Sasami finds catharsis in nu-metal on her new album 'Squeeze'
Filled with fantasy, rage, horror, tenderness, the latest album from singer-songwriter Sasami, Squeeze, is unapologetic.
The album, which focuses on catharsis, is an open invitation to femmes, people of color, queer folks and anyone else to revel in pent-up frustration and disillusionment.
Sasami spoke to NPR's Sarah McCammon about her new album, Squeeze, released last Friday.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah McCammon, Weekend Edition: Some of your newer work is described as nu-metal. How does that differ from heavy metal?
Sasami Ashworth: Nu-metal is a genre that came out more in the early aughts and is a bit more of a blend of pop and metal, and at least the inspo that I get from it is a little bit less serious. It's a little bit more clown-y and bizarre and experimental.
Which song best represents that vibe you're talking about?
Probably "Skin A Rat." I was thinking about how a lot of the metal songs that I feel really connected to, [it's because of] the instrumentals. Sometimes I don't feel as attached to the lyrics or the screaming part of it. So I wanted to employ the sonic elements that are emotionally connected to the feelings that I was trying to elicit, but with lyrics that are more connected to my experience and my community's experience. So, you know, the lyrics are open to interpretation and open to projection. The album is way more fantasy than autobiography, but I did want to highlight some of these rage-filled feelings about systemic oppression or personal experiences with people who dominate or abuse their power, and the song is fighting back against that.
What is that experience that you're referring to?
There is this kind of socialization, especially for femme people to forgive and not fight back with violence or not stand up for yourself. And while I do not condone actual violence, I do think there is something to be said about having a cathartic experience where you're processing domination or aggression, and I think it's important to get that out before you start the process of healing. A lot of times for femmes, it's called hysterical or bossy or aggressive, as opposed to just standing up for yourself. And so this song is an anthem for standing up for yourself.
Can I ask what's fueling that? What has that looked like in your life and the life of your family?
My mom is Zainichi Korean, so she's ethnically Korean, but was born and raised in Japan during the Japanese occupation. She's always had a fighting spirit, even though growing up I've had a relationship with her that's like, children are seen and not heard, and you don't really have adult conversations with your Japanese mom. She just provides for you and I didn't have a very traditional kind of American mom-daughter relationship so I have done more research on her history and her cultural experience, and it enables her to get more vulnerable and open up about her experience. And I knew growing up that she was bullied a lot and experienced oppression, but I didn't really understand the gravity of it until more recently.
You grew up in the Unification Church, which many people know as the "Moonies." Am I hearing any response to that in your music?
Definitely growing up in a religious household, there's this sense of good and evil and anything that's negative or violent or aggressive is evil, and the only way to really combat that is through forgiveness and goodness and healing. And while I definitely subscribe to those things, I do think there is an element of shortsightedness in that, I think that you can put a Band-Aid on some of those experiences with forgiveness and healing. But without actually processing them, it's not long-term. I think it comes to bite you later in your life. So, yeah, I think that the kind of religious way of dealing with darkness hasn't necessarily been a long-term game plan for me, and making metal seems to be more the game plan.
You were inspired by Japanese folklore, specifically the Nure-onna sea serpent with the head of a woman. She tricks humans, wraps her body around them, squeezes them, and drinks their blood with her tongue. How did you come across this charming creature?
During the process of making my album, I had been doing a lot of research on Zainichi cultural history, and I was also taking an intensive Japanese language course. I got very into Japanese horror, Japanese TV shows, these Japanese yokai characters who have, in modern day, been adapted to Pokémon or some kind of cuter versions. But the traditional versions are pretty hardcore, like Nure-onna, who is this very duplicitous character that has this beautiful woman's head, which, when she's in water, you just see a woman that's washing her hair in the water. But if you get close enough, you see that she has this snake body and her energy echoes some of the sentiment on the album, which is this multifacetedness of beauty and femininity and tenderness and sensitivity, but also aggression and violence and power. And so I felt that she was a pretty good totem for the album's character.
The final track on your album, "Not A Love Song," transitions seamlessly from the track before it, "Feminine Water Turmoil," which is very dark. It's string-heavy and cinematic, unlike the levity of the song that follows. Why did you choose to end the album on this particular note?
Most of the album deals with these very human concepts of systemic oppression, unrequited love, longing, desire, and anger, and I wanted to end in a way that's more zooming out into this existential realm of thinking about humans' position even further out in nature and the cosmos. And so I used "Feminine Water Turmoil" as this mercurial bridge without any sort of human lyrics to it, to help zoom us out and prepare us for "Not A Love Song," which is about how humans tend to center everything around ourselves. Like every bird song we hear is a song, as opposed to just a melody in nature, or every beautiful image we see is a photograph that we have to capture and send to everyone that we know. It's a little bit like aftercare. After taking everyone on this long roller coaster journey, I wanted to end in a contemplative place, a zoomed out perspective.
What do you want your fans to feel as they listen to this album?
I think naturally, some people will gravitate to some songs more than others, and that's totally fine. All I can do is do my best to do my due diligence to bring the songs to life. And once you set them out into the ether, they don't belong to me anymore. I actively made a more open-ended record that I hope people will take ownership of on their own and have their own experience with it.
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