!! OMG, a Q&A with Buzzy Lee !!

Buzzy Lee Sasha Spielburg

Photography by Julia Brokaw

When I sat down with Buzzy Lee, she was in the middle of a typically gruelling press-filled day for an artist promoting a new record. Given the soul-sucking repetition of the scenario, I was surprised to find her enthusiastic and conversational. Perhaps because, or in spite of having (in typical LA fashion) found time for a rather intense sounding therapy session amidst all the hubbub!

This Friday, Buzzy — whose street name is Sasha Spielberg (yes, that Spielberg) — releases Spoiled Love, her first full-length record after a string of EPs, some of which she created with her brother before choosing to step out on her own. Her last EP, 2018’s Facepaint, featured production by composer Nicolas Jaar, and the pair continue their collaboration on this record.

Buzzy Lee Spoiled LoveWe talked to Sasha about the origins of Spoiled Love, the power of crying on the dancefloor, and the hazards of living where it’s sunny all year long. Oh, and a lot of gossip about ex-boyfriends…

Read the full Q&A after the jump!

Hey Sasha, thanks for taking the time to chat! I hear you have literally just finished another call. Hopefully you’re staying hydrated!

Yeah. And before that I was on the phone with my therapist crying. So it has been back to back for sure!

You shouldn’t mention that! It’s probably very tempting for journalists to dig right in to all that fresh post-therapy vulnerability.

We can dig right into that stuff if you want!

I’ve found with interviews during COVID, artists immediately abandon any promotional work for their records and jump right into auto-process mode, which is kind of great. 

Completely!  I mean, I always kind of make fun of myself for even crying and even having anxiety because that’s just what the world needs, another girl from the Westside of Los Angeles talking about having anxiety! But everything  is just incredibly anxiety-inducing and there’s a lot of stuff for everyone. It is a wild time. So yeah, I’ve been very transparent and getting straight to the point!

Where did that whole cliche of Los Angeles people and going to therapy originate, I wonder…  It’s as if everyone there has been obsessed with it since the dawn of time, and it’s taken the world so long to catch up. What’s behind that, do you think?

I think when you have sunshine all year, and it feels like time is standing still and yet we’re aging, maybe there’s some anxiety with that?  I think if you grow up with privilege and you grow up with parents, and everyone’s on Valium in the eighties, maybe it birthed this openness to seeking help. I think it’s not as stigmatized on the West coast because it’s almost glamorous.

I think the idea of Hollywood is incredibly intoxicating and I think it drives people mad, and then that madness spills out onto their children. That being said, my parents are very great,  but I just feel like it’s in my DNA to be anxious. I don’t know. I think that therapy in LA is like beaches and sun drive the right to it.

I can imagine if it’s sunny all the time and then you’re not feeling so sunny that that can really mess your brain up. 

Completely, and on top of that, if you come from wealth or privilege you have to ask yourself why should I have any woes at all? And then you judge yourself for that.  And then if it’s sunny, it’s a bit of a spiral.

It must be really common for people to have celebrity parents in LA, and hard to navigate when that experience gets weird. Is there some sort of secret support group for kids with famous parents where you can go and process without judgement? 

Can you really, can you imagine like it’s Al-Anon but for celebrity kids!? I mean, it is a good question because I have a lot of best friends who have parents who are in the business. I also have friends who I met in college whose parents were not in the business, but  I am so grateful for my friendships, I actually can be completely open with all of them.

I only have a couple friends who have really isolated experiences like mine that I talk to about how weird it is, because growing up with that is weird, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about that until I met this other friend.

It’s cool that you’ve embraced that experience, and even found healthy ways to reference it in your music, for example the title of your 2019 collaboration with Tony Mandell, “Close Encounters of The Own Kind.”

Let’s talk about your new single from your forthcoming full length, “What Has a Man Done.” At first listen, it reminded me almost of a meme or something about men telling women to relax, which only results in more outrage.  Then, upon further listening it actually goes a lot deeper into the reality of the type of damage these things can do to the psyche and to relationships.  Was there a specific incident that triggered your writing of the song?

