It’s not often that you come across an artist who will tell you they accidentally stumbled their way into their career. And yet, when I speak to Ashley Kutcher, there is definitely some truth to the statement. Of course, the singer-songwriter has been actively grafting and working towards the release of her debut EP, out today. But for a long while, Kutcher was all but sure she was going to be a nurse.
“I never tried to be in the music industry, it was never something that was like a goal,” she says. “I always thought of music as a hobby.” Her parents had sensible careers in occupational therapy and finance, respectively, but music was definitely a part of her life growing up, though it wasn’t something she ever saw as a career goal. “When I was in college and had to pick a major, I knew I wanted to do something medical, like what my mom did,” she says.
However, even though Kutcher may have never actively vied for a career in music, the love and passion for it were there all the same. “I missed music, and so I started playing live gigs,” she says. “I had a bar reach out to me, actually. The Green Turtle in Towson was the first bar I ever played at.” She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to take them up on their offer at first. “They asked if I wanted to do a three-hour set. And I of course was like, no, three hours is way too long! But eventually, I ended up taking it, because I was waitressing at the time, and I wasn’t really making that much money. The bars were offering me, like, $150 to $300 for these sets.”
It’s how the ball started rolling, and the itch started growing with Kutcher. Once videos were being posted online of her gigs, she ended up meeting some DJs, which spiraled into her writing her own music and eventually getting a track produced. “I posted one called “Lust” on TikTok. And that was the first song that, like, ever, kind of did well for me on the internet. It was just crazy to see people’s reactions to my songwriting. That song was definitely from a really good, you know, producer here in Baltimore, and that was my first time hearing my voice on an actually produced song. From there, I just fell in love with hearing that and writing songs and just really seeing how they can turn out.”
For someone who’d never really seriously written songs before, Kutcher truly came straight out of the gates flying. Talented beyond belief and uniquely positioned with both the chops and the experience, it wasn’t long before a song truly blew up and led her to sign with a label. She acknowledges that it’s a bit unusual, especially these days, and especially considering the fact she was still getting her degree at the same time. “It just kind of slowly crept into my life and became more than a hobby,” she says. “Especially when I had the interest of other people outside of my hometown and online, I was definitely like, this feels like a career. I was still in nursing school, so I was taking these label meetings, and then I was going to the hospital and doing my hospital work. Some people from work would find me and they’d be like, what are you doing here? I would just go, ‘I’m working on it, but I can’t just get up and leave. I still have a job.’ But I think it was really cool to the people where I was from. Because it wasn’t LA or New York, I was just sitting in the Towson area, which is Baltimore. So people were just like, this is really cool. And I think everyone’s reactions really helped me realize how cool it actually was.”
A girl from Baltimore suddenly going from local nurse to labelmates with Billie Eilish really is cool, indeed. Yet, it’s been difficult to really wrap her head around, considering that she’s yet to perform her big breakthrough hit “Love You From a Distance” live. “During COVID, I can really only see what happens online — reading reactions and seeing people’s TikTok sounds using my song, and seeing their videos to that is super, super cool,” she says. “But also, the song is super sad. So just seeing how they relate to that aspect of it is just so crazy. And I’ll get messages from people like, ‘Oh, I heard this in a store just now.’ Or, ‘I just found a song today, and I can’t believe I didn’t know about it sooner,’ things like that. It’s just crazy, there are no other words literally to describe it. I think it’s gonna really hit me when I play live, and I’m in a room for the first time and have everyone sing it back to me. And everyone’s going to be together, I think it’s going to be super surreal.”
In the meantime, she relies on her dad to let her know if a song’s good or not. He minored in music, and, according to Kutcher, can be “hypercritical.” His praise means a lot to her because she knows just how much he cares about and loves music. “I played ‘Lust’ for him when I first got the demo back,” she says. “And he was like, this is actually really good. And he doesn’t really say that very often. ‘This sounds like I could hear it on the radio or something,’ he said. It was so cool, and he really believed in it. If he’s not gonna like it, he’s really gonna tell you how it is. So to have that opinion was like, wow, and the internet is saying it too? Or well, TikTok mostly at the time,” she says with a smile.
