Transcript for Up Next - Episode 10: Sacrifice, social media and side hustles with Ashli
Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the Gadigal people, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands. We honour the long Gadigal history of gathering and storytelling and acknowledge the strength and resilience of First Nations people and communities past and present.
Ashli: If I'm not careful, social media can rob me of having joy for other people. And that's my concern. Because, like, no matter how big you are, there's always going to be other people who are getting other amazing opportunities. And I think to be a nice human and a good friend and a good comrade in the industry you need to have that freedom to be happy for someone.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey, I'm Courtney Ammenhauser, and this is Up Next -- your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage where I'm going to be chatting to a spectacular line-up of artists; up and comers who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. The Opera House is celebrating its first 50 years. So, in every episode of this podcast, we showcase someone exciting who we think will transform the next 50 years of arts and culture.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Fresh from her breakout performance at South by Southwest in Austin, Ashli's star is on the rise. And for one unmissable night during Vivid Live, she's going to light up the Sydney Opera House. Born in New Jersey with family roots in South America and Jamaica, Ashli's family relocated to Sydney when she was 12. We cover a lot of territory in this chat: from how a song comes to life, the role of social media for an emerging artist, where inspiration comes from, sacrifice and hustle culture... Lots of good stuff. Let's drop in.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey, Ashli.
Ashli: Hi, Courtney.
Courtney Ammenhauser: You've got a show coming up at the Sydney Opera House.
Courtney Ammenhauser: But I heard it's not the first time that you performed here.
Ashli: No… [giggles]
Courtney Ammenhauser: Can you please take me back to that moment?
Ashli: So I was here, somewhere in this building, this beautiful building, with a bunch of other Year 12 kids chosen to perform one of their major work songs. And I was in my red jumpsuit, desperately trying to stop my hair from frizzing. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I can't believe that I'm in the Opera House right now.”
Courtney Ammenhauser: Do you still get that feeling of surreal?
Ashli: Yeah, definitely. I think it's cool that I've performed here when I was 17 but I think the even cooler thing is: my mum told me that when she was around 10 she was in a kids’ choir and they performed at the Opera House. And it makes me so emotional because I love that idea of this little 10 year old girl and like, oh, one day your kid is going to have her own show here. I don't know, that’s just so beautiful to me.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. Imagine someone going back and telling her that. Yeah.
Ashli: Sorry, your brown daughter!? And you're like, “What? What is that?” Yeah, actually, I'm 10. I'm 10 years old!
Courtney Ammenhauser: Going back to that moment when you were 17 and doing your first performance here, you had only lived in Australia for a few years, right?
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And you weren't really one of those kids who were drawn to the spotlight. In fact, you kind of hid your talent a little bit. Can you tell me about that?
Ashli: I think I was shy because growing up in America, I was growing up around a lot of kids who looked like me and my family members were there and things. So I always was surrounded by kids who were like me. And so I never felt different. But then when I moved to Australia, I moved into an area where there weren't a lot of kids that look like me. So I felt like on top of looking different to everyone else, I didn't want to act different to everyone else.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Can you talk me through your songwriting process? Like, how does it start?
Ashli: So usually it starts with a one-liner I get in my head. So a word or a sentence, and then I'll write it down in my [Notes App] or I'll sing it on my phone. Yeah. And I feel like you get your best stuff out that way, where you're accepting of not just your really good stuff, but your really bad stuff as well. Like, it has to come out. It has to! [laughs] Or you just get constipated creatively. There's a lesson that. So my song, King Street – I don't think it had melody to it, it was just me trying to figure out what I wanted to say. And it's like "I'm holding back my tears on King Street. I know after just sitting, you're the same. You're in the same place." Like, it’s kind of like just figuring out what I want to say and just having the story, the rough, like, skeleton there. But then I ended up being, like, [Sings] "Holding back tears on King Street. Came here to just be friends." That was like, how it ended up.
Courtney Ammenhauser: So what happens next; once you've got a few ideas written down on the page, what's the next part of your process?
Ashli: So after that, I go into the studio and I talk to the producer. Whatever producer I'm working with on that day; I work with like three or four guys in Sydney who are just amazing artists and also incredible producers and songwriters. And yeah, even though I have ideas, it's really important to me to see where they're at as well and what they're liking because I feel like when it's more of a two-way street you get the best out of the session and out of the song. And, I don't know, I love the idea of them also feeling really a part of the music and the process, not just feeling like I'm just a body in a chair, like trying to communicate with that person behind me. Yeah, but it's like, “Okay, like we're in this together, like we're writing this song.” So we'd have a chat, maybe go for a coffee. I feel like that's the most important part – just having that personal connection and being like, okay, this is where I'm at. This is what's happening in my life. I'm good, I'm bad, I'm alright, you know? And then we start with a melodic idea, maybe some chords. We put lyrics to it and then we record. Yeah.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Amazing. And where do you get inspiration from?
