SASAMI on “Squeeze” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Photo by Kyle Thomas

SASAMI on “Squeeze”

Reality was Gnarly. Fantasy was Gnarlier.

Feb 25, 2022 Photography by Kyle Thomas and Angela Ricciardi Web Exclusive
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SASAMI almost stayed home. It was February 1, 2020, and the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and producer (full name Sasami Ashworth) was debating whether to catch a show at the now-shuttered Five Star Bar, in downtown LA, with her friend and collaborator Kyle Thomas. The band performing that night was Barishi, a Brattleboro, Vermont trio that describes their music as “death metal,” “progressive metal,” “sludge metal,” “stoner metal,” and—possibly my favorite Bandcamp tag ever—“old man gloom.” At the time, Barishi was touring around the release of their forthcoming album Old Smoke. Thomas had invited Ashworth to see them, but she was on the fence. Ashworth was still touring in support of her debut album, 2019’s self-titled, and she was also preparing to go on a writing retreat in Washington state.

What happened next should sound familiar to anybody who’s ever been dragged to a hardcore show about which they were on the fence: “I ended up going and I literally had such an emotional amazing experience watching the band and was just moshing by myself,” Ashworth recently told me over the phone. Barishi’s performance, she explained, “was really chunky and aggressive and dark and had final boss energy and I got really into it.” So into it, in fact, that she started incorporating elements of Barishi’s sound into her next demos, which she crafted at the aforementioned writing retreat. Picture this: Ashworth, sitting alone in a cabin, tinkering on her iPad, trying to tap into the emotional and sonic landscapes associated with sludge metal (or old man gloom).

All of this would factor into the making of SASAMI’s sophomore record, Squeeze, out today via Domino, but even before the Barishi show and the writing retreat, Ashworth had been searching for a heavier, headier palette—one that matched her increasingly fiery performance style. On Squeeze, metal is SASAMI’s vehicle, but anger is her fuel. “I basically decided to go deeper into the side of fantasy and specifically negative fantasy—spinning out and feeling rage and frustration,” says Ashworth.

Squeeze isn’t all rage all the time, though. Ashworth gleefully describes it as a chaotic album, and the album’s 11 tracks show different sides of the musician and producer: there’s the blistering nu-metal SASAMI (“Skin a Rat,” “Sorry Entertainer”), the soaring indie rock SASAMI (“The Greatest”), the clear-eyed psych-folk SASAMI (“Tried to Understand”), the swirling dream pop SASAMI (“Call Me Home”), and the nervy industrial SASAMI (“Say It,” “Need It To Work”). Ashworth’s honeyed vocals in the hypnotic “Make It Right” suggest heartbreak (“What’s there to say/When there’s nothing left to say?”), but she insists that these songs are not autobiographical. Finally, the album’s closing numbers—”Feminine Water Turmoil” and “Not a Love Song”—show SASAMI working in a more tranquil, existential mode. Maybe this is what Ashworth means when she calls her music chaotic: her songs are equally capable of ferocity and transcendence.

Ashworth spoke to Under the Radar from her studio in Mount Washington about how her performance style has evolved along with her sound, how her Japanese and Korean heritage inspired the visuals for Squeeze, and why unrequited love is one of the record’s persistent themes.

Photo by Angela Ricciardi
Photo by Angela Ricciardi

Matt Wallock (Under the Radar): It’s been a busy few weeks for you.

SASAMI: Yeah, I’m just making one last music video and finalizing all the visual elements and stuff that’s gonna come out with the album and waiting to see what’s going on with COVID about touring. So [I’m] in the same fucking chaotic pandemic whirlwind that everyone’s been in for the last two years.

Around the release of your last album, you told an interviewer that “to get to do what I feel is like therapy for myself.” How’d the making of your second record compare to the making of your first? Did it also feel like therapy?

It was a completely different experience. The first album was much more me processing my emotional experiences through writing songs, and then using the studio as a place to test out certain production ideas that I had built up over the years of being in other peoples’ bands and working on other peoples’ albums in different capacities. Whereas this album was a lot more writing a film script and making a movie or something, where it’s way less autobiographical, it’s way more [about] trying to create an emotional experience for the listener. It was intentional and experimental in a very different way.

Can you say more about that emotional experience you wanted to create?

I feel like anyone who’s making a body of work during a global pandemic and a time of quarantine—everything that is being made is being made from a memory of an experience or a memory of an emotional experience as opposed to an actual experience…. When all of this was going down, I was deciding whether I wanted to tap into the reality of how gnarly everything was or if I wanted to go into a place of fantasy. And I basically decided to go deeper into the side of fantasy and specifically negative fantasy—spinning out and feeling rage and frustration. Instead of skipping to the process of healing, going deeper into the process of processing and fully feeling the emotional landscape of frustration and anger and abandonment and loneliness.

I had a couple years of touring the self-titled [album] and even though the songs were pretty mellow, the live set was just getting heavier and heavier. So I knew that I wanted to make a heavy rock album. I think it was probably February, 2020, [and] I was going to Hedgebrook, which is this songwriter retreat on the coast of Washington. It’s in the middle of a forest in a cabin for 10 days. I was getting ready to go up there and the night before I left, Kyle Thomas, who engineered and worked on my album a lot, invited me to go see this metal band from his hometown called Barishi and I was kind of ambivalent. I was getting ready to go out of town, and getting ready to go to this tranquil, pastoral songwriting retreat, and he was like, “Do you wanna go to Five Star Bar?” which is this dive-y bar in downtown LA, so anyways I ended up going and I literally had such an emotional amazing experience watching the band and was just moshing by myself and really connected to the sound of double-kick and drop-B or drop-E guitar and bass. It was really chunky and aggressive and dark and had final boss energy and I got really into it. So then when I went to the woods to do the songwriting retreat I actually ended up using my iPad to make all these metal instrumentals even though I was in this beautiful little cabin in the woods. I wrote “Need It To Work” and some other songs [there]. I knew early on that I wanted to have this metal sonic palette as a part of the album.