Yes… I’ve always been very attracted to big personalities who have a very big presence and I tend to lose myself in them, and I make them my entire world.  It’s like I treat them like a thesis or a PhD where I have to learn everything about them. I have to become the person they want me to be. I actively put myself in that position.

So, with “What Has A Man Done,” it would be so easy for me to vilify all men and blame it on toxic masculinity. The harder route for me is being like, “Okay, but what is my part in this, and why am I choosing to be in the cycle?” The cycle of toxicity for me is actually quite comfortable and very familiar, so I can easily go to that and can’t extricate myself because it’s too addictive.

I’m addicted to that cycle. So for “What’s A  Man Done,” I’m sort of like, “Yeah, forget my arms asking. What exactly has the man done?” And blaming them for any problems,  but in the end there’s this  reconciliation, where I have to ask myself, “What have I done?”

The song stemmed from a four year relationship with someone that was just the lowest of the lows, which of course made for the highest of the highs. And that in itself is very intoxicating.

Been there, been there, but it does take two to tango! Do you regret that experience, now that you’ve written this record around those themes?  I’m wondering if the writing of this record kept you in those feelings, or did it help you transcend them?  

I think it was transcendent. There’s one song on the record called “Strange Town” about my ex and I. We would go to this place in Northern California, and on that trip I was exactly the girl of his dreams, but I couldn’t be that girl in LA, and I couldn’t be that girl anywhere else.

And because there were rivers and nature and walking the dogs on the beach. I wasn’t on my phone all the time and we were off being adventurous, meeting locals and going to their houses and going to bars…

Distractions, distractions…

Yes. It was a distraction from real life and it was where we got lost in each other.  As we were headed back, I’d be thinking, “This is the love of my life,” but then getting back home I realized I didn’t know what I was doing in this relationship.

So when I was recording that song, I did four takes that were incredibly emotional, and my voice was breaking. But then Nico [Nicolas Jaar, Sasha’s collaborator and producer for the album] was like, “Okay, we got those takes. Beautiful. What if you try now singing it like you’re telling your grandchild about this experience that you had in this really complicated relationship, but you’re crying and you’re just  sort of reflecting on the experience.”

So I did, and of course that was the take we went with, so, I would say with transcendence, it’s easy for me to be lost in the songs and lost in the past, but Nico really helped with me getting over all that.

I suppose the job at hand for the songwriter is to almost divorce yourself from those histories in the songs, considering the need to revisit them when performing them over and over, as a means of emotional survival? 

Yeah, and if you’re a really empathetic person, it’s really hard to divorce yourself that way.

So, do you feel you’ve rectified this victim scenario in the songs in a way that’s changed your relationship to performing them?

Well,  I cannot wait to play these songs live, but I think I’ll take what Nico suggested, in the way that I’m just telling the story.

I think there is such a rawness in telling the story, and I think there’s still such emotionality, but I think it’s easier if you do divorce yourself from actually feeling the pain and feeling the stomach drop.

I have a little fear of making bad decisions and fear of regret,  but I don’t regret anything from those relationships because without them I wouldn’t have Buzzy! Buzzy came from this torturous relationship, and I really do believe this guy was the reason that I did decide to go solo and actually start writing these songs.

Despite this being a solo record, you decided not to release it under your own name. Where did the name Buzzy Lee come from? 

I did want to have a different name for this project, but  picking a name to stick with is  the strangest thing. I mean, you think about names like Red Hot Chili Peppers or Barenaked Ladies, which seem so ridiculous and random but then they became such iconic names somehow!

I mean, just imagining those writer rooms and agreeing to go with something like “Barenaked Ladies”…

You don’t even notice the name after a while. And there are so many bad ones still. 

Exactly. So I wanted to go with my nickname, Buzzy, which is very much my personality, and Lee is my Grandma’s first name, who was a big inspiration to me. She died and then I took Lee because I wanted to honor her. It’s not much of a story, which is good.

