Nine Songs: Ashton Irwin
In a year defined by Coronavirus, there have been myriad ways musicians have responded to the lockdown creatively.
Some took an understandable break from artistic output entirely, and others had planned releases disrupted, with global tours cancelled. Australian pop-rock group Five Seconds of Summer faced a typical fate earlier this year, releasing their fourth album Calm in March, with their upcoming world tour cancelled outright days later.
The band has been one of the last decade’s biggest commercial success stories, a resolute rebuttal to the notion that the era of ‘Bands’ is over. 5SOS are one of Australia’s most popular musical exports of all time, scoring four number one albums in their home county, the UK and many others, and are now a colossal undertaking, worth 81 million US dollars in total.
But COVID-19 brought a period of unprecedented pause, and for the band’s drummer, Ashton Irwin, it transpired to be a time of unparalleled productivity, converting his LA studio into a recording studio - the stuff of storied Studio City tradition - then writing and recording his first solo album Superbloom in the space of six months. It’s a completely different venture to the music he makes with his band, merging the distorted guitars of My Bloody Valentine with the acoustic sweetness of Sufjan Stevens.
“It’s been interesting”, he tells me “because it seems like such a long time since Calm, but it’s cool releasing my music on my own, independently to some extent. I didn’t sign a record deal or anything for this one, and it kept me driving forward creatively. I’ve got my studio here and it made me want to release it pretty quick, because there is no touring, so I may as well put my best foot forward and keep releasing music as best as I can. That’s how I’ve remained joyful this year”.
Irwin is admirably down-to-Earth for a man whose personal affairs are regularly aired in the tabloid press and he speaks with me from his LA home with a conversational style as open as the neckline of his shirt. His Nine Songs selections reference the inspirations behind his eclectic debut as well as his childhood, taking in ‘80s goth rock and ‘90s shoegaze, a long way from the clean aesthetic of 5SOS’ chart hits.
The notion of a pop artist’s tastes leaning in an unexpectedly alternative direction is no longer that surprising - be it Kylie Minogue’s role in avant-garde fantasy film Holy Motors, to Alex Turner’s love of Federico Fellini - and indeed Irwin clearly sees his solo and band ventures as two parts of a whole.
“For me it is unique, because I get to be in a marvellous pop band and I get to do my alternative rock thing on my own, they’re two totally different ways of thinking about music. Mine is about my kind of illustrative style, my narrative as a being and my time on earth; what I’ve been through in my childhood, adolescence and early-adulthood.
“That’s what my songs are about, you know? For me this year it’s been ‘Stay at home and go inwards.’”
“There’s many reasons for this one man. I grew up in Western Sydney and predominately I was influenced by pub rock bands. My stepdad was in a band called Southband and I used to come to the gigs with him and set up his drums, so I grew up in that sort of realm. They used to cover a few Silverchair songs which made me a fan of them since I was around seven or eight, I was young.
“The Greatest View” is the second song I remember falling in love with music to a deep, existential extent. I was hooked. I loved the massive guitar soundscape, the orchestral elements, the grand recording of those drums and the big guitars, but with the classic, emotional songwriting, which is very personal to an extent. The melodic work is fucking nuts, and all I wanted to do as a kid was learn how to sing like Daniel Johns. I do not know if I’ll ever get there [laughs] but this song was the first to really make me want to romanticise music.
“Silverchair weren’t so big in the UK I don’t think. They were young guns, they were a trio, and when they put out Frogstomp I think they were like 14 or something. So growing up in a teen band, I know that the UK can’t be so kind to teen bands, you don’t want to hear a man’s story from a boy usually, so maybe that’s how it goes.
“That album wasn’t their highest charting album by any means, I think it was one of those musical masterpieces which kind of flew over people’s heads, but I fucking love it, so…” [laughs].
“Man, I was late to this train. I was always dismissive of them because of the name! I thought this band was something else, I thought it was post-hardcore, I thought it was like Blessthefall or some shit, you know what I’m saying?
