SASAMI Is a New Artist, But You’ve Heard Her Before

Although her self-titled record is her solo debut, she’s contributed to the works of countless others—and her prowess is apparent.
SASAMI Is a New Artist, But You’ve Heard Her Before

Although her self-titled record is her solo debut, she’s contributed to the works of countless others—and her prowess is apparent.

Words: Max Freedman

photo by Riley Blakeway

March 01, 2019

For an artist on the verge of releasing her debut album, SASAMI’s résumé is seriously stacked. She’s provided arrangements for Curtis Harding, Wild Nothing, and Vagabon, and assisted Nate Walcott on arrangements for Mavis Staples, Jenny Lewis, and First Aid Kit. She played synth in Cherry Glazerr for nearly three years. She’s scored films and commercials. Her brother is JooJoo Ashworth, guitarist in the beloved shoegaze band Froth. She’s opened shows for Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and Mitski (with whom, in the ultimate flex, she and longtime best friend Empress Of spent Christmas on the beach). If anyone’s qualified to make one of the best debut rock albums of the past few years, it’s her.

And that she did. SASAMI, out March 8 via Domino, recounts the demise of romantic and platonic relationships in plain, candid language onto which listeners can easily project their own experiences. Across the album’s ten earworms, Sasami Ashworth advances a quiet, bitter, gripping sound built on taut, sparse, dizzyingly arranged guitar work and whisper-like, slightly nasal singing. Her combination of intense relatability and softly growling hooks makes SASAMI incessantly replayable.

Ashworth credits her boldness to her work with the many big names she’s assisted, but there’s more to her story. When she returned to her longtime home of LA after graduating from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, she began teaching music to young kids. She believes this experience gave her the confidence needed for playing live shows, night after night, without losing motivation.

Between her morning and afternoon teaching gigs, Ashworth went to the beach to “sit on a rock, smoke cigarettes, and write [poems].” The poems that she wrote became the basis for her first two songs, “Morning Comes” and “Jealousy,” which both appear on SASAMI. The former song is among the album’s strongest, and along with “Callous” (her debut single) and “Pacify My Heart” (the album’s angriest and arguably best track), it contains a breathtaking lyrical first half and equally gripping instrumental back half. “Sometimes I wish I never met you,” Ashworth intones at the latter song’s beginning, before explaining why: “I don’t have enough / When you quantify my love / you may find it’s not enough.” And then, she finds peace: “But that’s okay with me / Another day, I’ll see it through.”

“I went on tour and I fucked a bunch of people, so I made an album about it!”

“The lyrics and songwriting were very stream of consciousness,” Ashworth says of SASAMI, “but the actual crafting of it was intelligent. I usually feel a lot more emotional when I hear the instrumental parts.” She cites the back half of “Pacify My Heart” as “really emotionally charged,” and about ten hours after our conversation, when she plays this section solo during a private showcase, its vigor and catharsis are overpowering.

On stage, Ashworth’s banter is hilarious. “Oh boy! What a weird life I live,” she says between songs as she reflects on the path she’s taken from studio musician to Domino-signed solo artist. In conversation earlier that morning, she proves just as full of jokes; she summarizes SASAMI’s narrative as, “I went on tour and I fucked a bunch of people, so I made an album about it!” Her life experience proved as important to SASAMI’s genesis as her extensive musical experience, and her fascinating background empowers the album with far more poignancy than the average debut packs.

You played horn and helped with arrangements on records for some big-name artists.. How did those skills contribute to your confidence in your own songwriting?

When I first graduated from music school, I was assisting Nate Walcott, who’s in Bright Eyes, on pretty big record arrangements. He [scored] The Fault in Our Stars, and he does string arrangements for Mavis Staples, Jenny Lewis, and First Aid Kit.

I got really bilingual between the classical, written music world and the rock, folk, and soul world. I would get a demo from Conor Oberst that was him singing with a guitar and a synth part, and I would have to extract the synth part and write it as violin and cello. I was starting to understand how to marry those two worlds, so my introduction to rock music was from a compositional standpoint.

I began to understand music from a really theoretical point, which definitely was not good. It took me a long time to start writing because…it was hard for me to not think of it analytically.

“A lot of people cry during my sets…   it always surprises me, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!’”

How did you get past that?

I became obsessed with post-punk and got really into Wire, The Pop Group, and My Bloody Valentine. I was trying to listen to less straightforward music so that I could get more into tones.

Do you think any of your arranging work gave you confidence lyrically?

No. Before I started writing the album, I got really into writing poetry. I was reading a lot of David Sedaris, and I was really into his super direct prose. I didn’t labor over [my lyrics] in the way that I labored over the instrumental parts. When people connect to them, it makes me really relieved.

A lot of people cry during my sets. [Laughs.] I’m a pretty happy person because I feel like I process a lot of my emotions through songwriting, so it always surprises me, like, “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!”

How did teaching music and leading young children in performance contribute to your ability to write songs?

I don’t know how much it contributed to the songwriting, but…teaching music was fucking boot camp for performing live. Kids are merciless, and you have to expel a lot of energy to keep their attention, but they’re also the most playful, imaginative, creative people. Kids are fucking hilarious. When I was teaching, I had to work off the cuff, improvise, and use my sense of humor a lot.  

There must be some of that energy on my record, where I was down to get a little weird or creative. I use a lot of feedback and dissonance, whereas when I first finished music school, I was not into noisy music at all.

How has going to shows with your brother JooJoo and seeing him play guitar affected your songwriting?

When I first started playing guitar, I would play the normal, barred power chords that everyone plays, and he would be like, “That’s stupid!” He’s so much cooler than I am. If I do anything basic, he’s like, “That’s fucking embarrassing.” He was always challenging me to do some pretentious shit that pushed me to figure out more interesting things, which I appreciate, because I have a deep fear of being a basic bitch, as everyone else does! I would say he mocked me into excellence. It’s a very sibling thing to do. FL