Genre-bending is becoming the new norm in indie rock, and leading the charge into metal and hard rock from mild-tempered, reverb-drowned guitar music is SASAMI.

When songwriter Sasami Ashworth made her self-titled debut in 2019, it was as if her music had been a part of the SoCal soft rock scene for years. Singles “Callous” and “Not The Time,” which Ashworth penned on tour as the keyboardist for Cherry Glazerr, firmly belonged in the new zenith of synth-rock, and had the support of blogs like Pitchfork and a cult following of listeners to prove it. SASAMI was the record indie diehards were dreaming of, and Ashworth delivered.

But the singer-songwriter has more in store this time around. After perfecting “indie rock,” SASAMI has now transcended it with Squeeze (released February 25th on Domino Records).

Sasami Ashworth identifies foremost as a composer, a title she held working professionally on film scores and in commercial and studio settings since graduating from college in 2012. The difference between a composer and a songwriter, in this case, is the latitude and breadth of knowledge that Ashworth employs to arrange whatever type of music she has in mind. And in early 2020 when she began writing Squeeze, Ashworth was thinking of metal music, and how she could retool the genre for a new audience – her audience – of women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA community. 

Driven by the limitations and extremities of life in the early stages of the pandemic, Ashworth was challenged to take her passion for hard rock and metal one step further. Squeeze became a catharsis for her feelings of frustration for the state of the world, and a desire to create something beautiful amidst it all. Aided by her close friends and “quarantine bubble,” who also happen to be world-class recording artists, she chose a band to fill out her carefully composed vision. The resulting eleven songs are a personal epic that showcase Ashworth’s multifaceted skills as a composer, jumping around from songs influenced by Sheryl Crow to System of A Down. 

cover artwork for SASAMI’s Squeeze

Connecting the chaos is SASAMI’s inspiration, the Nure-onna spirit seen on the cover of the album. The half-woman, half-snake deity is a Japanese legend Ashworth uncovered researching her Zainichi heritage, a diaspora of ethnic Koreans who lived under Japanese colonial rule. Inspired by the duplicity of the Nure-onna, who appears delicate but drains the blood from her unworthy victims, SASAMI embraced both sides of her songwriting, from soaring and soft to fierce and jagged. 

Read on for a conversation with SASAMI that delves deeper into her inspirations, including family and friends who contributed to the record, her impressions of metal-heads, covering Daniel Johnston, and touring with Japanese Breakfast. SASAMI will play live in Philadelphia at Johnny Brenda’s on March 26th. Get tickets now at the XPN Concert Calendar.

The Key: What made you want to go so boldly in a new direction this time?

Sasami Ashworth: The last album that I made, I wasn’t on a label when I made it. I hadn’t intended for anyone to hear it. It was my own project that I was making when I was in another band, and coming home from tour, and stuff like that. So in some ways, this album feels like kind of my first real album. Not that the other record [I made] wasn’t [real], but this is the first one that I really intended with the audience and listener in mind. It feels as if I’m a sci-fi novelist, and the first album was a journal entry that was leaked before I put out my first book, or something like that. To me, the sounds are different, but at the same time, every composition is a completely different work for me. I don’t subscribe to being one type of genre, or one type of sound, or one type of band. I’m really a composer.

TK: Squeeze and it’s lyrical content is dedicated to marginalized groups like femmes, queer people, and people of color. What inspired you to make music specifically for them?

SA: There are a lot of metal and heavy rock and even rap songs that instrumentally, I think, create an emotional landscape that a lot of people can connect with, but maybe the lyrics don’t connect the same way. I wanted to be cognizant of using the instrumentals to make these kinds of emotional landscapes, but make the lyrics something that the people of my community could sing along with or connect with or use in some way for a cathartic release. 

TK: It’s refreshing to hear metal or hard rock music that tells a new story. Those genres can be intimidating to break into.

SA: Yeah, but I think a lot of metalists are actually total nerds. And I definitely connect to the fantasy element of metal, and the extremeness of it. And that’s why I borrowed a lot of the sonic elements of that genre. 

TK: There’s also a lot of folk elements on your record, notably the Daniel Johnston cover of “Sorry Entertainer.”  What made you want to reproduce that song?

