Ashton Irwin’s Brave New World
Not gonna lie: I’m not a fan of 5 Seconds of Summer. That said, I’m not a “non-fan”, either. There’s a distinct difference between disliking a band’s music and truly not knowing too much about it. I fall into the latter category for absolutely no other reason than lack of exposure and selective listening. Some might say I’m not and never was their target audience. Some might be right about that.
Point being, when I heard Ashton Irwin’s solo debut Superbloom I was listening without any preconceived notion of what it was supposed to be, though prepared for whatever boy-band-drummer-makes-solo-album might bring. Before listening, I knew Ash’s influences included Foo Fighters, Nick Drake, Helmet, Silverchair, Stone Temple Pilots, My Bloody Valentine, Curve. How, I wondered, would the sensitive Nick Drake fit in with this lot? Could a solo debut really pull this off?
You may think you’ve heard this story before: Guy in boy band makes solo album, just ‘cause he can. I mean, let’s face it: According to Billboard, since 2014, 5 Seconds of Summer has sold over 10 million albums worldwide, their streams estimated somewhere well over seven billion, making them, to date, one of Australia’s biggest exports of all time — of anything. If this guy wanted to make an album just for the fun of it, he could have done that and it would have sold just fine.
But he didn’t.
Superbloom is a bright lotus in a mud pile of a year. The wild and terrifying uncertainties of early 2020 brought cancellations for most musicians, and 5SOS was no different. Ash found himself — at 26 and having worked nonstop for the last decade — with some much-deserved time on his hands. All performers reacted differently to the what-will-I-do-with-my-summer-vacation challenge. Many panicked, some rested. Ash decided to make a solo album. And not just any album, either. Sober for over a year, the album tracks his brave discovery of a new journey into his next level of humanhood.
The album opens with “Scar,” raw and loud, dreamy and inventive, epic and soaring — and distinctly 90s-inspired. But just when you think you might know what it is, Ash asks us: “Can you help me be a better man?” That’s when you know you’re in for something much deeper and very different. This guy has something to say.
Lyrically poetic and mature, Superbloom’s subjects are so deeply personal. Even more, they start a relevant and all-important conversation. He sings about his battle for sobriety (“Matter of Time”), his dark struggles with anxiety and depression (“The Sweetness”), the shackles of his early success and the need for creative fulfillment (“Perfect Lie”).
Somehow, still not sure how, all his influences are there—and it works. There’s a nod to ’90s grunge, but Ash has managed, against all odds, to reinvent a sound you think you know into something new and distinctly his own. The result is a melodic tapestry of decades-past influences, something you can’t quite put your finger on, and the delight is in the discovery.
“Skinny, Skinny” tackles the subject of body dysmorphia, inspired by a cautionary conversation Ash had with his 15-year-old brother. And here we experience the homage — though not a copycat attempt, by any stretch — to our beloved Nick Drake.
Drake’s tragic and untimely death at 26 is well documented, as was his battle with depression. Irwin, also 26 and open about overcoming tough inner battles, will offer a different model for those also struggling, through his example and through his music.
And that, aside from something musically uniquely all its own, is what Superbloom offers: hope.
I spoke with Ashton one rainy Friday afternoon, me on the East Coast, him on the Los Angeles West. I knew nothing—other than the requisite journalist prep—about Ash before our virtual meeting, though, as I said, I met him first through his solo work.
The first thing I thought when I saw him on Zoom was: “This guy has a light.” With the rain pouring down around me, Ash was a bright ray of sunshine. For all he’s been through, he is a beacon of positivity, committed to growing in his life and music.
This article was originally intended as an essay, but that would’ve meant cutting and compromising Ash’s overall message—and example—of healing. I wasn’t the audience for his famous band, but through his new album and in meeting him for this, I’m a huge fan of Ash in every sense, and can’t wait to see where his new journey takes him.
He’s simply brimming with heart, joy and promise.
SPIN: Congrats on the album. How did it come about?
Ashton Irwin: These are the times when I could really do that leap of faith and write something on my own that’s impactful to, hopefully, an audience that resonates with the messages I’m putting across. So, for me this year was like…I’m 26 years old, I hadn’t had any solo work released yet, I’ve only ever worked in a band. It just seemed like the perfect opportunity to—respectfully of my band—go “this is a year where we can’t do anything, I’m gonna go and craft something and step forward into my kind of solo career—or just solo effort—that I can begin to craft over the next bit of my lifespan.
