Sasami On 'Squeeze' & Pursuing Her Darker Fantasies
Discussing anger, creating music during lockdown, and being inspired by hard metal shows, Sasami breaks down the making of her sophomore album.
Sasami wants you to get in touch with your anger. Her new album, Squeeze, was created completely in service to that emotion — to break it apart, investigate its nuances, and compel one to get completely comfortable letting it all out. Across its 11 jagged, furious tracks, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter — who runs in tight circles with Japanese Breakfast and Mitski — aptly channels nu metal, emo, screamo, rock, and even country to paint a blazing spectrum of rage and frustration, dwelling on topics as intimate as broken relationships and as big as our human relationship with the planet. Written largely throughout lockdown and with queer, POC anger in mind, the record burns like alcohol over a wound, clarifying any lingering toxins through sheer and pure cathartic release.
“In a time where things are so grim and so dark, instead of trying to counterbalance that with brightness and lightness, just [allow] yourself to go deeper into the muck and the mire,” Sasami tells NYLON over a phone call one January afternoon.
Discussing anger, creating music during lockdown, being inspired by hard metal shows during the pandemic, and more, Sasami broke down the making of Squeeze, below.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I want to start off talking about the album cover. It's by Andrew Thomas Hwang, and you are kind of taking the form of the Nure-onna. Why was this the first thing you wanted people to see when they encountered your album?
I think that when I started to understand and do some digging on the different accounts of the Nure-onna character, I was drawn to the visual of this feminine character who is kind of described [as having] this long beautiful hair and alluring presence. But the story goes that she's actually quite murderous and villainous. I just like this combination of feminine and beauty mixed with villainy as opposed to victimhood. I feel like often femininity is linked with being delicate and being a victim. I liked flipping the narrative for this album that is so fantasy-based. I wanted to create my own visual narrative for this album from the get go.
Andrew is so amazing at connecting to fantasy and deities and historical folk tale characters. In his own work, he connects a lot with gods and deities and folk tales. I think we had a lot of fun explaining each other's cultural folk tale characters, and kind of trying to create this specific avatar for the album.
When you say the album is fantasy-based, what do you mean by that?
I think that anyone who's putting out an album in 2022, most likely they wrote it and recorded it during a global pandemic. I think that it's a really specific experience to make an album where the sounds and the songs are coming from memories of experiences and fantasies of experiences, as opposed to actual experiences. Because I personally was not going out meeting anyone, doing anything for years at this point ... I think there's a choice that a songwriter or a writer can make where they decide to be very present in reality, whatever reality is, however intimate, during a lockdown and process the feelings of reality. I decided to go down a different path, which is to allow my negative spiraling fantasy to take the wheel on this album.
When we last spoke, you talked about your self-titled record as a project that just happened to be something you created, and then shopped it around to recoup the recording costs. It sounds like there was a lot more thought and intention around this record.
Yeah, it kind of feels like I'm a novelist or something, and this is my first true novel, and my first album was my diary entry being leaked or something. I wasn't trying to invent anything or I wasn't intentionally trying to create any sort of fantasy space on my last album. I was just having a more autobiographical telling on the first album, whereas this one is very intentionally like a film script that is coming from a place of fantasy and not non-fiction, but not beholden to the details of reality.
Why the title Squeeze?
I liked that the word “squeeze” is kind of like a Rorschach test. Depending on however the listener or consumer wants to project onto it, it can either be an endearing squeeze like a hug or holding someone, or it can be this act of desperation, squeezing out every last drop or holding onto hope or a violent grasp. I like that the word is so fluid and multidimensional, and I think the album kind of has that fluidity.
When did you begin earnestly working on this? What was the first song you wrote for the album?
Actually, the first song on this album that I wrote was this song “Need It To Work.” I was at Hedgebrook, which is a songwriter's residency in Washington, on the coast. I was very lucky to go to a woman and non-binary songwriter retreat for a couple days there. And the night before I left, I had seen this metal band, and I had just been really inspired by the sounds of this metal band. And so I was in this very pastoral, cute cabin in the woods that I was writing all these nu metal riffs and double kick pedal drum parts on my iPad. So the genesis of the album definitely comes from a place of heavy nu metal.
I love the vision of you in this lush place thrashing to metal. Had you written music that would fit in that genre before?
The decision to go heavier has a lot more to do with the live performance than my recording experience. Just in touring the self-titled, the sets just got heavier and heavier as time went on. So I just kind of knew that I wanted to take this album in a heavier direction. I was already kind of going there live.
