“I feel like a faerie chilling in the woods,” Ashnikko quips, taking a languid stretch. She’s currently lounging on the lush grass outside an Airbnb in North Carolina, where she’s been holed up during quarantine for the past few weeks.
In the distance, puffy white clouds splatter across a perfect blue sky. As sunlight trickles through the green canopy of trees shading her, the idyllic scene—Ashnikko, with her razor-sharp eyeliner, electric blue Sailor Moon ponytails, and strappy black BDSM bra top, relaxing against a plush pastoral landscape—begins to look like a cyber-Rococo painting; a contradiction of bucolic serenity and virtual chaos. Well, through my computer screen, anyway.
“We’re in a dystopian sci-fi age,” Ashnikko states matter-of-factly, checking her WiFi connection as we connect over Zoom, every music journo’s remote interview app du jour these days. “I’m shooting a music video on Zoom soon too, which is just… very interesting.”
Desperate times call for digital measures, and Ashnikko—a.k.a. 24-year-old rapper, singer, and producer Ashton Casey—practically emerged from the digital ether. In 2019, her savage fuckboy takedown, “Stupid” featuring Yung Baby Tate, went mega-viral on TikTok. The swaggering track has since earned more than 70 million Spotify streams to date, while its homicidal music video currently clocks in at nearly 35 million views.
“It opened doors for me,” Ashnikko says of how the viral track changed her life. “I’ve met loads of really cool people. Some great things have come out of this. I think part of me sometimes forgets how good it has been. It has completely changed my career.” The trend even got a considerable boost when Miley Cyrus lip-synced to the song on her TikTok page. While Ashnikko has yet to meet Cyrus IRL, she isn’t quite sure what she’d say to the pop star if she got the chance: “I’ve been watching her since the Hannah Montana days, but I probably wouldn’t say anything because I’m too shy in real life!”
In early 2020, Ashnikko experienced a second wave of TikTok virality when a track she co-wrote, “Boss Bitch,” became another massive audio trend on the app, as well as a hit in general, climbing the Spotify and Billboard charts. According to the artist, it was originally “just some stupid song” she wrote when she was 18.
“I literally was like, ‘Fuck this song, nothing’s ever gonna happen with it, it’s not gonna make it.’ And then the producer, Sky Adams, submitted it for [the Birds of Prey soundtrack] without telling anyone,” the singer-rapper explains. “My management got a call like, ‘Ash has a song on the soundtrack!’ And then Doja Cat cut it. I was like, ‘Well, she sounds fucking great.’ You should hear my demo. It’s so bad. What she wrote for it is just sick, it’s chef’s kiss.” (Ironically, Ashnikko had submitted another song, “Tantrum,” for the soundtrack, though she ended up keeping it for herself and releasing it as a single.)
Born and raised in the suburbs of North Carolina before moving to Europe, Ashnikko’s early upbringing in the largely “conservative and patriarchal” American south would eventually clash with her sex-positive, feminist lyrics and brash, in-your-face music. “It’s not really the best place to be sexually free and liberated,” she recollects. “My immediate family, like my mom, are pretty open about sex. They talked to me quite honestly about it from a young age. But my extended family are super, super close minded. It’s a very taboo subject. I think being raised around that mentality—and I’m just obnoxious—I just wanted to rub it in their faces and take my sexuality as my own. I wanted it to be a positive thing as opposed to something I’ve grown up with as a taboo.”
Her latest single, “Cry,” a cyber-trap nu-metal banger featuring Grimes, is a vengeance-fueled flip-off to anyone who has ever hurt the artist’s feelings. It also captures the pain, rage, and regret that threaten to swell within those whose truth has been oppressed and whose longing has been denied. “It’s about one of my oldest best friends, who I was too scared to admit that I had feelings for because I wasn’t open with myself about my own sexuality,” reveals the artist, who identities as pansexual.
The “dream collaboration,” worked on remotely and manifested in the form of an animated sci-fi, Y2K-era video game-inspired music video, is one of Ashnikko’s most exciting and high-profile yet. “Grimes has been really sweet to me online. We’ve been internet friends and I can’t wait to meet her in real life,” Ashnikko shares of the feature, which unfurled over Instagram. “I just sent her the idea and she was immediately like, ‘Yes, please. I’m gonna put something down on this song.’ I saw that she followed me and I was like, ‘I’m just gonna shoot my shot and see what happens, it can’t hurt.’ She is one of my dream features, I’ve wanted to work with Grimes for so long. She’s a magical human being and the video shows her as the ethereal elf creature she really is.”