Did the lyrics come when you started to envision that sound, or did the lyrics come later?

That was one part that was a huge departure from the process of making the first album, too. I led with my emotions as opposed to any sort of lyrics or verbal storytelling. I really started from making these instrumentals that connected to the emotions I wanted to convey, and then kind of built the lyrical content from there. Whereas on my first album it all just came at the same time.

There’s a line in “The Greatest” where you sing, “Burn it slow/Let me drink the smoke,” and the music video plays into that fiery imagery. Do you see yourself burning something down on this song, or on this album?

I was really inspired by so many different kinds of music on this album, and one of them was ’80s love ballads like Heart or Bonnie Tyler, like “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and I knew that I wanted to make this extremely dramatic, almost ballad-y rock song, but in the spirit of anti-toxic positivity, or trying to stay in this dark fantasy place. I knew that I wanted to write a song that was about how sometimes our deepest feelings or our most extreme versions of love appear when they are unreciprocated. I definitely feel like that song is tied in with the feeling of dark fantasy on the album, as opposed to a cheerier version of love. More of an unrequited love.

The track sequencing feels very intentional. Can you talk a little bit about that process?

For me, I kind of have two very distinct, compartmentalized identities: one that’s the songwriter and one that’s the producer. And in producing the album I definitely let the songs guide where they wanted to go, and that ended up in an album where the songs have really disparate sonic landscapes and go from nu-metal to folk-pop to synth-pop to classical and all over the place. It was definitely an important task to find a cohesive thread to tie those all together. And I think part of [that process] was also just leaning into the fact that this album is more like a corn maze or a haunted house where every turn is unexpected as opposed to an LP that’s like a 40-minute meditation on the same energy. Part of [the process] was leaning into the chaos. I really wanted to make a chaotic album. That was very intentional.

I’m curious about one transition towards the end, between “Feminine Water Turmoil” and “Not a Love Song.” What are those songs about?

I feel like so much of the album dips into these very human themes of desperation and systemic oppression and longing and unrequited love—things that are very explicitly human. The one thing that ties [back] to my first album is that I wanted it to end on a bit more of a mediative, existential note. And to me, “Not a Love Song” is all about humans’ relationship…to nature, so it made sense to me to use this instrumental track that doesn’t even have human language on it—I mean, music obviously is a human language, but it’s also a language that I think ties us into other aspects of nature. There’s so much instrumental music in nature, like birdsongs and the percussive sounds of wind in trees. I just wanted to have a bridge from the human to nature that was less about human vocabulary and more about emotional vocabulary. To me, “Feminine Water Turmoil” is kind of this liquid piece that helps us transform above these human themes into a more broad existential theme.

Have you played “Feminine Water Turmoil” live much?

I haven’t yet. I’m still trying to figure out the appropriate place to hire some strings to make that happen.

I was curious what a live arrangement might look like relative to your otherwise metal set.

We shall see. I am pretty much always operating on the vision of a three-million-dollar budget version of whatever I’m doing, and then I boil it down into a more realistic indie budget. So we’ll see how it materializes.

How did the album art come about? What was the vision for that?

In drawing a lot of inspiration from the metal world, there is this tradition of fantasy imagery that ties into the metal sonic landscape. So it’s a bit of a nod to that but with my own nod to my own heritage and personal reckoning…with Japanese and Korean historical relationships to each other. So it has this very Japanese folk tale visual inspiration but then the calligraphy is in Korean, which is like my own personal Korean ethnic reclamation, with my mom drawing the calligraphy on the cover. But also my uncle, who passed away recently, he lived in Japan and he was an anime artist and director and producer. So it also is a nod to my own familial visual art heritage.

Andrew Thomas Huang, who did the 3D imaging of the snake body and the photography and everything, is an amazing artist. He’s worked with FKA twigs, he did the “cellophane” video, he’s been working with Björk for years, he’s worked with Perfume Genius, tons of artists that I really respect. He’s someone that I got to know during the pandemic and we [bonded over] our families’ ancestral folk tale connection. He has a lot of work that’s inspired by Chinese deities and gods and spiritual characters. Early on he was down to help me build this avatar for the album. Like I said, because the album is really not autobiographical, I wanted the album art to also have an element of fantasy to it. It was amazing to collaborate with him to create this avatar for the cover.

You have a headlining tour coming up, and you’re also slated to support some other tours this spring. What makes a good live set for your current incarnation of your project?

It’s all kind of full-circle, because Barishi—the band that I saw that kickstarted some of the metal elements of the album—they’re also my backing band for the tour. I’ve already done one tour opening up with Japanese Breakfast so we were able to test out some of the songs and how the songs are going to be realized live. It’s so amazing to be able to play with them. Having a metal band at your disposal is just like having the most dramatic stage production value. And it gives me a lot of sonic space to be extremely theatrical and chaotic and have a lot of fun with the performance.

Do you think your performance style has become more theatrical through that process?

I definitely feel like I’m pushing myself a lot as a performer. I also feel like I had this theatrical, extreme element to my performance for a long time, but the music kind of never matched it. So it’s nice to have made an album where people aren’t too shocked when I’m screaming. I used to scream a lot even on my last album cycle and it really confused people. So I feel like it’s a natural progression.

The music has leveled up?

Yes, it’s met me at my chaotic energy.

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