Were you feeling angry while making it?
Yeah. Definitely. I think that on the tail end of touring, there was a lot of... Touring can be a traumatic experience. Also, especially since I was touring with an all-queer femme band, and every single show just kind of felt like a fight with the sound people. And you're touring under extreme bodily duress. You're just traveling across the country and across the world and sleeping in a different bed every single night, and then adding this element of constantly being told to turn your amps down. I definitely ended a cycle of touring my last album pretty frustrated, and then having to endure this lockdown forever just kind of opened up an opportunity to delve deeper into those darker fantasies. So I decided to just go there.
“We don't think about the fact that anger and frustration are also emotions.”
I definitely see where that pushback might come from... Once lockdown happened, it was a lot of, “Try to find happiness or whatever in your life.”
Right. Bake bread. Bake the pain away.
You're like, "No, I just want to f*cking be mad."
Exactly. I just want to be at a rock show, throwing elbows.
Did you listen to any heavy metal music or other bands when you were writing the record?
I definitely was referencing these older nu metal acts and even Rammstein and Metallica and Judas Priest — more classic metal bands, too. And modern ones like Lamb of God. In my producer brain, I was definitely tapping into that sonic world in recording, but at the same time, I was also hearkening back to this era of maybe middle school and high school where I was actually listening to nu metal. I feel like that era of listening to nu metal or screamo or heavy emo metal or whatever, I feel like that's tied into this millennial shared experience of teen angst and being extremely dramatic. Like if you hear “Chop Suey” by System of a Down, you're flooded with feelings of being at the mall when you were a certain age or whatever. That was a time where that genre of music was actually pretty mainstream. I definitely was tapping into that almost teen level of hysterical angst when making this.
Historically, anger has been such a misunderstood emotion, especially feminine anger and anger from marginalized people. Is that something intentionally you were just trying to challenge when you were creating this?
Definitely. I think that it says a lot that when we say, when we're talking about emotional music, we immediately think about sad or contemplative or heartening. We automatically think about those emotions. We don't think about the fact that anger and frustration are also emotions.
Emotional music, you wouldn't be like, "Oh, Slipknot, that's emotional music." But if you really think about it, emotion is just a really broad term, and then you can choose which emotional palette you want to create from. For me, I just wanted to create an emotional palette that was more dramatic and violent and frustrated and angry. And this album was not an autobiographical album, but an opportunity to make music that I hoped that people could tap into and would be some sort of emotional lubricant or open up some sort of space for people to go deeper into those emotions. Personally, when I'm feeling sad, often I use sad music to help me go deeper into my emotions and sit there and have a soundtrack to that. So I guess that was kind of my intention in making this heavier album.
Did you feel like it functioned that way for you when you were creating it?
I did. For me it was more just being excited to see a vision come to fruition, but for me it was way more like building a haunted house, where I'm intentionally building something thinking about how other people will experience it.
I think for me, the last two chapters of the album are kind of this existential floating, this drone shot of perspective floating outside of the human experience and more looking down on humans' relationship to Earth and position in nature. I wanted this instrumental song that was beyond English or beyond linguistics that allows us to transition into a more cosmic way of thinking. I think so much of the album is touching on these very human themes of systemic violence and injustice and personal chaos and disappointment and longing and all these very human themes. And I wanted it to end on kind of a little bit more of an existential note. I just thought an instrumental song would be a good way to transition into floating higher.
In the lyrics of “Not a Love Song” you're talking about hearing a beautiful song in your head, and then you quickly clarify that it's not a love song. Why did you feel the need to include that clarification?
To me, that song is not even like hearing a song in my head, but it's like hearing a bird whistling or something. Like how humans have this tendency to see things in nature and then somehow center humans around it, like, oh, there's a man on the moon. There's a man's face on the moon. How can we center this thing that's outside of humanity and make it about humans? And I think that song is me asking us to consider, maybe we are just a part of nature, and nature isn't completely centered around us. And maybe not everything that we see is like a photograph, not everything is this moment that needs to be captured for humans to consume. Not every melody is in the framework of human love or human harmony.
Were these thoughts spurred on through lockdown?
Yeah. I think that that song is definitely one that is one of the more personal ones in terms of me processing my own reckoning of my position on the planet and my position in nature and questioning why I have to center my life and humanity in the world. I think a lot of people during lockdown were connecting with nature a lot more, just having time to, because we knew we couldn't catch COVID from trees. I just thought it was a good balance after being so microscopically zoomed in to these human emotions, to kind of zoom out and think a little broader.