If she looks back now, it’s clear that he’s the reason she developed a love for music, Kutcher tells me later. “When I was younger, I actually picked up the music a little bit from just playing in our basement,” she says. “My dad has built a music studio out of our basement. It doesn’t look at all put together, but it has all the elements that you can use: play guitar, play piano, record yourself, drums. We would always just go down there and mess around, and none of it ever sounded good. But, it showed you how music can connect people, so that’s been a huge influence on me.”
It’s exactly that pure passion for using songs as vessels to communicate, combined with a non-intentional lucky break that makes Kutcher a true diamond in the rough. Her songs have a similar honest quality and lyrical narration that is reminiscent of songwriters like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo. Yet whereas these two usually write from personal experience, Kutcher has trained herself to write heart-wrenching, gut-punching tracks on just about anything.
“For me,” she starts, “inspiration comes from so many things. I don’t think I could narrow it down. How it started was just me responding to people’s comments online. That kind of motivated me to go, ‘Oh, this is a really cool topic, and people want to hear me write about it. So you know, I’m going to take that and write about it.’ As I started writing more, I would just like to be walking around my house and I’d like to say something to myself. My head is always spinning with stuff and so I just would say something — sing a melody and say a word or phrase during that melody and think, oh that’d make a really cool song. My notes page is just filled with random thoughts I’ve had right now.”
Currently, she’s been pulling a ton of inspiration from books. “I’ve realized how those stories are influencing me to write songs about it,” she says. “I’ll just find random quotes or kind of use a general chapter and really emphasize that point put into the song. So, I mean, it’s literally just things I see, things I say, things I feel. A lot of things can just be moments, like if I thought of something for a moment and feel like a lot of people could relate to that. So I don’t even think it comes from one thing at all. There’s no saying that I won’t write a song about anything ranging between people’s comments and books!”
And while part of her authentic charm and success comes from the fact she’s a natural talent with an unbridled, pristine approach to writing, Kutcher recognizes that it’s been nice to change things up and see where she can learn and improve. “Usually, I just write what I want, if I wanted to,” she says. “Being put in a room and being told you have to kick us off now can be a little challenging. But I also think it’s really important to work with other people and music. It keeps new ideas flowing. Some people will stick with the same people, and I do think that can be a good thing because you keep the general sound. But, I also feel like you should explore and challenge yourself to do other things with songwriting. Working with a group has been interesting for me, and a lot of really good songs have come out of it, that I never thought would’ve happened if I was going to write just by myself.”
The wide range of songs that you can hear on the EP, One Eighty, also reflects this and indeed includes a record that Kutcher freely admits she’d never even tried creating if it wasn’t for her collaborators challenging her. “I’ve always wanted to do this pop side of stuff, and one of the main tracks of the EP is pretty pop,” she says. “But it’s something I never really thought I’d be able to do on my own. If I sit alone with my guitar, I usually write some pretty sad songs,” she confesses. “I’m getting a little better; I can now sit with my guitar and probably write a song that I could see go into a pop song. But working with these people has really helped me structure how a pop song would be. I just think it’s really cool to hear that acoustic side. And then there’s this side I really love exploring, and it’s the pop side. People can listen to it and dance and stuff.” She stresses how important it is to give people a full experience, especially keeping in mind the live element. “I want people to have that sort of sad moment, but I also want to put on a show and I want everyone to be dancing and be like, this is the vibe! So I think touching on both sides is extremely important, and the EP is a combination of all of it.”
