SRSQ was never meant to exist like this. Kennedy Ashlyn's solo project was always supposed to be an experimental outlet, a place to remix pop songs and mess with noise music. But after the tragic Ghost Ship fire took away her collaborator, Cash Askew, the duo’s project, Them Are Us Too—a shoegaze-inspired project that resonated deeply with the Bay Area underground—was cut short before its time, and Ashlyn was left with SRSQ as her main source of expression.
SRSQ's debut project, Unreality, premiering below, is tied to Askew’s memory and to Ghost Ship. This is haunted music, but it’s also Ashlyn’s way of sifting through thoughts too confusing to speak about. "The record is called Unreality because I think the record really speaks to trying to process what a surreal world feels like in the wake of such a reality," Ashlyn explains over the phone from her home in Dallas.
Unreality is floating and abstract, a record that affords Ashlyn a processing mechanism without having to speak about the loss she’s dealt with. "In this more abstract form of expression, I feel like something opens up in the wrinkle of time, a new pocket of existence opens up," she says. "With each song I feel like there’s a space where I can just exist, and these things that are horrible and true can also exist, but it’s not just painful in those spaces because it’s not really a space. It’s an abstract non-space. It’s hard to talk about with words, which is why I make music instead of write."
In that vein, the record hovers, tethered to nothing but Ashlyn’s astounding voice, which sounds like a mix between late-era David Bowie and Zola Jesus. There are elements of goth and industrial music to Unreality, but every subgenre she explores is filtered through this notion of ambiguity and confusion that comes with staggering loss.
With SRSQ being built around the memory of Askew, Ashlyn understands that, for now, the fundamental aspects of this new project will always be tied to the collaborator she lost. "I'll continue to write songs about Cash and this intense trauma for a while, but I don’t think it'll always be the core for everything I ever make," she says. "The music will continue to speak for itself so if I write another record about this experience, it will be different. I won’t make the same record twice, but I’m not worried about being trapped under the shadow of my trauma."
Ashlyn isn’t trapped by her sadness, but she's in dialogue with it throughout Unreality. On "The Martyr," crackling synths and a drum machine hazily loop around each other as Ashlyn’s voice wavers between triumphant and broken, caught between two worlds, not eager to depart from either. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album, defiant and uniquely vulnerable
Kennedy Ashlyn turned SRSQ into her focus out of circumstance, but this music was always an extension of her work with Them Are Us Too. "Since I no longer had a collaborator to do Them Are Us Too with, it just all funneled into my solo project. In that way, my old music informs the sound, but I was always gonna make these new sounds, it was just dependent on the project in terms of where that sound went," she explains. For now, that sound is Them Are Us Too-adjacent, close enough to honor Askew’s legacy but sturdily supported by Ashlyn’s unique vision. It’s a horrible balance to navigate, one that shouldn’t be wished upon anyone—when to move on, and when to look back.
On "The Martyr," before the synths drop out entirely, Ashlyn sings, "Impossible, impossible, impossible." This pain is unnavigable, but Unreality can soothe things a little "This is the worst thing to happen in my life thus far—fingers crossed—for a long time," she says towards the end of our conversation. "So if that’s a part of my life story as an artist and person, I’m in no way trying to scratch that out."
Will Schube is a writer based in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.