SASAMI Makes Beautiful Music For Apocalyptic Days

We talk with the artist about being a "blue-collar musician," how her lyrics are like "crying put into words," and astrology memes

"Are you in New York? Is it still snowing?" Sasami Ashworth asked me through my computer screen. We're doing a Skype interview because, in real life, we had just missed each other; when she was home in Los Angeles, I was home in New York City, and by the time I went to Los Angeles, she was off to New York, and then London. So we're both wearing headphones and can see each other and talk to each other, but, of course, a video call with someone you've never met is pretty much mandated to begin with awkward banter, both of us excusing the fact that we look like a mess, each of us assuring the other that we look amazing, and then, you know, why not talk about the weather?

"No," I told her, "it's not snowing. But it is very, very cold. Then again, when I was in L.A. last week, it was freezing and raining every day."

Ashworth nodded, saying "You never know these days, they're apocalyptic days; the end of time."

If I was making a playlist for the apocalypse, I can't think of any song I'd rather start it off with than "Free," from Ashworth's debut album, SASAMI, in which her voice is gauzy, trembling and vibrating, like a tuning fork struck hard, and she sings: "I don't care what tomorrow brings/ Dreaming of some awful things/ 'Cause our time is running out... And you don't know what it means to be free."

The song is an ache, but a glistering one; it's evocative of the rest of the album, filled with songs in which a sense of longing is palpable, though they never quite veer into the lugubrious. The sadness is subversive; a reminder that, even if you're living through the apocalypse, you're still living, you're still feeling, you're still free.

Below, Ashworth and I talk about her album, why she considers herself a working-class musician, and how her lyrics are like "crying put into words."

photo by Alice Baxley

Just to start off, I would love to know what made you want to put out a solo album? [Ashworth was also part of the band Cherry Glazerr before going solo in 2018]

The songs were just kind of intermittently written and recorded over a year of touring with a different band, so it wasn't like I had booked a month of studio days and was like, I'm making an album. I was just writing songs throughout the year and by the end, I had enough debt to decide to sign to a label.

So you're saying money... is a motivator. [laughs]

[Laughs] Totally. No, I'm just kidding. I think at a certain point, I just figured out like halfway through that I could make an album and had enough songs. It wasn't like I had a label or a plan to go solo. I just had all these different ideas that I collected over the years, and had a relationship with Thomas, who owns the studio that I recorded in because he recorded some of my brother, JooJoo's, albums. I sent them some of my demos, and they were like, "You should record them!" It was a very organic process. I wanted to be in the studio, I think when you're touring so much, it's nice to do the other thing.It came from a really natural place. Even when the album was done, I was just going to put it out as a side project, but it just made more sense because of all the debt, you know.

When a lot of people think about music as a career, they don't consider the ubiquity of being a working musician, who's going to tour and record, but who's not a huge star making millions and millions and selling out arenas.

I consider myself a blue-collar musician. Always down to work. When I'm not in the studio, I'm on tour. When I'm not on tour, I'm in the studio. I very rarely am not doing music stuff. I think a big part of it, which is pretty unique to the American experience, is having so much debt after finishing school. I studied music, so it made the most sense to pursue a job in music, because I liked it so much and I was so qualified. So I was teaching a lot after graduating and before touring. I graduated with $100,000 in debt for a french horn degree, which is pretty insane. It definitely lit a fire under my ass to always be working.

That's another unspoken thing, [a lot of ]people who thrive in the music industry are independently wealthy in some way and can afford to take the losses in the beginning. It's one of those things where the industry has changed a lot to become a lot more democratic. More people can participate in it, but because of that, there's less money in general. You always have to be working, you have to be at a high echelon to take time off in order to write albums and not tour all the time. Most people that I know are constantly touring or in the studio, and those are the ones who are playing the Coachellas and all the festivals. You have to work a lot. I don't have any friends who are successful that aren't working all the time.

We live in this time when the concept of the hustle is so revered and we're always supposed to be thinking about how to optimize everything that we're doing. And that sucks when the work is unfulfilling or we're surrounded by shitty people, but it's different when you're getting to do the work that you do love, and you're trained to do, and that you're really talented at… it's not that it feels less like work, but it feels like what you're supposed to be doing.

It's a dream job. We all have our dream job where we're happy to do the work and collect the rewards for doing the work. It's like being an architect or being a dentist. I know people who really scoff at calling being a musician a job, but it really is. There's no shame in that. You put the work in, and you reap the benefits. It's a holistic practice.

Like any other job, there are compromises in music, and whether you like it or not, you're participating in a capitalist enterprise and there are ups and downs to that. Since the beginning of the history of music, in the Western world, it's been funded by the church or something. There's always been some external force on the arts. Especially in America, where there's no funding for it by the government. It's a matter of aligning yourself. Every musician has free will to choose where and when they draw the line for these things. There's no shame in calling it a job. I think most musicians are good at compartmentalizing when their support brain is on, and when their albu- creating brain is on. Those are two very different parts of your brain. You have to do both.