In fact, that’s partly the reason why she’s ended up with an EP that’s called One Eighty and features no less than eight tracks. Kutcher tells me she never expected it to be such a difficult process. “Picking a genre and a sound was definitely such a challenge for me,” she says. “And I didn’t think it would ever be like that. I was like, I write how I write and it’s all gonna sound similar, but I realized how many different genres I was kind of crossing in the process.” She ended up talking to her label and decided to go with her gut. “I said that I just wanted to write a good song, and if I liked that song, I want to put it out. Whether it’s catchy, sad, if it’s considered country or indie or like whatever, it’s still my song, that’s still how I’m writing. And I know people want to gravitate towards a certain genre, but I do think I kind of stick within this pop sort of acoustic side.”
To illustrate, one of the poppier tracks, “Strangers,” opens the extended play. It bookends the EP with a beautiful, acoustic song called “Care Enough For Two.” The latter may even sound familiar to some, as Kutcher has previewed it previously on her socials. “I’m just super excited for them to have that side of me when I first started, and then also give them ‘Strangers,’ which is kind of like me developing as an artist,” she says.
And while none of the songs may directly speak on the major, drastic turn her life has taken with her newfound fame, it’s still a running theme that binds all the songs together. “These songs really show how my life has changed,” she says. “My life took a complete 180 turn in the past year. I wrote some of these songs while I was just in my bedroom at home in nursing school, and I wrote some of these songs, traveling to LA and doing sessions, and making the coolest music videos. I wanted to show how this EP is cohesive, yet not cohesive. It’s what the timeline of my life is like. It’s an EP of me, discovering myself as an artist, and including the old and the new.”
It begs the question of why she didn’t just go and release a full album, especially since some of her fans will most certainly have heard some of the material on the EP already. It’s all part of a bigger plan, a strategy to allow Kutcher to introduce herself and step into the limelight in a timely manner. “I have so many songs, and I do really want to plan out my album and make sure that it’s cohesive in a way,” she says. “With this EP, it’s very much just showing myself from when I started until now, and label this as the end of a process. There’s a lot of good stuff coming, and people have waited long enough for me to put out a body of work. I think that it’s just the right time, and I’m excited to play the songs live. I just want them to all to be out in the world, rather than take more time to write a full album,” she says.
“I just love live music; it’s probably my favorite aspect of what I do, even over releasing songs. I love playing live and seeing people just kind of listening to the same music. Being able to perform is so fun for me, so I just can’t wait for that!”
It’ll be a bit of a switch for her fans, though. They’re very used to Kutcher catering exactly to their requests in online media, as she started out writing songs in response to their commentary. It’s something that she is mindful of when it comes to her EP, and how her career develops next. “The EP is a mix of visions and a lot of me discovering myself,” she says. “It’s a good place to let people have their songs, such as ‘Care Enough For Two.’ It’s like, here’s me working with you guys and giving you what you want. And then also, you know, showing you a little bit of a new side with a song I wrote a few months ago.”
In general, it means that she’ll have to disappoint fans more often in the future when it comes to her officially releasing the music she’s written. It gives Kutcher a bit of a bittersweet feeling, especially when people don’t push her but genuinely want to share their appreciation. “I love to share a lot of music, especially online,” she says. “I’ll just write something and then people immediately go, ‘Release it right now!’ I do appreciate it because it makes me feel like it’s an important song. But I write songs all the time. So some songs will be official releases, and some of them might come out later … or not at all.” She pauses then, considering her words before she continues. “It’s hard, you know, not giving people what they want all the time. Because if someone says, oh, I want this release, I can’t just release it. It’s just not how it works for me anymore. But I really think that people are starting to understand that when it comes to music, and I love it when they just kind of step back. ”
One of Kutcher’s own favorite tracks on the EP is “The Night You Left.” While Kutcher generally keeps relatable concepts in mind, there’s usually some type of specificity hidden in the lyrics. In this case, she was thinking of how it’s so easy to forget how you meet people, but you’ll remember the last time you saw them. “The one person I was specifically talking about in this song, I don’t remember when I met them because we knew each other from growing up in school. I just don’t remember the first time I crossed paths with them. But I do remember the last day when we ended our relationship. I remember the exact night. I remember what happened. I remember vividly being so sad. I think it just came out so easily because it was listing this specific night, what had been happening, how I felt, how he left, you know, how I reacted afterward.”
