ashnikko
Pop

Chartbreaker: Ashnikko Wants the Pop World to Catch Up To Her Vision

With "Daisy" rising on the Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart, the London-based artist believes — and is banking on — songs about pleasure is more than an industry trend.

Sitting on the floor of the Los Angeles home where she’s been riding out the pandemic, her signature blue hair pulled back in a ponytail, Ashnikko is attempting to explain her sound. The 24-year-old, born Ashton Casey, has been called everything from pop to rap to rock to alternative — but none seem right to her. The only label she wants to put on her music is “feel-good,” she says, smiling.

Born in North Carolina, Ashnikko spent much of her childhood on the move — as a teenager, she bounced between Estonia and Latvia before eventually moving to London by herself in 2014 at just 18. “I went to public school in a language I didn't speak, and was expected to graduate from that school,” she says, before sardonically adding, “Surprisingly, I didn't graduate high school.”

Feeling isolated, Ashnikko retreated to sites like Tumblr and Soundcloud, where she quickly found a “community of women” in artists like Princess Nokia and Doja Cat making fun, forward-thinking music. Soon, she was saying to herself, “‘I also want to do that.’” Now, with her single “Daisy” quickly gaining steam on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart and her new mixtape Demidevil earning her first entry on the Billboard 200, Ashnikko is exceeding her goal.

Joelle Grace Taylor
Ashnikko photographed on January 19, 2021 in Los Angeles. Hair by Preston Wada. Makeup by Mynxii White. Blooming Blood silver chain jewelry and heart locket necklace.

Nick Burgess, co-president at Parlophone Records, says he first took notice of Ashnikko when he received an early demo of her song “Bubblegum” in 2017. “She came [fully] formed, in a way,” he says. “She had the same personality that she has now: super outspoken, didn’t give a f--k about anything.” Parlophone signed Ashnikko to an EP deal in 2018 for Unlikable, followed by a global album deal in 2019.

By the time her next EP, Hi, It’s Me, arrived later that year, Ashnikko had generated buzz in London, which is how George Shepherd, an artist manager and publisher at Various Artists management, ended up at a Fiorucci store in London’s Soho district with a colleague watching a crowd of 250 young women with blue pigtails waiting for Ashnikko to perform. “We were just two fat white dudes at the back going, ‘Okay, this is crazy,’” recalls Shepherd. Ashnikko signed a management deal with Various Artists that July.

Matt Luxon, a managing director at Various Artists, was confident “Daisy” — about a female assassin targeting men who uphold the toxic patriarchy — would be a success. (The femme fatale's calling card is “Daisies on your nightstand,” as Ashnikko sings in the disorienting chorus.) His team heavily serviced the song to mainstream radio, specifically to the two biggest pop stations in the UK, Capital and BBC Radio 1.

They also secured a cross-platform deal with TikTok and Beats by Dr. Dre for the out-of-this-world music video directed by Charlotte Rutherford -- which at one point features Ashnikko riding a giant chili pepper in a twisted latex outfit (it has over 72 million views). “You never know completely how some songs are going to perform,” he says. “There’s a perfect storm that it takes to make it go all the way, and something about the ‘Daisy’ video just caught people’s imagination. It got a life of its own.”

But even with an expansive TikTok campaign, it still took “Daisy” months to find traction on the platform. Burgess sees that as a lesson: “You cannot tell the TikTok ecosystem what you want them to do — they have to tell you what they’re going to do with it,” he says.

But to Ashnikko, it actually means more to see the industry getting behind her, especially when much of her music is as blunt as possible. She closes Demidevil, for example, with a tongue-in-cheek theatrical number titled “Clitoris! The Musical,” on which she lambasts the “cisgender, heterosexual men” who have no idea how to please a woman.

“Here's what happens with labels: you do something that hasn't been done before, and they get all scared. As soon as it works for someone else, they're like, 'Can you please talk about your pussy more?'” she says, referencing Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s record-breaking “WAP.”

With that in mind, she’s eager to see how far she can take this moment, citing an interest in everything from fashion and comic books to virtual reality and sex toys. “I can't take myself seriously,” she says.  “It's like, this all has to be a joke.

A version of this article will appear in the Feb. 20, 2021 issue of Billboard.