“I didn’t understand the whole culture which surrounded shoegaze, but when I got there it was an amazing journey to go into. How long it took them to make the album, how focused they were, how brilliant, and how it sounds. I’d never heard distorted guitar sound so sweet, and the melodic is just haunting and beautiful and gentle.
“I’d always struggled with my vocal tone. I never really knew how to record it properly, because I grew up in a pop group. I was always being recorded with heavy Melodyne and autotune, which was so worked-on and massaged, so I never really got to develop my own relationship with the microphone. Then I heard “Only Shallow” for the first time and it made it all click! Like, ‘Wait, I can swing sweetly over big guitars? I don’t have to be screaming over these guitars which I want in my music?’
“So it taught me I could sing with a gentle tone in a gentle place over monstrous walls of guitars, then I got into double-tracking and quad-tracking vocals, working out how to get that sweet tone in my vocal recordings, and My Bloody Valentine really showed me how to do that.
“I’ve been totally eaten alive by this music and it made me work out where I’m from and what I want. It was a breakthrough moment, which I’m sure this band has been for literally thousands of artists."
“You go through those marvellous phases where you’re like ‘I love Paul!’, whatever is interacting with your life, but working as a solo artist for the first time I was really drawn to George, because he had a depth which I really related to and he seemed to have a tug of war between his light and darkness. I had a little phase [laughs], and it feels good to be obsessed with music by George.
“Beware of Darkness” has a remaster where it’s all tightened up, but you can look on streaming services and hear a “Take One” of the song and it’s sang into this beautiful fucking ribbon mic and you can hear it the way George intended it to be. This is the song which really made George click for me and made him my favourite Beatle.
“I went on Amazon and I bought the fucking poster and stuff, it’s in my studio, so real silly stuff like that. “Beware of Darkness” really resonated with me in these times. I watched the Scorsese documentary at the start of the whole lockdown process, and I felt lucky that someone like him had even made a documentary of George Harrison. It felt so divine and awesome!”
“I have songs called “Sunshine” and “Matter of Time” on my album, and people like Cat Stevens and Peter Frampton and those guys. they had that sunshine in their chords. It’s really uplifting and wonderful and I was really interested in that sound because of the times. The times are so dark, so as an artist I wanted to present some light. I wanted it to be sincere and real,
“Guys like Cat Stevens are such legendary songwriters and he really helped me write from what I’d call a poetic place. In my world, I’m not surrounded by poetic writers, or people who rely on poetry to create their songs. In pop culture at the moment, it’s not as poetic as it has been in the past, you know?
“So this song really connects with me, and helped me harness the power of my subconscious and apply that to songs. For instance, the chord structures and melodies Cat chooses here really lend themselves to that poetic style, and I think you really hear that in a song like ‘Sunshine” on my record."
“Failure is nuts!! The recording of this song blew my fucking mind. I first listened to it in Soho in London. A friend of mine, Matt Backley, goes ‘You would really like this band, they’re called Failure’.
“It was raining as always, so I listened to “Stuck on You” and it has this marvellous tension in the acoustic guitars and the way they make the distorted guitars sound sweet. It has these massive doom rock drums, but again he sang with a sweetness which I tied in with My Bloody Valentine in an extension of that thought. The way he’s using the harmonies to make that chorus stick out, I thought that was great melodic pop writing.
“This band really changed my motivation for recording - how I wanted to record, how I wanted the guitars to sound, working that out and listening to the way mainly the singles sounded, which I was trying to chase sonically. You hear my song “Have U Found What Ur Looking For” and you can definitely hear a Failure influence in that. Massive distortion sounding sweet is totally my direction.”
