The best fantasy fiction doesn’t just conjure imaginative new worlds void of any connection to Earth. Instead, it builds something fresh and strange that also shows us the ills and issues in our reality; demons, trolls and hobbits serving as allegories for everything from corruption and climate change to racial prejudice and religion. On her debut album ‘WEEDKILLER’, Ashnikko utilises that writing approach – simultaneously creating her own dystopian realm and highlighting big lessons that could make our planet a better place.
“I’m a huge fantasy and sci-fi fan, and I love dystopian fiction,” the electric blue-haired singer and rapper shares early one LA morning, reeling off a list of authors on her must-read list – Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Brian Froud, and so on. “I wrote a short story almost two years ago that spawned the rest of the album. It was my machine against nature story.”
The setting for ‘WEEDKILLER’, like our own world, is one ruled by division, except over there, it’s not humans versus humans but a civilisation of faeries versus killer machines. In the album’s back plot, the protagonist – a faerie who is essentially an extension of the Ashnikko alter-ego – gets their wings torn out and replaced by parts of the machine that is trying to destroy her. As the weedkillers try to wreak havoc in her environment, she stands tall, refusing to be broken down – an allegory for many different situations in the musician’s life.
“There’s a lot of fantastical imagery in the album,” she explains. “A lot of rage for what’s been done to the planet. Rage for what’s been done to me. A very violent reclamation of self, I guess.” Not everything is quite so dark and extreme, though. “There’s a lot of sexual songs and, with those, I was trying to celebrate queer sex and queer love.”
The idea for this story, in particular, was inspired by Ashnikko’s love of nature. Originally from Oak Ridge, a small town in North Carolina, they grew up surrounded by countryside, but as she pursued a music career, that greenery was later swapped for concrete and glass. “In the past few years, I’ve really reconnected with my love of nature, and I think that’s gone hand-in-hand with my sense of self,” they say happily, crediting being a dog owner as helping to get out of the house and into the wilds: “When I take her on a walk, I’m also taking myself on a walk.”
Society’s attitude towards the environment is an allegory in itself on the record. “The idea of consuming and taking, like humans do with the natural world, is something that I feel can be applied to many different things – human relationships, the idea of reclaiming bodily autonomy,” she says, listing subjects that arise within the songs.
If the album’s main character is on a quest to feel power again through the record’s songs, then making ‘WEEDKILLER’ gave its creator renewed strength too. “Definitely, I think a lot of the album centres around this theme of finding yourself amidst being beaten down, and I feel like that applies to many different stories in my life.”
On ‘You Make Me Sick’, a track delivered with seething rage, she excoriates an ex as a “fucking loser” who she “can’t believe I let your hands inside my bloomers”, their voice set to a furious, throaty yell almost the entire way through. When they dial it back, they whisper menacingly instead. Recording it was “very emotional”. “I feel like I needed to write a song like that for this album just to release something that had been lodged in my chest,” Ashnikko explains. “I lost my voice for like a week after that.”
Although performing it live is physically demanding, she doesn’t struggle with her feelings when it gets to that part of the setlist. “Once I write a song and record it, I’ve released that feeling. So, for me, I just really try to tap into the most unhinged side of myself… which isn’t hard.”
At a completely different end of the energy spectrum, ‘WEEDKILLER’’s penultimate track ‘Possession Of A Weapon’ is a taunting, murky and minimal piece. Written following the overturning of Roe vs Wade last year, it’s underpinned by both dread and defiance. “How dare I have private desires,” they sing scornfully at one point.
“When I found out [it had been overturned], I cried for days, as I’m sure many Americans did and still do,” she recalls. “I still feel grief and heartbreak for my country. I feel so much anger. I don’t know exactly how to channel that – we’ve made so many strides on bodily autonomy, and then it’s just taken away.”
Among the downcast lyrics, Ashnikko repeatedly warns: “Don’t rain on my paper-mâché.” “I’ve built this thing, and it’s really strong, but it’s made of paper-mâché,” they say, unravelling the metaphor. “As soon as the ‘powers that be’ – put that in quotes – decided to storm and rain over it, it’s nothing – it’s crumbled. As much as I feel like I have this power, I don’t actually because it can be destroyed.” She likens it to having a very gory response to having a bunch of old white men pass decrees affecting your and millions of women’s bodies. “It was me being like, ‘You want my body? Here, I’ll fucking give it to you’, and reaching inside and throwing my guts on the table.”
