ASH COSTELLO is a woman who won’t stay quiet. Since bursting onto the scene as the vocalist of NEW YEARS DAY in 2005, the goth-rock screamer has lent her voice to powerful takedowns—both on and off the recording reels. Costello took to her Tumblr after tours with Blood On The Dance Floor in 2011 and 2012 to speak out about the disrespect she felt she experienced, and the sexually inappropriate behavior she allegedly saw take place on the road. She’s been an outspoken advocate against sexual violence ever since, encouraging fans to tell her about their experiences and using her own social media accounts to try to hold the scene accountable for what she sees as a prevailing “boys will be boys” attitudes. No one claimed it was easy being a woman in rock—but Ash Costello lets it be known it’s even harder to silence her. We caught up with her to talk about protective measures, the importance of advocacy and the ways musicians can facilitate a safer scene.
Interview: Lee McKinstry
Is the mindset surrounding this music community far from the utopia many people still think it is? Or is it still that great place?
ASH COSTELLO: I really still think it’s a great place, I really do. The amount of people I meet who are just genuinely incredible people that just want to help people through music in any capacity outweigh the people with negative intentions by a landslide, still. Unfortunately, the people that misbehave tend to get more attention than the people who are doing good. Especially this summer—because, for whatever reason, this summer there was a few pretty public instances, so it seems like this is a bigger problem than it ever has been—but really this has been around forever and it really is as big as it’s always been.
The positive side of it is that people in positions like I’m in are speaking out more and letting it be known that we don’t accept it and if you are around us and you’re in a band and you behave that way, we’re going to speak out against it. That’s the difference I’m seeing now. Now more than ever, it’s being frowned upon, where I feel like maybe some odd years ago, it was kind of glorified. I think people are taking a stand more now and maybe that’s why it’s getting a little bit more attention than it used to. But I really don’t think it’s gotten worse in any way. I think that’s always been a part of rock ’n’ roll. It just has. I mean, if you look at the ’80s, it’s probably way worse. I think the biggest and most important part if you’re in a band is two things: Be aware and be vocal about it. That’s it.
Not naming any names, but obviously you became involved with the conversation about sexual violence in the scene because of your experience dealing with sexual harassment on past tours. Can you talk to me a little bit about what those experiences taught you moving forward?
Oh yeah, it taught me a major lesson. I think back then, [New Years Day] were a smaller band, but I could identify with the fan who maybe looked up to a band and doesn’t want to rock the boat or doesn’t want to speak out against them. There was that fear. That fear of, “What if everyone hates me? What if I get kicked off the tour? What if this reflects negatively on me? What if everyone thinks I’m the bad guy?” What I learned from it is that I found my voice. I found how to not be afraid and how speaking my truth was more important. If I felt truly in my heart that the way I felt was right, it was okay for me to speak up. That’s what I thought and that’s why I’m such an advocate for speaking out.
Do you feel like the men in the scene are generally respectful? Or do we have a problem of naïve boys that are entitled and don’t understand? Or are we experiencing full-on, institutionalized misogyny?
I think for the most part—generally—everyone is really respectful. With any field, any career, there’s going to be those bad eggs. [That threat] will always be there in the music industry, fashion industry, law industry— everywhere. You’re going to run into those guys that, for whatever reason, didn’t get it through their head or their mama didn’t teach them right or whatever. Even in college or a career workplace, it’s relevant everywhere. I think it’s just important for the females to know how to speak up; what’s right and what’s crossing the line, what’s playful and what’s not and when it’s time to tell somebody.
Do you ever feel, as a female musician, that you have to take special precautions to protect yourself? Or to educate others?
Yeah. I think I definitely watch the way I behave. Not to say that I invited it or did anything that led anyone on to treat me that way, but I’m now cautious of who I hang out with, with boys, what I do with them, etc. I won’t drink too much or hang out too late, just things like that. I just protect myself and stick to people I know and trust. I think your behavior matters for sure, but also just being aware. That’s my keyword when I talk to girls about this, is just being aware. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right.