“It’s a legendary song but it truly has a timelessness to it. Anyone who’s experienced darkness in their life… as an artist, you’re going to wish you’d written this. It has the 'um-pah' bass-line and it’s something which I've always dug, which is hard to get across in pop songs, but it’s basically doing what a tuba would do. [mimics the sound of a tuba, with glee]
“I was like ‘Holy shit, I’d love to see a band dancing to that with a massive up-tempo beat!’ So we tried to replicate that feeling in “I’m to Blame”, a song on my record. It also this marvellous, Jefferson Airplane type percussion, this almost militaristic drum recording, which I really enjoyed about this process, because I hadn’t really dipped into that influence before.
“The lyrics too, it leaves room for personal interpretation, to make it subjective. I always like to think of it as like the first goth, emo song, and it’s fucking triumphant. It feels like ink, this song, and I just love it. It makes me a fan of the Rolling Stones for real, no Hot Topic t-shirt bullshit. I just really dig it, and if they could play it four times in their set then I would lose my mind."
“I just got into guys like Lenny. Lenny Kravitz, Steve Miller; guys who were writing the songs, recording the songs and releasing the songs as kind of solo artists. The whole thing for me on this project was when someone asks you ‘What do you do?’ What do I do? Well I’m a songwriter, but I looked at myself and thought ‘When was the last time you wrote a song on your own? Well, fuck, it’s been a long time’. Because it has been!
“I’ve been on a collaborative experience for ten years, so I thought it’s time to dig my heels in and spend time on my lyricism, how I write melodies, and accept my fate [laughs]. I wanted to develop myself and stand on my two feet, so when everyone else is working on something else I can stand on my own two feet in a meaningful way.
“So I put ‘Butterfly’ on here because structurally, it’s far from anything else I’ve touched on but again, it’s a sincere recording and a sincere lyric, and it’s by no means perfect but that’s kind of what my album is [laughs]. It’s direct output from a man who is going through changes.
“I love Lenny, he’s just the coolest, I think everyone thinks that about Lenny. I love the way he’s cultivated a philosophy in his music which his fans understand about him and that’s really what I try to bring in my music, to speak about spiritual things, accepting yourself, loving yourself, and manifesting a joyous, fulfilling life.”
“My housemate introduced me to Bibio. What you’re hearing is really interesting, texturised, acoustic guitar recordings, with reverse effects, delays, slapjacks, tape recordings and chorus echo - all of these wonderful things which makes the guitar sound like lullabies. The way Bibio produces his guitars is on the perfect reverb plate, and it’s a headphones-on, spending some time with yourself sort of song.
“You hear the Bibio influence pretty directly on my song “Matter of Time”. His songwriting is really sweet, I really connected with the way he captured those acoustic recordings and I thought my audience would really dig. It also helps me to convey a positive message, and “Matter of Time” was about accepting that pain isn’t forever, in a period of your life where you feel knocked down and taking a low.
“Before I was sober, I used to be so destructive of anything which was good in my life. I was unable to feel in love with my life, and anything which was good I’d run away from. So “Matter of Time”, with this particular sonic which Bibio established, helped me create a song-to-self which was real about recovery, self-acceptance and not destroying things when they start to become great again.
“When you’re struggling with imposter-syndrome and your life starts to become joyous, don’t rip it away from yourself: give yourself permission to feel that joy and not feel pain. That’s where I was coming from with this one.”
“Man!! I was so inspired by this shit! I was blown away. We’ll start at just the songwriting, I discovered “Charlotte Anne” first and that was a more ‘80s kind of feel. “Raving on the Moor” was, comparatively, one of the darkest, most poetic songs I’d ever heard. It’s stunning, absolutely stunning.
“His catalogue is so huge as well, he has so many wonderful albums to listen to. I didn’t even go to The Teardrop Explodes, because I just like these songs for some reason. Another thing I love about Julian Cope is his photography style, and how it shifts in coherence with his music. He’s a visual artist, and a dark artist, and an incredible lyricist.
“I put this on here because if I could develop as a poetic and lyricist and someone who uses words in an art form, I aspire to be a wordsmith like this. I find this to be really masterful songwriting, in my opinion. I understand that I’m not there [laughs] so I just admire it. “Raving on the Moor” is a really masterful poem and song.”