"I want to build my identity right and have the fans feel like they don't just get one picture in one song" In conversation with Kassi Ashton
We can't overstate how excited we are about Kassi Ashton. Anyone who's heard any of her four songs released so far also will be excited. She's one of the freshest new talents to come out of mainstream Nashville for a while. Just after the release of 'Pretty Shiny Things' we got to speak with Kassi about her approach to music, why fashion and visuals are important to her, and her grand plan.
Hey Kassi, where are you talking to me from?
Hi! I'm at home right now actually with my two dogs and a cup of coffee.
Let's talk about your music. You've said when you get to the point of releasing an album you want it to reflect all the aspects of your personality. How much of that would you say we've seen so far?
I would say you have gotten a big, well a decent sized, chunk of it. You know we all have so many layers, like Shrek said "we're like an onion". The four songs that I have put out have been very very personal to me. Even 'Taxidermy', the one I didn't right, fit with my story and my upbringing so well. So they're all very personal and are layers of me. But as far as an album is concerned you are totally spot on, I want every track to be a true story or very personal to me, so people feel like they're really getting to know me. And of the four songs, I'm not really sure what I'll put on the album or what I won't. It will just come down to when I think I have the entire collection of songs, picking what feels most cohesive. Definitely 'California, Missouri' will go on there just because that is my hometown and it is the one song that I always knew I wanted to write. But yeah I try to keep it very personal and honest, and constantly revealing something so that my fans feel like we're getting to know each other as friends.
What's your process for writing, because everyone seems to have their own approach. How does it work for you?
So as a new artist you get your first publishing deal, which I signed almost three years ago now, and it's like you have 23 or 24 years worth of material to write. I wanted to take a while you know to really hash it out and write lots of songs about all the stories and really find what I liked and what I didn't like and who I like best in the room, you know as a co-writer, and whatnot. I think I'm at the point now where I've just been writing songs that I love and thinking what is the cohesive thread between all of these songs. I do feel the other side of that though is the fact that you look at a collection and you're like OK I know this song, this song, and this song are killer and absolutely have to be on it. For example, I have a ballad that I just know I just can't outdo. I love it so much. So then going forward in the writing process before the album comes out I look and say "What do I need? What else do I want to hear?" So it's I think it's a bit of both.
So you know that you're building towards an album when you're writing?
Yes absolutely. I think art in general needs time to breathe because when you're painting it's good to step back and think about it, and that's good with an album as well. I do admire some people who do all the production in one go because that can make it sound really cohesive and sound like one project. But I'm doing it piece by piece to make sure, because the debut album is an introduction it's such a big deal to me. You want to make sure it's just right. And also, continuing to just write songs and all that as because after the first album then you're really put into the artist life and by the time the second album comes you're like "oh what do I have to say?" and I don't want to feel rushed and feel like I have a short supply.
I'm not expecting you know overnight anything I like to let it marinate and make sure that every little step I take is earned and is done the right way and it's worth it. But definitely working towards a full album because I love albums, I still buy albums and listen to them all the way through, the way the artist intended them to be played.
I'm a big fan of albums and yeah I can't listen to them out of order or pick and choose tracks. You're definitely focused on making a full one to twelve kind of record?
Oh absolutely. I'm putting out song by song this year because I want to build my identity right and have the fans feel like they don't just get one picture in one song. I really wanted to introduce myself and have the space to be creative all year, look I'm doing music video for every song, so that's giving me a lot of space to come up with a lot of ideas and I feel like my band genuinely feel like they're getting to know me through the same process as you would get to know someone else.
You can get to know me piece by piece and when I finally do put out a debut radio single or a debut album if someone comes to say my social media or my music on a streaming platform they'll have an entire wormhole to dive down into and not just one picture in one song. They'll have an entire thing where they feel like they get to know me and we can actually become friends.
It sounds like you've got a genuine plan behind all of this?
Yes exactly. And I again I'm OK with the slow roll as long as I feel like I'm making strides every day because I want this to be a lifelong thing. I don't want it to blow up overnight and then in five six seven years I'm like OK what do I do now. Because it already you know fused out, I want to do this my entire life and as long as I'm taking one step forward every day I'm very happy.
