Here’s a small list of people whom Sasami Ashworth is not: Mitski, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, Yaeji, Jay Som’s Melina Duterte, or any other Asian-American woman making music that could presumably be described as indie-rock. Not that her individual character hasn’t stopped conflations from being made — and Asian-American representation in indie music is no doubt a subject worth discussing — but the wide-brush approach is starting to wear.
Granted, Ashworth, Mitski, and Zauner are friends and former tour-mates.
“We’re happy to be each other’s rocks and friends and confidantes. It has nothing to do with our music,” Ashworth says. “It’s definitely annoying when we get musically compared to each other when our music doesn’t really sound the same. But at the same time, I’m not going to not be friends with someone because people are too ignorant and lazy to listen to the differences in our music.”
So here goes: Ashworth’s music is less dream pop-y than Zauner’s and more synth-driven than Mitski’s. Lyrically, Mitski is the most direct. Neither she nor Ashworth share Zauner’s fixation on outer space as metaphor — or her unabashed penchant for Autotune. Mitski errs on the side of sparseness, Zauner on that of straight-up disco, Ashworth on the meditative. Los Angeles’ musical community and character deeply inform Ashworth’s music, to which Mitski, a Japanese-born New Yorker, and the native-Philadelphian Zauner can’t relate.
Now that that’s out of the way, back to Ashworth — just Ashworth.
Born in New York and raised in El Segundo — the family relocated to be closer to her paternal grandparents — Ashworth grew up playing classical music. There were a few guitar lessons mixed in, and she vaguely remembers learning the Richard Berry-penned blues standard “Louie Louie” around age 10. She picked up the French horn in middle school and never put it down (just watch her music video for “Not the Time” if you don’t believe it). Either for balance or for fun, she grew up going to standard-issue rock shows at the Troubadour and still-going-strong legendary DIY venue The Smell.
The French horn turned out to be more useful than it might initially appear. During high school, Ashworth lent her talents to Darren Weiss’ PAPA project at a friend’s suggestion. She ended up in “some dude’s dad’s attic” in the San Fernando Valley, left to her own devices to write the French horn part. It was a significant change on multiple counts.
“I don’t think I had ever been in a studio before,” she says. “I came from a background where I had sheet music and I played exactly what’s on the sheet music. You’re really just playing exactly what you’re told, exactly how you’re supposed to play it, in tune, when you’re supposed to play it.”
Not that she left the studio and immediately abandoned classical music for an electric guitar. But she enrolled in the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., composed film scores, and wrote music for commercials. In 2015, she joined Clementine Creevy’s garage-rock project Cherry Glazerr on keys. She spent her downtime on the road writing songs, not necessarily with the intention of writing an album. Within seven months, she had six songs she was pleased with.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I should just keep writing until I have an album.’ It took me over half a year of starting to write songs to realize that was even possible,” she recalls. “At a certain point I said, ‘I’m doing this. I’m going to fucking finish it and make an album.’ ”
She dove into what would eventually become SASAMI with all the conviction that that statement entails. Every penny went into studio time and student loans; she crashed at her parents’ houses and couch-surfed to avoid paying rent. She enlisted talented friends — including Soko, Beach Fossils frontman Dustin Payseur, and Devendra Banhart — for the backing vocals, and her youngest brother Joojoo to play some of the guitar parts.
She and Joojoo “were just far apart enough in age that we never hung out. I was his older weird sister and he was my younger loser brother,” Ashworth says.
Obviously, their relationship has since changed. Toward the end of the recording process, though, she had a hard time letting go.
“I was getting pre-postpartum depression because I didn’t want to finish it,” she says.
In the end, she whittled SASAMI’s tracklist down from 14 songs to 10, each spacious cut imbued with a downtempo poetic sensibility reminiscent of Slowdive, Cocteau Twins, and, occasionally, the mellower side of Spiritualized.
By her own admission, SASAMI is a deeply personal record. (See for yourself at Rickshaw Stop on Tuesday, April 9.) Following its release, she tweeted a note of thanks to fans who had said they connected with her music — music she claimed came from a “very emotionally self-serving place.
“I was just making messages about myself, but then so many people have responded that they feel it describes something that they’re going through so accurately. It makes me think, ‘Wow, we’re all so similar,’ ” she says.
Still, it’s likely that she anticipated this reaction — even if only subconsciously. After all, SASAMI closes with Ashworth intoning, “Thought I was the only one / Turned out I was everyone,” over a simple guitar lick and airy drums.
Based on people’s reactions, she isn’t wrong.
SASAMI, Tuesday, April 9, 8 p.m., at Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., $12-$14, rickshawstop.com