SASAMI interview: "More than diary entries, a lot of the songs are lovers saying the lyrics to the other person."
Sasami Ashworth - SASAMI - is a Los Angeles native, and has become a crucial cog in the city's music scene since her return there after finishing studying classical French Horn in New York city; playing synths in Cherry Glazerr, contributing to albums by Wild Nothing, Curtis Harding and Avi Buffalo, to name a few. It shouldn't have come as a surprise then to discover the further talents of the young artist when speaking to her; writing, directing, editing, arranging - probably more - are all well within her grasp, and she seems to have a preternatural necessity to express herself through various media.
However - and crucially - SASAMI is humble, a word she used several times in our conversation, and a clear trait that she values above most others. She is still rightfully and resonantly confident, but doesn't use that status to exert dominance, but instead to make you feel comfortable and interesting. It's no wonder that during our chat she described herself as "fucking wholesome," and having a preference for being around beta-male energy.
We met on an unnaturally sunny day in London in February, for an enlivening chat shared over a Japanese breakfast (of course we noted the musical connection), all about her debut album SASAMI, which is out today via Domino.
You've been part of releases for other acts for a long time, but when it came to releasing your own material was it a tough decision to go with your own name, rather than an artist name?
I think SASAMI all caps, stylised that way, is how I want to put out songs. I've put out music under my name for compositions, but I feel like SASAMI is the name of the "song"/"band" outlet of music, and if I compose or something it might be under Sasami Ashworth.
Have you done a lot of composition recently, even amidst all the album stuff?
Recently I did a podcast theme song and closing song, for 99% Invisible; it's a designer/architecture podcast.
You started writing the songs two years ago, what was the process from that point?
I started writing the songs when I was touring with Cherry Glazerr, so every couple of months I would go home to LA in between tours and I would record one song, and then two months later record one song, and then three months later record two songs, so it happened really intermittently. It wasn't that it took a lot of studio time, it was just spread out so much.
Is that how you end up with so many different people playing on each track?
Yeah, exactly, because different people would be in town, and I wanted to experiment with playing with different drummers or whatever.
It's nice to be able to call on all these people. But Joo Joo was the producer, he's your brother?
Yeah, he's my brother. I'm the oldest of four, he's the youngest. He has a band called Froth that are on Wichita. I went to school in New York for classical music for French Horn, and when I left he wasn't even playing music at all, but when I came back he was like "I live in Echo Park and I'm in a band now," and I'm like "what the fuck are you talking about?!" But he's like a genius, he's really really talented.
Do you have a good working relationship?
Yeah, he's my youngest brother, so I could just bribe him with pizza and beer to get him out of the house.
Does either of you boss the other around?
He's pretty humble in the studio. I wrote all the parts, he played them; he's a really good guitar player. I would write something that was kinda hard for me, because I was playing synths full time in Cherry Glazerr, so I wasn't spending a lot of time playing guitar. But when I write I don't really write to the guitar parts, I write the guitar parts to the chords and melodies I hear, so sometimes the chords are kinda hard to play. But because we're recording to tape you can't record a bunch and playlist it and copy and paste it, you have to do a good take all the way through, so I just kind of figured it would be easier to just have my brother play it, because he's just better at guitar than I am, and that would be faster instead of me having to do it 10 times.
And how about the actual production itself? Because the production is impeccable, when I listen to it I hear sounds coming from all over the place.
Yeah there's a lot of panning and stuff. Thomas [Dolas] who engineered the record and I and my brother were all obsessed with the Beatles-y production. Thomas is really obsessed with the 70s production on the drum sound, my brother's really into 90s guitars, and that's kind the sound world that I wanted on the record, so they were the obvious choice to have them work on the record with me.
Was it easy to explain to them what you wanted?
Yeah, they were super humble about doing whatever. They both have kinda beta-male energy; I don't like to work with alpha males, I like very calm energy. Like, they were almost too slow-paced for me, but it's good for me to slow down sometimes.