It’s hard for her to pin down exactly what it is about this song, in particular, that’s stuck with her so much. “I think it’s just a very emotional song,” she says. “And so I wanted it to feel very euphoric, and I think the chorus has a ton of harmonies in it towards the end that make it sound so pretty. I’m just really excited about it. In some songs, you really can’t describe why they feel a certain way. But it just hits for me.”
Perhaps it’s because the lyrics and delivery match a very authentic experience and memory. It makes the song intimate and vulnerable. Yet, Kutcher says that it’s those specific memories that usually turn out to be much more of a universal experience. “I think a lot of us have the same thought process,” she says. “I realized there’s a lot of people that think the same way you do, even if you think no one does. For example, ‘Love You From a Distance’ had this line about ‘remember when I drove you home / because you didn’t have your license.’ I thought it was just me, like it was just a little memory I had. So many people related to it that, I was like, ‘So you think you’ve had a unique thought in your life, you probably haven’t.’ But it also means that they are going to be relatable to some people. And even if they aren’t but they just like the song, that’s cool too.”
She laughs when I bring up the fact that Olivia Rodrigo can clearly relate to her dilemma. “When her song came out, people were like, oh my gosh, your song sounds a lot like ‘drivers license.’ And you’re like, my song came out earlier. But it’s fun when you have a really big artist like that who has a similar concept to your song at the time. It helped people kind of relate to mine as well.”
Aside from Rodrigo, Kutcher is actually mostly inspired by artists like Hozier and James TW. But she makes it a point to also list some female artists. “I’ve got a lot of older inspirations, like Amy Winehouse,” she says. “I love her and I’ve been listening to her forever. And if we go up to someone who’s newer that I’ve been following for a while, I’m in love with Lennon Stella. Her style, specifically, she really mixes the pop indie side into her songs and she’s got a country tone to her. It makes me feel better about the kind of doing what I’m doing,” she confesses with a small smile.
Of course, the main place to be right now as an up-and-coming artist is TikTok. Kutcher obviously owes the platform her own success, but she’s also very much cognizant of the fact that it has its limitations. “I’m not trying to necessarily escape from it, because I love my TikTok audience,” she shares. “But, I do want to really show myself within like Spotify and everything, because that’s where I want people to go. I try to keep everything pretty authentic and organic on TikTok so that I develop a more authentic and organic audience. Even if I don’t have the most followers or anything like that, I think people really relate to it when they see it.”
It’s honesty that Kutcher values above all. “It can be a bit of a promo app, but I really think as long as you’re really authentic to your project, and what you’re saying, you hopefully reach the right people. And that’s really all you can ask. I like to think that I’m in a good position and can rely on my music, not my TikTok personality, and people finding it and really relating to it. My most followed platform besides TikTok is Spotify, and that really means a lot to me.”
Those followers are certainly deserved and will surely grow even more now that the EP is out there for people to listen to. For Kutcher, though, what matters most is being able to play the music live, a clear indication that she’s so much more than just a TikTok artist. “The goal would be for me, really, to tour as many cities as possible and play my music because I love live music. I always wanted to play in front of a lot of people, and it’s what I think about when I think of myself as an artist. I’d see myself on stage, you know, singing songs with everyone else. So I have a goal to probably do that as many times as I can.” Then, after a short second, “before it’s all over.”
Judging by these first songs on her EP, that moment won’t be for a very long while. With carefully crafted intricate melodies and laser-precision-like lyrics, Ashley Kutcher’s definitely here to stay. If this is only the beginning, we cannot wait for what’s next.