SA: I heard his version of it, [and it was like] reading a screenplay or seeing a scene from a play be acted out, and I kind of saw my own vision of the live action version of it. And that’s the cool thing about doing a cover — you can tap into different production and effects values to create a different visual for the same emotional narrative. And there was definitely a dark energy to some of [Johnston’s] art for sure.

TK: Looking at the credits on your records, there are a number of other solo artists and influential musicians who contributed to your record. It reminds me of Philadelphia in that so many busy players are often close friends, and lend a hand in each other’s projects. Is that the case on Squeeze?

SA: I’m really lucky that a lot of my friends are also world-class skilled musicians in their own right. And the luxury of being a solo artist is being able to build a new band for every composition, and every recording project that I do. I don’t have a band that I use all the time so I feel really lucky that my friends are able to lend their talents to bring my ideas into fruition.

TK: The Nure-onna spirit (a deity with the head of a woman and body of a snake) appears on the album artwork for Squeeze, and in the “Say It” video. You’re using it to represent our culture of “toxic positivity” and a desire to be viciously honest, correct? Will you have family members who recognize the spirit in a more traditional context, and what do you think they’ll say about your interpretation?

SA: Yeah, and the idea [behind including Nure-onna] is very reclamatory because my mother’s side of the family is Zainichi, who are ethnic Koreans born and raised in Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea. So using this Japanese imagery with Korean calligraphy [as the album artwork] is a reclamatory move for sure. I had an uncle, who actually recently passed away from COVID, but he was an anime director and artist and producer and so there’s definitely a lineage in my family of artists who have used Japanese style in their art. It’s like carrying on a tradition and culture.

TK: What was it like producing the new Hand Habits record and working with someone [songwriter Meg Duffy] who you know so closely? 

SA: It was really amazing to be able to work on the production side and not be a part of the writing of the song. And to tap into a world that Meg had started to craft with the songs that they wrote, and be able to push them to take the arrangements to the next level. And it gave me a lot of confidence to take my own album to the extremes. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of energy to continue working on my own album.

TK: Do you see yourself taking on more work as a producer?

SA: Definitely. Especially as these tours keep getting canceled. For sure.

TK: Your tour with Japanese Breakfast [in Fall 2021], I was pleasantly surprised to see, went off without a hitch.

SA: We’re very strict about quarantining and not seeing anyone outside of the touring party the whole time. Which is definitely difficult, but it was also just kind of a lucky pocket of time. There’s been so many ups and downs since the pandemic hit. With Omicron, we’ll see how it affects the next couple of years. 

TK: You and Michelle Zauner are personal friends. How was it touring with her?

SA: It was awesome. Since we were the only people we saw for a month it was really nice to be able to spend time together. And touring is always really difficult, but having small moments of time on tour to be able to share snacks and skin care supplies and talk about stupid shit definitely kept morale very high. 

TK: Changing gears a bit – your personal clothing style makes a loud statement. It’s tough but also delicate, too. What kind of feeling are you trying to embody with your style?

SA: There’s an element of theatrical, kind of costumey-ness, and also some leather wear and fetish wear tied in with delicate, evening dress pieces. Which I feel like kind of crosses into this nuanced combination of more…I don’t know. I feel like the pieces I put together have contrasting emotional energy. I like mixing statements to feel contrary. 

TK: That ties in with the theme of the new record, too.

SA: Definitely.

TK: You started writing Squeeze before the pandemic, and recorded it entirely during. Intentionally or perhaps unintentionally, do you think the uncertainty of that early time in the pandemic seeped into the record?

SA: I think that it just kind of gave a lot of perspective on how time is really not a guarantee at all, and kind of solidified the fact that I wanted to make more extreme sounding music. And again with the choice of using metal sonic elements, just going as dramatic as possible. Being in a world where tomorrow’s not guaranteed, and the reality that we’re used to is completely stripped away, it pushed me to be more extreme with what I was thinking.

TK: Looking ahead, you are about to get on the road again. Are you looking forward to it?

SA: Yeah, it’s really fun to be able to try to translate the energy of the album into a live setting and have elements of theatrical, scripted-ness tied in with more experimental and improvised elements, too. They both kind of speak to each other, recording albums and touring them.

Squeeze is out now via Domino, and can be ordered here. SASAMI headlines Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, March 26th; tickets are still available, more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.