Recording his debut solo album in lockdown, 5 Seconds of Summer's Ashton Irwin discusses the creation of the powerful 'Superbloom'.
It’s fair to say that when 2020 began, no one – especially not the artist himself – expected that we would be witnessing the launch of a solo career from Ashton Irwin. Having risen to fame as a member of Sydney outfit 5 Seconds of Summer, most fans would have likely expected that this year would be focused solely on the touring and celebration of the band’s chart-topping fourth album, with Calm arriving back in March.
Of course, no one expected a global pandemic, either. With lockdowns in place, and time on his hands, Irwin quickly found himself teaming up with his producer housemate Matt Pauling, with the pair buckling down on his solo debut.
In September, Irwin emerged from lockdown with the news that his first solo record would be released in just under a month. Titled Superbloom, the ten-track album was teased by the release of his first single, “Skinny Skinny”, with the likes of “Have U Found What Ur Looking For” and “Scar” following soon after.
Something of a departure from the usual sound explored with 5 Seconds of Summer, Superbloom provided Irwin with a unique platform, one which allowed him to showcase his musical influences – ranging from the likes of Foo Fighters, My Bloody Valentine, Helmet, and more – and one which saw him able to explore the vast array of topics he wished to face from a lyrical point of view.
“The over-arching narrative is support system, healing, recovery, strength and focus on true self. I felt like I had a lot to write about,” he explained at the time.
“I had to reach a certain level of lyrical maturity in order to write about something I actually cared about. I think it’s always important as an artist to have a mission statement, like, ‘why do you make music? Why do you write the lyrics you write?’”
With Superbloom out today, Irwin spoke to Rolling Stone in anticipation of its release to discuss how it all came to be, how it allowed him to showcase his true musical self, and what the future might hold for his solo work.
Firstly, congratulations on the record, it’s an absolutely amazing album and something you must be feeling really proud of?
The way I feel today is really positive. I’m really happy with the conversations that I’ve been having about Superbloom. I think, conceptually, it’s really aligned with who I am as a being and a person, so I feel like I can really converse and deliver the definition of the songs and the motives behind making the music. So, I’m feeling good about everything today.
Before I get deep into the record, I guess I should kick off with the standard question – how have you been dealing with everything in the world?
Yeah, y’know, I’m…. I’ve kind of been, in terms of my purpose in my little world with my friends and the conversations that I have with the people that are in my everyday life, we’ve kind of abolished the phrase “when everything goes back to normal”. We’re kind of agreeing with each other that we have to be positive, we have to remain creative, we have to come up with creative solutions because that is our job in this society as artists. We have to think outside of the box, and that box, and outside that box, and et cetera, and we have to keep maintaining and persevering to create things in whatever environment we’re given.
So my life has changed a lot, and I’ve been dealing with – pretty much – only positive experiences, because we’ve actively chosen that lane. But also, side-note and sidebar, I’ve been given the most marvellous resources and I’ve cultivated the most marvellous team that I work with here in LA over the last ten years, and I’m so blessed to have an audience that has allowed me… I’ve been in a successful pop band for nine years, and I’m just so stoked to be able to have the resources to make an album at home in the first place. So that’s where I’m at.
I’m just so lucky to be able to be busy, able to make a whole record at home with my best mate, and able to make a record that sounds fantastic here at home, and not many people have that ability. So y’know, I’m just thankful in general.
You mentioned the idea of moving forward and being creative, and you were lucky enough to be able to work on a solo album, but was a solo album always something you thought you would do at some point? Or was it a more of a case of ‘if the opportunity presented itself’?
[Laughs] I mean, yeah, it’s both! I’ve been around the world sevenfold, and I’ve told everyone about 5 Seconds of Summer, and I’ve done everything I can to let the world know that 5 Seconds of Summer exists, y’know?
I dedicated my whole adulthood and late adolescence to delivering pop music, and meaningful music, to a wonderful audience that we have, but I’ve always wanted to make a solo record, and so had everybody else in 5 Seconds of Summer.
It’s something that we’ve never been afraid of, we’ve always publicly talked about it, we’ve always confronted each other, and we always knew that each one of us is a very different artist – which I think makes us a great band, because we have diversity and ability.
And a lot of this, making Superbloom, for me, was to learn how to stop relying on collaboration. I need to go in and write some lyrics on my own, and see what I have inside my heart that is meaningful to my personal narrative and what original songs can I write that will impact for me as a solo songwriter.
So when did the production of the album first begin? Was it at the start of lockdown?
Yeah, it was… In the US, I’m not sure if it was like this everywhere, but we basically got an AMBER Alert on our phones. Do you get those in Australia? I’m not sure.
