
He's still got a lot of questions for the world at large, maybe he's saving them for what's coming next. For now, he'd like to know if he's got that 90s sound spot on… "If anyone ever reads or listens to the things I say, who's from the 90s, I wonder what their opinion will be on it? Does it add up? Does it compare to the way records felt back then, during that time when that music was most popular? I would like to know…"
Taken from the November 2020 issue of Dork. Order a copy below for more photos and 'stuff'. Ashton Irwin's debut album 'Superbloom' is out now.
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