Kassi Ashton on Fearless Self-Expression and “California, Missouri”
Earlier this week, we introduced you to the TIDAL Rising Artist of the Week, country singer-songwriter Kassi Ashton. Ashton, a new signee under UMG Nashville and Interscope, is fresh off the release of her debut single, “California, Missouri,” named after a place she’s happy to no longer call home. A few weeks before the song’s release, Ashton, now living in Nashville, hopped on the phone with TIDAL to talk about her unique experience in the small town, how not fitting in paid off and fearless self-expression.
Tell me about your background.
I am from California, Missouri, which is the name of the song. A lot of people just hear California, so they’re like, ‘What part of California?’ And I’m like ‘No, no, no. Missouri,’ and they’re like, ‘But, you just said California.’ [California, Missouri] is about 4,000 people, one stoplight, no Walmart, like no one really leaves and no one moves there. It’s a shithole.
My parents are split. They were never married. My dad is from California, Missouri, and my mom is originally from Nashville, so I grew up in two different worlds because of that. Even though my mom lived in Missouri, it was completely different. With Mom, I was raised on classical ballet and competitive dance from age four and beauty competitions, speech competitions on any stage with lights that my mom could put me on. That’s what I wanted to do. I was one of those kids growing up that, like, if I was in my room singing or dancing with the door closed, just leave me alone because I don’t want to play with other kids. I want to do art.
At Dad’s house, I grew up on a farm. I shot muzzleloaders competitively for 10 years, which is a gun if you don’t know what that is. I grew up on dirt bikes, and so I legitimately had the best of both worlds. I wanted to be as good at one as I was any other, so that makes me a really strange human being. I’m pretty much a boy who really likes clothes and knows how to put on fake eyelashes, so a lot of times it’s kind of confusing for people because when they see me in one side they are like, ‘There’s no way you’re the other.’
Both of my parents are old motorcycle hippies, so growing up I thought I was just going to sing classic country. I thought I was just going to sing classic country and that after high school I was just going to move to Nashville, but my grandma was like ‘No, you have to go to college.’ And I was like, ‘For What?’ And she was like, ‘Well, I don’t know. But you need to go to college.’
So my mom mentioned Belmont [College] in Nashville…It’s a singing school, so, luckily, I got in on the majority of my tuition on scholarship because Belmont is way expensive and my parents are not rich. But I graduated last December in commercial voice with a minor in music business. I met my publisher because, at Belmont, they have four huge arena showcases a year: one country, one urban pop, one rock and one Christian. The winner of each goes to the best of the best, and I was in that. There’s no winner, but that’s how I got all of my publishing offers, and that’s how I paid for my publisher and paid my management.
I started writing right out of the gate while I was still in school. I had a semester left after I signed my deal, so that was tough, but because of my publisher I was able to work with some of the best people in that field right off the bat. I just signed a joint deal with Interscope and Universal Music Group Nashville. And now we’re here.
It’s crazy how things come together.
I know. I can trace how I got here step by step, decision by decision, like it’s not like, ‘I don’t know how I got here, I’m so lucky!’ Like obviously I’m lucky, but I could see the exact steps. If it were a recipe, I would write it down.
It’s interesting that you grew up in these complete opposite worlds and were equally involved in both. How do you incorporate that into your music?
I think when people see everything from my artwork to the list of songs that will be on the album, you’ll see. For instance, the artwork for ‘California Missouri’ I did myself, and I wanted a very urban, high fashion editorial kind of look, but in the most cliché country setting I could find.
Because California, Missouri, is where I came from, it kind of symbolizes who I am as a person in my atmosphere. And so, when I go in to write music, I don’t walk in and say, ‘Oh I’m writing a sad song today’ or ‘I’m writing a cuddly song today.’ That’s bullshit. I don’t like to put a genre box around myself, which I’m sure you hear a lot nowadays with new artists. We kind of just make the music we like to make. I just like to do justice to an idea or a title, whether that’s a four or five verse, slow free verse country song or nothing but electronic instruments and an 808. And I just try to be as true to myself as I can be.
I’m not trying to fit a mold. I’m trying to make a mold for myself that other people can slide into and experience.
In the video on your website, you talk about people hurting you in California, Missouri. That’s something that jumped out at me, and maybe you could elaborate on that a bit.
Yeah, so being the ballet-theatre-fashion kid in a small town usually doesn’t work out well. So I was bullied really bad starting in sixth grade all the way through high school. I really hid my country side from people at school because they were country, and I didn’t want to be anything like them. So I would wear — and I know this outfit does not sound controversial at all, but [it is] in a small town where everyone wears t-shirts and blue jeans — I would wear a leather pencil skirt, combat boots and shirts from Hot Topic and literally have people yell things out at me while I was getting books.
I had teachers and counselors saying, ‘You should really think about moving schools. Why do you put yourself through this?’ And it’s like, if I leave, they win. Even when I wanted to go to Belmont, I had people be like, ‘Oh you’re not talented enough. You’ll never get in.’ I even had parents going up to my dad asking him, ‘Why are you letting her do that and you know she’s not going to make it? She’s just going to be disappointed.’
I would win a lot of things that had to do with singing in town and parents would complain and kids would put stuff on my locker. There were even teachers who would try to report my outfits. They’re only mad because I’m not doing what they think I should be doing, but I’m not hurting anyone. I’m just expressing myself and doing what I love. It was awful, but I’m thankful for it. Looking back now it was one of the most beautiful things that have ever happened to me.
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