Ashli: Mainly from my everyday life. I've tried before to write about things that I think are cool or things that are like, trendy or like just, I don't know, break-ups and stuff like dramatic break ups, but I just haven't had those experiences. So I try to write from my own life and just... Yeah, the boringness. Especially like the last. Was it last year? Yeah. I was working like a really sucky office job. It was probably one of the worst times.
Courtney Ammenhauser: It's really good for fueling creativity.
Ashli: Yeah, it's really good. Like, it's great to have a job. Yeah, definitely can't take that for granted. But when you're not, like, where you want to be, it makes you just so sad.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Did you see this speech that Phoebe Bridges did at that awards ceremony recently? She said a similar thing where she was like, when I was little, I knew I wanted to be – and I'm paraphrasing, obviously – “I wanted to write music and be a singer. And so I tried to construct these stories but they weren't real to her and they kind of sucked. So then one day she was in the car with her mom, heard Taylor Swift on the radio and was like, Oh, this is a young woman just telling her story. And then she was like, I can tell my story.”
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.
Ashli: What a legacy is that? Like, you're inspiring other people to tell their own stories. You're not just like, this is something only I can do. And once I'm gone, no one's doing it. But you're inspiring this whole generation of people to do things in their own way. Yeah, she's amazing. She's an incredible artist. I love her.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Let's talk about social media because, love it or loathe it, it is important.
Courtney Ammenhauser: How do you feel about it? Do you find it inspiring or just like another thing you have to create?
Ashli: Yeah, I think it does give me a little anxiety because no matter how hard I can try, there is that element of comparison. And I think, like, I can delete it. And I do that a lot. Like, you just get in those moods, like "I'm deleting Instagram! I don't need to be on that!" But I think it's important as a writer for me to live in the times. And I think social media is so ingrained in the day to day experience that it's something that I want to be a part of because it will affect how I write my music and what songs I write, and it affects our everyday relationships. So I think it's important as a storyteller to be a part of the story. It's balancing that and also protecting my own mental health, and it's being able to be happy for someone without feeling like I need to compare and just being like, “Hey, that's an awesome opportunity. Full stop.” Instead of being like, "That's awesome. When's my turn coming?" And I think if I'm not careful, social media can rob me of having joy for other people. And that's my concern because no matter how big you are, there's always going to be other people who are getting other amazing opportunities. And I think to be a nice human and a good friend in a good light comrade in the industry, like you need to have that freedom to be happy for someone. It's like learning how to live with the beast kind of thing. Yeah. How do I, how do I exist in this world and how do I stay happy? How do I stay healthy? You know?
Courtney Ammenhauser: Totally.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Do you ever wish that you were an artist before social media was a thing?
Ashli: Yeah, all the time. Yeah. I really wish I was. Especially when you're independent. Yeah. I think there are a lot of different hats that you have to wear. There's not a team of people who are there to push your music and help you create content. It's just like you. And if you're lucky, you have a really great manager or you're really great at managing yourself. But yeah, I think that would have been really cool.
Courtney Ammenhauser: I think not being online can create some mystique and intrigue as well.
Ashli: But it's hard. It's hard to build that when you're a smaller artist. You have to give and yeah, like, I don't know… I haven’t figured out the formula.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Does it ever feel like music is such a big part of your life that in your free time it becomes too much and you need a break? Or are you just all in?
Ashli: I think one thing that maybe a lot of artists don't talk about a lot or maybe I just don't pay attention, is how hard it is in the beginning to balance still doing your normal job and your normal life and then also having to be an artist. And yeah, when a lot of your friends are like working full time and starting to, like, get married and buy houses, you're like, “Yeah, I'm working on my album. I’m writing songs, like I'm performing at this pub.” [laughs] You feel like maybe people are moving with their lives and you're stuck with this dream. Like, I think it's a privilege. It is a privilege to be able to chase after your dreams. Not a lot of people in the world get that kind of opportunity.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Are there sacrifices that you've had to make to forge your path?
Ashli: The financial sacrifice is astronomical.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.
Ashli: It's crazy. It can be so stressful and not a lot of people talk about it. It's like what mothers say when they give birth. Like, afterwards it's just you holding the baby and you forget that you nearly died and you were just in the biggest pain of your life. You're just like, “Look at this beautiful human!” That's kind of what it is with music. It's like, “Oh, the pain.” But then when you have the project, you have the songs, you're like, “Oh, the joy, the joy, yeah, the joy, the fulfilment.” But yeah, it's so challenging. Like it's mentally really challenging.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Often we hear that church music plays quite a big role in the lives of musicians growing up. Is that the case for you?
