Band To Watch

Artist To Watch: SASAMI

Sasami Ashworth is determined to make it. In a sense, she already has. She’s scored short films and commercials, taught in an elementary school, and collaborated in the studio with artists like Vagabon, Hand Habits, and Wild Nothing. And for two-and-a-half years she was a member of Cherry Glazerr, playing the synths that leveled out that band’s nervy rock songs. But at the start of last year, she broke away from the group to strike out on her own and make a name for herself. She made an album, written while on tour with Cherry Glazerr and recorded at a hurried pace during the rare downtime in her busy schedule. She wanted to put it out.

The decision to keep making music was easy. For Ashworth, it’s not only a calling — it’s a job. “Either I’m going to be a barista or I’m going to keep touring my ass off,” she tells me over the phone from Los Angeles, laughing before pivoting to the more practical: “Musicians, like everyone else, have to pay for rent and food and health insurance. Maybe some of them can go to a cabin and live there for a year, but I can’t! I have to keep pushing forward.” Ashworth is candid about the day-to-day struggles of working as a musician. She wants to make it clear that it requires a lot of hard work — success doesn’t come out of nowhere, and often that success is fleeting and not all it’s cracked up to be.

Even so, Ashworth has spent the last year touring non-stop as a solo act, and her time as a behind-the-scenes fixture has paid off. She’s opened for Mitski, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Japanese Breakfast, Liz Phair, the Breeders, and Blondie, just to name a few. And she credits her ability to open for marquee artists to a change in the industry: “There is nothing more important or more powerful than women uplifting and supporting each other,” she says. “For years and years and decades and centuries it’s been a male-dominated industry, from the time when Bach and Beethoven were around. Now the world has wised up to the fact that women can create amazing music and it can be sold and you can wield that capitalist power.”

Ashworth is refreshingly upfront about the machinations that took her from a session musician to the latest Domino Records signee, but that business acumen wasn’t always readily apparent. As a kid, she started with piano lessons (“like most Korean kids,” she notes) but took a turn and started to play the less marketable French horn. “Very beautiful sound, terribly awkward case shape for a middle schooler to be lugging around,” she says. She’d hold onto that instrument throughout high school and college, though, where she studied it at conservatory, as she made the transition from classical musician to indie-rock workhorse.

Over the last year, she’s systematically become a known quantity with only a couple of songs to her name. This past spring, right before embarking on a five-week tour with King Tuff, Ashworth released her first-ever single, “Callous,” under the eponymous and emphasized name SASAMI. She followed that up with “Not The Time” a few months later, and in March she’ll put out her self-titled debut. The songs on it are as purposeful and considered as the rollout surrounding them. Just as Ashworth is determined to succeed, that same sense of calculation is present throughout SASAMI.

She recorded it direct to tape, in a studio in LA with Thomas Dolas and her brother JooJoo Ashworth. “The process was inspired by the power of limitations,” she says. “The nice thing about analog is that you’re very empowered by the restrictions. You really have to condense your songs to fewer parts and you can’t record it 20 times. You only have once and then you can choose whether you’re going to play over it or keep it.”

The songs were recorded a handful at a time, soon after they were written. It was a hurried pace, but it felt natural — like after all this time working on other people’s albums, she knew everything she needed to know to make her own. Some friends stopped by to record on the album: Devendra Banhart, Beach Fossils’ Dustin Payseur, Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy, Soko.

In some ways, SASAMI is a musician’s musician record — it’s focused on textures and tones and intricate melodies. Ashworth admits that going into it she was nervous about lyrics because they weren’t her specialty. “I’m not necessarily a word person… I could listen to the same Fleetwood Mac song a hundred times and still get the lyrics wrong,” she says. “But I was going through a prolific poetry period, and once I started writing songs I got really into Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and poems.”

The newest single from the album, “Jealousy,” stems from a poem that Ashworth wrote around that time. It has a sort of poetic resonance to it, reveling in sticking weird words in unconventional places. “Evolution systematic, individuals considered tragic,” she sings in the chorus. “When we break out of our habits, far from choreographic.” Those are punctuated by a feverish refrain: Jealousy, jealousy, jealousy.

“Jealousy” was the second song that Ashworth ever wrote as SASAMI, and it pushes back against the apprehension that arises when someone previously only in the background steps into the spotlight. “I started with this feeling of being excited to do things you’re not supposed to do, or that people don’t want you to do but feel really good,” she explains. In the song, this experience is likened to staring into the sun with your eyes closed — sensing the burning heat against your eyelids, a sensation that Ashworth describes as feeling like “your blood is illuminated by the sun.”

It’s about breaking out of ingrained habits and forging new ground, an apt metaphor for an artist on the proving ground of their debut album. On “Jealousy,” Ashworth sounds cool, calm, and collected in the face of uncertainty and change. It’s a placidity that carries through to SASAMI as a whole, with a clear-headedness that will come in handy to someone trying to make their art into a sustainable way to live.

TRACKLIST:
01 “I Was A Window”
02 “Not The Time”
03 “Morning Comes”
04 “Free”
05 “Pacify My Heart”
06 “At Hollywood”
07 “Jealousy”
08 “Callous”
09 “Adult Contemporary”
10 “Turned Out I Was Everyone”

SASAMI is out 3/8 via Domino. Pre-order it here.