You've said it's not a concept album, but it could be said that it's a break-up album, as the majority of the songs deal with that.
But they're all about different people, and also half the songs are about platonic relationships that were not doing well. I think that the record's probably about five different people, it's not all about one person.
I feel like there's two parts of song writing; there's the emotional output of writing the song, and then there's the crafting of the arrangement and the production. I feel like the song writing part was very therapeutic for me, because I was singing about whatever I was feeling in the moment, and then the crafting of the song I was doing in the van on my iPad a lot. I just was writing because I needed to; I was feeling all emotional and I just started writing.
You don't feel awkward or vulnerable putting these out?
No, I'm staying at someone's house who half the songs are about at the moment. And we're still friends - it's not romantic at all.
The album starts with 'I Was A Window', which is quite a demure track, did you always know it would be first?
No! When I was making the record, I was recording songs really intermittently for a year, and I didn't even know I was making a record. I was just recording songs, and maybe about 6 songs in I was like "OK this is going to be an album." But that one I recorded later in the scheme of all the songs, but I just like how it starts, the sound of the guitars.
I think it's a good intro, even though it's relatively subdued, it kind of introduces you as the narrator of the record.
Yeah, for sure. I use the words "you" and "I" in the album's lyrics a lot because the songs are kind of like lovers in that way. More than diary entries, a lot of them are lovers saying the lyrics to the other person.
Interesting. And that track features Dustin Payseur [Beach Fossils]; with all the collaborations on the record was it a matter of just who happened to be around the studio?
No, it was planned. Like with Devendra and Soko I had them come in. I think the voice is kind of an instrument, and I had different friends come in to play instruments, so it made sense to have friends come in and sing.
Devendra's feature on 'Free' is so perfect for that song.
He has such a great low voice, and he's singing down an octave from me. I already have a pretty low voice, and I needed someone that could sing down the octave.
Did you direct him on what you wanted?
Yeah. It's actually interesting because I've known Devendra's music for a super long time, but he was so humble in the studio. He just came in and was like "whatever you want, I'll do it." It was just a very pleasant experience.
And the result is devastating.
Yeah, but that's the thing, like I said there's the emotional part in writing but then there's the craftsmanship part of putting the arrangement together, getting all the tones right, having all the right voices on it - and that's so much less emotional. I do vocal takes super fast, because I sing really in pitch so it doesn't take me a long time, so they probably only take about an hour, but all the other parts take 50 hours, so you spend so much more time doing the non-lyric parts, and you don't really think about the lyrics as much when you're making the song.
When you're writing the guitar parts do you think about making the tone similar to the emotion?
I think it's a mixture of the tone of the guitars and also the voicing of the chord itself. But, when I'm writing the songs I'm generally writing the lyrics as well; I'm not the kind of person who makes the song and then tries to make the lyrics fit in it. I kind of improvise the lyrics on the spot and then usually I end up keeping them, because I feel like when you improvise music and words your mouth develops the words naturally. It's super weird to put lyrics afterwards to me, because it doesn't have the same cadence. Writing a song is like writing a poem, so it's kinda weird to assume that you would pick the pentameter or whatever and then have to put the words to it later.
But a lot of people do it that way.
Yeah a lot of people do it that way, especially with pop writing. And at the end of the day it's whatever it sounds like at the end is the only thing that matters, because that's the only thing that people hear. But for me, because the process of writing was so personal, I wanted it to be a more holistic process. But this record to me is such a guitar record, because I got obsessed with guitar-heavy bands like My Bloody Valentine and Stereolab right before I made it.
Especially coming out of playing synths in Cherry Glazerr.
Yeah, because I was playing synths so much in Cherry Glazerr, I needed to play guitar, I needed to write on guitar.
Does LA have a big influence on your music?
Definitely being from LA and making the record there and being able to have a lot of different musicians in LA, it gave me access to having friends and awesome studio people on the record. So in a very technical way it was very influential.
But then 'At Hollywood' on the album is not a very great advertisement for LA.