Despite the bleak situation for women’s reproductive rights in the US right now, the musician has hope for the future. “I’d like to think that this is just one last attempt by these bigoted dinosaurs to reclaim control over their archaic ideas,” they say. Hope doesn’t mean they don’t feel incredibly sad, though. “Especially with the inhumane attacks on trans people in the United States right now. It’s just cruelty. We’re just repeating history, and it’s so evil. My heart really, really hurts, especially for queer kids and trans kids in small towns like where I’m from.”
The star’s own experiences of growing up in environments that aren’t accepting of all sexual and gender identities was “stifled”. They recall not meeting an out queer person until they were an adult. “It was a huge, shameful secret that I harboured for many years,” she sighs – a feeling that comes through in the bass-y ‘Miss Nectarine’, which dials things back to when Ashnikko was 14 years old. “I’m the one who took the fall / Your parents screamed and blamed on me,” she recalls. “Sent you off and prayed my gay away that Sunday.”
“That stuff still lives with you through adulthood,” she says now. “I think it takes active unpicking to dismantle those ideas in your head.”
On the flip side of the album’s topics, Ashnikko puts a more celebratory spin on sexuality. “You do something wicked to me (yeah, I like that) / Mystical when you seduce me (make me climax),” they sing to a lover on ‘Moonlight Magic’. On the gasping ‘Super Soaker’, they add: “Feels like a sweaty summer loving on my super soaker / It could be deadly, but I want it, I need a little more.”
The latter track features Peruvian singer-songwriter Daniela Lalita, one of two collaborations on ‘WEEDKILLER’. The other, ‘Dying Star’, includes a guest appearance from Ethel Cain. “I really like working with friends and people who are passionate about music and world-building,” she explains behind their recruitment. “I can’t think of two more talented people in music right now – I genuinely think that they’re geniuses.”
‘Dying Star’ presents a break in the brash, in-your-face sound usually associated with Ashnikko in favour of something else – a melancholy indie ballad driven by staccato, gentle guitar strums. It likens leaving an abusive relationship to setting off from a dying planet to find a new place to inhabit. “The journey was hard, I was almost pulled apart,” they sing in unison. “Trying to leave this orbit took what’s left of me.”
“Originally, that song was written on acoustic guitar and was kind of a country song,” Ashnikko reveals. Although it might not be what we commonly hear from her, she says nonchalantly: “I write songs like that all the time. I feel like it’s definitely another side of me that I don’t always put out there.” She calls attention to its last line – the lyric that wraps up the whole album: “I want something soft.” “After all the grieving is done, I just want something soft – kindness and hope.”
If softness is what she craves, could ‘Dying Star’ be a signifier of where she might go on album two? “I feel like I’m always playing around with different genres,” she replies noncommittally. “So, who knows?”
One thing the artist has figured out is what works for her – and, crucially, what doesn’t – when it comes to letting other people into her creative process. Since blowing up with her single ‘Stupid’ in 2019 – it’s been streamed 216 million times and isn’t even her biggest song – she’s been welcomed into the leftfield end of pop’s mainstream, collaborating with the likes of Doja Cat and Grimes. But, she shared recently, the pop circuit just isn’t for her.
“Working with someone solely because of how many Billboard Hot 100 hits they have is not interesting to me,” they clarify now. “What’s interesting to me is if I have chemistry with someone – which isn’t to say there aren’t incredibly talented pop producers, because there are, and what is pop music anyways.” She begins to tumble off on a tangent before snapping herself back to her point. “The most important thing is if we have a connection and if we can have a good time together.”
Just as her boundaries on colleagues have evolved over the years, so too has her relationship with her persona – the super-charged sprite who screams on stage as opposed to Ashton, the real person behind the blue hair. Where she previously tried to keep the two figures from intermingling, her alter-ego has become more real for her as she’s grown up. “I’m just tired of separating the two,” she says with a small giggle. “It’s hard enough to find yourself, much less find yourself in two different roles.”
How her personality and personhood – as both Ashnikko and Ashton – have impacted on her songwriting too. Looking back on their older songs now, they “cringe” but are trying to approach that era “with more empathy and compassion”. “When I was freshly 18 and in my early twenties, I’d just left a really broken situation, so I really needed to find that inner self-confidence and autonomy,” they reason. “The music definitely reflects my need for establishing myself and my own person.”
Just like her music has positively impacted her life, she wants what she creates to help the world in some way. At the same time, she’s aware that “not everything needs to have a message” and is keeping her desires for how this album could affect those who hear it simple. “I hope that other people can take the songs on this album and fit them into different stories in their life,” she explains, inadvertently returning to that idea of fantasy and its parallels with reality. “That’s all I’m asking for.”
‘WEEDKILLER’ is out on August 25 2023.