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It’s early morning in LA and Ashnikko currently hates her debut album, Weedkiller. A chartered landscape of cyberpunk fantasy, the blue-haired musician has upgraded her tongue-in-cheek Sailor Moon-style persona for an Arcane-inspired (imagine an anti-hero iteration of Jinx) saviour. A creator – and critic – of her newly spawned universe, Ashnikko, real name Ashton Casey, has spent her recent days on vacation from her nightmarish sci-fi counter-reality. It wasn’t until she spent the weekend hiking in a mushroom retreat with her girlfriend that the rap star was able to reconnect with the very themes that permeate her record. With Weedkiller, the American-born artist wants to prove she’s more than a well-versed genre-surfer, but an innovator too.

The weird pop girl deliverance of Demidevil, Ashnikko’s 2021 mixtape, skirted the realms of Yeule and Grimes while establishing the artist, with her unshakable rap-tinged melodies and confident electro-pop tunes, as a groundbreaking new act. Spitting tracks Daisy and Slumber Party (ft. Princess Nokia) became the social media successes that brought Ashnikko’s bratty rock-pop phenomenon to the masses. It’s been a year since her project made waves over the internet and earned her an eclectic fanbase, from Bring Me The Horizon’s Oli Sykes to Miley Cyrus, and for good reason. While Demidevil cemented the 27-year-old as one of modern pop’s must-watch names, Weedkiller is a cinematic statement and, more accurately, a look into a nonconformist’s mind’s eye. 

“I’ve been training for murder,” Ashnikko warns us. Her album title track, Weedkiller, is a steely battle cry buoyed by familiar hallmarks – guzzling guitar riffs, earthquaking beats and, of course, quick-witted lyricism. The pretence for Weedkiller’s dark, despondent concept is rooted in something much closer to home than its exterritorial themes. “We are losing so much of the natural world to industrialisation so it felt right to blend my two favourite genres to create a fantasy dystopia,” Ashnikko says over Zoom.

The musician used her diet of dystopian fiction and fae fantasy as inspiration for the album’s cataclysmic production, while its “puzzle piece” provides a gateway for showcased experimentation. Album opener World Eater joyfully, almost tauntingly, clarifies a worldly state of emergency as humanity falls victim to beasts that “kill for fun”. Ashnikko, however, paints herself as something equally inhuman. A “swarm of bees” or a “heart of spiders”, the musician figuratively embodies the planet’s starved biodiversity. Whether it’s surrendering to allegorical storytelling or giving a voice to semi-sentient technology, there’s intention throughout. “These machines, weedkillers, can be a commentary on the destruction of wild spaces and biodiversity on our planet. But also, it can be me talking to my abuser, you know? It’s weaving together different narratives.”

The Weedkillers that inhabit Ashnikko’s universe, real or metaphors, take on multiple meanings and the artist doesn’t plan on spelling out the jagged meaning behind each threat. Instead, she’s only focused on managing expectations creatively. As this amped-up album continues to take shape, Ashnikko earmarks a formula that works to her strengths. “I learned that I don’t want to put out music unless it makes me feel that ineffable feeling of ‘this is right’,” she explains. “At the end of the day, no one knows me like me so I’m being true to my inner vision and trusting what I have in my head.” As the dawn of Ashnikko’s newer sound is phased out to audiences, it’s worth noting the rapper’s brazen, sharp-fired style hasn’t taken a hit. So, when I ask whether she thinks fans will be surprised by this next step, she pauses and, instead, turns the question to me. Ashnikko’s music commands pace and, this time, her production and flow are unfettered. The 27-year-old steers past previously weighty production runs and chisels into new territory. This album isn’t without its features either and they slot in effortlessly. Daniele Lalita, a Peruvian artist, adds a contribution to the futuristic dancefloor-ready banger Super Soaker, which is almost picture-perfect.