We don’t, no.
Basically, the government here in the US will send out a message saying, y’know “Lockdown for the following… from these dates to these dates, stay in your homes.” So, everybody in LA got one of those, in California. Matt, my roommate – and also, his studio is here – just looked at me and said, “Well, it looks like we’re going to make a record together,” because we can’t do anything else. We’re here together for, we were here together indoors for four-and-a-half months, and the pandemic’s impact is still getting worse here. So I’m still here, we’re still on lockdown, and we’re still staying away from people.
It was that first leap of faith that began conversations about, “Okay, what would a solo project from me sound like?” I am a very rock, alternative-based consumer of music. I really have a lot of Seventies, Eighties, Nineties influences, and some Two-Thousands influences. In terms of recording and what I like, [it] was coming a lot from Seventies and Nineties music. So we knew that, yeah, I’m a good drummer, I can play drums, but honestly I couldn’t record drums for shit at the start of this year, so I had an ambition to be able to record myself, start honing in on my production.
In order to be in this music industry for a long time, I need to learn how to be self-reliant, and be able to record my music, record my ideas, and make great things without anyone else. That’s just an ambition of mine, and I’m still working on that, but Superbloom is the first natural insight into what my ability is as a producer with my co-producer Matt Pauling.
When you were recording it, did the process ever feel somewhat incomplete? You often hear stories about artists who make an album without their usual band mates and they sometimes say how it’s uncharted territory. They almost feel like a piece of the process is missing. Was that something you experienced, or did having someone like Matt by your side make up for that?
Matt is one of the most gifted ears and producers that I’ve ever worked with, and I can’t wait to see him flourish into the wonderful grand successes that he’ll experience in his life. The way he records records are reminiscent of days of old when people would spend a million, two million dollars on an album, but also fast-paced like the pop industry of today, which made us an incredibly collaborative duo.
I’m from a pop songwriting background, but he’s from a rock background – he kind of was mentored by producer John Feldmann for a long time before he went his own way. So we consistently, 24 hours a day, whenever we see each other, we’re listening to music, playing music, talking about music, talking about lyrics, talking about meaning of music, talking up cultural/pop-cultural shift in music; we’re always having fruitful conversations about where music’s at.
So we came up with Superbloom because we truly believe that people in my audience at the moment are really craving a live, explosive, bombastic type of music with guitar-heavy sonics, and lyrics that are just personal and real. I think people are kind of sick of the perfect pop song, and I’m just putting out what I truly believe in. So it feels really aligned with me and where all this influence came from.
So in terms of ‘missing pieces’, this is a new endeavour for me. So because I cut out the possibility of having people come over and play because of the pandemic, I cut out the possibility of collaborating with other musicians, or players to play on the record because of the pandemic – I just relied on us two, so it didn’t feel like I had missing pieces.
You mentioned the sound of it is more suited towards your own influences, and people would have heard that when they first heard “Skinny Skinny”. I believe I heard that one was more Nick Drake influenced, is that correct?
Yeah man, I’ve been banging on about Nick Drake lately. Nick Drake, I’m really late to Nick Drake as an influence. I mean, “River Man” and “Pink Moon” are some of my favourite folk-pop songs. It’s sad for Nick because he had a lot of struggles with his musical career, but if I could tell Nick that his music really enthused me for my own personal lyricism and I felt really aligned with what he would say in his songs.
I felt really aligned with the way that he would record his vocal, and the poetic side of his writing was like, “Oh my God, I found someone who I feel like I could write a song like that. I feel influenced, I feel truly shook.” [Laughs] I feel like, “Oh my God, that’s totally my direction, that’s what I sound like,” if that makes sense.
So I was just excited, like a child, really, when I discovered Nick, and not long after, I wrote “Skinny Skinny”. Actually, because you’re an Aussie, you’ll understand this. Do you remember the John Butler Trio song “Ocean”?
Oh yes, very well.
John Butler, I think that’s his name; the lead guitarist with the dreads, he’s so cool. The way he would play those open tunings, and the way he would play that guitar has inspired me my whole musical life. So you’re hearing some of that shit in “Skinny Skinny” as well.
As a big fan of John Butler, Nick Drake, and open tunings as well, that was definitely an enjoyable part of the track. Something else about the track that was quite enjoyable was the fact you come from 5 Seconds of Summer with pop influences, and songs almost designed to be played loud. But with songs like “Skinny Skinny”, it’s something that’s much more intimate and lends itself to listening with headphones to get the full experience.