I should say that I'm a huge fan of yours because the songs you put out so far they're just all really great but they're all quite different as well. They kind of sound different, they cover different subject matters but they're all very you. Are they different because of the people you write with? Does that affect how songs come out or do you kind of know what you're trying to do when you go into writing sessions?
I honestly appreciate you saying they're all different but that they're all me because that's my goal. Because I think none of us are just one thing. I think that's kind of silly, to have a box to put ourselves into, because as individuals we've been through so much and we've so much to say and we like so many different things. There aren't very many people that only listen to one pinpoint of a genre and that's it.
So yes it can depend on who I'm with because all of my friends that I write with have their own strengths and what they're good at, but when I go in a room and, say it's a title idea that I'm going in with or a melody or story, I just want to do it justice. And I want it to feel like it's me. Which can put on 50 different faces and sound different which is why all the songs have sound different but they all are a piece of me and I love all of them. I like the production on all of them and I found that a lot of people agree with that sentiment because they're like "hey I've listened to more than one station or I like urban music and country music and classical music so it's really cool that yours kind of all taste differently". And I really want my music to continue down that sort of pendulum route.
That is one of the things that makes you stand out, because there's a lot of homogenization in music these days and there are some whole genres that all sound the same as each other. So it's pretty cool that you have the freedom to try and do that.
Thank you. And honestly the team around me you know from Creative Nation Publishing, my management and also being in a partnership with my label. I've been really blessed with finding the right people who believe in me and believe in the plan. You know it's not traditional in the least, especially for country music, but they really give me the space to be who I am and they facilitate it well and they're like OK how can we do something different.
And you've worked with some really cool songwriters. I interviewed Natalie Hemby last year and she told me you were going to be massive, so you've written with her and Luke Dick, on 'Violins'...
Yes. And they also wrote 'Taxidermy' as well.
So how do you find writing with people like that, do you kind of bounce off them or does one of you take the lead? How did 'Violins' come about for example?
So for 'Violins' we were sitting there one morning and I think we were bitching about whiny people, cause a lot of people just don't ever shut up or they complain especially social media-wise. And that brought up stories of ex-es that whine or wanted you back, and my dad puts his thumb against his pointer finger and middle finger and rubbed them together beside his ear, and says "oh I'm playing you the world's smallest violin you poor thing". And so we were talking about it and I did that and I go "I can't even hear their violins, that's how much I don't care". And Natalie literally, she's a genius. literally sang the "I can hear the violins are playing" she literally sang that opening chorus line and I was like "Oh I love that" and Luke almost immediately had a guitar in his hand and he did that "Bah bah bah bah bah bah" And I was like "oh that sounds like you're kindly telling the person please like go away I have stuff to do". It didn't feel mean to me, it just felt like a confident sort of stride or strut. I love that because it wasn't like "Yo shut up", it wasn't mean but it was kind of like I have better stuff to do so if you want to whine go over there, I'm trying to be awesome, so I love that.
And as far as just general writing I think all the people I love to write with, like my producer Luke Laird, we're like the same creative brain. We can finish each other's musical sentences, we know what we're good at and we definitely write our own thing in the room but we're all kind of in it together like one brain.
'Pretty Shiny Things' is quite different to the other three songs you've released, is it important to release something that's a bit more sparse and a bit more, maybe, stripped back?
Oh yeah definitely. I think in our world I love production and all the cool things that you can do with tech now, but also at the same time... I'm here for the stories, for the voice and for the emotion of it. So I really wanted that to shine through and Luke agreed we should just basically have an acoustic guitar and not much else because you never want to cover something like that up. You don't want to take away from it and that's important to me because that's the root of why we do everything; it's connection and the honesty, and sometimes the production just helps someone put a smile on their face or dance along, which is amazing. But yeah at the end of the day I have to have those simple, stripped down vulnerable moments.
Is that something you work out when you're in the studio or when you actually go in to record you pretty much know what you want to do with the song?
