For years, Sasami Ashworth operated in the shadow of others. She has made soundtracks for films and commercials, worked as a music teacher at a Los Angeles school and co-wrote albums by Curtis Harding, Wild Nothing and Hand Habits. Two years ago, she was on tour with Cherry Glazerr as a band member when she embarked on the solo debut that now leaves her on her own two feet.
Written by: Dirk Baart
It has been nearly ten years since Sasami Ashworth graduated from the Eastman School of Music, a conservatory in Rochester, New York. She hasn’t exactly received an unemployment insurance form along with her diploma, but realizes that the high paying jobs for musicians are simply not up for grabs. In the years that follow, Ashworth gathers all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet. Not reluctantly, though: Ashworth actually allows herself to look at the composition process from just about all sides. She is involved in films such as My Good Man's Gone, Holy Hell and Light Therapy, where she effortlessly uses her music in the service of images. As an instrumentalist and arranger, she contributes to albums by musician friends. And when those bands go on tour, Sasami goes with them. At least, if she doesn't have to teach music in LA.
In 2016, Ashworth is on tour with Cherry Glazerr, the California garage rock band she joined as an official member a year earlier. During seemingly endless days on a bus on seemingly endless highways, she begins to write songs. Just out of boredom, mostly. “Life on the road naturally has something romantic on the one hand,” she says, on tour in Germany. The telephone connection makes her voice even more shrill than it already is. “But it can also be very boring and monotonous. Actually, there are two ways to make it fun: partying and fucking.”
SASAMI, the debut album that ultimately emerged from Ashworth's writing sessions in the backseat, is especially about the latter – and the lack of it. On 'Not The Time' she sings about the relationship that ended just before she left on the tour in question: 'This is not the time or place for us, even though we tried to make it work.' The separation turns out to be exactly what Ashworth needs. Not only does she finally dare to put herself first, she also has more than enough to write about. “That was good, because normally I'm not that good with words,” she explains. “Fortunately, just before I started working on the album, I suddenly fell under the spell of poetry, of poems by Leonard Cohen for example.” As she collects her tunes on an iPad on the tour bus, she fills page after page in her notebook with phrases. On both 'Morning Comes' and 'Jealousy' the sun creeps in from the other side of the window through her eyelids: 'They say if you stare directly into the sunlight it can cause blindness / but if you shut your eyes and let it in / unrelenting heat, it seeps through your lids and soaks so deep / allow yourself to be flooded by the warmth.'
Ashworth specializes in stream of consciousness writing on SASAMI. In several songs she repeats the same word over and over, as if she couldn't figure out what sentence should be next and eventually decided that one sentence would do. “They became mantras, poetic formulas. It also felt a bit like I was writing a blues song, when of course I don't use any blues chords at all. In that kind of music you often hear how a certain phrase can change meaning if there are other chords underneath it.”
Taking the plunge
Ashworth wrote her lyrics as letters she never posted, drafts for text messages she never sent. Who is at the receiving end? “Everyone I fucked and who fucked me last year.” The album is a way to vent her heart, to say things she never dared to say. Still, there was one thing Ashworth was a little hesitant about: for a long time, she didn’t tell her bandmates that she was quitting Cherry Glazerr. In January 2018, Ashworth finally took the plunge. “That was quite difficult, because I've been a supportive force pretty much my entire musical life. I'm used to that position." In addition, Ashworth only dared to choose for herself when she was sure that she could meet her own standards. “I am an all-or-nothing person. I'd rather invest in one good album that I record on tape in a good studio than make ten albums in a row that aren't as good as I would have liked."
Fortunately, Ashworth has made friends over the years to lend her a hand. She has played with Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy, and befriended Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, like Ashworth musicians of Asian-American descent who are claiming their place in the largely white and male indie music industry. “I'm lucky enough to be part of a group of talented female musicians who support each other and encourage others to stand up for themselves. It feels like it's getting easier than it was before, we just need to remind ourselves often enough."
Her collaborations with other musicians are a way for Ashworth to distance herself from seeing her music as just work. She largely made SASAMI with her brother JooJoo, guitarist of shoegaze band Froth. “The transformation from the demos I did on tour into a full-length album went pretty smoothly,” she recalls. “The album was actually already finished, we just had to make better sounding versions of my ideas.” For this she enlisted the help of Devendra Banhart, Stéphanie Sokolinski alias Soko, Dustin Payseur of Beach Fossils, and Hand Habits' Meg Duffy. “My band is constantly changing and I write all my music on my own, so I have to ask my friends to play certain parts in the studio.” The drums on 'Adult Contemporary', for instance, were played by Sheridian Riley, who toured with Alvvays, among others. She is mentioned in the lyrics of the song. “I was kind of freely associating while I was singing and suddenly said her name out loud. It fit so nicely into the rhythm that we finally left it in.”
“I am lucky to be part of a group of talented female musicians who make sure that the other dares to stand up for themselves”
Those moments of spontaneity are important to Ashworth. They remind us of the pleasantly disturbed child who is still somewhere deep inside. Of the child who was so stubborn at school that she exchanged the piano for the French horn. The moments when Ashworth is in front of the class also play an important role here. “I have a very specific form of teaching that is based on playing and improvising. That has inspired me enormously as a musician. I don’t only see music as my job anymore, but I am also able to approach it in a less serious and more honest way.”
SASAMI is out March 8 through Domino Records. On March 5, Sasami will play in Paradiso Noord, Amsterdam.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.