The track will be featured on Ashnikko’s yet-to-be-titled, upcoming EP (or mixtape), due out sometime this year. And while the artist has been actively chipping away at the project amid quarantine, she’s also found the energy to dip into other creative endeavors, from crocheting and hand-crafting a corset out of duct tape (as worn in her LADYGUNN cover shoot), to creating a massive comic for her boyfriend. She’s also been spending her time painting, hiking, doing yoga, and binge-watching The Walking Dead. Oh, and she got a bidet. (Take that, toilet paper hoarders!)
“I got the bidet sent back to my London apartment, so my housemates are super excited for their clean buttholes. I wanted to have dibs on the first use of the bidet, but whatever,” she complains, groaning.
But quarantine hasn’t been all relaxation and artistic inspiration. Ashnikko says that the first month during stay-at-home orders made her “super manic” as she tried to find her rhythm and figure out what to do with herself. Thankfully, she found an outlet for her unrest.
“I would go crazy if I wasn’t creative, but it’s been a manic creativity,” she says. “I’ve been journaling every day and now it’s become quite intensely sad. I only journal when I’m sad, so I need to start adding some happy entries or future me is gonna think this whole time was—” She stops abruptly, and starts laughing as she catches herself mid-psychoanalysis.
“I always write in my journal thinking about what future me is gonna think about me reading my journal,” she continues. “It’s fucked up. I need to learn to be in the present moment. I mean, I tried doing a gratitude journal, but I got bored of that. I guess being a little sad sack is more interesting.”
Many of your visuals—your artwork, music videos, outfits—have a spooky, creepy aesthetic. Are you a horror fan?
It’s funny because I don’t really like horror at all. I have really bad anxiety and I have intrusive thoughts, so when I watch horror, it gets worse. My anxiety heightens and I have really horrible thoughts when I watch horror movies. I think I prefer animated gore, like super gory, head-ripping-off anime like Attack on Titan and Re:Zero. I more enjoy the aesthetic of bodily fluids, but less the actual horror world. It’s really strange, but I just really love the way blood looks. I love gooey, slimy, wet things. I really like the whole slime craze.
Is slime still a thing on YouTube?
It’s passed, but it was a good internet era. My secret guilty pleasure is watching satisfying slime videos. It’s a little bit dated, but I still really like it. And I love ASMR. I’m doing a Twitch stream soon of me eating really wet, loud food, like crab legs or something.
I read that when you were a teenager, you struggled with internalized misogyny. As you grew up, what changed for you?
I think all women kind of have to deal with internalized misogyny that they need to unpack and question within themselves, just because it’s forced upon us in our society. When I was a teenager, I went through that phase where I just wanted to be one of the boys—rejecting my femininity and thinking that femininity was the same as weakness, because that’s just what I had been told my whole life. I definitely think about that little girl and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, that was so sad.’
But what taught me about feminism? I probably read something on Tumblr and went, ‘Fuck! Feminism is so cool!’ I learned about intersectional feminism. I’m still learning. I didn’t go to school and take a gender studies class but I feel like I’ve done my own personal research. I still catch myself sometimes though, like, ‘Why do you feel like this? Why are you making yourself smaller? Why are you putting this girl down, or why do you feel competitive with her?’ You have to constantly call yourself out and ask yourself where that’s coming from. Is it something you actually believe? Or is it coming from something that someone told you that you should feel about yourself? It’s a process. Being a good feminist is an everyday learning experience. Complacency is not okay.
When girls watch your music videos, listen to your music, or see you perform live, what do you hope they take away from it?
The reason why I make the music that I do is because I did feel so insecure as a teenager. I felt very submissive in my relationships with men. I felt powerless as a teenager and young adult. I haven’t been super confident my whole life. Writing these songs and channeling this kind of dominant goddess energy has really helped me with my own confidence. That’s why I feel so adamant about putting forward that message in my music, because I never wanna feel as weak and out of control as I did when I was younger. It’s really important to me to make music that makes young girls especially feel confident and in control of their lives and sexuality.
Your fans ride or die for you so hard.
I forget sometimes how hard they ride for me, and then somebody will insult me online and everyone will be like, ‘Fuck you!’ Like, hundreds of comments. Or, I’ll respond back to someone, slightly sassy, and then everyone will be like, ‘How dare you talk to our queen like this.’ [Laughs] I’ll have to message that other person privately like, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean for it to happen like that.’
Last year, you admitted that you were dealing with trolls and cyberbullying on social media. Has that gotten any better for you? Where is your headspace with social media today?
Just this morning before you called, I was lying outside having a crisis about this. I have a really, really hard time with social media. It makes me depressed and insecure and super anxious. Like, my fight or flight instincts are triggered when I’m on social media. I get a lot of internet trolls and it sucks. But when everything first started popping off, when one of my songs went viral on TikTok, that was a massive lifestyle change for me. I wasn’t used to that loss of anonymity, especially online, and that was difficult for me. I had a really hard time dealing with that.
I started seeing a therapist but she was a little bit older and she just didn’t understand social media. So, it was me explaining to her how social media works and how trolls work. I was like, ‘Fuck this, you don’t understand what is going on right now. You don’t understand Stan Twitter and I don’t have time to explain it to you!’ I need a therapist who knows about that side of Twitter; who knows all the ins and outs of Stan Twitter and trolls and everything. I need someone who specializes in that.
How do you cope?
My coping mechanisms have definitely changed a lot. For a while it was really bad: I was reading all the comments, having panic attacks, and freaking out. Now, I go days without going on the internet. I try not to scroll anymore. Scrolling is death for your mental health, it’s so bad for you.
I also have this new, fun tool I use; this archetype that I’ve built for myself. She’s a cool auntie who lives in a treehouse and grows her own vegetables and has a solar-powered house. This is who I wanna be in the future. I just think about her and how she wouldn’t give a shit about internet trolls, so when I feel really bad about them, I just put on this cool treehouse auntie persona, like, ‘I really don’t care. Right now, I am Treehouse Auntie.’ She’s cool as fuck. I’ve crafted her entirely. She lets her nieces and nephews smoke weed in the house. She buys them all magic mushrooms and she has her own greenhouse. She has a lot of dogs. Her house looks like a Hobbit house, but also a treehouse at the same time. Treehouse Auntie is also super punk. She doesn’t give a shit. She doesn’t give a flying fuck about what people think about her.
It sucks that people feel entitled to openly harass others on social media for no reason. Social media is truly a weird, wild frontier still.
I’ve had to take a step back, especially on Twitter. Twitter makes my brain melt out of my ears, it’s so toxic for me. I’m coming up with new coping mechanisms all the time but sometimes I wake up and I’m like, ‘I cannot do this shit anymore. If I keep doing this, I will be so mentally ill.’ It’s unbearable sometimes.
It’s like, we’re closer than ever but the sense of humanity isn’t there. It’s free range. Stan Twitter will pit their favorite artists against each other. The two artists might be friends, but their fanbases hate each other and spend all day attacking each other. It’s just so strange to me. It’s really weird and I feel like this happens mainly with women. You don’t have to pit women against each other for them to have successful careers. You can just support them and be positive.
What do you think it is about TikTok that lends itself to viral musical discovery? Do you have a TikTok philosophy?
Honestly, I don’t know. Record labels are shitting their pants about it, though. [Laughs] They’ve gotta be! It’s changed the way young people discover and interact with music. Before TikTok it wasn’t so immersive. Now, you can dance to it and you can have your own viral moment pop off of your favorite song. It’s completely changed how people discover music. People now discredit it, but if you look at the viral charts and even the Billboard Hot 100, so many of those songs are from TikTok challenges and trends.
Did the Grimes collab unfold during quarantine?
When I first reached out to her to be on the song, it was pre-quarantine. We were still on opposite sides of the earth, so it still had to be done remotely anyway. I originally planned to do a live action music video, but I think animation works for the song better anyway, with or without the necessity of it. We can’t really shoot big music videos right now [due to lockdown].