I listened, as I do with many new albums, from beginning to end. If the album doesn’t tell a story, to me it’s not an album—it’s a collection of songs. In a world of downloads, we don’t have a lot of “albums” out there. I found myself consistently referring to this album as a “record.”
A record, for me, is how I consumed music when I was younger, and still am young, obviously, but I’m close enough to the genesis of my musical interest. I only started really loving music when I was nine or ten years old, so, relatively, that’s only sixteen years ago. [He laughs] So, it’s only just behind me. When I was receiving records like Diorama by Silverchair or Prisoner of Society by The Living End or Jet’s Get Born—these records were the ones that got me in, and I was like whoa, I love this. But the cornerstone of my musical interests was Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die.” That shit blew me away and the first time I heard it, I heard it in my stepdad’s truck and I was like “You’re kidding! You can mix orchestras with rock bands?” and I was like, that shit is huge! I was so excited about it.
I actually made a note to ask: Are you a Beatles fan? I could hear something very “Beatles” in your music.
I shouldn’t say it to anyone, but I’m actually a Wings fan. It’s one of those things where I loved Paul’s sweetness and edge and I loved his songwriting and it was some of the most beautiful songwriting, to me, that I can understand at my age. I only just recently started moving onto George Harrison…cause now I’m in my mid-twenties and it seems like everyone I say that to is like yeah, that’s about when that happens with George, you start to get into George around your mid-twenties. Yeah, I go on little Beatles journeys. I don’t want to pose and try to say I’m an expert on the Beatles, I’m not. I just…I dig it. I love the original thought processes behind the songs and the way they feel and the recording process, and I do resonate with that.
I don’t think you need to need to be an expert on anything in order to love it or appreciate it or be influenced by it.
You know where that comes from, when I say that…cause I’ve obviously been in a pop band, and I’ve been in a young male pop band, so whenever I reference anything I’m very used to being shot down because I’m not, like…the most expert person on talking about that, so I’m kind of like, just being a fan of music and accepting I just like what I like and I understand that I’m in a period of growth for my musical journey.
Whoever shot you down was a moron.
You know what my counteraction was…? Well, I can make music, so I’ll just speak through that, hopefully. I’ll make my music and I’ll write my lyrics and I’ll inject a musicality that’s hopefully unique to me and is hopefully influenced by Paul and Wings and all the other things I mentioned, so…
Is it true that your grandmother had an important influence on you as a child and as an artist?
Yes. Dianne. Dianne Irwin. What a woman. Wow. And she’s thriving. I’ve never met any human with the amount of empathy and lessons through love than my grandma. She’s the most patient, understanding woman. I grew up with just my mom and she had me when she was quite young in her early 20s.
My grandma was very delicate with how she handled my dad abandoning the situation. She never said, “Hey, you’re disadvantaged right here.” She only ever advantaged me. She was able to see with her terrific, intuitive eye, “This young kid loves performing. He loves music. He loves the drums. He loves singing. He loves being a show-off. He loves being loud and he loves words and he loves guitar.” She fed every single positive thing in my life. That’s the type of mentor I want to be to people.
She did something very tricky. She never acknowledged the negatives. Never. Only was like, “Well, you still got this though. You still got music. You still got your performing. You still got all these other things that you’re passionate about. It’s all good, Ash.” She resonated with me a lot. She’s one of my main mentors in the corner of how I developed empathy and love and caring for people. She’s that gemstone within me.
You had some powerful women around you then, your mom and your grandmother.
Yes, that’s how I was built. I never had a lot of respect for men growing up because I only saw them mistreating my mom. That was a weird experience for me. Only now I’ve come to like even just having male friends. It’s kind of weird. I don’t know. Just like problem-solving. Just my mom and I and problem-solving men’s problems together when I was just a kid was [laughs] confronting and confusing, but that’s what a lot of my record is about.
I want to heal other young men in situations that they — the way young men are perceived in this society, like the amount of times I hear the phrase “men are trash” is so upsetting in pop culture. I hear that a lot and young people say that a lot. I think of my 15-year-old brother and what that might be doing at his subconscious as a young man. I think just young men can be so much better and so much more exposed for their good side in society. I want to nurture that and it’s such an awkward thing.
