When you think of Aimee Mann, if you think of her at all, you probably think of Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the rest of the cast of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia singing “Wise Up” alone, together. Maybe you haven’t thought about it in awhile because it’s more than 20 years old now. But you think you remember you read that the singer-songwriter is such a temperamentally sad, depressed individual that she has an entire album called Mental Illness, and you remember that her voice is an instrument of clarified sadness.
If you hear Los Angeles singer and multi-instrumentalist Sasami Ashworth, a former member of Cherry Glazerr who records under the name SASAMI, you might be struck by the resemblance of her voice to Mann’s, and also by how she doesn’t seem to have a melancholic personality. In live performances, she’s quite the opposite, grinning as she gets a lot of mileage out of goofy jokes like a deliberate mispronunciation of the word “honored.” She draws and re-draws the same pencil-thin mustache, like what a 1920s performing weightlifter might sport — both on herself and on subway ads for her own album.
“I haven’t really listened to Aimee Mann,” Ashworth admits, further admitting that people have urged her to do so. “People are also like, ‘You should listen to Captain Beefheart, because you do fucked-up stuff.’ I’ve definitely listened to her stuff, but I haven’t gotten deep into her discography, which is probably why I sound like her — because if I knew it, I’d be, ‘Eww, I don’t want to.’ ”
She hates being compared to other artists, she says, but if they’re rich and successful, then “keep tossing them my way!” So one more, who is neither rich nor conventionally successful: Laetitia Sadler, the lead vocalist of art-rock Brits Stereolab (especially on the song “Morning Comes”).
Ashworth is not just a vocalist, though. She’s a longtime keyboardist who’s been teaching herself guitar. Her last day job, during her stint in Cherry Glazerr, was as a six-class-a-day music teacher, instructing students through the non-methodical Orff Approach on vocal and percussion arrangements of folk songs. But she’s most famous for playing the French horn.
Like Aimee Mann’s voice, the French horn is a sad instrument. Not as bust-out-the-tissues weepy as the oboe, but regally mournful, like someone in the back of the funeral who’s barely keeping it together, who turns to face backward — as the French horn does — to avoid crying in public. If you close your eyes to think of where it stands out in the pop canon, your mind will invariably turn to songs about low-key heartbreak, like the Beatles’ “For No One,” or songs about majestically sorrowful rivers, like Strauss’ “The Blue Danube.”
But again, SASAMI is not a sad person even if SASAMI, her only full-length, released last year, is a saddish album.
“I made [it] when I was still in another band,” she says, “writing songs from a different place. Yeah, I think my stage presence is more who I am on a regular basis and how I’m feeling at the moment — and I only put out that one album, so I don’t have a very diverse discography at the moment.”
“I was using the writing process as an emotional process so that I could make space for joy in my regular life,” she says.
For someone with only a single solo record so far, her video output is substantial — and occasionally cinematic. When not busking unsuccessfully around Los Angeles (“Not the Time”) or letting her real-life grandmother make kimchi on a faux-Japanese TV show (“Morning Comes,” directed by Tim and Eric) she’s setting fire to an assemblage of accumulated crud in a rite of desert catharsis (“Take Care”).
Perhaps strangely, there is no official video for either the Mann-like “Pacify My Heart” or “I Was a Window,” which sounds like the gentlest song the Velvet Underground recorded. Its gauzy ambiguity reveals the full dimension of Ashworth’s maturation.
As friend and collaborator Laetitia Tamko, a Cameroonian American who performs as Vagabon, said, “Sasami is quite the force. I recently dropped in on a recording session of hers — and it was a space of creativity, inspiration, and diligent productivity. From her songwriting to her guitar playing and her sensibility, the way she works is really fun to watch.”
Ashworth is silly, but serious. She holds book drives because “L.A. Unified has pretty low literacy rates and literacy levels are a huge precursor to future success.” When a fan got a tattoo of her playing the French horn, she was glad they asked for consent first. (“Ur a sicko but I love it,” she wrote on Instagram.) And when she plays at the Chapel on Friday, Feb. 28, she’ll be returning to a city she played in only last summer through that other arm of Noise Pop: the 20th Street Block Party.
“We decided to play because it was for 826 Valencia,” she says of the 2019 festival’s beneficiary. “That was a really awesome show to play, in the Mission and free to the public. I’m wary of festivals that take place in gentrified areas that aren’t available to people in the neighborhood, so it was a really cool little festival.”
Considering SASAMI’s charismatic presence, it’s too bad her halmoni, the Korean word for grandmother, can’t join her on stage.
“She is such a ham!” Ashworth says of the red-lipsticked woman who clearly delights in mixing a giant metal bowl of cabbage. “I learned so much about my own family history just talking to my mom and my grandma about her process and why it’s so Japanese-inspired. The ingredients include dashi and a lot of umami flavors that don’t exist in Korean food, but they were born and raised in Japan during the time of crisis. … Making that video there was this wholesome desire to understand this recipe — but I wanted it to be hilarious.”
Hilarious — yet serious.
SASAMI with Mandy Harris Williams, Torrey, and World Smasher, Friday, Feb. 28, 8 p.m., at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St., $16, tickets.