Ashli: Definitely, yeah. So I grew up in church. I went to a Jamaican church when I was in the States. My dad was a pastor. Yeah, And I think. There's something about church that I think is so expressive. And I think that that really set me up for doing what I do now, which is literally expressing myself in song. My dad is Jamaican and the way that Jamaicans got to Jamaica was through the slave trade and there was a lot of music and spiritual music that came from that time that are the basis of songs we sing today, and different hymns and things. So it's a part of my upbringing, but it's also a part of my ancestry. So it's played such an important role in it. And I think as well, churches are a training ground, because the first time that I sang in front of people on a microphone was in church. It's a place where you can mess up and you can try different things. And the first time I was ever in a studio was because of church. So it exposed me to a lot of things. And I'm still a part of church today and I think it's helped me to be the person that I am and the person that I'm becoming.
Courtney Ammenhauser: I also heard you did a songwriting workshop with Sampa the Great.
Courtney Ammenhauser: How was that?
Ashli: That was really cool. It was a Zoom session and I got to show her one of my songs and she gave me some really good advice. She said, “You don't have to give everything in the first half of the song.” And that was a revolutionary thought to me because I feel like her saying that made me think and it gave me permission to be like, Not every song has to be the start and end of the thought or the story. It can just be a snippet. And I think a lot of times it's easier for me to think of it like that and condense it, and it's easier to communicate that way. Like instead of me being, “Blah blah blah blah blah. I loved him. Then we broke up and then we got back together” and stuff. It's like, okay, let's just talk about when I first met him. Or that first day or how I felt that one feeling that I felt.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Instead of the whole book it's a chapter.
Ashli: Exactly. A chapter. A paragraph, even. That was an amazing experience.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Is there stuff that you have to challenge yourself to listen to because you know it's good for you?
Courtney Ammenhauser: What kind of music?
Ashli: I think heavy metal.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Tell me more.
Ashli: It's not something that I gravitate towards but I think there's power in appreciating music that you don't make and not just listening to your own genre on rotation. I think it's important to expand your ear and not just stick in your own little neighbourhood. That's how music becomes interesting when you start to introduce different elements. But, yeah, heavy metal is not something that comes as a natural desire of mine, but it's a great genre and there's a lot that goes into it. I think, as a vocalist, it's so beyond me how they can sing like that and still have a voice.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Totally.
Ashli: That takes really good technique.
Courtney Ammenhauser: My throat hurts thinking about it.
Ashli: My throat hurts right now and I'm just doing an interview! I don't know if that's good or bad, but yeah, that's the genre. But yeah, power to the people that do it because it sounds like a lot of stuff when you're not a part of that genre. I don’t like listening to it all the time, but I think the lyrics are really heavy. So yeah, heavy metal.
Courtney Ammenhauser: On this podcast we love asking people who they think are stars on the rise, essentially people who you think are “up next”, like the title. Are there any artists who you've got your eye on or who you think our listeners should, keep an eye on or listen to their music? Anyone you'd like to shout out?
Ashli: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Zion Garcia. He's a rapper also from Western Sydney. He's my favourite Aussie artist. He's just so good. And if you see that he has a show you need to go see him because I feel like watching him is like seeing a star before it bursts.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Wow.
Ashli: He's just amazing and he's an amazing person. He's just so down to earth, so warm, so humble, and he's just incredibly talented. I could rave about him for ages. Honestly, he's so, so good. Keep your eyes on him and just be there in the beginning. You will regret it if you're not 100%.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, I definitely want to go and check them out.
Ashli: Please do.
Courtney Ammenhauser: That description of the style before it bursts.
Ashli: The energy at his shows is like the beginnings of hip hop or something. Like, you know, when you watch those documentaries?
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. "The Evolution of Hip Hop"
Ashli: Yeah! Literally: "The Evolution of Hip Hop"! I feel like I'm in one of those rooms.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Are there any other artists?
Ashli: Yeah. I love Zion. I love Nick Ward as well. He's an incredible artist. When I was around 18 I did this thing called MCA Gen Next and this kid came in and he was setting up his little Ableton stuff. And I was like, to my friend, “Oh, my God, this guy's amazing.” Yeah, he was amazing. And that guy was Nick Ward. And just seeing his progression and his journey, like, is so insane. He's an amazing songwriter, an amazing artist, and also a down to earth person. Yeah. So good.
Courtney Ammenhauser: Ashli, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
Ashli: Thank you so much for having me.
Courtney Ammenhauser: That was singer-songwriter Ashli. You can catch her at the Sydney Opera House during Vivid Live this June.
I'm Courtney Ammenhouser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House.
From Audiocraft, the show is produced by Marcus Costello and the executive producer is Selena Shannon.
From Sydney Opera House, Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan, and the Digital Programming coordinator is Georgia D'Sousa.
The Up Next music is by Milan Ring. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.