The first time I listen to SASAMI, the debut album of Sasami Ashworth, I’m crossing the Bay Bridge which links San Francisco and Oakland. It’s a quiet ride on a bus, and I lay my head against the window, watching birds wheel through the sky and onto the water of the glassy bay.
It was perhaps the perfect way to listen to the album, which while threaded through with pockets of hush, carries a restless undercurrent that simmers beneath the surface. Ashworth wrote much of the album while touring as a member of the band Cherry Glazerr. (In fact, it was while I was watching Cherry Glazerr at the label love fest Burger-A-Go-Go in 2015 that I first encountered Ashworth.) This is worth mentioning because while that band’s sound has only gotten bigger and sturdier in sound and structure, SASAMI floats, lifting up and down in rippling movement. Yet the most turbulent moments, in songs like “Not The Time” and the rolling outro of “Morning Comes,” never come as a shock. Instead, like a frog resting in slowly heating water, the listener often doesn’t realize that they’ve been trapped in something deeper, darker, and more emotionally devastating until the song’s winding down.
Ashworth is a classically-trained musician (her French horn makes an appearance in the music video for “Not The Time”), and she’s moved through orchestral and rock genres, teaching and performing spaces, with the confidence of someone who knows she’s good at what she does. The songs on SASAMI came both off the cuff and of course from the substantial well of her experience. In interviews ahead of the album’s release, she compared the songs, which brim with intense but subdued emotion, to unsent love letters (like the kind at the center of romcom sensation To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), jotted down in the moments between her then-job. Now she’s turning those missives into spectacles, no longer just snapshots of her life but now tethers for listeners who are drawn to, in part, the obvious intimacy that permeates every track.
Though my original phone interview with Ashworth is lost in the digital ether, her sharp sense of confident humor comes through even over email, the driest of communication mediums. On the matter of translating these songs into live performance, she offers, “I grew up playing in an orchestra, so a performance would literally be comprised of one clarinetist playing a solo melody one second and then 100 musicians hitting a down-beat in unison the next. I guess my expectations for arrangement and musical dynamics are pretty high…”
On her own, Ashworth can create desired “shifts in dynamics, textures, colors, and tones,” but to level up the songs into something “lush as hell,” she’s focusing her translation on “a dynamic and tonal experience relative to the shape of the album songs” rather than rote replication. While songs like closer “Turned Out I Was Everyone,” which sounds the way a hollow laugh feels, will have to go off tape tracks until she’s got the resources to build it out the way she envisions, other songs will be able to build in grander swells and surges that are, superficially at least, far removed from their diary-esque origins.
If it sounds like Ashworth has a meticulous vision for every aspect of her art, well, yeah. She’s been in the music world long enough to not only have an idea of the many facets of being a modern musical artist that have nothing to do with the music, but also conceptualize her takes on each of those facets. But while this could potentially mean a ceding of control, Ashworth muses, “I just have to do more bullshit boss-bitch stuff. If you are a musician/band in 2019, you are also a CEO of your company I suppose. There are endless compromises, deals, decisions you have to make and I don’t really relish in having to make those calls. But ya know… it ain’t easy being king! I am like 40% king 60% jester though.”
This playfulness comes through in her music videos. “Jealousy” in particular mines retro horror pastiche for an almost fairy tale villain POV. (In the statement she released at the time, Ashworth references the classic chocolate cake scene from the beloved film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.) “Not The Time” has her flitting around a sun-soaked Los Angeles with the aforementioned French horn. These visual elements seemed to me as bewildering reworkings of the songs themselves, but as separate extensions of Ashworth’s sensibilities, they’re perfect: A little strange, a little startling, and playful in a way that doesn’t take away from the very vulnerable heart of her art.
As she hits the road, center stage in a way she hadn’t been before, Ashworth reflects on how her songwriting process may change, sharing, “I still feel drawn to write while I am on tour. I also haven’t even had much time to write since preparing the album — there are soon many musical and non-musical things to do like make music videos, album art, photos, other collaborative exploits…” And then the stinger: “I am not one to rush songwriting. Just happens when it does. Like a burp or fart.”
It’s easy to picture Ashworth chuckling as she fires off a line like that, in the same way that you can imagine the kind of tense emotion involved in writing and delivering a line like, “And you don’t know what it means to be free.” In our now-lost phone conversation, she’d pivot effortlessly between total seriousness about her craft and playful reminders that none of this is really new to her. Ashworth kept returning to cooking imagery, so, well, what’s the apt cooking simile for finally putting her own solo project out into the world?
“I guess it’s like a finally cooked a huge feast for myself after amassing loads of recipes/tasting different foods/figuring out what I like to eat and I have finished cooking and baking it all. I put it on a long table with a red velvet table cloth and big ass rich-people candles and I would have been totally happy to just eat it with my close friends and family or even myself, but there is plenty to eat, so actually I am glad to share it with anyone else who wants to have a seat for 40 minutes. I just hope they put a little tip in the jar on the way out.”