At the start of 2022, Finn Askew hit the refresh button. For the self-taught vocalist/rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist, the previous two years had been a whirlwind of multi-continental viral fame, major labels – the 20-year-old was previously signed to Polydor – and performing live (or virtually), all in the middle of a global pandemic. The catalyst had been his concise and crisp debut single, the R&B-tinted ‘Roses’ – a runaway hit about the subtleties of love and distance – which topped the charts in Thailand in early 2020 after Taeyong from K-pop group NCT posted the song to his Instagram story.
The track continued to ascend to even greater heights throughout the year that followed, surpassing 50 million streams and appearing on Askew’s debut EP, 2021’s ‘Peach’, which preceded the rock-influenced ‘Tokyo’ EP. But for Askew, who put in the graft as a teenager by playing pub shows around his rural hometown of Wellington, Somerset, dialling things back down to his DIY beginnings became pivotal to realising his potential. He left his label six months ago, but speaking to NME over Zoom today, he says that the new music he’s been working on has been “a leap in self-discovery”. He adds: “Even being with the label was a beautiful thing, but I have a new, more positive energy now.”
So when ‘Roses’ unexpectedly gained a second wind earlier this year, Askew was determined to make the most of it, and further establish himself as a forward-thinking, brilliantly independent artist. In February, Jungkook of the globe-dominating BTS shared the song via his social media, which caused Askew’s name to trend on Twitter in Korea. Even if the track’s success might have hit like a bolt from the blue once again, Askew is confident “that everything happens for a reason”.
With thousands of new, curious fans from across the world behind him, Askew is pushing his creativity into bold new places – starting with an all-new live show for his debut appearance at Brighton’s The Great Escape this week (May 12). Ahead of his performance, he spoke to us about connecting with his global fandom, what it means to be a rockstar in 2022, and personal growth through his upcoming music.
What’s it been like watching ‘Roses’ continue to thrive two years after its breakthrough moment?
“I wrote it when I was 16, and I genuinely never thought I was going to release the song as I initially didn’t think much of it. The longevity on it has been crazy; it was the most-streamed song in Thailand for three months straight, and it’s picked up millions of streams across other countries in Southeast Asia, too. I’m really happy that people are still rocking with the song, and I genuinely don’t think the traction will slow down, ever.”
How does it feel to be famous across a continent that you’ve never visited before?
“My friend is in Thailand at the moment, and he messaged me to say that he saw me on the TV – that would never happen to me in the UK! I’m pretty well-known in Southeast Asia; I feel as though I may even get stopped in the street. I’m really grateful for the love, but in England, no-one knows who I am; I’m still an upcoming artist, so this has been the weirdest way for my career to start out. It’s like, ‘Why am I popping off over there, but not at home?’
“When Elton John played me [on his radio show], he talked about how he also broke Asia and North America really early in his career, too. It sometimes feels like I’m working backwards; you’d think I’d have wanted to take over the UK first, but I started blowing up across the other side of the world! It was nice hearing that he had the same situation, though.”
Having started out as a DIY artist, how did it feel to join a major label?
“Whether it was the right move for me, I’m not sure. There wasn’t any hesitation, though; at that moment in time, that’s where I felt like I had to go, but I think I should have put out some of my older music as an independent artist before making that big move. I was very young and naive when it came to navigating labels, so I would have liked a little more time to experiment with my sound before jumping in at the deep end. I have no regrets; I just needed a moment to understand what I wanted as an artist.”
You have previously described your music videos as “movies”. Why is the visual side of your work so important to you?
“I work with a lot of talented people, so to call my music videos anything less than a movie would be unjustifiable. With the new music that I have coming, I want to explore other set-ups, such as performance videos or live takes, because I don’t even think we need traditional music videos anymore. They are often just a money scheme; unless you get loads of views, you won’t make much off it, so I’m more interested in thinking about what different approaches I can invest my time and resources in.”
What encouraged your interest in American rap as a teenager?
“I came across SoundCloud rappers a few years ago, like Juice WRLD and Lil Peep, as these artists kept popping up on my [Instagram] feed and I’d listen to them and be like, ‘Yo, this shit is sick’. I love UK genres of music, but I’ve always been more inclined to listen to American rap. The artists I mentioned have become some of my biggest inspirations, so it was losing them all within the space of a few years [to drug-related causes] was really difficult; it left me thinking about my career, like, ‘How am I going to do things differently?’”
Do you think we’ll ever see a resurgence of the SoundCloud rap movement?
“I think it’s coming back right now, stronger than ever. I’m still really into the SoundCloud and underground scenes, but the youngest, hottest rappers coming out today are recording on BandLab. I’m listening to kids from America and they’re so young, but their music is so sick; for example, there’s this guy called Cl4pers who’s crazy good. I also think that this new wave of artists is different from the previous era; it all seems a lot healthier.”
“You can be a rapper and still be a rock star, it’s about how you perceive yourself and the way you deliver a message through your music”
“I didn’t really believe it was happening until after it was all over. His team came to watch my set, which was amazing; a few hours later, he was right in front of me backstage! Obviously, I didn’t come across as a fanboy, but I did tell him that his music has shaped me into the artist I am today. It meant a lot to me to meet my idol, and what I admire about him, too, is that he’s not filtered in any way. Regardless of the genre of music he’s making, he’s a fucking rockstar.”
Do you reckon the traditional definition of a rock star is changing, then?
“For me, being a rockstar isn’t all about the music, you don’t have to be in a band to be one. Take Travis Scott, for example; you can be a rapper and still be a rock star, it’s about how you perceive yourself and the way you deliver a message through your music, and how you play with your vocals and melodies. I definitely think I’m more of a rock star than a pop star.”
Are there plans for a debut album in the near future?
“I feel like I’m not even thinking about the album. I’m in absolutely no rush. It’s a massive thing to consider; you only get to do your debut album once, and I want mine to go to Number One, obviously. Every piece of music that I’m putting out right now has to be amazing – that’s all that matters. But more importantly, I’ve finally found myself as an artist; if you’d asked me this question a year ago, I would’ve told you that I wouldn’t be able to even dream about making an album. My new music, however, is 100% next level – and I want to keep ascending.”