TJ Foster: A Conversation with Ash Barker
Shortly before the end of the year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ashby & the Oceanns, the pet project of trans/nonbinary artist Ash Barker of Chicago. As we neared the end of a very tumultuous year, we had a chance to reflect on the rather discouraging 2017 most of us had here in America, while also discussing the little pockets of optimism that are still all around us.
Barker has a number of insightful releases on Bandcamp, all of which could very well be the soundtrack to a Juno re-make (but please don’t do this, Hollywood). In addition, Barker has a Patreon set up which you can (and should) support here.
What follows is an unedited conversation between Ash and I via the wonders of gmail that took place between the end of December and beginning of January. I hope you enjoy the read.
So nice to meet you! Thanks for agreeing to have a little exchange with me. I like to keep this feature pretty informal – don’t think of it as a Q&A but just a casual conversation over a hypothetical cup of digital coffee. Mmmm, I feel warmer already…
So, I’ve spent the better part of this year feeling very uneasy in an existential sort of sense. The social climate has taken a frightening turn on numerous occasions (and don’t even get me started on the political climate…) As a straight, white male, this uneasiness has nothing to do with me and I don’t want to imply otherwise. A lot of marginalization has come to light on a pretty regular basis, and watching people get hurt as a result of it is incredibly difficult. I’m a humanist. I don’t have any religious ties, just the belief that people should be good to people. It should be as simple as that, and it’s been discouraging recognizing that certain individuals find that impossible.
I bring this up right away because as a trans/nonbinary artist, I’m sure you’ve felt some form of the above all year, in varying levels. In my opinion the music industry thankfully tends to be, for the most part, a very accepting industry. Artistic people are typically more liberal by design. Over the past year or so, have you experienced any shift in the industry you can speak to? And as someone who is much closer to all this than the average 30-year old artist with an iPhone (hi!), what’s the best coping mechanism? How do we best navigate the ever-changing societal landscape we’ve found ourselves trapped (temporarily, we hope) in?
Hey TJ! Thanks for doing this interview thing! I’ll try to answer your questions in a casual, interesting manner!
To address your first thoughts, there has definitely been a lot more awareness and consideration of marginalized communities in the past few years, which is a good thing. With that, however, comes a lot of processing and learning and well… being aware of all these horrible aspects of our society that have always been there (racism, misogyny, transmisogyny, homophobia, etc), which I think combine with the current social/political environment in America. It can definitely be exhausting, right?
I think after the election, most people I know went into 2017 with a real sense of dread or defeat, and the whole year has been a series of defeats and finding out how to cope and deal with it all. I’m probably not the best at wording these things or giving advice, but for me, it’s been a year of combating this big social despair by strengthening friendships and relationships and learning to value the people around you more. And while 2017 has been a really difficult, shitty year in a lot of ways, I think I am coming out of it with stronger values, and stronger relationships with my friends and loved ones (an effect of solidarity, maybe?).
Like you, I can only speak for myself when talking about these bigger issues. I think the social/political climate has definitely affected the way my friends consume and make art, and there has been a growing spotlight on artists from marginalized communities, which is awesome. Like you said, the music “industry” (AKA my friends that play guitar and host tiny shows in their garages and living rooms) has been a very accepting space for me to grow as an artist. This is largely because Chicago is a great city to be transgender in. There’s a huge community and plenty of like-minded, accepting folk. I’m from Nashville, and playing shows there was always a real hassle. Basically, I was singing trans trauma songs to Republicans who would often turn my mic off, get up and leave, or ignore me altogether. As soon as I moved to Chicago, the experience of playing shows was dramatically different, and I found a lot of friends through music really quickly. So, I don’t know about the whole industry, but I’m really excited to take part in the Chicago DIY scene.
I’d say the biggest shift in the DIY scene is the increasing awareness that music spaces should prioritize marginalized voices. I think we are really reaching an end of DIY ran/centered around cis/white men, or at least I hope so! Definitely going into 2018, I want to be more selective in my support of artists I care about. This might mean I play less shows for dudes I don’t know, but I wanna make sure I’m putting my art in spaces where it is appreciated and needed! (And avoid being the one token trans musician at a dude show). I’m at least optimistic that 2018 will mean more trans, queer, and POC artists in DIY spaces, and hopefully I will play some part in facilitating/growing that!
