Sasami embraces ugliness, beauty on cathartic, hard-hitting ‘Squeeze’

The Los Angeles musician visits Rumba Cafe for a concert on Thursday, March 31

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive

For much of the summer and fall of 2020, Sasami Ashworth, who records and performs under the name Sasami, refrained from writing music. Instead, she spent her time “engrossed in being a citizen of America,” she explained by phone in late March from her home in Los Angeles, pausing during the lockdown to educate herself further on issues of systemic racism, white privilege, the roots of inequality and other issues that somehow felt even more consequential amid a resurgent Black lives matter movement.

“It definitely took a while for it to feel appropriate to focus on myself and my art practice,” said Sasami, who used some of the downtime to read essays on subjects such as the history of minstrelsy, in addition to engaging in deep conversations with community leaders. “It was a time much more for listening and being empathetic as opposed to creating. But I think that’s part of being an artist. … Being a human and being tapped into your community and society and the world, it’s all part of the art you’re going to make. So, even though I wasn’t making art, it’s definitely a part of the album.”

That album, Squeeze, released on Domino Records in early March, finds the musician wading into these accumulated traumas on songs that alternately thrash and shred (opener “Skin a Rat,” every bit as barbaric as its title) and traipse through sun-kissed fields (the country-pop-indebted “Tried to Understand,” a track whose sunny veneer can’t quite obscure the menace at its core).

“Being locked down made a feedback loop for any emotional experience anyone was having, so I decided to lean into that spiraling sensation and tap into a fantasy place where I could let my negative fantasies play out as opposed to quelling them immediately,” said the musician, who visits Rumba Cafe for a concert on Thursday, March 31. “If you have a lot of places to go, stuff to do, you can’t really allow yourself to get too negative. But because we did have all of this time and space, I did go down the rabbit hole of negativity and violence and anger and frustration in a way that might have been more debilitating if I actually had shit to do.”

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Though Squeeze projects a sense of catharsis and emotional bloodletting, aided by the contributions of the heavy hitting sludge metal band Barishi, which plays on the record and will also back Sasami on tour, the album’s 32 minutes are meticulously crafted. 

“It’s kind of like when you’re on a movie set and building a movie, where every scene takes so long, and even though it’s only five seconds in the finished movie, it can take hours or days to film those five seconds because you have to go to the location, you have to bring all the gear there, you have to bring all of the cast in there and then wardrobe and makeup, and then you have to get the lighting right and everything has to be set on union hours,” said Sasami, who honed her production skills during quarantine by producing new albums from Hand Habits and King Tuffy.

“There are all of these elements so that when the time comes, the viewer can be completely immersed in the cinematic experience that is stimulated by these five seconds, but there’s so much that goes into it. And it’s kind of the same thing with an album. My album is only 32 minutes, but it was a year of banal tinkering of outboard gear and coordinating people getting PCR tests [for COVID-19] and then coming to the studio and fixing broken cables. … The behind-the-scenes experience is much more that of a construction worker rather than someone who’s throwing a party in a house.”

On her debut album, SASAMI, from 2019, the musician sculpted comparatively dreamy tracks born of personal catharsis. “I definitely wrote at times when I felt fraught and emotionally vulnerable and frustrated,” Sasami said in a 2019 interview with Alive. “I was also writing … in a way that helped me process whatever I was going through.”

With Squeeze, the musician takes a more ambiguous, outwardly directed stance, purposefully constructing a world in which listeners can immerse themselves, soaking in the negative vibes as a means of experiencing catharsis.

“Where my first album was me making a self-portrait or an autobiography, this one was much more like building a rollercoaster ride for other people to go on, building a sonic landscape for other people to experience,” Sasami said. “I think every album is going to have a different motivation and different intention. There are so many things that intersect in terms of why you make art, and everyone makes art for different reasons. … The only thing you can really do is commit to what your ambition is, and I don’t know what that will be in the future until I’m ready to put my gloves back on and take the next swing.”