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Ash McMillan: A Project, A Pandemic and Privilege

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

by Leah Dwyer

(McMillan and her band, Ash, at the Stood, November 2019 Photo courtesy Ash McMillan)

Studying two majors in the music conservatory—studio production and studio composition— playing soccer and opening her own music studio, makes Alicia, Ash, McMillan a hard person to miss on campus. She even has her own Alicia McMillan Day of Recognition on April 5 in Westchester County. Driven by her motivation to represent women in a male-dominated field and the privilege granted to her as a first-generation college student, McMillan will be presenting her senior project recital at the end of this semester.

What is your senior project? Can you give me an overview?

I have to do two, for some reason. The production one I submitted an hour of jazz I had recorded at Purchase. For studio composition, I am doing a mix. I have a 30-minute recital outside. The other half-hour is recorded music that I'm going to be doing live with my band in the music building.

How did you come up with this idea?

I really wanted to do an in-person recital that my parents could come to. I haven’t performed in a year. The half-hour recital is more like we have to ease back into performing. The other half-hour was a conversation between me and [a friend] because we both have projects to submit. I just thought it’d be kind of fun.

What inspires your music?

I just write about what’s going on with myself. Even if the lyrics are pretty sad and it’s about something that was not particularly a fun time, I really like to make music that is fun to dance to. I use my lyric writing as a therapeutic thing, but then I don’t want to be sad on stage so I'm like, “let’s make it upbeat.”

Have you found that in writing about your life the pandemic has made its way into your music?

I was dating someone over the summer. I wrote a little bit about having someone there and the comfort of just needing somebody and that falling apart and everything just being so much worse [without them]. I’ve written about my love life before, but suddenly that is in a different lens because we’re going through a scary time. It is more like the things I was going to write about regardless are affected by COVID and therefore kind of get reflected a bit in my music, too.

Can you walk me through the senior project process and some of the hardships you overcame?

I find it really hard to be creative in an academic way [and] to have deadlines on things I have to write. It’s a lot of pressure to force myself to be feeling things and put that into coherent music. For me, that honestly was one of the hardest parts and the COVID restrictions. Once we have all that figured out it’s not too bad, I'm just playing with my band and we’re figuring stuff out together and having a good time.

How do you keep art and academics separate when your art is your academics? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, right? How do you stay excited about music?

That’s a really good question. You know, sometimes it really does just feel like all work no play. I think so much of my life revolves around what I do it’s really hard to make a separation. I feel like I haven’t really found a balance. I'm someone who gets excited by learning things I don’t know and I don’t understand, so picking up new skills, working on new genres and trying new challenges is exciting for me. I think that’s probably how I keep it exciting.

(McMillan recording, Photo courtesy Ash McMillan)

You’re very open about being a female in a male-dominated field [engineering and producing] can you say more about that experience?

It’s definitely been tough. It’s more so people outside of my major. Some people are sexist. I think some people are not used to seeing a woman in the position and it freaks them out; they almost need to get used to [it]. It’s definitely been a lot of my life and career. You start getting used to how you’re going to deal with it and with the emotional labor of having a lot of shit said to your face.

How have you been dealing with that?

Sometimes we do say things back, but sometimes you have to put your head down, get the job done and deal with it later. Surrounding myself with other women and nonbinary people during my off time is helpful. Just reminding myself I'm doing the best that I can and I'm doing my job well is usually how I just truck on with it.

You recently opened a studio. What are your hopes for the future with it?

I really just want to make a lot of good music there. I’ve gone through a lot of crap through college and that’s definitely taken a toll on me. The idea that I’ve gotten to this thing, this point, that I thought was so far away, feels like a really big deal to me. I also really want to change the culture that exists— at least in my studio—of like women are engineers and producers and studio owners. I really only want female and nonbinary interns there. Just giving incoming freshmen at Purchase chances that I really fought for but never could get. I tried so hard to get more internships in college and some of them in the interviews were clearly like ‘we’re not hiring you because we don’t want to hire women.’ That was really shitty to deal with when I was 18. I just want to give that opportunity to an 18-year-old, so she doesn’t have to go through all the bullshit that I went through basically.

What are your favorite lyrics you’ve written? Why?

The lyrics I’m most proud of are from my song “Floating Away.” Particularly the second verse: “I’ll let all your rain settle, push past the thorns and all of the nettles, I’ll grow flowers with the new sun, try to find myself love and maybe my way home.” I wrote this song after someone hurt me. I still struggle a lot, but it reflects this desire to take all this bad in my life and this person had left, and be able to grow despite it. I didn’t want to let the experience make me cruel or cold, I wanted to still be vibrant and warm. I think I found lots of ways to grow from it and learned to lean on people for the first time.

A friend told me this, is it true that there is an Alicia McMillan day?

God, I don’t know how people are finding out about this suddenly, you aren’t the first person to ask me (laughs). When I was 16, I did a lot of charity work and won an award for public health. They handed me a glass award and a framed proclamation. When I got into the car, I started to read it and one of the bottom lines said something like, “April 5th is declared Alicia McMillan Day of Recognition in Westchester County.”

If you were telling a story about yourself, what do you think is the most important thing to include?

I won’t doubt that I have worked hard in my life, but I think that so much of my success has come because of luck and privilege. I'm a first-gen student. The idea that I have all of this privilege my parents didn’t have is the only reason I am able to have the career I have. Yeah, I think it’s cool to talk about my process and how hard I work and blah blah blah, but I am so aware that I am so insanely lucky to have the life I have. I wouldn’t be able to be anywhere close to where I am without it.

As a first-generation college student do you ever feel pressure to make something out of yourself? The music industry can be competitive; do you ever feel as if you should be in a more stable field?

My parents spent their lives working jobs they hated so that my sister and I didn’t have to struggle like they did. For a while, I did want a stable job with a lot of income so I could support them, but I don’t think that’s what they have ever wanted for me. They pushed me all my childhood to pursue a career I loved and cared about. So, my plan is instead to make a lot of money doing this and still be able to take care of them. I know saying I’m going to make a lot of money in music is a little unrealistic, but got to speak it into existence or something (laughs).

McMillan’s outdoor performance is May 1 at 3 pm. Students can attend by the clocktower



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