Is that frustrating for you as an artist right now? Or do you find yourself more creatively stimulated by the challenge?
A bit of both. I’m a very fickle human being, I have very up and down days. Some days I’m just like, ‘Fuck, I want my music video with full choreography in the desert!’ But alas, I cannot have that. I’ve wanted to do loads of animated music videos anyway though, so what better time than now when I actually have to?
Last summer, you came out as bi publicly on Twitter. You said it was the first year you had been honest with yourself about your sexuality. If you’re willing and comfortable to share, what has that been like?
My sexuality is still something that I’m figuring out and trying to decide for myself. At the time, I identified as bisexual, but as the year went on, I think I realized that I would classify myself as pansexual. It’s been nothing but love from my fans. In my very Southern family, there’s been mixed reactions. I think that growing up in a super conservative family made me squash [a lot of my early feelings]. That’s what I mean by having to work on your feminism every day. I’m still unpacking that self-hatred.
Growing up, I was always attracted to women. I was very attracted to my best friends. I always thought there was something wrong with me and I’d beat myself up about it. I thought I was taking it too far. But when I realized it was completely normal and natural for me to be crushing on these fucking hot, beautiful women… Duh! It was a weight lifted off my shoulders, it was a release. Part of the whole process for me was messaging all my old friends, like, ‘Listen, the reason why I got so jealous of you when you got a boyfriend wasn’t because you were spending all your time with him. I wanted to kiss you. I wanted to date you…’ I think I’m very comfortable with my queerness now.
Being queer is a journey. It’s complicated.
Yeah, and then there’s that bi-erasure. For a while I was like, ‘Well, I’ve dated men before so…’ It was just my own feeling that I wasn’t enough of one thing. Or sometimes my parents will be like, ‘You’re gonna end up with a guy, right?’ It’s just like… Ugh.
Your last EP was a breakup EP. Are there more breakup tracks to come?
I’ve written a lot of breakup songs—breakup songs you’ll be hearing for years to come because I wrote so many. [Laughs] I’ve written hundreds of them in the heat of the moment. For a while, I was in the studio every day, writing two songs a day, it was crazy… That work ethic, I want her back. But it was also very unsustainable and I was burning myself out. So yes, a lot of the songs on this EP, mixtape, whatever it is, are breakup songs, but some of them are [different].
Are the breakup tracks about different relationships you’ve had, or one in particular?
All the really big breakup songs are about one person, but I tend to write about other people’s breakups as well, which is kind of strange. ‘Hi, It’s Me’ was written about my best friend’s breakup, as well as my own. I was taking things from both. I don’t even know exactly what breakup that song is about. It was written for me as my own best friend, but also I had a conversation with my actual best friend about her breakup. Yeah, it’s a whole mess. [Laughs]
Do you think you’re gonna release the clitoris song from your YouTube variety show?
Oh, yeah! I already knew I was gonna put the clitoris song on there. I was just seeing how people would react. I recorded it on a TV mic, because we did it on set and I recorded it on the day I was in the pussy costume. We’re gonna revocal it and produce it up a bit. It’s basically like a musical: ‘Clitoris: The Musical!’ We would love to expand into a full production.
Has the new music you’re working on for your next project taken any cohesive overarching theme?
On this new EP there’s a lot of themes about toxic people in the music industry and not just ex-partners. There’s a lot of bi songs on the next mixtape, like maybe this one banger I’m working on called ‘Break My Heart.’ There are a lot of songs just about self-confidence in general. There’s one song that’s on there that’s my mature breakup song. It’s got a positive spin. It’s called ‘Good While It Lasted.’ I think this mixtape is a little bit more mature. Maybe. Who knows?
Some people have these recurring themes in all of their albums. Like, all the album artwork relates back to the last one, and it’s all smooth and with perfect branding. There are these easter eggs in each song, building out this story, and I’m just like… My own emotions are so fucking up and down. I don’t even know. I can’t even stick to one theme. I think Hi, It’s Me is the only body of work I’ve written that has a theme.
Human beings are naturally all over the place, anyway.
No human is constantly the same or in the same emotional state. I can be crying and having a panic attack, and then be ecstatic ten minutes later. [Laughs] It’s truly a journey in my head. It’s a ride.
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story + production / Erica Russell