[Laughs] That song is really sarcastic, because at that point in making the album I had been on tour with Cherry Glazerr for two years already, and LA was changing a lot; people were moving, the rent was going up a lot. So maybe I was having a cynical relationship with the city, But also the lyrics are kind of nonsense. If I didn't write a song on tour, then I wrote it at 3am before the studio day, procrastinating from finishing the next song. 'At Hollywood' was one of those songs; I think I was supposed to go in to mix 'Jealousy', but instead of mixing 'Jealousy' I was having pre-postpartum depression of finishing the songs, I was like "actually I wrote this song last night, can I try recording it?" Which we did over and over again until I had like 13 songs and I was like "OK I should stop now."
Any plans for the songs that didn't make the record?
I think they'll be released at some point this year. Maybe on a special edition of the album.
It's interesting that you referred to it as "postpartum depression," do you see the songs like children?
I kinda meant the mixing process; I probably like it more than most musicians. I feel like playing in an orchestra for so long really prepared me for producing and mixing, because when you're in an orchestra, no matter how good you are at your instrument, you're really humbled to the arrangement of the song. The same thing with mixing, you can't be too precious about the parts, it's really about how they fit into the betterment of the whole song. So I really like the mixing process, but it's scary because it's the last thing that you do before the song's done. It's easy to be nervous about finishing a mix because it doesn't matter how good that guitar tone is if it's in the same frequency as the vocal part then they cancel each other out, so the drama of a part can be met by another part overtaking it. So it can be super nerve-wracking and it's hard to know when a song is done.
Let's talk about 'Jealousy', which sounds slightly different to the rest of the tracks. Was it a different process?
'Morning Comes' is the first song I wrote, and 'Jealousy' is the second. I actually plagiarised a poem I had written. Those were the first songs I had ever written, so when I first started those 2 songs, I made up some of the lyrics on the spot but I also stole some words from a poem I had written a little earlier. So the lyrics are kind of more whimsical and poetic and less straightforward than a lot of the other songs, which are literally like "you made me sad."
That's kinda funny too, because 'Jealousy' was a hook that I had written to that melody, kind of expecting to replace it with different lyrics. I tried it with different words but... that happens to me a lot where I'll write something and then I'll try to change the words and I'll always end up keeping the original words because it fits around the rhythms the best.
Are you a jealous person?
No, I'm totally not! I'm really really not a jealous person. That's super triggering to me when people are competitive and jealous. I'm a cancer, which is a very sensitive paternal sign.
So is the song written to disparage jealous people?
A little bit. 'Morning Comes' and 'Jealousy' were both written when I was newly single and about to go on tour forever, and I was just like "jealous people suck, being single and free is the best forever!" When we started doing well people would get jealous about it. You have to work hard to get where you want, but it's also so toxic and useless to be jealous of other people for glowing up, for finding their flow. It was at a time that I was learning that you can't make everyone happy. Also Clem and Taber, who I played in Cherry Glazerr, are super free and confident people, and I think I learned a lot from being in a band with them.
Cool. We have to mention the video for 'Jealousy', which looked like a lot of fun. That was your concept?
The 'Jealousy' and 'Not The Time' videos, I wrote and directed those, and then 'Free' I kinda wrote it and someone else directed it.
The idea of 'Jealousy' video is about the seven deadly sins?
No, not at all, it was not even that literal. It kind of reflected in that a little bit. But I had just made the 'Not The Time' video, which is super wholesome and has a bunch of kids in it, it's very supportive, positive video. So I wanted to make something that was super gruesome to contrast it, and I got really obsessed with the scene in Matilda where this kid Bruce steals some cake from Trunchbull, so she forces him to eat this giant slice of cake in front of the entire school, and when he finishes it she pulls out the rest of the cake and he has to eat the whole entire cake while the whole school is cheering him on. So I was like "I want to make a video where someone eats a bunch of cake," so we made a giant cake, it was insane.
