Kassi Ashton became an artist in no small part because she was looking for her tribe. She grew up a self-described “black sheep” in small-town California, Mo., and got made fun of for wearing deconstructed, home-sewn Salvation Army outfits to school. Too much of a tomboy to fit in with the girls and too girly to be one of the boys, Ashton turned to music to express herself. Now, the storytelling skills she learned out of self-preservation still shine through in her songs. Whether sassy and delightfully weird in “Violins” or unflinchingly vulnerable in “California, Missouri,” the debut single she named after her hometown, Ashton lays bare her inner misfit, and the inner misfits inside her fans flock to her music.
That’s why Ashton released her new song, “Field Party,” before 2019’s CMA Fest, even though she knew it would get her in trouble. She’d been planning to share the song ahead of time, to give fans the chance to familiarize themselves with it before coming to her shows. Then she sprained her big toe while rehearsing for a music video and had to spend some time in a medical boot. As a result, her plans to film the song’s music video had to get postponed, and her team decided not to release the song before CMA Fest after all.
“And I was like, ‘What?!’ Because I sang it last year at CMA Fest and I got, like, a hundred DMs of people [asking about it],” Ashton explains. “So I just decided to do it anyway. I was like, ‘What if we go old-school college days and put it on Soundcloud?’ Then, if my fans have signed up for the email, they get a private link. Then they’ll have it, and I won’t have to be disappointing in my DMs and be like, ‘It’s not out yet!’ It’ll obviously officially come out at some point on all streaming services, but I had to. I had to get it out.”
Ashton admits she did, in fact, catch a little bit of flak for releasing the song against her team’s advice, but adds that management didn’t seem as upset after they realized how well ‘Field Party’ was doing. “It’s doing well, so now they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s genius.’ They can’t be too mad!” she adds with a laugh.
She’d stumbled onto a time-tested marketing campaign: Fans love to have things that are secret, special or in limited quantity. “Instead of, ‘Oh, here’s this accessible streaming platform that everybody in the world has,’ it’s like, ‘No, Kassi actually sent me this link,’” Ashton continues. “And I thought it was a great way to connect, like, ‘Hey guys, I’m doing this for you. I’m gonna get in trouble for this, but I care about you, and I want you to have a good time at my show…I’m not here for the people upstairs telling me when I should do something or how I should do it. Y’all are the reason I do this, so here, have this song.’”
Time and time again, Ashton has decided to release songs based on what her fans need. The same reasoning inspired her to release “Pretty Shiny Things,” a potent ballad that grapples with beauty standards and growing up with a mom who often seemed to value her looks over her happiness. She was hesitant to release the song, Ashton goes on to say, because she wasn’t sure she was ready to discuss the issues it would bring to light.
“Once you put it out, you have to talk about it. You can say your truth in a writing room with writers that you trust, and share your soul, but then there are gonna be interview questions,” she explains. “But I told myself, if I only got one DM from someone saying [they] really needed to hear it — worth it. Any amount of interview questions and uncomfortable conversations.”
It may seem obvious, but the thing about releasing honest songs is that they’re — well, honest. Everything Ashton sings about in “Pretty Shiny Things” really happened. “My dad knows the situation. I think he was nervous for me,” she recalls. “As for the other parents, the song is true, so we don’t speak. I don’t know what she thinks, and I don’t really care. I know it sounds so savage of me, but art is supposed to be honest. It’s not supposed to be nice. If you want nice, go somewhere else, because life is not nice.”
After she released “Pretty Shiny Things,” Ashton immediately realized that the fan response was outweighing the painful questions. “I just got all these DMs. Even moms saying, ‘My stepdaughter needed to hear this,’ Or, ‘my son need to hear this.’ ‘My neighbor.’ ‘My friend at school.’ I would just cry,” she goes on to say. “Because me, in high school, I could have used that song. I needed that. So to be that for somebody….I loved it, because if they can be honest with me, they can be honest with themselves.”
Even more important than finding her tribe, Ashton relates, is finding the people who — like she did all those years ago — feel alone, and don’t have a voice or a community. She sings to the kid she used to be: The kids that are being bullied, and the ones doing the bullying, “because they have insecurities, and that’s why they’re being mean,” she points out. “If you live in a tiny town and you feel like you have to be in this box, but you wanna be something else — come be that at my show. Test it out. Build confidence.”
“I promise to be myself and tell my truth if you promise to be yourself and tell your truth,” Ashton adds. “Nobody’s gonna judge anybody. We’re gonna have a good time.”