SASAMI: OH, I CAN DO THIS
photography by gari askew
In the blink of an eye, songwriter Sasami Ashworth has become L.A.’s newest hometown hero. Formerly the ‘synth queen’ in homegrown indie stars Cherry Glazerr, this classically-trained French horn-playing collaborator with many is now at the forefront of her very own solo endeavor, the appropriately-titled SASAMI. Written and arranged while on tour, Sasami’s heartfelt and infectiously catchy self-titled debut was released on powerhouse label Domino in March. Just moments before taking off on her European tour, Sasami caught a moment to discuss going solo, recording on the road, and her upcoming children’s album. She performs on Sat., May 18, at Off The 405 at the Getty Center. This interview by Bennett Kogon.
Was it the French horn that started it all?
Sasami: I would say it was probably being from a Korean family and being forced to play piano as a small child. But I think more than anything, I was really inspired by my dad playing the Beatles growing up … and being forced to sing songs around the piano with him. I’ve always been into rock kind of stuff, rather than studying classical music. The music I’m making now is kind of a mix of those two worlds.
But classical music got you here?
Sasami: I got really curious about playing the French horn in middle school, when I went to the summer camp Idyllwild Arts to play in its orchestra. I grew up in El Segundo and knew there was something bigger than the do-good small town of … you know, sports and beach vibes. So I got really obsessed with classical music. I went to LACHSA, this high school for the arts, to study French horn. And then I studied it when I went to Eastman, which is like the music school in New York. I always thought I was gonna be an orchestral horn player. Two years into studying classical music, I was like, ‘Whoa, actually this is not for me.’ Playing in an orchestra is pretty much doing karaoke of old dead white guys’ music every day. You’re just doing the same shit that everyone’s been playing for hundreds of years. And you need to do it perfectly, otherwise you’re a fuckin’ loser. And then a bunch of rich white people come to see you play. That’s classical music. Honestly, it’s thrilling to be an orchestra—a fucking unreal experience. It’s like the ultimate Dolby surround sound. You’re literally enveloped in the vibrations of like, a hundred instruments. It’s pretty crazy. Also–I think the orchestra prepared me for mixing and producing a lot because when you’re in it, you’re really humbled by the arrangement, where you are in tune with the dynamic and the balance of the piece. Even if you have a really hard part and you practiced it a lot, if it’s not supposed to be the main part, you have to play it quietly. You really are a servant to the full orchestration … If it suits the song, then democratically it’s worth being there. I think that only recently I’ve come into the solo performer character. I’ve always had a very collaborative ‘servant to the greater good’ non-egotistical approach to music. And that probably comes from playing in an orchestra.
You’ve played other people’s music and performed with all these different projects over the years—what was it like for you to ‘go solo’?
Sasami: Even like five years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be playing solo. No way! I never had any plans to play music solo. I mean, I just started playing guitar in the last five or ten years. I studied French horn. I didn’t even study singing. I had never even written a song until like, two years ago. ‘Morning Comes’ was the first song that I ever wrote. I wasn’t gunning for a solo career. I just wrote a bunch of songs, and then recorded them. And I was like, ‘Fuck! I’m in a lot of debt. I should sign to a label.’
Well, your songs fuckin’ rip for someone who’s just ‘put it all together.’
Sasami: I knew the songs were good because I didn’t want to record music until I thought I could make something that was good, you know? I think everyone has a different trajectory to making something they feel good about. Some people need to make a bunch of records, all DIY or whatever, until they’ve gotten where they need to be. For me, I just pretty much just gathered all the skills I needed to make a record over like, a decade, by working on other stuff. And I was like, ‘Okay, I think I’m prepared to make my own songs.’
You seem to be from a musical background—I know your brother [Joojoo Ashworth] plays in Froth. Was forming your own project something the people around you encouraged?
Sasami: I recorded my album at the studio where Froth recorded their last couple of records. I felt really comfortable to record my songs there because I was working with my brother and Tomas [Dolas]. I wasn’t really even making a record—I was just putting songs together that I had written while touring with Cherry Glazerr. I just had all these demos I had made and [my brother] was like, ‘You should actually record them.’ And that gave me a lot of confidence to make the whole album.
And he played guitar on the record?
Sasami: He’s been like … my cheat code to guitar playing. I obviously have a ton of musical background, but the French horn is super different from any electric instrument. And he’s such a tone snob, too, so I feel like if I ever use like a ‘basic bitch’ power chord, he’d pretty much belittle me until I had a cooler one. He always bullies me into being better. To be fair, I’ve been telling him he’s a fucking loser his whole life, so it’s cool. That’s what siblings do.