Elsewhere, sorrowful songwriter Ethel Cain takes the rains in the album’s closeout. What began as a slide into the Instagram DM’s (“I just asked her on Instagram as all great collaborations happen”) became an album asset. “She’s a genius. Her voice is so beautiful and her songwriting is so good,” Ashnikko says quietly over the line. “She has an ethereal quality to her and it felt right to work on the closing song of my album with her.” A switch up from the titanium spine-studded songs that punctuate Weedkiller, Dying Star (ft. Ethel Cain) is a captivating ballad that trades fire-blazing guns for fish hooks. The close-out track is also a reminder that destruction can be internal, too. Akin to an end credits soundscape, Ashnikko and Cain pull you into an image of a fallen hero, surviving, but barely. 

The tentative ending of Ashnikko’s album feels equally optimistic and woeful. Signing out with an image of collapse, a free-falling heroine, Weedkiller journeys through flashes of Ashnikko’s life – the performer and the individual – all at once. But, it’s not until latecomer Miss Nectarine that you really get a glimpse of what lies outside of the industrial enemies and the anime-accented persona. Growing up in North Carolina, the internet doubled as a chasm of curiosity for Ashnikko. Here, she was able to explore her identity. The track, which she admits she’s “been annoying” about keeping on the record, gives a closer look at Ashnikko’s experiences living in the Bible Belt. “It’s a tale as old as time. Being in a small town and being so hopelessly in love with your best friend. Also, being shamed for that and always feeling very unrequited or broken,” she explains. “I very viscerally remember growing up in the South and being queer. It’s definitely a very heartbreaking experience to be in a very conservative Bible Belt town and trying to explore that part of my identity.”

A state environment, which Ashnikko chalks up to an “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” mentality, is strung out in an anecdotal flashback. Flecked with pitched synths and colourful electronic production, Ashnikko hazily rewinds her experience of her teenage home “not being safe” while battling her unrelenting emissions. “I love, love religious trauma,” she quips in a deadpan tone. “It’s really made me such a well-rounded person.” When she’s not recounting facing off against an all-killing Weedkiller during Miss Nectarine, she’s alluding to something just as poisonous: “To go against who you are, to family and friends, is a heartbreak.”

And, as this album tracklist pieces together, the parts that make Ashnikko an unformidable pop presence also captures her humanity. “I have cried so many times writing this album and putting it together,” she confesses. “The last stretch of putting together an album is so painful. I fucking hate it. I cried so many times choosing the songs that were going on.” A pioneering debut record, Ashnikko staggers through this album, a sword-wielding clairvoyant, mastering the grotesque and the theatrical. She encapsulates her pain, sexuality, and fatality in maximalist anthems. Her blue-haired avatar, like something from the Final Fantasy gaming franchise, makes her emo-leaning perspective something you can viscerally envision.

Personal disaster, in Weedkiller, is just as pronounced as the worldly devastation that threatens Ashnikko’s nightmare apocalypse. And, the deadline date for this boot-stomping blood-soaked album seems entirely on the artist’s terms. Her former work, Demidevil, she labels a mixtape, while Weedkiller earns her approval as a full-length release. “I decided I’ll put out an album and I’ll label something an album when everything is cohesive and I’ve written each song with intention, as I have,” she explains. Now, with a world tour soon on her radar, Ashnikko is ready to set this project aside to focus on looking ahead. “I’m just grateful that I get to make music for a job, really. That’s all I can ask for. I’m not expecting anyone to have any sort of opinion or reaction. And just, yeah, just putting it out there. I’m relinquishing control.” 

With worlds conquered and a fresh slate already ahead of her, the 27-year-old has already started shedding her Weedkiller skin. “I’m starting to write the second album slowly but surely. It’s hard to like go from the Weedkiller mindset to writing something new,” she says. As her live shows hit the UK and, of course, her hometown in North Carolina (“I’ve never done that before”), the artist is ready to take on new challenges. She has no immediate plans to collaborate with anyone anytime soon but she doesn’t relegate the wishful thinking of working with Björk; the mother – a “mycelium fungal queen” – of fantastical worlds. In the meantime, she reverts back to nature and offers a sole listening suggestion for her expansive, incredible debut album — “Try listening to it laying in the grass or go on a walk in the forest.”

Ashnikko’s debut album, Weedkiller, will be available on 25 August via Parlophone