Yeah. Luke and I, before we go into the studio, we always meet in his writing studio and we'll do preproduction. Is this what we both were envisioning? Or this is what we like from the work tape and this is what we don't, we'll just honestly play around with weird things or sometimes you're in the studio and you have all the instruments there and you're doing everything you put the vocal down and you're like "oh you know what it's missing..." and they can hit you there and it's great to have people around you that are flexible and say let's make that happen. For instance on 'Violins' we were in the studio and had it almost finished, and I said I really really want a trumpet and a trombone. And they were like "today?" I remember we had like one more day in the studio and I was like "yes" and so it was great because you don't expect those instruments to be so readily available in Nashville, and within a couple of hours a trombone and trumpet player came and we had them just sit in the room improvise. I wasn't going to write a part, it was amazing to see that translate through and honestly one of my favorite parts of the track.
I could talk to you all day, but I wanted to ask you about 'California, Missouri'. Were you kind of nervous in any way when you were writing that then releasing it, that people would react negatively to it because it's not you know it's not negative but you could see how people might think it's a snub in some ways.
I don't think I was nervous at all, just because those who didn't like it probably weren't going to actually listen to the whole thing and just assume that they knew what it was about from chatter or whatever, or if they didn't like it it's because they knew it was about them. I didn't really mind because I'm not trashing my hometown, it's really like saying it wasn't the perfect experience. It's a double-edged sword though. I love to go back, but I love even more to leave. I'm happy I came from there. I look for you in everything. But I also try to run from you. And that's really what I wanted to say. And because we got our lyric, Luke and Shane McAnally, got that lyric so right in that room that when we wrote it they let me just speak exactly what I wanted to say. I wasn't nervous because it was my truth and I don't mind something being polarizing, I rather prefer something be polarizing than just OK or passable, because you don't remember anything passable.
I was nervous a bit to play it for my dad. Because I am a total daddy's girl, or he says daddy's little boy. I played it for him because he grew up there and loves it, and that's fine. I have no problem with people that love it. I'm actually very very happy for them. And when he listened to it, at the end he crossed arms and he said "they're not going to like that". And I go "I know but daddy" I'm stuttering but I had to tell my truth I guess, I just had to be honest, there was no other way. And he literally looked at me and, pardon my French, he was like "fuck 'em". So after that I was like "yeah you're right". And honestly just hoping that it would connect to other kids in small towns that felt the same and I could be a voice for them. You know, that made the nerves go away cause I knew that I was doing something for someone somewhere that needed it.
That's it really isn't it. It's a song about a specific place but it's relevant to everybody. Do people talk to you about it when you go home now; does anyone ever stopped you in the store?
Never in town. Just because I don't get to go back much and when I do I just stay at my dad's farm which is outside of town. I have gotten, of course, through the power of the Internet, messages saying "oh I love it" or "I didn't know it was that bad for you" or even some people have said "wow that was nice compared to how it actually was for you". I think that I the people who knew kind of appreciated how honest I was with it.
One final question then, you mentioned videos earlier. Your videos are very artistic, they all have very strong visuals that go with the song. So how much of that is from you?
I am a huge images person, all the way back to middle school I would study for a test by drawing pictures. That helps me in making clothes and I designed the artwork for my songs, designed the website and the merch and I just see things in my head and have to bring them to life. So when my label said let's do a music video for every release this year it was better than Christmas! So I do all the treatments for the music videos, the mood board and say OK this is what I want, how I want the lighting and I make the clothes for the outfits and then they paired me with a great director Kristin Barlowe who is perfect at understanding my vision and kind of again connecting and becoming the same brain, filling in the pieces about actually making video that I have no idea about obviously because I am not a director or a cinematographer. She is amazing in saying OK this is how we get this done.
So you know I thank you for saying they're artistic because I love like art.
The 'Taxidermy' video is just you in a white dress, it's so simple yet so effective. When it came out it was just different.
Thank you so much. When you're a new artist your budget is null, so half of my job is trying to figure out within this time frame and this price amount how can I make something really worth watching, and. again, not passable, not in the grey area. How can I really make something that stands out and make people pay attention. I appreciate that.
To find out more about Kassi you can visit her website. You should also check out her socials.