The anxiety and artistry of ASHWARYA, pop’s Indian-Australian star

The anxiety and artistry of ASHWARYA, pop’s Indian-Australian star

On her debut EP NOCTURNAL HOURS, the Melbourne-based musician carves a culturally indebted pop sound unlike anything else we’ve heard.

The day ASHWARYA shared her debut single was a blur.

Titled PSYCHO HOLE, the single was an introduction to Melbourne-based Aishwarya Shah and her musical project, arriving to rapturous applause as her home city descended into what would become its lengthiest pandemic-induced lockdown to date, one that would make international news due to its severity. Doing anything amongst the uncertainty and anxiety of lockdown feels like a chore to most, so you can understand the flustered feeling ASHWARYA gets when recollecting the day - a day she had been building towards for what felt like her entire life.

“I think I wasn’t able to fully internalise it all,” she tells me over Zoom. “I was literally in a bubble - physically and mentally - and while I was seeing all of this stuff happening on my phone and I was super grateful, I think it was hard to internalise.” 

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed nearly a full year later, as we talk on the eve of her debut EP NOCTURNAL HOURS. ASHWARYA is once again in lockdown; stuck within the confines of her Melbourne home which across the last year, has been the backdrop of everything from music videos to editorialised magazine photoshoots. “I’m used to it by now,” she laughs.

Over the last year, it’s become clear that ASHWARYA isn’t the type to spend her entire lockdowns baking vodka pasta or binge-watching TV. She’s done some of that, she admits, but a lot of it has been spent breaking through as one of Australia’s most promising new pop exports; the musician carving a place synonymous with pop music’s creative and experimental future largely from the confines of her house.

Take the video clip to her second single BIRYANI, for example. The video was shot by ASHWARYA in her own garage; the strapped GoPro attached to her head capturing the musician trapped by drowning paint, which fills up a barrel drum until she’s entirely submerged. Or, you can eye many of the magazine spreads she’s been a part of her since her debut, many of them directed over Zoom or through extended briefs, and left to ASHWARYA to execute with what she has on-hand in her immediate surroundings - not that you can tell by looking at them.

This lockdown is no different, as ASHWARYA ponders how she’s able to bring many of the EP’s final visual touches to life, without going more than five kilometres away from her own home. “I have to figure out how to do some filming for something,” she thinks aloud. “I’ve got to do it on my iPhone, so I was thinking I might go down to the local park and figure something out.” At this point, ASHWARYA is a natural.

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From the second ASHWARYA made her entrance, there was a feeling in the air that she was unlike any other Australian pop musician to emerge from the last few years. Her debut single PSYCHO HOLE remains an almost unexplainable mix of textures and genres a year later; pop-sounding with its nods to Billie Eilish’s dark edginess, but full of the experimentation and intricacies you’d expect from hip-hop innovators like Kanye West and Tyler The Creator, mixed with a touch of Bollywood culture that makes ASHWARYA sound unlike anything else in Australia right now - let alone the world.

It’s something that carries through to her second single BIRYANI too, a symbolic ode to her Indian upbringing (and named after a popular, Indian-curried rice dish that her mother used to cook on special occasions) that fuses already unconventional club-pop and hip-hop with bhangra drumming and Hindi-sung lyrics. “It’s hard to express [your upbringing] in music, so I suppose that BIRYANI was my attempt to sum it all up and symbolise it through my mum’s biryani.”

PSYCHO HOLE and BIRYANI - as well as much of ASHWARYA’s debut EP NOCTURNAL HOURS, which both those songs feature on - showcase an unconventional combination of sounds that feel unexplored in western pop music. However, it’s a combination that comes naturally to ASHWARYA, representative of both her roots in the Indian diaspora and the fascination with Western pop music that developed while assimilating as a teenager.

ASHWARYA’s family moved to Australia when she was just six months old, and her parents - trying to make ends meet as first-generation immigrants - largely left her in the hands of her grandparents, who raised her with the Indian culture and values that stick with her two decades later. In the care of her grandparents, ASHWARYA was surrounded by 50s and 60s Bollywood music, which they’d play on an old record player (“I was always listening to that,” she remembers). These roots in 50s Bollywood culture would soon blossom into a fascination with Indian culture from the 80s, and the song sequences popular in Bollywood film. “Until recently, there were really no music videos in Bollywood culture; they were all embedded in the movies,” she explains. “I was obsessed with them.”

Then, ASHWARYA underwent the same rite of passage as many Australian teens, discovering So Fresh compilation CDs - seasonally issued recaps of Australia’s charting singles at the time. For ASHWARYA, So Fresh CDs led to her discovery of Western pop. They were the vessel to her infatuation with artists including Rihanna, Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas, as well as the occasional older artist they’d throw in for nostalgia’s sake: Queen being an inspiration that remains with ASHWARYA, even 20 years following the death of their frontman, Freddie Mercury.