I don’t feel like I can talk about, “Yes, I want men to be better,” but think I need to. By better, I mean more caring, less misogynistic. From when I was young, I’ve just dealt with men who get caught up in their own things and that affects women in a terrible way. I’m not saying I’m better than them either. I’m just aware men have a lot of fucking work to do to prove their worth in this society at this point in time.
A lot of my songs are about loosening up and being a spiritual person and being a caring person and being a loving person and shaking things like addictions, and re-parenting yourself, and healing yourself and making sure you’re doing that work to grow into a leader, like a real man I guess. Some of my songs are about that stuff. When I talk about just growing up with powerful women, yes, I did. I just grew up with my mom and my grandma. I did have some incredible male mentors along the way, which we can talk about later. They all came through music though.
It sounds like your album tracks the journey. This wasn’t like you came to the end of the healing process or you saw the light and you were like, “Oh, that’s cool. I’m just going to write an album about it.” It sounds like it was a real journey for you.
If anything, this is the trembling foot forward. It’s only the, “Okay, I’m going to slide in this direction a little bit and I’m just getting my footing.” Superbloom says that in the title. It’s time to have an incredible seismic period of growth. Do it now, bloom now. Become your higher self and your more focused, artistic self now, and take the leap of faith.
You had to travel through some very dark times to get to this place.
Yes, I was a heavy drinker to some extent, just alcoholism. I was in a pop band. At one point, we were one of the biggest pop bands on earth and we’re doing really well. Just that schedule ruined me. I was really young and this story has happened a million times and I’m aware of that, but I was just overworked and really young. The only way I knew how to keep going was. “Okay, toughen up, numb up, drink, and get the work done,” because I didn’t understand my worth. I didn’t understand that I was allowed to say no, because I was from a very lower-class family, so I was just going to put my fucking back into it and I did for nine years. That was what I went through to get to this period. “Well, I need to make some art on my own now for a moment.”
Do you feel with this album that you rediscovered some parts of yourself and your voice?
Oh, yes. I feel so aligned with what I want and how I want to be communicating to people. The style of music is so exciting because it’s going to be so incredible in a live experience one day because I know deep in myself, I can create one of the best live shows ever. I really can. I have the friends to do it and I have the connections to do it. I have the motivation to take it to that place of experience.
I can’t wait ‘til it’s safe for everybody to go out and perform again. I don’t think we knew how much we were going to miss this.
Yes, it’s been weird playing catch with that comment “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” As creatives, our job is to constantly reinvent and maybe we got stagnant with the way we release music, process music, the way we make music.
Maybe it all got a little too regimented for a moment. Maybe now that our constructive society is almost shattered, maybe we’ll grow back even better and more creative and brighter and more insightful with what we’re singing about, and purposeful with what we’re saying. There’ll be such fantastic artists come out over the next 20 years. It’s going to be so incredible. It’ll be such a new fucking prime era for music because look how much we have to talk about.
[Laughs] I personally think that creatives are going to save the world.
They will, but that’s what I’m talking about. “Can’t wait for it to go back to normal,” but creatives need to be saying, “Well, this is the normal today. This today is normal. These are the tools I have to work with,” creatives will create the solutions in order to step forward. It’s an accumulation and that’s true collaboration. That’s what I learned on this project. It’s funny. I’ve been in a band for 10 years, but I didn’t know how to collaborate until I made an album on my own.
Because in the band, I thought I was a leader, but I wasn’t. I was just a bully, I think, [laughs] or a self-important, damaged person who, yes, I have creative ideas and I’m a creative being. It’s all I think about but, I didn’t have enough empathy to hear. I was deaf to other ideas in the band for a moment. Now that I’ve been on my own, I think I actually have the tools and skills to collaborate in a better way, in a healthier way with other people, with other creatives. That’s hard to admit, but it’s the truth.
Just on a personal level, slightly off the record, I think you need to give yourself a break [Laughs] because you are so young. Trust me, I’m telling you. I think that it’s hard to know things that you don’t know.
I think I was in classic survival mode like just bulldozing, hoping that I can keep making music, hoping that I can stick two feet in the ground and stay releasing music, have the music be popular enough to just make more. That’s the dream for me because in my life, I’m planning on releasing a lot of music. Just a different journey now. When I look back, I know the next record I make with the band will be a totally different game, a totally different thing, and that’s exciting.
This is a departure musically though, right?
