Interview by Alli Lindsey
Header photo by Janell Shirtcliff
What is love if not the fabric of our identity? A diffusion of neurotransmitters? A rush of dopamine and adrenaline swirling around the folds of your brain? Sasha Spielberg doesn’t need the answers to write an album about relationships. Produced by long-time friend and close collaborator Nicolas Jaar, Spielberg AKA Buzzy Lee just delivered her debut studio album Spoiled Love. Laced with secrets and solitude, the 9-track record is Buzzy’s unapologetic means to finding herself. A series of windswept melodies and blissfully haunting prose, Spoiled Love is a righteous grievance. In this unreserved heart-to-heart, Buzzy Lee reminds us that where there is heartbreak, there is healing.
Alli: Growing up with the last name Spielberg, your life must have been very film-centric. So we’re interested in hearing how you got started pursuing music.
Sasha: I always gravitated towards the scores of the movies my dad would show me because my dad inundated us with westerns and film noir, and was constantly showing us movies. And it was almost like a rebellion in a way. But I always felt more connected to movies with songs in them or movies with really poignant scores. And my mom was always playing music, she was always playing Katie Lang and Lucinda Williams in her bedroom. And I also got it from my grandma Lee who was a concert pianist- she was so talented and had such an ear. But my dad, he can not sing a note (I’m so sorry dad). But he can figure out melodies on the piano at first try- he has an amazing ear! So I don’t know what exactly inspired me, I think growing up with movies and music intertwined helped. But I truly think it came from my grandma. It must have skipped over my dad and came straight to me.
A: Is your grandma where you got the name Buzzy Lee from?
S: Yes! She passed away in 2017 and that’s why I tacked on ‘Lee,’ it was originally just ‘Buzzy.’
A: Nicolas Jaar was behind the production of Spoiled Love, how did that working relationship come to fruition?
S: I met him my second day of my freshman year at Brown. We became friends immediately and we started working on music together a week later. It almost sounded like a Portishead cover, but we made a little song and we just continued to be very close friends, but it wasn’t until senior year that we really started collaborating and came out with ‘Just Friends.’ I performed with him at PS1 and we did a 5-hour improvisational. Our collaboration started picking up, and then it turned into a friendship where every time I would go over to his house we’d work on something, we wouldn’t even mean to, things would just happen so naturally. And that’s how the record sort of came to be. Because I did the EP with him which was planned, it was like ‘come to New York for 8 days and we’re going to make an EP- great done!’ But with the record, I was in so many sessions trying out different producers in LA and I had done a European tour, and my last show was in Paris so I went to go visit him [Nicolas] in Northern Italy. And again, the two of us weren’t trying to make music, we just started recording and that was “Rules.” So I started playing piano, and that was “Brie” into “Rules,” which was originally a 25-minute voice note and Nico had been recording the entire time. And then I was like alright, I have to record with you.
A: Nicolas Jaar has a lot of side projects. Do you think listeners are going to get more of an ‘Against All Logic’ Nicolas Jaar, a ‘Darkside’ Nicolas Jaar, or something entirely unique to this album?
S: I think Nico was so interested in producing this record because he wanted to push himself in a new direction production wise. So I don’t know…there’s moments of our collaborative project ‘Just Friends.’ You can hear him all over the record, but it’s very subtle I think.
A: Did you put all of the album together in 2020?
S: November 2018 was when he first recorded me playing on the piano. Then I came back in March of 2019, and then again in July 2019, and then it was mastered in September 2019. So I have been sitting on it for awhile.
I am so hard on myself and like just really such a perfectionist, and I have imposter syndrome, and this album was me trying to get over that.
A: 2020 was difficult for creators and artists. Have you felt any stressors about putting this album out during such a strange time?
S: Yeah, I pushed it back so much. I wanted to initially release the record and tour it. And I had all these visions for what the tour would look like and what the live show would be and then March 2020 came around, so Nico and I decided to push it a little. Then here we are…it’s still Covid, it’s a still a pandemic, so I have accepted that I won’t be touring this record. We were also supposed to put it out in November 2020 but vinyl manufacturing was a mess, it could only come out at the end of January so we changed the release to align with that.
A: Did you struggle with motivation in 2020?