The Venn diagram of Bollywood culture and commercial Western pop is something explored in detail through ASHWARYA’s music. On her debut EP NOCTURNAL HOURS, she floats between cultures and generations of music without breaking a mere sweat, paying homage to the tapestry of sounds familiar to her family’s history while making forward-thinking pop music that feels destined for great heights. There’s a talent in that, and NOCTURNAL HOURS feels like a testament to ASHWARYA’s continued personal and musical evolution, introduced to the world at such a rushing pace that it only took a mere day for PSYCHO HOLE to go from an introduction to ASHWARYA to a sign of a menacing pop force, one already capturing attention internationally.

For ASHWARYA, however, NOCTURNAL HOURS is just an introduction to everything that makes her who she is, and as someone forced to assimilate and split herself between Indian and Australian worlds growing up, her presence is something she wishes she had while growing up herself. “It’s hard to process that you can have an impact on people through your music,” she says. “When I’ve got people - mostly people of colour - telling me that they’re really happy to see that representation and those Bollywood influences… It was really eye-opening.”

It’s interesting too, as ASHWARYA points out, considering how much of an imprint Bollywood culture does have on Western music. Take Britney Spears’ Toxic as an example of how one of pop music’s most legendary hits is based on a Bollywood sample; its infamous high-pitched strings plucked from an 80s Bollywood musical, Ek Duuje Ke Liye. “It goes to show that this [mesh of sounds]  isn’t something happening just now; it’s something that has been happening for so long.”

Nevertheless, the way ASHWARYA approaches her multi-cultural musical blend feels like uncharted territory, and it’s something she hopes to see more of as the diversity of Australia’s music scene becomes more recognised as years go on. “If could inspire anyone - but particularly South Asians - to pursue a career in the arts and not feel like they have to constrain themselves to whatever they’re doing, that would be insane,” she beams.

“I would love to just see more South Asian representation in music because there’s a lot of influences from South Asian culture and arts that have been emerging for years, and it’s important to recognise that.”

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NOCTURNAL HOURS is indebted to ASHWARYA’s culture, but it’s not the sole takeaway from the six-track EP. Amongst the heights of the EP’s sonics are dark-lit and intimate reflections from ASHWARYA trying to discover herself amongst these clashing worlds; the EP is full of stark vulnerability that when you take away the rushing production, exposes the complexities of someone growing and coming to age. 

Take the Vic Mensa-assisted TO THE NIGHT, for example, which sees ASHWARYA triumph “over personal or external obstacles” that have been holding her back. “It’s a constant battle, but I hope people can see themselves as the main character in this song, coming through in total command.” COMIN@ME is another big-production single from the record, and another that once stripped back, exposes itself to carry a message of vulnerability and emotive reflection. “It takes you through the toxic cycle of constantly coming back to someone who betrayed you and continues to hurt you,” she says. “The end of the song is me at my most vulnerable, showing that regardless of the pain this person has inflicted, it will always be challenging to let them go for good.”

There are moments on NOCTURNAL HOURS where that vulnerability floats to the surface, however, in songs such as HIDE YOU UP and LOVE AGAIN that strip away the triumph from ASHWARYA’s production, leaving her vulnerability - her entire sense of being - exposed. “I’m the type of person that suppresses every possible emotion because I struggle being vulnerable,” she admits. Music, however, brings the opportunity for ASHWARYA to not just be vulnerable, but to use that vulnerability for strength; something that she can use to push forward in life. “I see it as a more subconscious thing now, but it’s something I’ve built through songwriting.”

There’s an anxiety present throughout NOCTURNAL HOURS, from the claustrophobic production of COMIN@ME and the rollercoastering PSYCHO HOLE, right down to ASHWARYA suffocating in BIRYANI’s video, struggling to lift herself up as paint swells amongst her. The EP’s title even points to it; NOCTURNAL HOURS being a reflection on how she often feels most creative at night, and the references to “restlessness and anxiety” that underpins much of her late-night sessions. “It’s very literal,” she says.

From the second ASHWARYA made her entrance, she felt like someone we had never heard before; a genre-mashing titan of pop music, capable of twisting together sounds that naturally don’t co-exist. However, by the end of NOCTURNAL HOURS, you come to the realisation that ASHWARYA is like so many others out there, finding their sense of being in the confusion and anxiety of the world - no less one so far removed from the culture and values you grew up amongst.

“I hope whoever listens to this EP can relate to something in there, and I hope that supports them in some way - that’s all you can really ask for as an artist,” she says. “I’ve learnt a lot about my mental health while writing this EP and I hope people learn about their own too… It’s helped me understand myself better; how I can be the best version of myself, and not allow any kind of shit to interfere.”

If you’re going to descend into the depths yourself, let ASHWARYA be the twisted and warped soundtrack to that descent. It’s where NOCTURNAL HOURS came from after all, and there’s no better music to compliment a rollercoaster of life than music that sounds like a rollercoaster of sounds and emotions itself.

ASHWARYA's debut EP NOCTURNAL HOURS is out now via Noize Recordings / Sony Music Australia