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singer-songwriter Ashli
Photograph: Thinking Loud/Matt Burns | Ashli

Just like Billie Eilish, SXSW is where it all starts for this R’n’B prodigy from Western Sydney

Singer-songwriter Ashli and Colin Daniels from SXSW Sydney on how the futuristic fest can put the spark back in Sydney’s music scene

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross

As the legend goes, South By Southwest is *the* place for bright young things in music to make their big break in the biz. (Along with the next big things in tech, film, inspirational speakers – the list goes on.) Ever heard of Billie Eilish? Claire Collins, the head of music for SXSW Sydney, who ended up becoming Eilish’s publicist for this side of the world, discovered the ‘Ocean Eyes’ wunderkind playing to 200 people in Austin when she was just 14-years-old and completely unknown. Music industry stalwart Colin Daniels – a man who attended SXSW Austin some 19 times before signing on as managing director of SXSW Sydney – counts randomly stumbling on a gig by a then-unknown band called the Strokes as one of his top SXSW experiences ever. 

So what expectations have local musicians been holding for this key component of the mystically-regarded futurist festival? Especially in an industry that is still picking up the pieces in the wake of the great party pooper of the pandemic? And in a city that is still finding its footing and reshaping its nightlife after years of restrictive lockout laws and lockdowns? There’s a lot of hope in the air, actually. 

People must trust what's been selected to be performed there [at SXSW]. They can let go and just enjoy music.

For Western Sydney artist Ashli, this isn’t her first rodeo. A stunning vocalist and uncompromising songwriter with R’n’B and pop influences, Ashli was one of a handful of Australian musicians picked out to head to Texas earlier this year to perform at the mothership for SXSW. Having a deep respect for artists who have broken out at SXSW (like SZA and Dua Lipa) and feeling comparatively ‘so small’, the singer was in complete shock when her manager texted her the words “We’re going to SXSW!”

Now, she’s one of more than 300 artists turning up the volume this week for Sydney’s inaugural take on the festival. Musicians from all corners are playing across countless concerts, gigs and parties hosted at some of the city’s most legendary live music venues. To help paint a picture of what’s being attempted in Sydney, Ashli hit rewind with us and shared about what her first SXSW experience was really like. She says that for that version, Austin itself is a key ingredient, with the city creating “this perfect storm of this quirky, open, music loving festival.”

“My first gig was at a little pub, and it was so cute. It was crazy, because I played my set, and then right after there was a tornado warning. We got into the Uber, and this cowboy was driving us back to our Airbnb. And he was saying, ‘oh, this happens all the time’. And we're just like little Aussies, freaking out!” she said, laughing. 

“Then my second gig, I played the Sounds of Australia event. That was amazing, they just put on such a phenomenal event. The thing that surprised me the most was that people were so engaged. [I noticed when] watching other acts, and then watching the crowd in my own set, people were just so into the music. I love that about South by, that people must trust what's been selected to be performed there. They can let go and just enjoy music.”

Music at SXSW Sydney
Photograph: SXSW Sydney/Jess Gleeson

“I really hope that South By coming to Sydney is gonna push that revival of live music even further. People in Sydney are hungry for live music, for good music. Every time I play you can just feel the hunger. I think that South By coming here is definitely tapping into some desire in the city… I think it’s going to be a really great thing for our industry.”

Colin Daniels is inclined to agree with that sentiment. He says that many of his most important business relationships and “lifelong friendships” started out with random meetings at SXSW. He described it to Time Out as “the world's fair for the creative industries”. 

“Sydney is very different to Austin. We want to celebrate Sydney and where it’s at now… What Sydney has is a great spirit of innovation and doing things differently. I think that's where Sydney is aligned with Austin. The tagline for Austin is ‘Keep Austin Weird’. Yeah, let’s keep Sydney weird,” says Daniels. “We really want to capture that spirit of community and openness that SXSW promotes.” 

Colin Daniels at the Opening Ceremony for SXSW Sydney 2023
Photograph: SXSW Sydney/Brendon Thorne | Colin Daniels at the Opening Ceremony for SXSW Sydney 2023

While Ashli can count artists like Sampa the Great and Gretta Ray as her mentors, she is excited to perform alongside fellow like-minded artists from out west at SXSW Sydney. Her music draws on her own experiences with love, as well as her experience of growing up between New Jersey and Western Sydney – she moved to Penrith from the States at the tender age of 11. Feeling like an outsider in a place where she didn’t really see other people who looked like her, she looked up to pop stars like Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys, and turned to making her own music. 

“At first it was just this adoration and obsession with Taylor Swift,” she confessed. “Naturally that just evolved into me wanting to express myself, tell my own story and relate to others.”

However, she didn’t expect her next big culture shock to come when she made her big return to the US. She shared: “South By was the first time that I had been back to America since I moved to Australia. I always had this idea that I wanted to go back to America to do music… [when I was younger I thought] ‘I don't belong here. I'm American.’ And so going back there. I was like, ‘Oh, am I actually [American]?’”

“It was kind of surreal going back [to America] like that… Like, I am Aussie!” said Ashli. “Now that I'm an adult [I know that] I don't have to be fully one thing.”

For Daniels, he hopes that SXSW Sydney will also help to show the Harbour City as “not just one thing”. He says: “The goal is to show the world the creativity, culture and diversity that Sydney is and has.” 

Photograph: Thinking Loud/Matt Burns | Ashli

“If we have people that come down for SXSW and say ‘I want to come every year, not just to see the Harbour Bridge, but I want to come eat in the restaurants, see your bands, to visit all the communities in Sydney, and I love everything that Sydney has and does’ – that's what’s important to me. I want the world to fall in love with the city as much as I have.” 

Daniels isn't the only person invested in that mission, with government department Destination NSW backing SXSW Sydney to become an annual event, along with major concert producer TEG. The state premier Chris Minns did tell Time Out Sydney back in March that he reckons "there's a chance for NSW to be the live music capital". We say turn it up, and bring it on.  

Ashli is performing at Chippendale’s eclectic Knox Street Bar on Thursday, October 19 (8pm) and the storied Hotel Hollywood in Surry Hills on Friday, October 20 (11.20pm). Find out more about her SXSW Sydney gigs here. She also recommends catching a set from her friend, the free-flowing and genre-defying artist FRIDAY*.

SXSW Sydney is running until October 22, 2023. All-access badges and wristbands for particular festival streams are on sale now. Time Out has also rounded up a bunch of free and cheap ways to do SXSW Sydney.


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