S: I think it’s less struggle with motivation and more of an avoidance. I was so motivated with baking, reading books, watching shows and movies I hadn’t seen before, and re-educating myself with books I always wanted to read in college. So I was motivated in that way, but that in itself was an avoidance because I wasn’t writing a lot of music, and I was diverting my attention elsewhere. I have written some songs, but I have been in a bit of a dry spell in the past few months, but only because of anticipation for the album.
A: What books did you read this year?
S: Well, I obviously keep a list! The last book I read was Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam- it’s apocalyptic. I read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. I started Crime and Punishment but did not finish it. I’ve been reading a lot of Ben Lerner like10:04 and The Topeka School. Ben Lerner is such an interesting writer, I am a literature major but I can’t even define the exact genre!!
A: Do you feel like reading and studying literature has helped your songwriting?
S: You know I think because I also studied creative writing, that definitely informs it. I’m very inspired by literature in the same way that music can place me in a context that is so unfamiliar to me and make it familiar. When books can do that to me, I am incredibly inspired. So I feel like bringing someone into your world through narration is what I try to do with songwriting.
“I feel like bringing someone into your world through narration is what I try to do with songwriting.”
A: Spoiled Love is about heartbreak and learning to pick up the pieces. When you were writing this album, was it difficult to confront and reopen the scars left behind from your heartbreak?
S: I had gone through a really traumatic break-up and then two weeks later I was dating someone new and had that break up during the record. I put more on that second breakup because it was almost like a delayed reaction to the more traumatic breakup. So I feel like I had two breakups over the course of the record. And it was definitely really hard. But Nico was such an amazing collaborator. There were notes that he gave me- like for “Strange Town” I sang about four takes and my voice was breaking, I felt like I was about to cry, it was very fragile. And he was like ‘Beautiful. We have that. Now what if you just try a take where you imagine you’re telling the story of this beautiful twisted love to your grandchild. And there’s no emotion, you’re just sort of telling it.’ And that’s the take we ended up using. So that was sort of the whole feel of the record- telling rather than reliving.
A: I recently experienced a heartbreak myself. I often felt myself hurtling towards unhealthy coping mechanisms. Did you find yourself falling into any unhealthy coping mechanisms during your breakups?
S: Oh, I am the queen of unhealthy coping mechanisms! HA! I am the queen of avoidance, which means yes. But unhealthy for me isn’t like drinking and I don’t do drugs, I am pretty tame with that stuff. It was more losing myself in other people as a way to mend my broken heart. I would immediately fall in love with someone else and then just relive my- I keep using the word trauma, which feels a little harsh.
A: But it is traumatic!
S: It is traumatic!! It’s so hard. And also just the way I learned to love in the four years of this one partner I had became really unhealthy. And I found that I was just acting those out in all the relationships to come after.
A: With this album being so personal to you, did you feel any pressure to keep an audience in mind?
S: Because I have a tendency to care so much what people think, and I can sometimes make songs higher than 100 BPM, because I want things to be accessible and that was my problem with trying to find a producer for this record because I actually was making songs that were more accessible and I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. And I wasn’t feeling like this was it. And when Nico and I recorded, I was so so positive that this was it. But I knew that it would definitely exist in this more niche world. But I was fine with that because it was so personal and cathartic for me that I didn’t really care. It was the first time in my life that I was like ‘I don’t care! It’s okay if people don’t like it! I’m so happy I did it!’
A: A lot of the album was made in Italy. What was that like? What kind of inspiration did you get from being in Italy?
S: Well I mean some days we would just open the window and it was as simple as birds chirping into the recording that would elevate the album. I mean the record was made over three different seasons. It started in fall/winter, then went to spring, and then went into the summer so I got three different seasons in Northern Italy and it really informed the record. And then also my first trip going to record in Italy, I left my wallet on the train. And I felt so naked. I was like ‘Is. this. really. happening?’ Then I arrived at the studio feeling like ‘How am I going to get home? How will I pay for food?’ so we ended up cooking and living in the studio, there was no going out to restaurants, so it was almost a quarantine before quarantine.
“It was the first time in my life that I was like ‘I don’t care! It’s okay if people don’t like it! I’m so happy I did it!’”
A: So you were really living and breathing this album during those seasons.
S: Exactly. We only went out on the last night of recording. We went to get, like, pizza. And no drinking. Like truly no drinking, it was amazing.
A: Tell us about the goofiness embedded into the “Strange Town” music video? What did your thought process look like?
