Ashwarya: Melbourne pop star in waiting wants to “keep you on your toes”

Every month in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’d have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite act. NME 100 member Ashwarya talks South Asian representation, her latest single ‘To The Night’ featuring Vic Mensa, and her “vulnerable” new EP

Last year, Ashwarya became a recording artist, dropping her first three singles in four months – right smack in the middle of a global pandemic. “It was definitely not the way I thought my career was gonna start,” she deadpans to NME. Sure, the 21-year-old had to learn how to shoot music videos from her garage, and is yet to go on tour – but she’s not complaining. “2020 felt like the right time for me to start releasing music,” she says. “When lockdown happened, it still felt like the right time.”

Her warped debut single ‘Psycho Hole’ was written about her struggle with anxiety, but given a positive twist, it left Ashwarya feeling like a badass. Similarly, the feisty ‘COMIN@ME’ was everything she wanted to say to someone but couldn’t – so she sang it instead. Melodic and emotional despite the slick production, these early bangers established Ashwarya as a pop star in waiting. No wonder we had to add her to the list for 2021’s NME 100.

Ashwarya is humbled by the inevitable comparisons to Billie Eilish (“She changed the game for so many people”) but is looking to carve out a unique lane. Take the hypnotic, twisted ‘Biryani’, which fuses contemporary production with Bhangra drums and Hindi verses into a celebration of her upbringing.

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Ashwarya, real name Aishwarya Shah, grew up on old Bollywood music thanks to her grandparents. Then she discovered Western pop via the So Fresh compilation series. Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, Ke$ha and Mika were the highlights of her upbringing, while Queen’s Freddie Mercury has been a source of constant inspiration. They have all informed the music she’s making today.

“I’ve always felt very proud of the way that I’ve been brought up and the culture that I come from,” explains Ashwarya, who was born in India and calls Melbourne home. “I’ve never felt like I needed to hide that. Singing in Hindi on ‘Biryani’ just felt natural.”

Following the release of ‘Biryani’, Ashwarya got a heap of DMs from fans who saw themselves in her music. “The reaction was insane, especially from people of colour,” she exclaims. “South Asian representation in Western music isn’t uncommon, but it’s not something you see every day.

“It’s not always put in front of you but representation is so important. If someone had released a song like ‘Biryani’ when I was eight, I would have been so in awe. It’s only when you get that type of response that you realise the impact. To have people receive the song like they have – it’s changed my perspective on the influence my music and my voice can have.”

“I’ve always felt very proud of the way that I’ve been brought up and the culture that I come from”

Yesterday, Ashwarya released her fourth single, ‘To The Night’. “A more elevated version of what I’ve released so far,” the song features an appearance from American rapper Vic Mensa thanks to her producer/record label boss Jarrad Rogers’ little black book of contacts.

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“Vic takes the song to another level, he’s such a talent and he totally got what I was trying to say with the track,” she enthuses. Despite the euphoric club feel, lyrically ‘To The Night’ “reflects a time where I was at my lowest,” she explains. “At some point in the last year, we’ve all felt hopeless. This song is about stepping into a positive space. I just wanted people to feel empowered and in charge of their own lives, regardless of what they’re going through.”

Ashwarya has “always” wanted to be an artist. She’s been performing covers at open mic nights since she was in primary school and writing her own songs for almost as long. Trying to stick to one genre and classic songwriting structures, though, meant she had long felt hemmed in. “I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to discover myself,” she explains.

“There were always moments of doubt growing up; sometimes it’s your skin colour, sometimes it’s because don’t you think you’re good enough.” But Ashwarya knew she wasn’t where she wanted to be in life. “That was a real lightbulb moment for me. From then on, I just tried everything and anything that I could to get to a place where I love what I do.”

She spent time trying to “hone my sound and figure out where my music needs to lead” – and then she wrote ‘Psycho Hole’. “That was the first song that felt like me. With ‘To The Night’, I’ve got more control over the sort of artist I want to be. The music industry is volatile and your mind changes constantly but it’s nice to have that clarity.” Despite the streaming success – with nearly 40,000 monthly listeners on Spotify – and that newfound focus, Ashwarya is still nowhere near where she wants to be. But “I’m working on it,” she beams.

Every track Ashwarya has released has been celebrated for its unpredictable tempo changes. She wants people to be surprised by her music (“That’s the fun of it”) and likes to “keep people on their toes”. In true Ashwarya fashion, she teases how excited she is for people to hear what comes next. Her debut EP ‘Nocturnal Hours’ is out June 10 and “is going to show my more vulnerable side”.

“I don’t want to just make bops or hit dance songs that feel forced”

Even with all the hectic production taken away, though, ‘COMIN@ME’ and ‘Biryani’ still feel emotional and intense. Want proof? Check out the stripped-back versions on streaming services. “Whatever I’m trying to do within pop or hip-hop, I want there to be this solid emotion that comes across,” she explains. “I don’t want to just make bops or hit dance songs that feel forced.”

Instead, Ashwarya wants people to feel empowered. “It’s what everyone needs right now. I hope people listen to my music to feel like a badass. Whether they’re dancing around the kitchen or playing it in the car, I just hope they feel like a boss.”

Four tracks into her career, people are already expecting big things from Ashwarya, not that she’s feeling the pressure. “I’ve just been in this bubble,” she admits. As she’s yet to perform live, she’s just seeing her growing profile manifest as numbers on a screen: “I don’t really know how to process the fact people are listening to my music.”

“At the moment I’m this COVID baby, just trying to figure it all out. I kid you not, I have had dreams about performing to an audience recently,” laughs Ashwarya, who’s disappointed every time she wakes up. “I’ve reached a point where I’m just so ready to go. That’s my whole vibe right now: show me the people.”

After a year of being stuck inside, Ashwarya “wants to try so many things, in music, in fashion and beyond”. She’s been writing a bunch of songs for future projects and has plans for her own clothing brand. “I can’t be afraid to step out of whatever boundaries there might be, or whatever boundaries I think there are. Now that COVID has happened, I’m like ‘Fuck it, let’s just try everything’. We’re all capable of so many things, it’s just a matter of trying.”

Ashwarya’s EP ‘Nocturnal Hours’ is out June 10. She opens for Sycco at Northcote Social Club in Melbourne on April 24

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