Getting the opportunity to showcase your music at SXSW is prized by thousands of artists, but it’s the rare artist that gets to do it twice in one year. Meet ASHY: she’s not messing around.
The Christchurch pop artist – who otherwise goes by Ashy Batchelor – is enjoying the boons of a breakout year thanks to her glossy debut EP, Status, and her 2023 will be bookended by appearances at SXSW and the inaugural SXSW Sydney. In Australia this week, she’ll perform six times, twice a day, for industry insiders and potential fans, but after her experience at the original SXSW in Austin in March, she’s more than ready for the experience.
“[Everyone said] it’s the craziest week you’re ever gonna go to and it’ll be really overwhelming. But I went in and it was actually really fun. I think it’s because we did so much prep for it – we were just excited to be there and excited to play,” ASHY tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ.
After making the long trip to the US from New Zealand, she was initially overwhelmed by the wealth of rising talent also competing for attention, but standing out from the crowd is what ASHY has been specialising in lately.
“At the start of the week, when I hadn’t played yet, a lot of the mindset was like, ‘How am I going to be any different to anybody else?’ There were so many talented people there and it was very easy to compare,” she remembers. “I think when we got to play, it was obvious what our strengths were and how we were different. My band is all-female as well, and that really stood out more than we thought it would over there.”
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Another thing made ASHY stand out from the rest at SXSW: her fierce commitment to pop music. When so much of today’s pop masquerades as something it’s not, and streaming playlists with titles like “Indie Pop Party” cloud the distinctions between genres, there’s something welcoming about ASHY’s candid appreciation for what could unfairly be labelled “commercial pop.”
“We just played pure pop,” as she puts it. “There were a lot of indie bands, metal bands as well. But just having that little bit of an edge really helped us in the end.
Status stretches for barely 15 minutes, but the EP packs so much gleaming pop into that brief time. There are flecks and flourishes of contemporary R&B, sure, but ASHY’s songs revel in pure pop. The production is polished while crucially allowing ASHY’s vocals and creativity freedom to breathe; each song is supremely radio-ready but all sound just as ready for the live circuit, too.
On her Instagram, for example, there is an illuminating clip of an ASHY performance: she and two backing dancers (Emily C. Browning and Phoebe Hurst) perform well-prepared choreography while singing in a room inside Christchurch Town Hall. In front of them, a happy male reveller tries to keep up with their moves. ASHY’s singing is strong, her moves measured. You’re watching an artist fully aligned with their vision of themselves, is the general feeling. (Watching it at first, though, there is a strange dissonance, perplexity at seeing this sort of pop music and choreography performed in a tightly packed room when we’re more used to seeing it in much larger arenas; when pop music dominates commercially, there comes the dangerous illusion that every pop star arrives at stardom and stadiums instantaneously, completely skipping the small rooms and hard work; but pop artists like ASHY have to hone their craft in such spaces just as much as a guitar band or MC.)
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In conversation, she doesn’t hide her affinity with the most commercial of pop. She hails the perennially underrated English singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding as a “huge inspiration,” in no small part due to her occasional turns into R&B. “She’s killing it. She always kills it,” ASHY asserts. She got to watch her idol up close when she came to Christchurch several years ago. “Just her commitment, her fitness levels – she has to be running around the stage and still have vocal stamina and be an amazing vocalist,” she gushes. “And she’s also actually writing her songs.”
Status marked a purposeful turn towards record-making by ASHY rather than focusing on singles, which she notes is a “very different thing to a project.”
“With a single, you want it to hit immediately for an audience, especially for pop; within the first 30 seconds, it should be good,” she explains. “But with this project, I wanted to push my songwriting and I said that to the producers as well. I wanted to do pop with this R&B influence, because that’s what I was consuming at the time.”
In the studio, she and her team were exacting when it came to finding originality. “If I recognised the melody we came up with, it was scrapped,” ASHY says bluntly. “We started again, we had to really think about what could be different for me. That’s the thing that every artist is after: What’s gonna make me different? What’s gonna make me stand out?”
For the lyrics, ASHY preferred to not have an initial concept, relishing in the freedom of “starting from a blank page and ending with a song on that same day.” “I really like to work like that. I think it’s challenging and it’s fun,” she says. “And then later, you can dissect it and go, ‘Actually that part’s not as strong, maybe we should rewrite this.’”
ASHY’s EP is bookended by its two strongest songs, the Jujulipps-starring “DO NOT DISTURB” (“She’s amazing. I just wanted a female rapper, I thought that was really important”) and “LA Talk”, the latter of which was at least a little pre-prepared before she arrived in the studio. “”LA Talk” was one that was really speaking about the industry and how crazy it is,” she explains. “It can be so toxic and dark.”
“I wasn’t signed / He was nice / Had no reason to think twice / Swept away by all his promises,” she sings in the pre-chorus, a little anguished, before she gathers herself: “Full of shoulda, woulda, coulda / Now I’m seeing through ya,” she adds confidently, displaying Ariana-esque attitude.
“A lot of it speaks about just being in the music industry – it’s a very weird industry to be a part of,” she says of the EP as a whole. “There are a lot of stories, especially about being a young woman and a diverse woman. [It’s also] about the balance of trying to be a successful person, be creative, and get ahead in the industry versus having a normal life.”
ASHY certainly knows what she’s talking about. Growing up in a South Asian family in Christchurch, her aspirations of pop success seemed quite distant in her youth.
“Definitely when I started, being a person of colour, truthfully, was probably not in my favour,” she says. “Especially with being pop, those are two very separate things. It was such a definitive thing to go, ‘I’m a pop artist but I’m also this.’ That’s something that you haven’t really seen before. I think it was hard for people to digest and accept that this is something that could work.”
ASHY is still young, but she firmly believes that people in the Aotearoa music industry were slow to recognise her talent “because what I was trying to do hadn’t been done before.”
“Of course it’s been done with other ethnicities, but I think specifically what I was trying to do, and what I’m still trying to [do], is a hard concept for people to swallow,” she adds.
At SXSW in March, ASHY found a community within the mass of diverse acts at the festival. “They don’t want to see another Taylor Swift because they already have a great Taylor Swift,” she says sublimely. (ASHY will head to SXSW Sydney alongside other notable rising South Asian artists, PANIA and Ashwarya.)
ASHY isn’t about to rest after her visit to Australia this week; far from it, in fact. Having recently signed to US management, she has her sights set firmly on a return trip to the States. “My next endeavour will probably have to be visas to get over [to the US]. Wish me luck!” she says with a smile. “The main goal is to head there for a string of shows next year, and then the UK for an extended period of time to work that market.”
In a time where K-Pop groups are selling out arenas around the globe and Billboard’s top artist of last year was from Puerto Rico, a South Asian artist like ASHY can look to the future with genuine excitement and hope; the world already has a great Taylor Swift, after all.