Australia’s Most Promising New Popstar Has Arrived
ASHWARYA's debut EP is a masterclass in how to launch a career.
Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.
It takes just 60 seconds for ASHWARYA’s debut single to leave its mark.
‘Psycho Hole’ introduces itself as one kind of song: an eerie pop vocal over a shuffling, disorienting beat, not unlike Billie Eilish’s ‘Bury a Friend’. “I’m trying to hold on/Where has the rope gone?/I’m falling down the psycho hole, I’m falling, crazy…”.
But at the one-minute mark, ASHWARYA’s voice drains away. A descending snare fill hits at an odd, jagged, slow tempo. The track chops and screws itself into an entirely different sonic world, and out of nowhere comes an anthemic R&B chorus: “I won’t let you come and take control inside of me/My head’s about to explode, I can’t get you out of me!”
Neither of the song’s two halves outweighs the other — and no matter how many times you listen to it, that tempo shift never gets any less mesmerising.
In July last year, ‘Psycho Hole’ premiered to an unusually rapturous response. Says ASHWARYA, “It was the most unexpected, crazy first release reaction — I had never anticipated that would ever happen.”
‘Psycho Hole’ was mind-bending, yet instantly familiar — and immediately had listeners wondering what she would do next. Could ASHWARYA repeat its magic?
“It Was This Monumental Moment In My Life”
A full year later, I’m speaking to ASHWARYA over Zoom. It’s the day after the release of her first EP, NOCTURNAL HOURS, and she’s equally thrilled and relieved to finally have it out. She’s soft-spoken and easily relatable, but has an almost unintentional mystique — as someone who emerged as a fully-formed artist at such a young age, in a year where she could only build her audience online. We’re still getting to know the person behind the screen.
Now 21, ASHWARYA was born in India, but grew up in Melbourne, where she’s still based. She recalls her two formative influences: Bollywood cinema, and in primary school, the dances she’d perform to the big pop hits of the 2000s. Pop stardom never felt like it was out of reach: “I always saw myself as an artist. I never thought I was half-assing anything… I needed to have that mentality in order to progress and grow.”
“I never thought that this early on in my career, I would put myself out like that.”
In 2020, she was the first artist signed to NOiZe Recordings, a joint venture with Sony Music Australia. Working with her primary producer and co-writer Jarrad Rogers (Charli XCX, Mark Ronson), ‘Psycho Hole’ was the first song that clicked.
“‘Psycho Hole’ was like a catalyst for the EP. It changed the way that I approached writing. I was just so confident in that track — and because of the reaction that it had, it just solidified everything for me. It was this monumental moment in my life — not even in my music career.”
ASHWARYA’s three follow-up singles each pulled off a similar flourish, switching drastically between verse and chorus, yet it never feels like a gimmick. Listening to them in sequence on the six-track NOCTURNAL HOURS EP, they sound even more impressive. ‘Biryani’ brings her Indian heritage to the forefront, with lyrics sung in Hindi. ‘To the Night’ mixes frantic verses with dreamy choruses and a Vic Mensa guest verse that isn’t even the highlight of the song.
Her signature move is most powerfully deployed on ‘[email protected]’, a song about a toxic dynamic that “calls for confrontation, which eventually leads to the downfall of the relationship.” For three minutes, the song’s ferocious — with EDM-trap beats that channel Skrillex and TNGHT — but they’re followed by a minute-long, piano and vocal coda that wallow in the melancholy of losing someone: “Some of the days/ ’d try to find another you/Why do I do it to myself?”
The EP’s two softer moments are no less important. ‘Hide You Up’ is a sparkling sci-fi ballad with a stunning, octave-jumping chorus. But NOCTURNAL HOURS ends with ‘Love Again’, a hushed confessional that ASHWARYA’s called her favourite song she’s ever written. “I never thought that this early on in my career, I would put myself out like that, and be so vulnerable. ‘Love Again’ is literally me stripped to the core. I’m proud that I’ve been able to put it out, because I personally keep my guard up a lot.”
The words are stream-of-consciousness; the melody is free-flowing, almost unstructured — a nod to Frank Ocean’s Blonde. “All the memories are failed attempts/To try and win each other’s hearts all over again…”. Though it seems almost incurably sad, ‘Love Again’ closes out the EP on a poignant note, with uplifting Disney-like synth strings. It’s exciting for all the ways in which it’s different to the five songs prior — but also for the potential it suggests. It won’t be the best song she’ll ever write.
The Present And The Promise
The next day, ASHWARYA plays her first ever headline shows — two in one night at Melbourne’s The Toff in Town. With her Sydney dates postponed, and Melbourne back in lockdown a week later, every gig that does get played is a miracle. Sydney-based rapper Eco$ystem supports, and he and his crew are pure charisma.
To a hundred-odd family, friends and strangers, ASHWARYA premieres NOCTURNAL HOURS — plus an unreleased, acoustic guitar-plus-reggaeton track that’s just as exciting. She’s clearly been performing her whole life, but singing her own music, she’s positively beaming.
So far, ASHWARYA seems to be doing everything right. But honestly — though it’s very tempting, it’s still too early to make any grand proclamations about the future of Australian pop music. The present is great, the promise is there — but she refuses to overthink it.
“My goal is just to stay true to who I am, to continue to be open about the music that I make, and to be fearless in every aspect of my career. When you feel at your lowest as an artist, it’s important to be fearless, and own what you’ve made.”
Richard S. He is a pop songwriter, producer, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.