S: I really have trouble taking myself seriously. I am so happy to take myself seriously in songwriting and music, because it’s sort of my diary entry ya know? It’s like I need to just actually be super raw with that. It almost feels like I’m cheating if I am tongue-in-cheek with music, it doesn’t feel right. But growing up on movie sets, watching movies get made, there’s so many funny little worlds within the world of movie making. And I find it to be so funny when things go wrong on set. Because you treat the set like it’s your world and then when something goes wrong, you can’t really laugh at it. No one laughs at it. It’s like ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?!’ So I wanted to use this video to sort of make fun of myself in previous music videos where I am like this ethereal woman with this Kate Bush thing going on, and all the dancing. I wanted to take that and turn it on its head and have the music video go completely wrong. Like trying to be pretty and sexy but then everything keeps going wrong. And that is how I feel on a daily basis, I really feel like I am a fail girl! Like I trip so much, I fall, I get hurt all the time, I’m so clumsy, and yet I do kind of have a tendency to project to the world that I am this songstress. Maybe not ‘project’ but I do tend to fall into that because I think that’s what my ex at the time wanted me to be.
A: When I went through my breakup I leaned on cliches to help me through it, like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What are some of your favorite cliches?
S: HA! I mean…. ‘everything happens for a reason’ that is always in my head. ‘Let go and let God,’ haha! What are some other cliches?! I want to google them now.
“Growing up on movie sets, watching movies get made, there’s so many funny little worlds within the world of movie making. And I find it to be so funny when things go wrong on set.”
A: What did you learn about yourself making this album? How have you evolved?
S: Oh gosh. Buzzy Lee came out into the world as I was breaking up with this guy. So I rely so much on other people- I’ve had that problem for so long. I was in a band with my brother so I can rely on him to finish songs or load out gear when I can’t. It’s a partnership. And then I was relying so much on my ex. And when Buzzy was born into the world, I was able to let go of all control, because I am a control freak. And I got the Dirty Projectors tour three days before I was supposed to leave for it and I had only performed live twice as Buzzy Lee. So of course every part of me was like, ‘I can’t go! Maybe next time!’ Then I had this revelation where I was like ‘What am I doing? I have to say yes. I’m Just gonna make it work! I’m gonna practice like crazy for three days and then I’m just going to like…do it!’ So I said yes and it really changed my life. It made me feel so much more powerful. Also I had never played an instrument on stage! Ever! So this was my first time playing an instrument on stage. And I evolved so much. I’ve been so hard on myself and I think I can’t do anything. But with Buzzy I’ve learned that if you practice a lot, you can do so much.
A: Is the Buzzy Lee project a form of therapy for you?
S: Yes! That’s why every song is a crying-into-a-lap vibe.
A: When you can tour again how do you picture Spoiled Love looking on stage?
S: Well my dream of all dreams is to perform in a 200 person seated theatre with nothing but a piano and a microphone and that’s it. I want everything stripped back. IT’S MY DREAM!! God, I would love that.
A: You have been through love and now you’ve been through Spoiled Love. So what does love mean to you now? Where is your head at with love after everything you have experienced?
S: Now it means- this is going to sound cheesy but- self love is the only true love. Self love is the only true breathing love. It’s the only way you can really love someone else. Hey that’s a cliche!
“I’ve been so hard on myself and I think I can’t do anything. But with Buzzy I’ve learned that if you practice a lot, you can do so much.”
A: There it is! Your favorite cliche!
S: There it is! But I really do believe that it comes down to self love. And then you can extend that energy to everyone around you, but it starts with you. So over quarantine I’ve learned to really love myself in a way where I’m okay with being alone, I am ok with alone time, I actually really enjoy myself as company. So I think for me right now it means loving yourself, and then putting that outward. And I feel so close to my parents right now and I feel so close to my siblings. I feel so much love right now towards everyone in my life. And it’s such an amazing feeling because it starts with me.
A: Is that what you want listeners to take away from this album? Notes on self love?
S: God I love that! Yes! Because the record was me trying to accept myself, because again, I am so hard on myself and like just really such a perfectionist, and I have imposter syndrome, and this album was me trying to get over that. Of course I still have days where I’m like ‘I’m not good enough!’ But I don’t know, I’ve been really really working on accepting myself and I hope people take that away from this record.