People really want to divorce art from commerce, but that's difficult, if not impossible. And there's a great long tradition of blue-collar musicians.

Right. The troubadours and church- or government-funded composers. I think that it's not a new thing, but it's just a distraction a little bit.

And it also feels like it allows you to be involved in a lot of different things, like doing solo work, being part of a larger group, teaching, and then balancing touring with recording an album. That also seems like it probably just keeps you really creatively inspired. It feels very generative.

Definitely, yeah. It may be because I came from a background of musical training, but I kind of have the skill set to be flexible. I don't think that all artists necessarily have that. Some artists are just like, "I'm not trained at all. This is just what I do, and there's nothing academic about it. This is just what I do." And I think for those artists, it's a bit harder to collaborate and work with other people or under other people, because they have this one, specific calling, and I don't think that I'm an artist like that. I wasn't like, This is what I was born to do. I'm putting paint on this and burping up paint. This is what I do. I just kind of trust my gut and have different musical endeavors and like to stay busy and get inspired by different things.

What inspires you when you're writing a song? What does your gut tell you?

Well, I just feel like there's two totally different parts to making a song. There's the writing part and then there's the arranging and producing side of it. And I get super inspired by both of them. I would say the first part is way less inspiring and just a total and emotional dump. Generally, I feel like a lot of making music to me, because I've made so much music, is just trusting my instinct and knowing that I made something that I like or that I'm proud of, so I kind of start with just improvising different musical progressions and stuff until I feel one that I feel cosmically aligned to do. And then, generally, opening myself up to improvising that way makes me extra emotional, so whatever emotions I'm already feeling kind of gets further imbued in whatever I'm writing. So, I guess I do just get really inspired by my own vulnerability, if that makes any sense. When I get into that writing channel, it's kind of more an emotional cosmic place.

Whereas, on the other hand, the arranging and producing part of it, to me, is way more the other side of my brain. It's way more academic in some ways, because there are some technical things that I studied, but also sometimes I'll hear something at a show, and I'm like, Wow. I love that technique. Or, I love that dynamic, that shocking dynamic shift that they created there. And, especially when I'm on tour and at festivals and seeing bands play or I just listen to 10 albums a day in the van, I just start to get this catalog of ideas that I'm inspired by. Sometimes I'll hear an album and I don't really love the album, but it'll give me tons of ideas and like, Oh my god. I never thought to put this percussion instrument on top of this other percussion instrument so that when I hit one of them, the other one also happens, or whatever. I know a lot of people get inspired by films or stories or poetry or visual art and stuff like that. So, I think you just never really know when it's going to happen, but you're just constantly collecting ideas and then when you get to the studio, you get to finally see if those line up with the songs that you wrote.

I love thinking of being out in the world, being so open, where everything floods in, and then getting to funnel it into something concrete.

Yeah! I think a lot of people who write will tell you that their voice memo section is totally full of random shit that they make up in the car, on the street. That's pretty common.

You mentioned that while you're on tour or at a festival watching a lot of other people, you get inspiration from them in different ways. Is that one of the most rewarding part of being in a community of musicians? You've toured with a lot of other amazing musicians period, but a lot of great women musicians. How is it to be part of that community?

It's been great, it's actually really funny because as we're having this Skype, I'm getting multiple texts in text threads that are all female musicians and we're all always on tour. We're always like, "Did your label charge you for this thing?" blah blah blah, "I can't believe that this venue had this…" It's as petty and as deep as it can possibly get in terms of the community. I think it's the same as any industry, I'm sure teachers have friends who are teachers, because they can commiserate with each other's woes and celebrations, like, "Oh my god, I got 50 percent off at Michael's on this arts and craft supply for my kindergarten class and my lesson was a success because the glitter was on a discount." You know, in a way that a teacher would get really stoked about that, I'm like, "Hot tip! If you get kombucha on your rider you can have it for breakfast the next morning!"

It's as petty as that, but as deep as asking questions about record deals, asking questions about relationships with your front-of-house person. I think that it's very parallel to the current scene of feminism that we're experiencing in general, whereas previous waves of feminism and previous waves of women in music had more of a competitive spirit, and in conscious and active social feminism, there was a hardness to it. Earlier women being in music, there was such little space for women to occupy, it added an element of competitiveness. Now, it's just the opposite. It's so much more powerful for me to be empowering other women and to employ other women, the more women that I pay to be around, then there are more women around in general. It trickles down from the highest level to the level of your local venue.

I'm also in such a liberal bubble, a tight-knit female musician community that I happen to reap the benefits and support it. I think there's a lot of work to be done globally. Every single day, I get very awesome support from specifically female musicians but all types of musicians. It seems to be a very supportive musical scene right now, which is cool.