Okay, you asked what my coping mechanisms are… Well, mostly, it’s playing music. I play a lot of shows and I write a lot of songs, and it tends to be my space to vent and form opinions. However, writing/performing can be pretty isolating and I spent a lot of this year’s months in my apartments recording my album. So now that my newest album is done, I actually have made time for friends and sleeping and relaxing.
I’d say my favorite coping mechanism at the moment is playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. I’ve also been making my own tabletop game and going down the rabbit hole of how tabletop game mechanics work. It’s at least a fun rabbit hole to go down, and it’s been really rewarding to focus on other artistic outlets!
I think the best way to navigate this current landscape is to be active, voice your concerns, call out your problematic friends and coworkers, and try to educate yourself more and more. And, when you find time, hopefully you can find some new hobby to alleviate the stresses of everyday life.
Exhausting is a good word. There are days you just want to tune out completely, but the one thing stopping you is worrying about the amount of crazy you’ll have to catch up on the next day. I was never a political person until this past year, which in some respects is a good thing. Like you said, a lot more awareness and consideration. I’ve always hated politics, still do, but the one thing I will say about this election is that it’s gotten a lot more young people from our generation involved and for better or worse, that’s an important thing. The country can’t always be run by people so ingrained in the morals and values from before we were born. Progress is essential.
When did you move to Chicago? It’s odd to hear about that experience in Nashville – you always hear about that place as a music mecca but at the same time, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes stories about how it chews artists up and spits them out. You hardly hear about it from a cultural standpoint, but I can understand how it wouldn’t be so accommodating to the LGBTQ community. It’s in a pretty “red” zone. I’m glad to hear you’ve relocated to a more accepting place and I can only hope that starts to spread to other music capitals of the country.
You touched on being more selective in support of artists you care about – I think the recent news about Jesse Lacey is a perfect example of this. For a lot of people, me included, Brand New was this god-like band. Everything they touched was gold. The Devil and God changed my life, and meant the world to me. Finding out the ones you revere are actually shitty people is… grounding, to say the least. And look, I know this didn’t affect me personally or anything, and my dilemma is nothing compared to the feelings of the victims or anything. But you go through this back and forth in your head about how you’ve supported this band for all these years in every way imaginable and you think about where all your money and time and effort went and it’s frustrating to say the least. So yes, I too plan to be more selective in supporting artists. Unfortunately, you never know who’s a scumbag anymore, and it’s hard to judge a person’s character solely by their art. You just have to hope you’re supporting the right people, and be prepared to stop if something arises. This shouldn’t be too difficult other than losing some sense of nostalgia – there’s no shortage of good art in the world.
Talk to me a little about your songwriting process. Do you find yourself consciously writing about social issues like the ones we just discussed? Do you feel a sort of obligation to do so? Who else seems to be doing a good job, in your opinion, of shining a spotlight on these issues through their music?
I moved to Chicago in April 2016. So… almost two years now! Before Nashville I lived on my parents’ farm in Kentucky. So, city life is a relatively new thing to me, and Chicago is entirely different from Nashville. Although Nashville is a city, and there are a lot of diverse groups, it’s still in a red state, and a lot of the shows and open mics there are run by cis white dudes. There’s a pretty thriving DIY scene from what I can tell, but I never really see trans musicians or *explicitly* queer musicians pop up there. I’m probably missing out, and if anyone knows of some, they should for sure contact me! I’d also say, I was not a talented musician or performer naturally, in my opinion, and it took me a bit to get good. So in addition to being trans and queer, an already niche market for the south haha, I was also not good… A deadly combination for my career there!