I think what is going on now that maybe girls didn’t have before is being told by people they look up to that it’s okay and it’s safe to tell somebody if you’re aren’t treated right. But I think that was a big fear factor before and that’s definitely what I learned. I had so many girls come to me with their stories. It was the same thing with every story: “I was afraid.” “I was scared.” “I didn’t know who to tell.” “No one would listen.” I think that’s the most important part for people to learn. I learned that from my heroes. I remember being at a My Chemical Romance concert where one of the opening bands were encouraging girls to come backstage and get naked or whatever and Gerard Way [told the audience he wasn’t okay with it]. That made a big difference. That affected me big time. I wonder if Gerard ever knows how much that affected the girls that heard that. I was like, “Fuck, that’s fucking awesome.” If Gerard Way is like, “That’s not fucking cool, you flip them off and you get out of there and go tell someone,” I’m like, “Fuck yeah, that’s what I want bands to say.” And it made me not afraid to have that outlook.
I’ve seen a lot of stuff on social media where people are like, “Oh well, he just said something sexual. It’s not like she actually got raped.” As though people don’t understand that language and derogatory terms are equally unacceptable. Why is it important to get the word out about that misconception?
I feel like that’s so frickin’ basic and simple knowledge. Just because you didn’t punch someone in the face, telling them “I’m going to punch you after school,” is still going to affect that person. It’s the same with sexual behavior. A lot of the girls I spoke to back in the day didn’t have anything physically done to them, but the way they were being spoken to shut them up so badly that they were mentally affected and that’s a big deal. Verbal abuse is just as harmful as physical abuse in any aspect—whether it’s sexual or not.
Do you believe that musicians have a certain responsibility to stop these kinds of behaviors as opposed to put the onus on the fans? A lot of people have said, “Oh, the girls shouldn’t talk to these musicians.” But if you’re 14 and you’re hanging out with your favorite musician and he’s flirting with you, you’re not going to be thinking about repercussions. Do you feel there’s more of a responsibility with the musician, because they’re public figures?
When you’re 14 and you’re around your favorite band, you’re going to do whatever to look cool, even if it means doing something you’re not comfortable with. Years later, you’re going to realize how much that affected you. So 100 percent, it is absolutely the responsibility of the person in the band. There are bands out there that sing about some pretty explicit stuff and that’s fine. That’s art; you do your thing. But in real life, when you get off that stage, you have a responsibility. Anyone that says they don’t is lying to themselves. It’s an excuse.
Why do you think this problem is becoming more acknowledged now? Obviously, it’s been around as long as there’s been rock shows. So why do you think we’re talking about it more now?
Man, I wish I had an answer to that one! I think a lot of it has to do with this generation and how social media has affected them. I feel like girls [at a younger and younger age] are showing off very sexual things on their Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, whatever. I think that it’s just made the audience younger. I think that’s why it’s starting to get even more scary. That’s why it’s a serious problem because it’s so much easier now. There’s Snapchat, Vine, all these different ways for guys in bands to just kill time and talk to new girls. Maybe for them it’s just a joke—just killing time or just making fun of the girl or whatever—but I think back in the day, there weren’t those outlets for them to behave that way. Now there’s just so many different ways to go at a girl, there’s so many different ways to take advantage. It’s just really an epidemic now. I think social media has a lot to do with it. And maybe that’s the reason why it’s becoming more public, because girls have an outlet to post. I think that’s kind of brought it to the forefront.
On the whole, do you think social media is good for the cause of raising awareness about the problem or does it facilitate the problem?
It’s bad for the cause and it’s good for the cause. It means that people can speak out and people will listen and it also means people are more accessible. So it’s good and bad.
What’s the most important thing musicians can do moving forward? What’s the best way to get the word out?
Not thinking it’s trivial to take a stand—make it important. Take the responsibility and to be aware. Take the time every now and then to be like, “If there’s a guy in a band that’s causing a struggle to you, speak out. That’s not why we’re here; that’s not what we stand for.” If you don’t want to be a part of that, that’s fine, but I think it’s good to do that. You have so many people looking up to you as an example for whatever reason. [Musicians] are not role models; no one’s trained us to be role models. But there are morals—there’s right and wrong. Just know the difference and try to push people towards the right. Do what you can to use your voice and the platform you’ve been given. At the end of the day, it comes down to the fans. All these people in bands, if it wasn’t for the fans, they’d have no platform at all. So why not treat them with respect?
What can fans do to either protect themselves or be advocates for others?
If something crosses the line, speak up or don’t put yourself in that situation. Know what you’re comfortable with and just be aware.
This Q&A is part of our No More Silence series about the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in our scene. For more information, including hotline numbers and resource websites, please look to our initial post:
Or, read further with our other Q&A's: