INTERVIEW: Ashton Irwin

With the global pandemic putting a pause on live music and global travel, 5 Seconds Of Summer haven’t been able to tour their fourth studio album ‘No Shame’ like planned. Instead the Australian four-piece have been in isolation and taking time for themselves. During this period Ashton Irwin has been secretly working on a debut solo album with his producer/housemate Matt Pauling in Los Angeles that hears him finding his voice as a songwriter and vocalist. 

‘Superbloom’ is the impressive final result that takes listeners on a vulnerable and experimental exploration of his artistry. Each song on the 10 track record is a deep dive into his psyche and explores a variety of different heavy and honest themes like childhood, alcoholism, depression, body dysmorphia, death, addiction, despair and hope. And while this may sound really confronting, he has layered the production to give you an uplifting and comforting approach. It feels very conversational, and it genuinely feels very warm from start to finish. 

It’s a captivating listen that highlights who Ashton Irwin is not only as a solo artist, but also as human and a young man who has grown up in the spotlight ever since starting in a band at the age of 16 and then soon after sharing stages globally with One Direction. That pressure and non stop energy catches up, and this record feels like that breath of fresh air as he finally captures and processes all of his thoughts on his own.  

I recently chatted to Ashton Irwin about finding his voice as a solo artist through the creative process of ‘Superbloom’, the importance of emphasis on live instrumentation, and we explored the stories and processes behind songs like ‘Drive’, ‘Skinny Skinny’, ‘Scar’, ‘Perfect Lie’ and ‘Matter Of Time’. Check it out BELOW; 

Content Warning: This interview discusses themes like suicide, body dysmorphia and grief. If you’re in Australia and this raises any concerns for you, Lifeline is available on 13 11 14. And for international readers, a list of individual country services is HERE

THOMAS BLEACH: Your debut album ‘Superbloom’ was born during lockdown and hears you finding your voice as a solo artist. Did you find your sound and creative vision as a solo artist came pretty quickly, or did you find yourself originally reverting to the structure that a 5SOS track would take at the beginning?

ASHTON IRWIN: I’m a fan of a lot of 90’s, 80’s and 70’s music, and I’m a fan of live concert energy that comes from rock bands. I have purpose in 5 Seconds Of Summer which is identifiable in a lot of our live orientation and composition. For me, one of my main goals was to apply that to production. I thought that this year was pretty damn empty so I mileswell get my ass down to Guitar Centre and buy some production gear, otherwise I’m out of business *laughs*. So I went and got the tools to start recording demos in general. I got a little microphone, an interface, and I got a laptop, and it honestly felt like a gateway opened. I finally felt like I was able to articulate the ideas that I hear in my head. 

I hear songs in my head all the time, so to have tools to articulate that and create a full song on my own without permission from a label, or waiting for permission to get into the studio from other people was so liberating. I took a leap of faith that I was going to attempt to do some songwriting that means everything to me as it’s about my narrative, my personal story and journey through this walk of life I’ve been on. 

Luckily I’ve chosen wisely of who I live with as my housemate is my musical mentor and best friend Matt Pauling, who I ended up producing the record with. I started making demos on my own, and I showed him, and he was like “we should just make a record this year. We ain’t go shit to do. Your not going on tour and no one can come to the studio cause we’re in a lockdown, and you and I live together, so lets make something impactful”. So from February onwards we’ve been working on ‘Superbloom’. 

TB: You’ve previously said that ‘Have U Found What Ur Looking For’ was the first song you wrote for the album and really defined that this was going to be a solo record project for you. So what was the last song you finished that made it on to the record, and made you go, “that’s it”?

AI: It was actually ‘Perfect Lie’ which is also the last track on the record. It was kinda cosmic like that. We knew we wanted to make a 10 track record, as we knew that would be enough to introduce people to my solo lyricism, and kinda conceptualise myself through a record like ‘Superbloom’. 

TB: So comparing the processes between ‘Have U Found What Ur Looking For’ and ‘Perfect Lie’, how would you say you grew as a solo artist and the vision grew between these two song periods? 

AI: Well I guess I’ve done a lot of growing in terms of songwriting through my experiences in a collaborative environment with 5 Seconds Of Summer. I’ve been working nearly a decade straight on my lyricism and songwriting, and learnt to be graceful student of that craft. The way I view this record is that it’s just another foot forward with my lyricism, and I just want to show people that this is how I’m cultivating all the wonderful gifts and resources that you’ve given me from my music being successful in the past. I want to be able to put out new music as often as possible. 

In terms of growth between ‘Have U Found What Ur Looking For’ and ‘Perfect Lie’, it’s all about self realisation and confidence. But also the way I hear records is that I hear tempos, sounds and messages that I want to say in the lyrics. I also hear music in forms of tracklisting’s, just because that’s the way I’ve consumed music ever since I was a kid. 

TB: ’Drive’ is a song that instantly stood out to me because of it’s summer-soaked aesthetic that you could envision driving down a coastal road blasting. Could you explain the creative process behind this song? 

AI: Well my partners father passed away, and that was really horrible for us. So ‘Drive’ was a gentle song for her. I just didn’t really know how to deal with the grieving process as I hadn’t before. So to see it break her heart was honestly really devastating.

I honestly just wanted that song to help make her feel a little better at the time because I didn’t know how else to express what I was feeling. All that was left for us to do sometimes was to sit in silence and just drive somewhere. Her favourite band of all time is Death Cab For Cutie so I wanted it to sound like them, and just make a song for her. So that’s kinda that one! 