Totally. I think it’s a fresh touch on things like — for some reason, the word “grunge” is touchy. I don’t know why, but the way we recorded our guitars and everything, it’s direct from the ’90s. We didn’t fake that. [laughs] We wanted to do that, so that was a departure. It’s kind of a revamped ’90s grunge thing that we’re trying to do with the essence and sweetness of ’70s music.
Obviously, predominantly, I came from a pop songwriting background. Structurally and compositionally, it’s modern in that sense with the melody choice. I do think this departure is a conglomerate of at least 50 years of musical advancements of the other people. I’m just catching the ball and holding it for a second and probably throwing it forwards again. That’s how I see it, so the departure is exciting. It really represents my actual musical ability, I can play the bass fairly well. I’m playing it on a lot of the songs. I’m playing guitar in a lot of songs. I’m playing drums and you’re hearing my actual flavor as a musician. The departure is just more in line with me.
Your music deals with some very serious issues.
Yes, I don’t know, I just feel fearless with it. They are just human to me. They’re just like, shit most people deal with. I don’t know why we’re all faking it. Not all of us, but some of us. I talk about body dysmorphia in one song, “Skinny Skinny”, but I see millions of people feel that. Literally millions. Millions and millions of people feel like that, or scars about the resistance of the world with your work or your family life, or your relationships or your financial problem, or your depression or anxiety.
It leaves an actual emotional scar on you and you become tough. That’s what that song’s about. You become hardened. You become, “Well, I need to suck it up and fight back. Otherwise, my livelihood will disappear,” and then at songs like “Sunshine”, which is very Beatles-based, but that song is about media consumption and young people spending time to be young. It’s not about forget about world issues.
It’s remember yourself though. Remember, instead of consuming media 24/7, consume what’s right in front of you in your real life because that will fucking fly by. It will fly by and I’m old enough to know I’m still young, so I’m sitting in that marvelous place right now. I just want to articulate that to my friends and people I care about and, therefore, my audience as well. Little topics like that. There’s some positive and some are just life concepts.
Are you hoping this album will help people dealing with similar issues?
I have intention when I put music out, but I’ve never chosen the way it will be received because it could be in any way. I want to let it always surprise me because the result will also be just as creative as you were making it. Who knows what could happen with my songs, but I know that they have an incredible energy in them that I’m proud of. They have amazing frequencies that could be really, really healing for people. They could really enjoy this music on a level that I enjoyed those first records I mentioned. We’ll see what happens with them.
Was it healing for you to make this album?
Oh, man. I’d never thought I would do this. I was just like — I was so mean to myself. I was like, “Man, you’re in a band. You’re the drummer. Sit on that fucking drum kit and stay there.” You’ve had an amazing opportunity here. You could sit in this comfortable place now like your band did well. Play the gigs. Make albums with them and sit in that place. I was kind of angry because I knew there was more in me. I knew I loved using words as tools and I love writing songs for the group, but I also had these songs I’m releasing in me for a really long time. That was starting to cause resentment towards pretty much everything. I was just becoming an angry bugger.
Your song “Matter of Time”…tell me about it.
Two things. It’s about impostor syndrome, which we all know about. If you don’t, if you’re reading this, [it’s when] you don’t feel truthfully like you’ve earned what you have. If it’s money or if it’s happiness, hopefully, it’s happiness above everything else, and you don’t feel it belongs to you for some reason. It’s weird, so you become self-destructive and that’s a journey I’ve been on. I used to have these panic attacks from depression and I’d be like, well, I’d freak out and push everything away, disconnect myself from anything that was feeding this uncomfortable thing which was just connection.
I was afraid of it. “Matter of Time” is if you have been in pain or are in pain, it will pass because everything passes eventually. Once you start to feel better again or if you start to feel joy or happiness again, make sure you recognize your behaviors if you’re ruining or destroying or not allowing yourself to have those things, those things that might start to make you happy. “Matter of Time” is about picking up on self-destructive characteristics in your life, something like that.
It’s almost like these songs were just dying to get out. They’ve been incubating or growing.
They have been for a long time. I’ve always been a vocalist and I love singing, but then I was– You know what was confronting? I was in a pop group and my voice isn’t necessarily a pop voice. I don’t like being tuned too much. I really am interested in the recording of a vocal now at this point. A big thing for me was gaining confidence through the way my vocal was sounding.