Performing and writing your own music is more personal than adding accompaniment to something. Was that a challenge?
Sasami: It’s like if you’re practicing building something out of wood and all of a sudden, you’ve finally gathered all the skills to make a dresser. ‘Oh, I can do this.’ It gives you the confidence to keep doing it because you’ve proven to yourself that you’re able to make something. I always knew that I would make music—I just didn’t realize that it would be in an album or even songwriting format. So now that I’ve made one album, I probably can make another one. Also, I signed a contract so it’s gotta fuckin’ happen.
So what’s next?
Sasami: I really want to make a kids album. I hope Domino won’t get upset. Kids are really absorbent. It’s crazy how they memorize every single lyric of a song. I was talking to my friend Becky—she had that band Lavender Diamond—and she has a two-year-old. The two-year-old plays her band’s records like … every single day. She’s like obsessed with them. But Becky was like, ‘I think it’s super weird that my daughter memorized all the lyrics to my songs about my sexual partners … and my heartbreak.’ I think kids should have music with the quality of a good record, but with lyrics that are actually enriching and teach them how to be good people. Kids are really imaginative and fun, and I want to make music for a more fun audience.
As an observer, it seems like everything happened really quickly for you. The Domino deal, solo tours, all that. Have you had a moment to catch your breath?
Sasami: No … I was home for like, seventy-two hours and I had four photoshoots. But I don’t really like dead-air time. Before I toured and made music, I was a children’s music teacher. I would teach six or seven forty-five minute classes a day. And that’s like doing six or seven shows a day. Most jobs you have to work so much harder. So it’s such a privilege to make music. To get to do what I feel is like therapy for myself. I have nothing but stoked energy about it all.
It’s remarkable to me that you wrote your record while on tour. That sounds impossible.
Sasami: I’d record basic guitar and vocal parts using voice memos on my phone. And then I would start building the arrangements in GarageBand on my iPad while in the van. All my demos sound so shitty because they are weird MIDI versions of the songs. It’s so bad. Cool bands have like, cool four-track demos. And mine are embarrassing iPad demos that no one will ever hear. I think a lot of people do that, though, especially if you get to the point where you’re touring so much that you’re not partying and you’re sober a lot more. And a lot of touring is so many hours of sitting around.
Your single ‘Free’ features Devendra Banhart—how did you get him involved?
Sasami: I’ve just been a fan of his singing style. I think it’s funny when dude bands are always like, ‘I need female harmonies on this thing.’ So wanted to flip the script and take a kind of successful male singer and make him sing something really simple. It’s kind of a power trip. I’m just joking … he’s a friend and was just down to come in and sing. I had a lot of friends play on the record. I use the voice a lot like an instrument, so I figured I’d have friends come in and sing on it too.
That song seems more vulnerable than the other songs you’ve released so far. Is it about anything in particular?
Sasami: It’s really funny because I feel like on most of my songs, the lyrics are kind of the same—they’re pretty vulnerable and emo. But because they are shoegaze-y fast songs, it’s less obvious. If you did a version of ‘Take Care’ that was the same vibe as ‘Free,’ it would sound just as sappy.
I read that your new record is ‘inspired by everyone you fucked and who fucked you last year.’ Mind touching upon that?
Sasami: That was like an Instagram caption that Pitchfork quoted … and then it became the defining description of the record. That’s the generation that we live in. Does social media dictate art, or does art dictate social media? That’s the new quote for the album.
Your record came out on International Women’s Day. Was that intended or was it the greatest coincidence ever?
Sasami: I had like two dates to choose between and once I realized that, I was like, ‘It’s gonna be that one.’ It was just the fortuitous cosmic intermingling of links. I didn’t choose the date. The date chose me.
I saw on your website that you’re offering a branded reusable metal straw. What a genius idea. What’s next for SASAMI’s mindful merchandise?
Sasami: SASAMI water filters. Maybe that, or SASAMI-brand salami. Like a line of cured meats. I made a t-shirt that says ‘Sasami Salami’ because I want people to feel confident that they’re saying my name correctly. I used to get teased by being called ‘Sasami Salami.’ But when I’m a cured-meat-industry billionaire, who will be laughing then?
SASAMI ON SAT., MAY 18, AT OFF THE 405 AT THE GETTY CENTER, N. SEPULVEDA BLVD. AND GETTY CENTER DR., LOS ANGELES. 6 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. MORE INFORMATION HERE! SASAMI’S SELF-TITLED ALBUM IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM DOMINO. VISIT SASAMI AT SASAMIASHWORTH.COM.