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Teen Ink - Ainsley Costello Interview MAG
Ainsley Costello, a 17-year-old singer-songwriter, who has been touring with an adult backup band since she was 13 and has been writing her own songs since age 12, just released a single called “Little Sister,” in which she enthusiastically belts out her heart’s wish — to step out of the shadow of her idolized, influencing “big sister” and gain her own identity. “So that when you look at the family picture, I won’t just be the little sister.”
Today, she was excited to share her story, which included a culture-shock move from the familiar music bubble of Seattle, to Nashville’s “Music City,” as well as a battle with mental health and the setbacks of life in general, during the pandemic.
LQ: When did you know that the life you’ve chosen of singing and songwriting was the one for you?
AC: It all got started because my dad was a musician, and he went to LA in the ‘90s to do the same thing that I’m doing here in Nashville. My dad was a songwriter; he toured all over the
world, so I definitely caught the bug from him. He was always playing guitar and piano around the house when I was younger, and I loved the music that he was playing. I’ve always loved performing – I’m definitely a musical theater kid at heart, too. I’d always wanted to write
songs ever since I was really little because I love writing and I love expressing myself. But I started really writing songs when I was 12, and I started playing guitar when I was seven, and so at that age in my life, that’s when it started to really blossom and bubble up.
LQ: What is your favorite song that you’ve recorded so far, and why?
AC: It’s always going to change, because whatever song I put out recently is probably going to always be my favorite. But at the moment, I have to say my favorite is my new single, which I put out a couple days ago, called “Little Sister.” I held that one super close to my heart, and I definitely kept it in my little bubble of people, and you know, it was kind of a state secret about that song. I was kind of restrictive with how I shared that song with people. It was the first song that I wrote with Nashville co-writers when I moved to Nashville. It’s a song that’s really, really special to me, and I had been wanting to write it for probably two or three years up until the time that I had written it. So, actually, at the time when we had it all written down, and Kelly and Steve, who I wrote that song with, I feel like I walked off of that write, just on cloud nine, like, “oh, I finally wrote it! I did it! Yes, this is amazing!”
LQ: Where do you get your inspiration? Who is your favorite influencing artist?
AC: So I’m Gen Z, I am definitely of the age group that grew up loving the early 2010s pop and
stuff, so I mean, what girl my age wasn’t inspired by Taylor Swift. That’s actually what “Little Sister” is about, I’m basically writing a letter to her. I kind of had this shocking moment when I first moved to Nashville — because I think a lot of people are under the impression that Nashville is just “Country Music City”, but it’s “Music City.” There are so many amazing bands and genre-breakers that have come out of Nashville that you would have never even known were from there. Paramore and Kings of Leon are definitely in that vein. I love some John Mayer, and there’s another artist here who is amazing who I think everybody should check out: her name is Caitlyn Smith, and she’s been super inspiring to me.
LQ: By listening to the lyrics in “Love Letter” and most recently “Little Sister,” it seems like you have a mission to help young girls who are struggling. Did you have any life experiences that influenced these beautiful messages? Did you learn them from people, particularly women in your life, that you look up to?
AC: With “Love Letter,” I wrote that in July of 2020, and you know, we all collectively experienced 2020 together; it wasn’t the best year for anybody. And that was the first year that I really struggled with depression and anxiety for the first time. I had never experienced that before moving to Nashville — and that’s not directly correlated to Nashville, that’s just Covid, and quarantine, and the pandemic. But I wrote that a couple months into living in Nashville, because I was really sad, and wasn't really loving myself. I was like, “I’m putting out this music in the worst time that is ever present to put out music.” So, with “Love Letter,” it was a really special song to me because I wrote that in the most random of places. I wrote that song in my closet, like, of all places I could have written a song. I just took my guitar and wrote in my closet, and I wrote it in like, 30 minutes, which is super, super quick for me. But I was definitely trying to write down what I felt like I needed to hear in that moment. One of my other friends was really struggling in that time period too, so I wrote that song equally for me and her.
LQ: What are the greatest challenges you find about being a musician so young? Have people ever made it hard for you because you are young?
AC: For sure, I think the music industry is pivoting a little bit more toward understanding that there are a lot of young people who are pursuing this just as much as there are people in their 20s and 30s pursuing this. But I’ve definitely had some pushback because I’m young. Because I’m still underage, there are still a lot of places that are like, “Hey, you’re great, but you can’t play here because you’re not 21,” or “you can’t play here because you’re not 18.” There have definitely been a few people who have underestimated me because of my age, but yeah, I think of all the things that I would tell young people around my age who are going into the music industry, it’s just to keep going; put your head down and work; write those songs, so that when it comes time for people to be like, “Oh, you’re too young, it’s not really going to work out for you,” you can show them this amazing song or this amazing performance, and then you can totally prove your worth from that. I don’t think age matters at all in this industry. If you work hard and you believe in yourself, that’s all that matters.
LQ: How have the events of current months and years, particularly the Covid lockdowns, affected your work?
AC: It affected my work because it kind of forced me to let people in, in a way that I hadn’t really done in my songwriting. My first album came out when I was 15. It was a collection of country and country-pop tunes. And I’m super, super proud of that album. But you know, I hadn’t really written about my mental health on that album. And I hadn’t really written about things that are super deep and personal that weigh on my soul every day. So when 2020 came around, and I was really experiencing anxiety for the first time, I was kind of forced to dig a little deeper into my writing and write about anxiety, write about coping mechanisms, of living in a world like that. And it also affected my work because we couldn’t play live shows, or we couldn’t get out into the world and see people in person. That really took a big toll on me, too, because I love performing. I love seeing people in person. I just decided to write as many songs as I could, and last year, I released a song per month, which was a lot of work, but it was super, super rewarding. But when I got to Nashville, because I had the time to just put my head down at work, I challenged myself to write a hundred songs in a year. And I did that. I actually wrote my 100th song on December 31st. So I just barely made it. But yeah, it was hard. It was definitely a great time for me and my artistry, learning how to write with other people, but it also helped me learn a lot about myself.
LQ: I really like the covers you did of “Dreams” and “If It Hadn’t Been for Love.” How do you put a personal spin on old songs to make them like unique creations?
AC: You know, since my dad’s a musician, I’ve had a lot of exposure to him and his bands, like,
putting wacky spins on covers, too. I actually picked up this one cover that he did with one of his old bands. We did “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, but we put a hip-hop beat underneath it. Definitely having my dad in the music industry and having my dad be an amazing musician really helped me try to figure out like, “How can I put this take on this song?” But you know, it’s really funny, because as much as I still love the country genre, it’s kind of ironic, because when I moved to Nashville, I took this total 180 and I was like, “Hmm, maybe I don’t want to be a country artist. Because, like I said earlier, I was exposed to two bands, Paramore and Kings of Leon. Now, this is amazing. I love this kind of music. And so now I’m kind of just in this space of learning to take the Nashville way of songwriting and put it over on top of LA pop-rock, which I think is really interesting. But I love covering old songs too, like you said. And so I love it when I play an old song that people don’t really expect. I see people’s faces in the crowd being like [gasp]!
Here we cut off, having completed our set list of interview questions. It left me wishing I’d thought of more getting-to-know-you questions, or expanded on some of the things she said. As she said she was excited for this talk, I also was thrilled to meet her. Ainsley Costello will be on my playlist and inside my head in the days to come.