“Does it sound like I want to be a huge pop star?” asks Ashton Irwin, drummer of 5 Seconds of Summer, one of the most successful Australian bands of all time. We pause for a second. “The answer is no. It’s more about connection,” he says. “I don’t care if I’m a pop star, a rock star or whatever the fuck it is, if I can impact people with my lyrics and music, then job done. I would rather just be a positive guiding light to people.”
But if you’ve heard his first solo album ‘Superbloom’, out today, you might have known that already. The record isn’t as stadium-ready as the pop-rock hits he serves up in his day job: it’s a giddy blend of dreamy guitars, escapist soundscapes and lyrical vulnerability. And though Spice Girls, Take That and One Direction have taught us that a band member going solo usually spells the end of things, 5SOS fans have nothing to fear. Instead of a bid for the spotlight, ‘Superbloom’ is a reaction to these weird times we find ourselves in.
At the start of the year, the coronavirus started to take hold of the world, putting a halt to the international promotion for 5SOS’ fourth album ‘Calm’. Irwin found himself stuck at home in Los Angeles with his mate Matt Pauling, who is also a producer – so the pair got to work on the solo album Irwin’s been wanting to make since he was ten years old.
“A band is often a trauma bond because you’ve been through so much together. 5 Seconds of Summer has been my life’s work,” Irwin declares.. “I’ve always been really driven in pushing that band into the stratosphere. I’ve been every almost every place on earth and told them that I give a fuck about being in 5 Seconds of Summer.”
And if the pandemic hadn’t happened, he’d be happily touring the world right now, giving fourth album ‘Calm’ the outing it deserves. But with those plans cancelled, Irwin “saw it as the perfect chance for me to make some music on my own, test my songwriting ability and start a little venture on the side for me to live in when 5SOS isn’t busy.”
“I don’t care if I’m a pop star or rock star, if I can impact people with my lyrics and music, then job done”
There was no awkwardness when he shared his new project with his bandmates, Irwin says, only excitement. Going solo, he believes, is a sophisticated way of expanding their musical impact as a group: he’s seen it happen with BTS (whose members J Hope, Suga and RM have all released solo records) as well as Cold Chisel. “There are only positives. We have plans to get in the studio and charge into our decade-anniversary with new music, which is next year.”
It’s not just a sudden open diary that’s pushed Irwin to go solo, though. For the first time in his life, he feels able to create music with the sort of message he wants to share. Irwin got sober a little over a year ago and is now “unrecognisable” to himself. “When I was drinking heavily, I wasn’t as in touch with myself as I needed to be in order to go to this place, lyrically.”
A spiritual coming-of-age record, ‘Superbloom’ was written “about things that have happened to me, that I know have happened to a lot of others”. Its ten songs tackle toxic masculinity, depression, body dysmorphia, suicide and addiction. “It’s all about self-acceptance. I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney and a lot of this is just me coming to terms with who I actually am. With this record, instead of playing characters and writing about things that I think people want to hear, I’m writing what I need to hear.”
It’s powerful how vulnerable Irwin gets on ‘Superbloom’, especially without the safety net of his bandmates. But being this open doesn’t seem unusual to him, “because of the type of fanbase we have cultivated over the years”. “5SOS’ biggest hits are not the ones you see at the top of our Spotify page,” he asserts. “It’s the songs about abandonment, reparenting yourself, or loneliness that are the most popular with our fanbase. They’ve given me great confidence.”
Knowing he had an understanding audience ready to listen to what he had to say, Irwin had no problems following his gut when it came to this solo record: The psychedelic, funky ‘Skinny Skinny’ talks about hating what you see in the mirror while the grunge meditation of ‘Scar’ encourages perseverance. ‘Sunshine’ is a warped pop anthem that encourages you to stay aware but also critical of what the news cycle feeds you.
Elsewhere, Irwin goes on an epic, six-minute hard rock adventure in ‘The Sweetness’, addressing depression and anxiety with an empowering message of change. “You don’t have to exist in that pit of depression for your entire life,” he says. “It’s about knowing that things won’t get better if you don’t ask for help. Therapy and medicating specific anxieties were frowned upon when I was growing up, so I had to gain the courage to write songs like that. I had to work for it.”
Pop music is slowly coming around to these taboo topics, but this soul-baring songwriting still isn’t an everyday occurrence in popular music, especially coming from a young bloke like Irwin. Some would call him brave, but does Ashton feel that way?
“I’m just trying to forward myself as an artist and break down those boundaries of fear,” he explains. “I’m in a band, can I release a solo record? The answer is yes. Can I write about concepts that are baring my soul to people? Hell yes. The artist’s journey is about becoming more transparent and understanding yourself so others can understand themselves. I feel brave in those ways.”
Make no mistake though, ‘Superbloom’ is very different from anything Irwin has done before, musically or lyrically. He hopes the record will surprise people because, “as an artist, the key to succeeding or having impact is reinvention.” The album sees Irwin step out from behind the drum kit and the video for ‘Skinny Skinny’ sees him dance for the first time since he was 12. Does he want to be seen as more than the drummer from that band?
“Well, being the drummer from 5SOS is pretty damn magnificent, I’m satisfied if people think of me at all,” he says with a laugh. “I have all these abilities that I want to share with people, though. I want to sing, I want to play guitar, it’s not just drumming. I want to communicate with others about philosophies and things that happen to real people. Throughout my whole career, I’d love to be seen as an impactful lyricist and a person who inspires message and meaning whenever I release music”.
“Your dark side is just as valuable as your bright side. That’s what I try to tell people, anyway”
Irwin hopes fans glean “a million different meanings” on ‘Superbloom’. For him, it’s exactly the sort of record he wants to listen to while trapped at home. “I’ve been pretty direct with my concepts,” he explains. “And they speak a lot about these troubled times. It is a record for now. It was written and released this year for that very purpose. It has a lot of lyrics about being quarantined in your home, weathering this pandemic, living in this politically aggressive world, existing in these shifting times and finding out how you still do what you truly were meant to do.” It could get bleak quickly, but Irwin says he’s managed to find a balance. “It’s a positive and negative record, because life is about duality. Your dark side is just as valuable as your bright side. That’s what I try to tell people, anyway.”
Irwin still hasn’t figured out where this all goes, though he’d love to make records for the rest of his life, either with a band or by himself. “I haven’t really thought about the end goal just yet,” he says. Knowing how bad things can seem right now though, ‘Superbloom’ is Irwin’s way of trying to balance the scales. “I felt like it was just a wonderfully positive thing to be releasing music. This year, art can only benefit people.”
Ashton Irwin’s ‘Superbloom’ is out now