Given that this is a break-up record, the songs seem less obviously routed in your sense of humour than some of your earlier solo work. Did that happen naturally or was it something you were conscious of doing? 

I went with my gut feeling, because I did have all these kind of funny songs that I was going to put on it, and as we made it the record sort of evolved to the point that those  fun songs just did not work. They felt like complete deviations. I just decided to save those for the next record, because that’s easy and fun for me.

With this one, I wanted to be completely honest and raw and just follow my gut instinct. it’s definitely darker, but that’s what I write on the piano when I’m alone. I try really hard to write upbeat songs, but it’s really difficult when you’re in such a state.

And I do love though, when there are breakup songs that are one 120 BPM. That’s so fun…

Buzzy Lee by Janet Shirtcliff

Photography by Janet Shirtcliff

I mean, “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn. Where would we be without it?

I’ve been listening to that song on repeat the past week!

It never gets old. It’s our generation’s “Stairway to Heaven.

I was doing those Ryan Huffington exercise classes at the beginning of quarantine and when he played that song, I’d be simultaneously dancing and crying hysterically!

Crying is exercise!  You mentioned working with solo piano, and one song that really stands out to me on the record is the song “Brie,” which seems to be like someone’s name.  I really feel like the song is pointed towards somebody, like there’s a whole story there, even though there’s no lyrics. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about including instrumentals when you are such a strong lyricist,  and whether you think a story can be translated through song even when there are no lyrics?

Oh my god. I’m so happy you picked up on that. I haven’t had any questions about “Brie,” and  it’s such an important song to me from that album because it actually started the entire album!

The song  is very much directed at someone in particular, but in all honesty the song is named after the cheese! I originally had three instrumentals on the record and randomly named them all after different cheeses, but then had to cut two because they weren’t working with the narrative.

Basically, I was visiting Nico in his studio with no intention of recording the record with him. I was going to go back to LA to record with someone else. He had this piano that was just so beautiful so I went to go play it and I ended up playing for maybe an hour straight, but I had no idea he was recording the whole time. Brie came out of that recording, just playing around, and then I started singing the song “Rules” after it immediately.

I just ended up pulling parts from that session that  I liked and condensed it to an eight minute song.  So “Rules” and “Brie” are the same song, but we broke them up for the record.

You gave them each their own moment, and I think they deserve them, because instrumentals don’t get as much attention, especially when people are listening to singles and not full records. 

Oh god, yeah. We can get into that because sequencing is so important to me on this record, obviously.

I’m wondering what your process was, in terms of memory and writing about those memories and how that translated into your decisions sequencing the album? 

Well,  the “Brie/Rules” thing happened in November, 2018, two weeks after I broke up with the ex, but “Strange Town” was actually written while I was still with my ex, and we were almost quarantining together at my parents house with two dogs we had just got. His father was really ill and he needed to be with him a lot, so I wrote “Strange Town” on one of those days where I was reflecting on my relationship in this really intense time.

So the sequencing is not totally chronological, but we ended up figuring out a way to make it so that each track  bled into the next. And I think that’s the way we operate in life. We are constantly moving between the present and future, so I wanted to leave all of those sentiments in.

If you’re making a record post-breakup, isn’t it weird considering that the person is probably going to hear it? Or is it an extension of what you were saying before about being addicted to that kind of exchange, where maybe the songs are almost a thirst trap and you want him to hear it? 

I’d be more self-conscious if they ever listen to this interview to be honest! It’s funny because so much has happened in the past year that he’s actually about to have a baby!

That bastard! 

Oh my god. I am releasing this record that basically screams “him” and he’s off having a baby. So it feels like I’m having a baby, he’s having a baby, but he’s having a real baby and I’m having like, a narcissist’s baby. I don’t know.

All babies are narcissist babies! Should this project become really successful, do you think that that would inhibit your writing as intimately as you’ve been able to now?

Yes. I kind of witnessed that  growing up, and I have such a fear of letting people in. My friends call me the most guarded unguarded person ever, because I think I have a tendency to be so open about things that are almost obvious, but to understand me on a cellular level, that’s all in the music and those things are hard for me to talk about.

