- Alice Baxley
- “I felt like I didn’t really have anything interesting to offer.”
During her 2½ years as the self-described synth queen of the L.A. band Cherry Glazerr, Sasami Ashworth came across as a somewhat reserved figure. In interviews, she’d defer questions to frontwoman Clementine Creevy, while onstage and in the studio the more “composed” quality of her keyboard parts helped balance out the band’s raucous arrangements.
So it came as some surprise when the young artist stepped into the spotlight earlier this year with her debut solo album SASAMI. Released in March on Domino Records, it’s a stunning collection of songs with beguiling melodies and hushed arrangements that bring to mind artists like Nico, Nick Drake and Young Marble Giants.
In the following interview, Ashworth talks about growing up as a nerdy Asian classical musician, learning to write songs on electric guitar, and giving herself permission to embrace imperfection.
How different is the experience of fronting your own band versus touring with Cherry Glazerr?
Well, with Cherry Glazerr, every show was like running a marathon; you’re drenched with sweat by the end of the set. And Clem had this energy, playing guitar, that was like watching someone perform an exorcism. So yeah, those were exciting performances, and there was a lot of improvisation and a lot of people making chaos. Whereas with my shows, while I like those elements too, I tend to perform the arrangements the way I wrote them. Also, you have a different kind of vulnerability when you’re up there with your own band.
Are there any songs on the album that, when you’re playing them live, you think to yourself, “Well, maybe this one was a little too personal?”
I don’t think so. Because when I’m singing the really heavy part of a song, I’m more tapping into whatever heavy emotions I’m going through while I’m singing it now, rather than what I was thinking about when I wrote it.
Do you experience these heavy emotions often?
Yeah, I’m a cancer sign, so I’m pretty connected with my emotions and vulnerability. And I think that, being behind an electric guitar, it’s a safe place to do that. Because I can just make noise whenever I need to feel my power again. [Laughs.]
I understand you wrote and demo’d this album while you were out on the road with Cherry Glazerr. How did you find time to do that between driving all night, sleeping in vans, eating horrible food and getting car sick?
Well, I think it’s different for everyone. When I was making this album, I had already become like a seasoned tour dog, so it was just kind of normal life for me. And since I was touring most of the year, I accepted the fact that, whatever I felt called to do, I had to do it on tour. So I’d bring along a guitar and write any chance that I got, whether it was in a hotel lobby or in the green room while people were out getting food. And I worked out arrangements on my iPad in the van during long drives.
When you were out on the road doing all this, did you already have the deal with Domino Records? Or did that come later?
No, when I was making the album, I had no intention of scoring a deal or anything like that. I was just making it because I had to.
Well, you didn’t have to.
Well, I mean, I just kind of needed to do it, like, as a human. [Laughs.] And so pretty much every time we were home in L.A., I would jump into the studio and start recording stuff. I was staying on friends’ couches, so I could pay for studio time instead of having to pay rent. I just got obsessed with it.
Domino also reissued Young Marble Giants’ first album Colossal Youth, and your vocals and guitar tracks on songs like “Free” [a duet with Devendra Banhart] really remind me of them. Is that a band that means something to you?
Definitely, I love that band! And I love how much they were able to achieve with just drum machines, and guitar, and bass, and like some weird synth. And I was definitely trying to write songs that could work on the most rudimentary level, like with just a bass and a vocal, or a guitar and a vocal. I wanted the songs to stand on their own.
I heard your band’s version of Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” on SoundCloud yesterday, and it inspired me to break out some early albums by [Wilson’s co-writer and arranger] Van Dyke Parks. Do you have any favorite arrangers of your own?
Yeah, it’s actually funny that you mentioned Van Dyke. My background was in playing French horn. And I’ve been having this really shameful experience where Van Dyke Parks is calling me and texting me to play French horn on his sessions, but I keep being out of town on tour. And it’s so painful to say no to Van Dyke Parks for anything. So I’m just hoping that the timing will line up for us sometime soon.
Well, they do have airplanes for that.
Yeah, that’s true. But with the French horn, it’s not just being available, you also have to be in shape. You have to be practicing your scales, and doing long tones, and making sure that your endurance is up. Because I wouldn’t jump into something like that without being prepared for it.
Are you sure you’re not letting the perfectionist elements of your personality stand in the way of opportunity?
Honestly, I think that this record is me letting go and allowing myself to make something that I think is sub-par. [Laughs.] I mean, I’m proud of the record, but I definitely think that, when I was making it, I was making a lot of compromises and kind of allowing myself to be an imperfect human. Just learning new instruments, like guitar was fairly new to me when I made this album. And I used a lot of feedback, because I thought it was cool and exciting and new. You know, I’m not inventing the wheel using guitar feedback in a song, but for me it was new and exciting. I kind of thought of this album as a guitar étude, you know? I wrote parts that were hard for me when I made the album, and I wanted to get better at guitar. And I think I have gotten better. So who knows? Maybe my next one will be a French horn album, and I’ll have to get my shit together for it.
In the interviews I’ve read, you don’t talk much about your youth. What were you like growing up?
I was just kind of a nerdy Asian classical musician. I don’t feel like I was a very confident child, although I was very friendly and happy and playful. But it took me a long time to come into my own confidence and my own power. I feel like I was always really interested in absorbing other people’s energy, because I felt like I didn’t really have anything interesting to offer. So in classical music, you get to enact these emotional, musical expressions that someone else has kind of written for you like a script. And I think that it’s fun to be writing songs now, because I’m no longer just reading someone’s script. It’s like I’m writing my own script now.