Yeah, and that’s like the way I like music to be, so therefore, that’s how my music will be. And also, just one sidebar on “Skinny Skinny”, I was like, “I really need to release a song without drums,” because I’ve always been primarily a drummer [laughs]. So I was like, the first song needs to be absent of the kit, and really focus on a lyrical intensity, and really focus in on a vocal recording.
Before we get to the lyrics though, I do want to touch on influences again. You mentioned classic names like Foo Fighters and Stone Temple Pilots as influences, but there’s also some more left field choices like Curve, My Bloody Valentine, and the one that surprised me the most, Helmet. Are all these names that you cited, are they acts you’ve been fond of your whole life, or have they been more comparatively recent discoveries?
Dude, well, the marvellous blessing of like, ‘young musician coming over to Los Angeles’, America, I’ve lived in England, I’ve got to like, be ran through the ringer with artists that affected the artists that I like, and learning about them, and talking about them, and surrounding myself with people with really intense musical background and knowledge about where a sound came from.
I’m really lucky that I just have a couple of people around me that have really affected my musical taste, and really helped guide me in the right direction that would be personable and correct for me as a solo artist. They’ve really helped guide my palette and I think I kind of got on the tip of, “Okay, the first band I like that was from the shoegaze kind of thing was the band Failure.” I loved Failure, I loved the recordings, and I loved the fuzz guitars and those really beautiful sweet-sounding acoustics.
And then, you get into the realm of, “Oh my God, I get to experience My Bloody Valentine for the first time, because I finally fucking get it.” I’m hearing it, I hear its purpose, I hear its recording style, and I just have had a really fun year diving into, y’know, hearing things for the first time, being a fan of music, being a fan of guitar music, and researching it, and then trying to kind of emulate it in a personal way, if that makes sense.
A real highlight, I felt, was following the solo on “Greyhound”, and it really sounds like the vocals are channelling a grunge icon like Chris Cornell, and it’s honest quite chill-inducing.
I love Chris Cornell, he is like my… If I could sing like anyone, it would be him, and I just thought he was the most incredible, poetic, and incredible songwriter and vocalist. I really look up to guys like that. A lot of people shy away from referencing things like that, but I thought he was just an incredible singer. And definitely conjuring Eddie Vedder on “Greyhound” and that whole thing. These are the songs I grew up with, these are the songs that my mum would play, and I would hear it through the walls. These are the songs that really affected my musical style growing up out west in Sydney.
So in order to capture that, I wanted to know how those guys recorded vocals, and “Greyhound” is a one take. “Greyhound” is a one take in my living room and I’m singing my arse off here, and I’m conjuring kind of all the songs that that song is about. That song is about my family’s frustration and endless kind of birth/work/death cycle. But it’s also capturing a relationship that my mother had with a greyhound trainer, and if the greyhound didn’t come first, he would be shot dead, and that visual was so haunting to me as a kid.
So I’m comparing greyhound racing to the way we work, and we work ourselves to death, y’know? And the way we bully ourselves into success, and the way we speak to ourselves when we think we aren’t good enough. That song is about resilience.
Speaking lyrics and resilience, we mentioned “Skinny Skinny” before, and obviously that’s a pretty notable one, being written about a conversation you had with your brother about body image.
Well that one, my brother’s conversation helped to shine a light on my personal issue with it. I mean, first of all, I had a real problem with alcoholism for a little while, and I was coming up a lot of stuff with it that I didn’t really explore until I was about 25. I kind of always could never look myself in the mirror with my shirt off or whatever. For whatever reasons, it’s just something that latched onto me since I was very young, and I was always very afraid of my body image; very afraid of being bare to people.
So honestly, that “Skinny Skinny” lyric and that video that I made for it goes hand in hand not only with encouraging my brother to explore those thoughts and to begin healing, and begin repairing, and begin finding confidence in his own body, it was also for me to shatter that whole thing, that whole being terrified of my own reflection for some reason. It’s a very weird thing, I guess., which I just tried to explore in a candid way, lyrically, in “Skinny Skinny”.
Going from that, there are tracks like “The Sweetness” which deal with quite heavy topics. As someone who suffered from depression, it’s great to see someone like yourself recognising that struggle and noting that it’s okay to not be okay. I’m assuming that’s one that is very close to your heart as well?
Yeah, with “The Sweetness”, it’s kind of about me finally… I finally got some therapy, which was very weird, and as a young Aussie I didn’t really talk about it much when I was growing up. I started experiencing my depression for the first time when I was about 15 – 14 or 15 – and I really didn’t help myself out, I didn’t alleviate the depression until I was about 25 years old.