Yeah, it’s always difficult hearing about bands with members that have done horrible things (pwr bttm, ghost mice, brand new, ETC), because people form such close bonds with music made by these people. I mean, music is a lot more intimate than film and when that intimacy is broken by that… I guess it feels a lot more personal than say, if an actor is horrible. It’s like, “okay, ill stop watching Pirates of the Caribbean.” The way we digest music is just more personal, I think. It can be hard to cut off music, even if it is connected to a horrible person, but ultimately it is a good thing to do so, and find better people to support and share that bond with. (Obviously we should always prioritize the victims in these events, and losing music or film is the least consequential thing.)
And okay, moving on to your songwriting question! You could probably dig up a few exceptions, but I tend to only write about autobiographical stuff/issues; it just so happens that I’m very transgender, very queer, very southern, and very anxious (also, very nerdy, of course). So to answer your question, I don’t really try to write about issues outside of my knowledge, and I think I’m very successful at writing about my issues. I think 95 percent of my fanbase is young trans women, and that’s because my identity is pretty in-line with that (I’m transfemme, nonbinary, idk). I think when people write outside of their experiences, the result can be iffy. Like, for example, if a cisgender person writes a song about using the correct pronouns, maybe that’s educational to a few people, but to actual trans people in the room, it’s going to seem tacky as hell. I think it’s best to let people tell their own stories, and if you have the chance to, you should center/promote their voice, instead of trying to tell their story with your art. (I could be wrong, but that’s just my current opinion from what I see in the community)
I definitely don’t feel any obligation. If anything, I always want to write more and more broadly, but I just keep getting misgendered so I have no shortage of trans angst to channel into my music! And to preface my answer to your last question about other acts doing good work, I should say I have horrible taste in music. My Spotify is currently just Weezer, The Killers, Miniature Tigers, Fall Out Boy… Lots of white dudes singing about nothing except girls haha. So my first response is that I should be finding better artists! Having said that, I really love a lot of local Chicago acts like Magnus Honey, Medusa and the Gorgons, Lady Jack, and Davey Dynamite. I think a lot of good music is happening here and it’s great that most of them are my friends! It honestly makes playing shows really fun, because I’m always seeing a familiar face whose work I respect!
You make a really good point distinguishing music from movies–it’s the same perspective I have as well. I love film and TV and that whole medium, but there are very very few things that I could say have had a huge impact on my life. There is certainly no shortage of amazing films, but when you think about the music that means the most to you, you can put it on multiple times a day and never tire of it. You can’t do that with film, if for no other reason than it’s more of an active consumption experience, whereas music can be passive or active. I’m sitting here now with headphones on, and I know what I’m hearing because I’ve heard it a million times before, but I’m able to multitask. It’s just the nature of the medium. But yes, to your point, I find that it’s super easy to abstain from watching, say, Woody Allen movies (still never seen one by the way… yes readers, not even Annie Hall…) whereas it’s way more difficult to quit music that has shaped you cold turkey. But it certainly IS doable.
I’m a sucker for autobiographical music. That sense of honesty just cuts through, almost like its own frequency. I know there are also a lot of great storytellers out there that can weave tales that seem autobiographical, and I love those as well. The stories that make you feel like you’re looking down upon a scene from a movie. It’s pretty easy to sift through the bullshit, I find. There’s only so many times you can hear someone sing about trucks, beer and girls in short shorts in a fake accent…
Doesn’t seem like you have horrible taste in music, by the way! Their subject matters might be a little…. narrow…. but other than that…. haha. The Killers’ Battle Born and FOB’s Folie a Deux are two extremely underrated records. But anyways… thanks for shouting out some local talent. I feel in general, there’s never enough of that “artists promoting other artists” that goes around.
Thank you again for doing this. This was a lot of fun, and I appreciate all your insight. I feel like there’s a shortage of compassion out there, even though a lot does exist despite what people may have you think, and that can only start with listening and understanding. On that note… since you are my last interview for the year, and ’tis the season and all… what’s your favorite Christmas movie? And if you could cover any Christmas song for that movie, what would it be?
No problem! Thanks for reaching out and doing the interview!
Last question! My favorite Christmas movie… Probably Home Alone? I recently watched it with my partner who had never seen it and it’s so violent, and Culkin is not a great child actor, but meh, nostalgia, I guess! I would probably do a long polka cover of that whole soundtrack!