Thirty-year-old singer Ashton Travis envisioned a 2020 filled with supporting tour dates, a few festival runs and the release of his introductory project. Through no fault of his own, the first two goals quickly became out of the question, but, with the release of his debut EP, PHOENIX MODE, Travis has thrown his hat into the ring as a charismatic young vocalist and songwriter who can keep a flow atop slippery trap beats and croon with or without an autotune assist.
“Anybody who knew me before knows that I’ve been holding music and sitting on my hands anxiously waiting for my voice to be heard,” Travis says over Zoom in late September.
A Houston native, Travis speaks about his hometown with warmth and fondness; he’s also worked closely with local luminary and Travis Scott’s right-hand man, Chase B. That said, Travis is hardly a southern traditionalist when he gets on the mic. He balances a diverse array of sounds ranging from glitzy tropical pop (“Robbery”) to guitar-heavy late-night R&B (“Bad4Me”) to cloudy trap (“Death Row”). By themselves, some of the songs are almost too clean, gliding along with slick synths and melodies that seem tailor-made for Spotify playlist placements. But, when taken in context, each track on PHOENIX MODE showcases a slightly different skill. It’s an effective sample platter, which is something few artists can successfully pull off early in their careers.
“I don’t want to make political music, that’s not the point, but I want to make music to uplift Black women and uplift my people and inspire these young Black kids to know that they can make it with whatever they put their mind to.”
The EP surveys Travis’s love life. On the catchy standout “Robbery,” he likens a draining relationship to a stickup, with a few personal details sprinkled in to reward the active listener. One such moment comes at the very outset of PHOENIX MODE, as Travis kicks off “INFINITY” by singing the names of the highways (SH-288 and IH-610) where a dangerous car crash could’ve cost him his life.
“I didn’t write anything down for this record. It was really whatever came to my mind, from the melody to the words,” he says. “A lot of the time, when I’m sitting in the booth trying to come up with something to say, all I have is the present moment to think about, or I’ll look at a text message and think about some shit that I’m really going through.”
Travis, who has been signed to Def Jam since 2018, has certainly taken his time making an opening statement. He says that some of the songs on PHOENIX MODE were made two years ago, and a few of the beats go back even farther than that. As you would expect for someone who has spent so long waiting to be heard, Travis has plenty more to get off his chest now that more ears are tuned in.
“I haven’t talked about what makes me cry or what makes me super excited and super passionate about getting out of bed,” he says, the glint in his eyes detectable even through the computer screen. “I haven’t talked about what scares me, I haven’t talked about my family at all. I haven’t said one name of any of my friends in any of my music. There’s so much left to talk about.”
For his upcoming debut studio album, Travis says he’s focused on coming up with a cohesive narrative that not only tells his own story, but supports Black people in this pivotal moment, without being sanctimonious. He says he’s specifically looking to work with women in the R&B space to create collaborations that run deeper than simply a hook sent over email or a tacked-on verse.
“As a Black man, every day that I wake up and walk this earth, I’m fighting for my life. Every time I get on a track, it’s me trying to put on for me and my people,” he says. “I don’t want to make political music, that’s not the point, but I want to make music to uplift Black women and uplift my people and inspire these young Black kids to know that they can make it with whatever they put their mind to.”
Travis has waited longer than many artists do to release his first true project, and with the pandemic grinding music to a halt, he’s had to wait a little longer still. But, all the while, he’s been steadily gathering his thoughts, and when the stars finally align, it’s clear he has the talent and motivation to capitalize.