I went on a little side quest and found the mic I liked, and found the style of other singers that I liked like Elliott Smith or Daniel Johns from Silverchair, or people like that. How do I combine all those realms together with guitars and doubling my vocal for the first time? I was like, “Holy shit. I sound good. I sound good.” I was so happy. I was like, “Oh, my God. I have an identity as a singer.” I followed that path and that’s one of the most exciting things that has happened. I just really liked developing my vocals for once.
What does healing look like for you or what did it feel like for you?
It’s just a choice for me. It’s constant choices through the day. All those choices, those positive emotions, those good choices for yourself, for your soul, those boundaries look like you get two months in and you go, “I feel it. I feel my soul. It’s colorful.” I feel a little more. I’m adhering to my process of just choosing me for once. I’m starting to feel happy and joyous.
I’m starting to feel real empathy for other people, not just myself. It’s not about me anymore. Now, it’s about everyone. “Oh, my God, I can see everyone experiences what I experienced. I’m not alone.” I’m part of a collective consciousness.
Therefore, I’m starting to even be fearless because I know everybody inside is just a ripple of the consciousness I experienced. They’re all experiencing this wonderful, crazy life on earth. That’s what healing feels like [laughs]. It feels nuts. For me, it’s an incredible flourishing, earthly — feels like luck too. It feels lucky. It feels like, jeez, real, real experience, real clear experience of this reality. That’s what it feels like to me.
That’s beautiful. That’s really moving. This just feels like some kind of beautiful new chapter for you from beginning to end. You have new music. You have a new human experience. That’s huge.
If anyone reads what we say or hear, it’s like it’s all little, tiny choices for yourself. They add up and then they transform into this wonderful new thing that’s totally unexpected.
It’s time though. You just know when it’s time to change as a person. That’s what I want to communicate to my audience too. If you feel it in your intuition, in your gut, just take one leap of faith towards that feeling, and then take a hundred other ones and then a thousand of them, and then live in that place [chuckles] forever. It’s joy. I don’t know.
That’s so inspiring. You seem so happy. Are you happy?
I’m stoked. I woke up hungover every day for about 10 years. Now, I’m just like, “Shit, it’s just easier.” I’m just so happy to share my music and I’m so happy to have opportunities because I tried to manifest conversations like this a long time ago. I’ve been thinking about a conversation like what we’re having, a positive conversation about all these things that are actually real to me. I’ve been thinking about these interviews in particular for, man, a really long time, [chuckles] a really long time. They’re starting to exist, so it’s cool. That’s why I’m happy.
What are the things that make you feel balanced or true to yourself?
A lesson I’ve learned is we’re constantly watching, hearing things that could make our lives more positive. You put on Instagram. It’s always people going, “I do this workout, a 30-day challenge workout,” or there’s another guy who’s like, “Well, you should be doing this, this, and this. Three thoughts of gratitude as soon as you wake up.” There’s people over here saying something else to what to do, but what it truly is and how to start to latch on to your own identity for positive momentum is just remaining curious and trying it all a little bit.
Try it all. You’re not on Groundhog Day. You don’t wake up and think, “I’m grateful for my dog, grateful for coffee, grateful for that sleep I just got.” Cool, that works, but what’s different today? I think being a creative, I have to switch it up all the time and just be fearless and walk into shit that’s scary but also just going to be positive. For me, it’s like I have a small, real basic domestic practice that I do. Water the garden. Make sure the garden is healthy and growing. Ground yourself, take your shoes off, get your feet in the grass. It’s what I do every day. I don’t know why. It just feels good. It gets me going. [laughs] If I have a poetic idea or just for an individual thought that sounds intriguing because I’m a writer, I’ll just get that down and I’ll feel really good about that. If it’s a song title, I’ll put it in brackets in my notes and I’ll put a little clapping emoji next to it.
That would tell me, “Write that later. Get back to it,” and I’ll go back to it later. I’ll write that song. In terms of other things, I just try to reach out to people who I am collaborating with, maybe on a soulful level, a musical level, or whatever. I’m a team leader, so I try to talk to everybody I work with, everybody I’m moving ahead with. We just keep it really, really sharp and positive and we feel like we’re coming up with new original things. That is my lifeblood. That’s my each day. That’s what I’m up to.
Honoring the living things around you makes you aware that you’re a part of something much bigger. I always plant or start to grow something new when I start new music as well, because it gets my head out of it and gets my head out of the music. I’m just thinking about this weird little snow pea I planted or something and how many bugs are eating it and I care about it. You grow. I don’t know. It’s all part of healing. You’ve got to grow something else, I think.