TB: The powerful lead single ‘Skinny Skinny’ hears you exploring body dysmorphia, which is something that still has so much stigma surrounding it, and isn’t actively spoken about as much as it should be. Through writing about your conversation with you brother and reflecting on your own relationship with your body, and then releasing this song to the world, what is something more you’ve learnt about body dysmorphia?

AI: Well first of all, if it’s happened to me then it’s happened to a lot of other people, and that’s something I consistently say. In order to reflect on myself, I wanted to sing about thing that impact people. I’m not chasing having pop hits or Top 40 impact, as all those things are not really relevant to the concepts that I’m writing about. If people receive and listen to these songs in abundance, then I’m really proud.

In terms of writing ‘Skinny Skinny’ itself, it was right to the core of what effects me in my every day life. I’ve been dealing with Body Dysmorphia and questioning my self image ever since I was eight years old. A having similar conversations with young men like my brother, and hearing him feel the same way, it just made me feel like it was a really strong and sharp concept to touch on. I wanted to show particularly to young men that we can be fucking powerful and talk about this. It’s not weakness at all, It’s strength. And that’s what that whole concept was about. 

TB: There are a lot of really heavy and honest themes throughout this album which help make it such a captivating listen, and ‘Scar’ is one of those moments. Reflecting on the holding on through hardships and not letting go when it would be so easy to. So what is one of your favourite lyrics from this song?

AI: “It’s a painful thing to try, grit your teeth another time when the world leaves a scar on you”. It represents moments of absolute defeat through whatever your dealing with when you start having those dark thoughts like ending your life because it feels like it might be easier instead of dealing with the actual problems that are happening. It’s the leap of faith and betting on yourself. 

“Grit your teeth another time” is a very graphic lyric for me with where it came from, as it was kinda the moment where you’re choosing life or death. So yeah, it is a very heavy concept, and it’s a very real concept too. I just know that this year has been horrific for rates in suicide as people have been stuck in home and stuck in situations that they really hate, and I really pray for those people. I put out this music to muzzle them through it, and to get through it as a community.

TB: ’Matter Of Time’ is one of the albums most stripped back moments, and hears you addressing your sobriety. It’s a very vulnerable and candid moment, but would you say that this is one of the most vulnerable moments on the album for you, or is one of the more vulnerable moments layered in production for you?

AI: The song conceptually is about imposter syndrome. When things start to get good we tend to doubt ourselves and we kinda backtrack and destroy things. I think a lot of people are like that. I was.

So consciously this song is about accepting positivity when it enter your life, and knowing that you deserve to feel good. You deserve to feel happiness. You deserve things that you worked for. Its a song about giving yourself permission to heal. And it might take a long time but you’re going to be there, and you’re going to be gentle, and you’re going to stop bullying yourself. And that is kinda what ‘Matter Of Time’ is like. So it is vulnerable, but I also think it’s one of the most poetic songs o the album in short form. 

TB: What would you say is the most vulnerable moment on the album for you then? 

AI: I would say ‘Skinny Skinny’. It actually get increasingly more vulnerable the longer it’s out because I didn’t have a lot of butter influence as it was just Matt and I making this album for months and months. The more I hear that ‘Skinny Skinny’ affects people, the more it becomes very real to me that I made something that is impactful. And that makes me really proud as a songwriter, and that helps me enthuse my relationships, and helps me enthuse my writing to go and create more stuff in that vain. 

TB: It also must be so validating that people are connecting and relating to the songs because it means that you aren’t alone in these feelings, and it also means that they aren’t alone either. 

AI: Absolutely! I think it’s me coming down to earth on this album. I think it’s just me being me and accepting my damage and baggage, and then talking it all out with myself through the form of lyricism. And I think that is a place where I always want to exist with my lyrics. 

TB: This record really embraces live instrumentation with some incredible drums, and from the epic Queen esq ‘The Sweetness’ which would be a perfect show opener, to the fast paced ‘I’m To Blame’, and then to the experimentally charged ‘Perfect Lie’. How important was it for you to have live instrumentation before then adding synths etc? 

AI: I think you’re just hearing what my actual musical ability is on this album. I’ve been working and cultivating myself on vocal, guitar, bass, drums and anything else that is a live instrument for pretty much most of my life. So what you’re hearing is just my musical indeustrment personality on the record. In terms of synthesisers and all of that good stuff, I love technology and the fact that you can sprinkle in with guitars and stuff. I just don’t think you can beat it. I just love that kind of music. 

TB: It’s funny, because two songs that are definitely in my top songs of the year are ‘Skinny Skinny’ by you, and then ‘Wildflower’ by 5SOS. Two very different sounds, but they also both fuse the contrasting sounds together.

AI: Man, I love ‘Wildflower’! That’s a great pop song, and I honestly can’t wait to play it live with the band because it would’ve been awesome. It was such a fun song to write too. Like, we tried to get some Eagles harmonies in a pop song. So that’s what you hear in that song. 

TB: ’Perfect Lie’ closes the record with a song that is about being a pop star and singing songs that you don’t believe in. I feel like this would be quite a moment for you as it wraps up a record that is authentically and brutally honest you? 

AI: Yeah! I’ve been in a band since I was 16 years old, and you just grow out of songs. The flip side of that lesson is that people really love those songs, and I honour that. I really realised that songs that I might not connect with anymore are songs that some people really accept and love, and they have personal and sentimental meaning to them.

So the song is kinda about a lot of things, but it’s also me exploring musically a Depeche Mode side of my artistry rhythmically. And it’s also about not attaching your ego to things like celebrity culture, entertainment culture and toxic culture in general. It hears me separating myself and having a conversation with myself about what’s real and what’s not. 

‘Superbloom’ is out now!