Sasami wanted to appropriate white male music. She landed on the metal.
LOS ANGELES — For most of 2020, Sasami didn’t feel like it was the right time for her to make music.
A year after the singer and producer released it eponymous debut, a collection of indie rock with electro overtones, the Covid-19 pandemic was raging and a racial toll was causing important questions. So she stopped and studied. Sasami’s background is in classical music, but during her isolation she trained in black cultural appropriation, learning subjects like blues and minstrel. “What I take away,” she said in an interview on the patio of her northeast Los Angeles home, “is that I wanted to make white male music my own.”
Specifically, she wanted to tackle metal. “It’s a white cis male space,” she added, while drinking tea at a picnic table on a bright but chilly January afternoon. She wore a thick sweater over her short sailor top. “There’s room for someone like me to come in and make a mess.”
The result is “Squeeze,” an album released on Friday that feels both darkly menacing and overtly heartfelt. Sasami takes on the roles of tormentor and tormented, grappling with a world that can be emotionally overwhelming in many ways. “I wanted it to have this chaotic energy, as opposed to just evil energy,” she said.
“Squeeze” was largely made in the impossibly steep hillside home in the wooded Mt. Washington neighborhood that Sasami shares with fellow musicians Meg Duffy, who records as Hand Habits, and Kyle Thomas, better known for his work as King Tuff. For a year, they collaborated on each other’s recent and upcoming albums, with Sasami producing all three.
Sasami, 31, is pleasant and measured in conversation, but she has a wild flair in her appearance that is even more pronounced on stage. That afternoon, she had affixed three crystal rhinestones above each ridge where there would usually be an eyebrow. A thin red line danced across each of his eyelids and down the sides of his face.
Although his first album tends towards subdued sonorities, his turn towards metal is not as surprising as it seems. While promoting “Sasami”, she continuously fought against preconceptions. “I was on tour with a queer-only women’s band and all the sound guys were like, ‘Turn your amps down,'” she said. “Intrinsically, it just makes me want to play harder.”
The night in February 2020 before Sasami left for a songwriter residency in Hedgebrook, a remote retirement farm off the coast of Washington that hosts non-binary women and writers, Thomas convinced her to go see Barishi, a muscle metal band from her hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont. “I was literally having a spiritual experience,” she said. “I was alone in this downtown dive bar.” Barishi is now playing as his live backing band.
When some of Sasami’s friends heard about his plans to make a metal album, there were concerns. “She writes such lovely music that I was really worried she was going down a strange path and it was just a passing interest for her,” said Michelle Zauner, the songwriter and musician who plays Japanese. Breakfast. “I felt really bad for doubting her, because what she came up with combines this beautiful, timeless quality of her natural writing with something really unique and aggressive.”
This latest progression is another point in Sasami’s unpredictable trajectory. Born Sasami Ashworth, she grew up in the South Bay, California town of El Segundo. She describes her father as “a Caucasian baby boomer” who would burn his CDs filled with acts like Steely Dan, the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. The maternal side of the family are Zainichi, ethnic Koreans who came or were taken to Japan during the colonial occupation. “My mother, like most Korean parents, gave me piano lessons when I was 5,” Sasami said.
In college, she switched to the horn to differentiate herself from all the girls who wanted to play the flute or the clarinet. “I was specifically choosing the French horn for being awkward,” she said. “It was the weirdest instrument you could choose.”
She attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts alongside Lorely Rodriguez members of Haim and Empress Of, where she “listened to nu metal and Elliott Smith and went through all the normal phases of teenage angst while practicing scales every day and auditioning for conservatories,” Sasami says.
After graduating from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, Sasami returned to Los Angeles, where she worked as a music teacher in classrooms and led “Mommy and Me” group sessions. She also began assisting Nate Walcott, a member of the band Bright Eyes who composes for movies and TV shows. She joined post-punk band Cherry Glazerr as a synthesizer and eventually quit her teaching job to tour full-time.
“It was hard to quit, because as a music teacher you know your work is good,” she said. “As a musician, you’re unsure pretty much every other day if it’s really noble work.”
It wasn’t until 2017 that Sasami started writing her own songs, partly to have something to use as practice material to produce music. “Morning Comes” on her debut is the first song she ever wrote. “I wasn’t trying to invent anything new,” she said of her debut album. “It comes from a much more diaristic place.”
With “Squeeze”, she wanted to take a more dynamic approach to better accommodate her self-described “chaotic clown energy”. Yet sometimes even when she pushed her compositions towards her more conflicting tendencies, the arrangements didn’t obey. “The thing about the songs is that they’re like children,” she says. “You can say, ‘I want you to be a hockey player. I want you to be a ballerina. You can enroll them in classes, but if they don’t want to be that, you can’t force them to be that.
Although “Squeeze” may encompass genre signifiers like double kick drum and slap bass, it’s far from a typical metal album. Its spray Daniel Johnston cover “Sorry Host” features an impassioned guitar solo and full-throated screams, but as the music winds down, you can hear Sasami’s coughing fit. Disparate influences pulse throughout the LP, like the boogie glam rock of “Make It Right”, the swirling electronic textures of “Call Me Home” or the power ballad tendencies of “The Greatest” and “Not a Love Song”.
With its loud and proud acoustic guitar, “Tried to Understand” offers one of the most upbeat moments on the album. The original version featured instrumentation by fuzz enthusiasts Ty Segall, who co-produced several “Squeeze” songs, and Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis. “I did my best to make it a heavy rock song, but the song was like, make me a Sheryl Crow pop song,” Sasami said.
She compared “Squeeze” to a haunted house where every room is different, or a corn maze where you don’t know where the next turn will take you, and traced that impulse back to her time in education. “It’s a music teacher’s job, to always keep the kids surprised in a place of fantasy and fantasy,” she said. “I really felt like a fairy with a recorder and a guitar.”