Top image: photography by Brantley Gutierrez
“The stuff that I write about is the stuff that I don’t wanna tell my brother or my family, or anyone really, and that’s why this was so scary to release,” shares Sasha Spielberg below of her solo EP Facepaint, released under the alias Buzzy Lee. Produced by acclaimed electronic artist Nicolas Jaar and recorded over nine days in New York, Facepaint presents a collection of five tracks in which Spielberg roams the sonic space of self-examination.
A Los Angeles native who grew up with a filmmaker father (yes, that one) and an actress mother, it comes as no surprise that she is a natural chameleon. Having collaborated with her brother Theo on the indie-folk project Wardell, and with Jaar [Nicolas] as Just Friends, Spielberg has been crafting songs for nearly a decade, while she’s previously written comedy and racked up acting credits along the way.
However it’s through Facepaint that she has now tapped into the most intimate version of her creative self. Here we see the unveiling of Spielberg, of an artist not seeking affirmation but instead forming her own identity.
J.L. Sirisuk: I’m always curious about artists and their day-to-day life. Is there something you do on a daily basis – a bit of writing or playing the piano?
Sasha Spielberg: You just caught me – my auto-rhythm drum machine is still going upstairs. I have a whole set-up that I work from and today I actually took a chunk of time to work on a demo. I’m not good with Pro Tools or any of those programmes, so instead I just play everything live at the same time. I play the Korg in my left hand and then with my right hand I play my synth, I’ll have a drum machine going and I sing through a Helicon. I record everything onto my voice notes and put the cell phone by the PA system. I record it live, so it takes like all day because I usually mess up.
JLS: I read that you’ve been keeping a diary since you were a child, for Facepaint did you pull from these at all? How long was the writing process?
SS: I would say the writing process took place over a year, maybe like eight months. Relatively quick compared to what I usually do. It was a big purge of emotions. I always think back to my diary, but not necessarily where I’m holding it in my hands and flipping through pages. I took mental note of what I felt as a child and what I would write down – the feelings – and then after writing all the lyrics, went back to the diary. I wasn’t surprised, but I thought it was funny that my feelings haven’t changed since I was eight years old, so I hope to capture that in the EP.
JLS: Throughout your different pursuits, why do you feel the most comfortable expressing yourself musically?
SS: I think because I have such little patience. Music is best for me because if I have a feeling, I just go to the piano and I write, it’s an immediate remedy. It feels more primal than anything else I do. There are times where I’m in a bad mood and I go to Instagram and make a joke or some character, and that’s funny but it’s also performative, and then I start checking my messages and seeing all my friends say, “Haha” or “What are you doing? Are you okay?” Music is mostly insular; I think that is way healthier for me personally.
JLS: You’ve previously recorded with your brother as Wardell and with Nicolas Jaar as Just Friends. When did you know it was time to record on your own?
SS: I had done so many collaborations and I think my self-esteem was sort of low. I didn’t believe that I could do anything on my own and felt that I needed someone else to help me or make something better. I still to this day have that feeling. I’ve gotten better at detecting which songs actually mean so much to me, and I kind of stopped sending my demos to people – I used to search for external validation so I sent demos to friends and would be like, “What do you think?” If they said no then I would completely discard it. I actually revisited one of the ones that my friends were like, “Eh?” about and I couldn’t believe that I let that go based on someone else’s opinion.
I can be really impressionable, so when I decided to just go out on my own, it was almost puberty for me. I needed to grow up a little and I had so many feelings about my own relationships that I didn’t want to put into music with my brother because I really love the music that I write with him. It’s whimsical in a way, and there’s a narrative and it’s more dreamlike. We write about real life things that we go through, but at the same time it’s not the stuff that I wanna tell my brother.
“Music is best for me because if I have a feeling, I just go to the piano and I write, it’s an immediate remedy”
JLS: I know you’re close friends with Nicolas Jaar and I imagine you felt comfortable recording with him. What is it that you feel he was able to pull out of you for this recording that maybe someone else wouldn’t have been able to?
SS: Nico brings out safety and honesty, and because he knows me so well he knows when I’m masking things and if I come into his house and I’m like, “I’m doing fine. I’m great,” and I’m not, he’s able to detect that immediately. So having someone who checks me, like literally at the door, he makes me go deeper and he’ll push me. I think that having friends to check me like that is so constructive.
JLS: After the recording process and having some distance from the work, is there anything that surprises you about yourself?
SS: You know, it’s so interesting. I don’t know why this is the first thing that came to mind but I am a constant distraction-seeker and I sometimes believe that I cannot live without distractions. After recording sessions that I’ve previously gone to, I’ve almost had mini celebrations like, “Oh great. I finished a song, now let’s have a drink. I’m gonna get drunk or I’m gonna smoke some cigarettes. I’m gonna be young in New York City.” This is the first time I was actually able to live with myself after the product. So we’d finish a song and I was able to just take the subway back home and go to bed and then be complete and feel complete. I think that it taught me that I don’t need distractions, something is fulfilling me enough.
JLS: It’s such a personal work, what would you say makes up the emotional foundation of the EP?
SS: I just wanted to be as honest as possible and I know that I can put on a front a lot of times. I can do that at parties, at any time I leave my house. I feel that it is a performance in a way and I really have to present myself in a certain way to the world. For the longest time I believed that because people knew my last name I was like, “They’re gonna hate me immediately so I have to make them like me. I have to be so nice. I have to prove to everyone that I’m not spoiled. I’m not this way. I’m not this kind of person.” It’s such a battle because it takes a lot of energy to just meet someone and assume they already hate you before meeting you, and that can weigh you down. For this, I was like, “You know what, I’m just gonna do this because I’m tired of feeling guarded and performative and protective of myself.” And so I kind of let go – I know that sounds so cheesy, but I let go.
JLS: It’s difficult to truly do that and I hear it on the album. The alias you use is in ode to your grandmother. Why did you feel it important to incorporate her in some way?
SS: She had just passed away and I felt so connected to her. My dad would always tell me how similar we were. She played piano and she ran a restaurant in LA until she was 97. At 95 she was skipping from table to table and she had this childlike energy to her and was so elegant and so funny and quick. I felt really connected to her and it was really hard when she passed. My aunts gave me all her overalls when she passed away because that was her uniform. She wore overalls and a Peter Pan collar and I got about sixteen pairs of them. I felt so connected to her, I might have taken it too far having taken her name [laughs].
Facepaint is out now.
Follow Buzzy Lee here.