That was the basis, and then I started thinking about different types of societal pressures that people get really toxically obsessed with, like youth and thinness and being straight-laced and not being weird. Even though I didn't want it to be wholesome, it ended up being this wholesome thing where I cast a spell on them and they're free of their obsessive behaviour. I'm just a wholesome person, I can't fucking help myself.
Was it fun to direct?
It was really fun; I had these crazy prosthetics, I had a 7 year old girl with old goblin man prosthetics, she had to sit for like 2 hours to get all her prosthetics on and then an hour to get it all removed. It was crazy but it was fun. And it was all on 60mm film, which was really fun to shoot. It's the same with recording on tape, you have so much less space to work with, so you have to be really thoughtful about how you use the space. We only had 30 minutes of film that we could shoot, so we only shot 10 seconds at a time. Then you don't have to think about it as much, you just capture it and then you have to use exactly what you captured. I kinda like the philosophy behind using it.
And did you have anything to do with the edit?
Yeah I edited it myself too. 'Jealousy', 'Not the Time' and ‘Free’ I edited.
Did you study editing or film at all?
No. That's the thing, because we did it on film, when it came down to it we only had about 20 minutes of film so it was just cutting it down, I wasn't using effects or anything, so it wasn't anything crazy. But I am particular about where things line up.
Is film something you might pursue in the future?
No, I don't think so. I remember watching this Grimes video and at the end it was like "directed and edited by Grimes" and I was like "if Grimes can do it, I can do it."
I'm curious about the line "Too cold to realize that the heat is something that we grew" from 'Adult Contemporary'.
This song is about Trump, basically. I wrote the song right after Trump was elected. The lyric in the first part is "What a time to be alive and believe in something so untrue," is kinda like about what a crazy time to be alive when people are voting for Trump. I think all the lyrics have open-ended meanings; that could be about a relationship or it could be about global warming - I don't know. Those lyrics were all pretty improvised.
Like the part where you mention Sheridan Riley.
Yeah, she's the drummer on the song! She was literally in the room and I was just like "singing words, Sheridan Riley" - totally improvised. That was another one where I wrote lyrics to replace it, and I was like "no"; nothing sounds as good as the first improvised lyric, personally.
The album ends with 'Turned Out I Was Everyone', which does feel like an epilogue.
That was the last song I recorded, and it was another one where I was supposed to be going into the studio to mix another song, but at 3am I was on my Yamaha keyboard I wrote that song, and then exactly replicated it except with better tones and stuff. I went into the studio and was like "I actually wrote a new song"; it was a joke that I would go in and say that - it happened like 4 times on the record. I wrote that just before the last recording session.
So it was a natural fit for the end of the record.
Yeah, it was kinda when I was coming to a lot of personal understandings about my emotions. The song is essentially about how we all feel lonely, no matter what our relationship status is. It's an empowering realisation. There's so much pressure put on finding your soulmate when it doesn't really matter if you've found that person or not, you have to be really grounded with yourself to truly feel peace.
Have you already started writing for the next album?
Yeah. I have a couple of songs already. We'll probably record this year. I write pretty quickly. It's funny because everyone thinks the songs are pretty well arranged, but for me I feel like it was all so fast, and I want to make them grander. But in a way there's something really special about how intimate and not overly produced they are.
Do you ever think about putting French Horn on them?
There's a little bit of French Horn on 'Pacify', but already one of the songs I've got for the next thing has French Horn on it, so I'll do some more.
What do you do when you're not doing music? Do you escape into anything else?
I'm reading a bell hooks book right now called All About Love. It's really good. Especially having written essentially a heartbreak album, it's kinda nice to be in a place where I feel less sad. I'm trying to write happy songs... we'll see.
Any other books you would recommend to people?
When I first started making the record I was writing a lot of poems and I was really into David Sedaris; I was reading Naked, which is so good - highly recommended. He has a really good way of poetically and comically doing prose, and I feel like that got me into writing poems at the time.
SASAMI’s debut album SASAMI is out today on Domino Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - March 8th 2019