And even if it is a bubble, it seems like a bubble that's growing. It's also a bubble that didn't exist as much before, and I think that's also in part because it used to be only men that were gatekeepers, including in the indie scene, which also engendered competition.

I feel really deeply that at the root of the music industry, that investing in infrastructure and labels that hire women, PR companies that hire women… a lot of them are infrastructural things. I think that women being in positions of power are very instrumental and important, and that has been shifting too. Anyone can hire a woman of color because they're trending, but hiring women to be your A&R, be at the root of the companies, that's a really telling and powerful part of the shift too.

Absolutely. Talking frankly about the politics of these things, about the economic reality, and talking about changing infrastructure, it feels like in the past, it wasn't expected that musicians were supposed to even invest themselves in those things. They were supposed to trust someone else to it, and they were supposed to be focused on their art, alone.

I think, like I said, it's democratized and musicians have to be the CEOs of their world, and are more involved with every aspect. With social media, musicians are held to so many standards in a healthy way, and sometimes in an unhealthy way depending on how much the musician participates in unhealthy thinking. There is kind of a more healthy dialogue between the music industry and musicians in terms of calling people out on shit and being honest about stuff. It seems to be a little more transparent.

photo by Alice Baxley

What is your relationship with social media? How do you handle that aspect of it?

I've been really lucky to have made my first album as a 28-year-old and not as an 18-year-old. I feel like I'm definitely super lucky to be older and have gone through all of my personal gripes with my identity. I feel like, luckily, I've gone through my growth. It's already occurred in most of my 20s, and now that there's more attention, I feel like I can handle it in a more healthy way, and know intuitively when to participate or when not to participate in certain social media interactions and stuff. I feel pretty fine with it. I've already been in bands and stuff, so I've already experienced how it can be positive and negative. But yeah, for some people it can be really damaging. I've had a really positive experience with it because I just block people if they're mean.

Never be afraid to block.

It's my fucking Instagram, I don't care. It's technically none of my business if someone is a jerk. You don't get to play!

When you're writing the lyrics to a song… I feel like now that people study lyrics so closely to the music that they like, they project so much onto the lyrics. Do you think about that when you're writing? Are you thinking about how something could be taken by somebody else?

I definitely don't think about the lyrics very much, and I always think it's a miracle when people relate to them. At least on this album, because I wasn't expecting anyone to listen to it when I made it, it was very much "first thought, best thought." I almost always improvise the lyrics as I'm writing them so that they very much fit into the phrase. Any time I've tried to go back and rewrite them, I'm just like Ugh. It's like trying to go back to an old school photo as a child and Photoshop a different outfit on. You've just gotta own whatever it was in that moment.

I got really into writing poetry before this album cycle. I always say that musicians hope that their song is like the best astrology meme, that everyone will listen to it and be like, Yes, that's me! That's exactly how I feel! I think that all musicians hope that someone will feel that way, and in an ideal world, you don't have to change it at all and whoever that person is that feels connected to it will find it, the people who need it.

Do you have any favorite astrology memes?

Yes, @notallgeminis is a great one; she's actually my friend's roommate. It's really funny, I didn't even know. It's the same with musicians where you're like, "I can't believe you know this person!" who's just a person. She's really funny and awesome. I was never really into astrology until the last couple of years. It just gives you so much peace when you're just like, Ah. It's funny to accept your quirks. I think when people hear songs, they're like that too. It's fun to accept that we're all really emotional, or that we're all really angry.

I do feel in one sense that music and astrology share that thing where order is theoretically imposed on chaos, and something beautiful comes out of it. You can be aware that it is really arbitrary, but then know that everything is arbitrary, so why not just lean into it?

I think everyone wants to feel understood and not alone. I think that music helps with that, it helps people feel powerful.

What are you looking forward to most as your album officially comes out, as you keep touring, what are you most excited about?

I'm definitely excited to work on new music because I started writing this album in February of 2017. I'm trying to write happy songs. I'm a happy person, which is funny because a lot of my songs are pretty sad. I think I get a lot of that shit out and then I'm like, Shit, I have to play all these all the time. I'm excited to get better at all my instruments that I'm working on, write new songs, super grateful that people show up to shows and I get to do it. I would happily be a teacher again, I would be happy to be in someone's band again. I don't feel like I was born to be a front person, it's just what's happening right now and that's cool too. I just love music, and I've done it every day of my damn life since I was like five, so.

One final question, what's your sign?

Cancer sun, Gemini moon, Leo rising. It saves me, because if I didn't have the Leo rising I would definitely be a barista poet. No shame of barista poets, but I need to have the Leo energy to get on stage and do all of the crazy shit that I do. I think that my Leo rising saves me in a lot of ways. What's yours?

I'm on the cusp of Gemini and Cancer. June 21st. It's called the Cusp of Magic.

What?!? I'm on the cusp of magic too!!

It's an interesting balance of cerebral interests and then just hardcore feelings.

My lyrics are like crying put into words.

SASAMI is out now.

photo by Alice Baxley