I am totally afraid of the world. I’m afraid of everyone. I don’t want to be larger than life. Sometimes, I’ll look at my life and think, “My dad gets to work for the rest of his life because of his success. What a beautiful thing.”

So, of course I want that success sometimes, but I love that I can feel free and not have the scrutiny of someone like Ariana Grande. I am so grateful that I can make music that is creatively fulfilling, but also have my privacy, because I did see it with my dad growing up and he was extremely private.

Someone in your position basically has a second job when promoting their records, where you have to perform these stock answers, for your own sanity of course, but have them feel fresh and sincere so you don’t alienate the reader by seeming insincere. Is that something that you feel like that you have to learn or do you think that because you’ve grown up seeing that, that you have a pre-existing defense mechanism?

Well, I was dating a comedian and….

Oh boy, you’re making some stellar choices here!

And… We broke up. I actually date two comedians in a row that were stellar choices!  “Hi, it’s me!”  But basically I would see them perform the same set  every night, delivering  jokes as though they just thought of them in the moment on stage, and there really is such an art to that.

So I really try not to recycle jokes or phrases because I don’t want to come off as disingenuous. The fear of coming off as ingenuine really gets to me. And I’m a perfectionist in that way that I feel I need to be as real as possible, but there is such a performance element in answering questions.

There are totally a series of questions that I get asked often and I have to answer, and I hate that I might sound performative at all.

Can you talk about working with Nicolas Jaar, and how he impacts your work?

He’s incredible. There were many times where I was like, “Should we do more stuff like ‘Cool Hands,'” which is the fun, easy stuff. But he pushed me with this record in the best way.  He was like, “Let’s be really real right now,” and instead of going really poppy and fun, he wanted to see where the songs could go if we let them breathe a little.

All the things he does sound so minimal, but when you actually look at the stems of the song production, he does so much to allow the space to be there.  It’s  so incredible to see.

It must be so frustrating for more ambient-leaning producers because people just think they’re just turning on a vacuum and recording it or something, but even if you listen to a vacuum, you can hear about a million things happening, you know?

Well, I will say the production of this album was very much a result of how we were working together emotionally. He was truly like a cheerleader, a coach, a best friend, and a therapist on top of being a producer. He was pushing himself with this music, too.

It felt like we were both trying to be the best versions of ourselves possible.

It’s amazing the way a production style can manipulate the emotional quality of a song. Have you considered putting out multiple versions of the songs to indicate to fans where the songs started and where they ended up? 

It’s true! I played some of the songs for a friend a year or so ago, and her response was that she was excited to see me progress as a songwriter, because I’m such a happy, goofy person and she couldn’t hear that in the songs.

I remember really sitting with that and feeling like, “Oh god, I have to write like a hundred hits now to compensate for that,” but in reality, when it’s just me, I’m a deeply emotional person, so writing these sad songs is where I get my catharsis.

I’m so happy to have that music as my outlet, so I can be that fun person in real life.

I guess we started talking in a very processy way, so maybe we should leave that way as well! Having taken this step to branch out as a solo artist, are you able to see how you’ve evolved, both as a person and an artist, with this record?

Oh yeah. I truly didn’t ever think I could play anything on stage. I would say to everyone, “I don’t have rhythm!” And I didnt think I could play and sing at the same time; I didn’t want to hire a keyboardist so I just went for it, and I am so proud of myself that I did that.  I just make it work, and I give it my all.

I have a deep need for validation. I deeply need to feel  loved and need to feel special all the time!  So making the less accessible music was really fulfilling for me. When I finished this record, I really felt I had achieved everything I needed to say.

I feel proud of it, and not thinking too much about what other people would think of it.  It’s been a big, big step for me, because I do care, but I made this record for me.

— Q&A by Kevin Hegge (@theekevinhegge)

Spoiled Love is out January 29 on all platforms. Pre-save or pre-order the album here.

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