I was in a rut, I wanted to kill myself, and it was horrible, and I was at the end of my rope. I finally got some help, I got some therapy, I found a medication that helped me out a bit, and all of these things are really candidly personal, but I’m happy to share them with you because I am on that journey. I’m on that journey of healing, I’m on that journey of being gentle with myself, and Superbloom is an explosion of confidence and resilience for people out there who are too scared to talk about it, or help themselves get better.
Please, be a friend to yourself. And it’s so awkward and hard to do, and I really don’t blame people for being terrified of getting therapy or getting guidance, or whatever. That song for me was how my life and whole existence kind of changed after finding some help.
You mentioned growing up as a young Australian, and there is that real elephant in the room where the message in the culture is that it’s something you don’t talk about. You push it to the side and deal with it in your own time. So it’s great to hear that sort of approach.
I mean, the statement was always, “toughen up”. I don’t think it’s being tough wanting to kill yourself, I think being tough in the future, we need to change it to, “I’m dealing with something quite heavy within myself that I’m having a hard time understanding and overcoming, and I want feel joy.”
So we need to talk to each other like that and I think another overarching narrative for this record is, y’know, young men out there helping themselves and helping repair themselves and understanding themselves in society today.
Then obviously having songs such “The Sweetness” help to spark up that conversation, which is always a good thing.
I think so, I think if, for instance, people like you and I can just have open conversations about the realities and the effects of depression – it’s not a made-up thing, it’s not some secret bullshit that helps people get… We just kind of bully ourselves until we’re in that rut, we’re in that sunken place, and we can’t get out, so we turn to drugs, we turn to alcoholism, or whatever the fuck, you know? I think we can do better for each other, I think we can support each other more, I think we can help each other.
Obviously the album does have lyrics that which are quite heavy and personal at times, did writing an album like this really give you that greater chance to explore topics that you wouldn’t have had previously?
Yes, it was amazing. I think that’s the whole point of a solo project, it’s to go adventure, go see what’s real to you, and I think that will make me a better collaborator in the future with the band. I think I’ll be a little more gentle with individual’s concepts, I think I’ll be a little more accepting or what they want to write about as well, and I think we’ll have a more equal split of what we’re talking about in our lyrics.
Now that I know that, “This is what I like writing about,” and actively showing them to the band, they’ll listen to that and go, “Well that’s what means something to Ash. That’s individual to him, and that’s where we can utilise him as a tool in the band.”
And what did the other guys in the band think of your album as well? I’m assuming they would’ve been really supportive of it all?
Yeah, look man, we’re young men, we have a range of feelings, we are brothers, bands are complicated, we love each other to death, they really support me. Not bullshit support me, they’re like, “Yes man, we know that you wanted to do this for a long time, we want to do this as well, let’s work this out, let’s talk through it, and let’s have a positive outcome for anyone who releases solo music in the band.” It’s been really very nurturing, it’s been very different with individual band members though. They have different expectations about what music means to them, different concerns or different wants about what music does.
I think that’s the fascinating thing about being a collaborator, is like, music doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. To me, it’s my whole life, and that’s why I made a solo project, so I need to stop expecting other people to be totally about music 24/7 – it’s just the way I operate. So it’s actually a really healing process for like, the band’s work ethic and how much time we spend in the band world, and in real life.
It’s just band stuff, and you’ll see it play out, and I think it’s a really exciting era for our band as well. We’re exploring solo stuff, we’re also exploring reaching new heights as a band as well, so we’ll see what happens – I think that’s an exciting prospect [laughs].
Would you see yourself doing more solo albums in the future, or is something you’d look at as opportunity presents itself rather than planning ahead?
Oh yeah, I would really love to. I would love to write more music on my own, but I actually feel really excited to get stuck into some 5SOS down the track, and yeah, it’s wonderful moment in time. I can’t wait to kind of… I’ve already kind of started on a second record, but I’ve also started on the next record for the band. We’ll see what happens.
Would you ever see yourself touring behind an album like this? Obviously it’s difficult to do so anyway at the moment, but if the world was different, would we see some solo shows from yourself?
Yeah, I think in terms of being a touring artist, I don’t know if that’s for me at the moment. I have my fair share of touring on my plate with 5 Seconds of Summer. I would call myself a fucking amateur director [laughs], but I really love film, and I love photography, and I love kind of creating music videos, so in the future, maybe I can come up with a creative solution to touring that’s visual and film-based. Which is, in brackets for you, a hint, on what you’ll see soon [laughs].
Yeah, it’ll be different. It might not be physical touring, but it’ll be some kind of something [laughs].
Ashton Irwin’s, Superbloom, is out today via EMI Music Australia.