‘Typically women are given permission to be sad, but there’s a lot of shame that gets attached to expressing anger’: the alt-rock artist talks rage, relationships, and shares her ultimate break-up playlist
Sabrina Teitelbaum had no idea how angry she was before she began writing as Blondshell. An exercise in uninhibited creativity initiated during lockdown, the NYC-raised alt-rock artist suddenly found herself accessing all the ugly, inconvenient truths she’d suppressed in previous musical projects.
“Before that I had always thought I was being personal,” the 25-year-old singer-songwriter says of the transition today, speaking over Zoom from her apartment in LA. “But it takes a certain amount of confidence and desperation to write about really personal things. So I was like, these are just gonna be my diary songs that nobody’s gonna hear.”
Unrepentant candour has quickly become Teitelbaum’s calling card. Launching Blondshell back in June, the slow smoulder of “Olympus” detailed a romantic infatuation exacerbated by substance abuse, and arrived prefaced by the weary assertion, “I’d still kill for you.” Follow-up “Kiss City” saw her demanding intimacy in lines like, “Just look me in the eye when I’m about to finish.” Better still was “Sepsis”’ jaded opening gambit, “I’m going back to him / I know my therapist’s pissed,” which set up the barbed kiss-off, “We both know he’s a dick.”
“That was a thing that happened,” Teitelbaum chuckles, offering a glimpse of the self-lacerating humour that so often bleeds into her songwriting. “Like, therapists typically don’t share those kinds of opinions, but it was just so obvious she hated him. And I don’t think I would have been able to write these songs had I not been having these discussions every week with my therapist.”
Teitelbaum had been performing for more than a decade before her creative breakthrough. Growing up in Midtown Manhattan, songwriting had always been her default mode of expression – a passion fostered in early childhood after being introduced to the work of David Bowie, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones by her father, and later nurtured via artists like Feist, PJ Harvey and Adele. During high school she was in and out of a succession of bands (including one with classmate Blu DeTiger), using a fake ID to play open mic nights on the Lower East Side.
Looking back on the period now, she experiences little to no nostalgia. “I had a hard time in high school and music was my hideaway,” she shrugs. “And the energy is so heightened in New York – there’s just, like, this tunnel vision.” Seeking some respite, she uprooted her life to LA at the age of 18, majoring in Songwriting at USC. By the time she dropped out in her sophomore year, Teitelbaum had found her musical tribe: a tight-knit community of like-minded queer artists, also featuring fellow Partisan-signee NoSo.
There were solo outings before Blondshell – most notably BAUM, which sat somewhere on the soul-pop spectrum – but it’s through this project that Teitelbaum has finally learned to consolidate all facets of her personality. She recalls, “I started showing the songs to my friends, and everybody just responded being like, ‘Oh, now this is you as a person.”
On her forthcoming full-length debut, Teitelbaum spares nobody, least of all herself. Recorded in and around LA with her long-time collaborator Yves Rothman (Yves Tumor, Sunflower Bean), with reference points including The Cure, Interpol, Hole’s Live Through This and Butch Vig’s production on Siamese Dream, subject matter includes heartbreak, grief, addiction and social anxiety. Though she’s not keen on revealing the specific context behind some of the songs, she concedes to being floored by the fury the songs illuminated.
“Typically women are given permission to be sad but there’s a lot of shame that gets attached to expressing anger. And as a combination of that cultural thing and my own personal hang-ups, I had never felt in touch with that side of myself. Unknowingly, I got in touch with that rage through the music. Just having said all these things it was like, it’s all on the table now: I feel lighter.”
Sometimes that fury is expressed in ruinous revenge fantasies and sometimes in a sense of bitter resignation as per “Sepsis”, an acerbic blast of grunge-pop built around the hook, “It should take a whole lot less to turn me off.” On “Kiss City”, she sounds utterly beaten down as she asks for genuine affection from her partner, a depressing situation born out in the chorus’ devastating kicker, “I’m adjacent to a lot of love.”
“I was just like, why is it so hard to find somebody that’s caring?” she says of the song’s genesis. “Like, the baseline in a relationship – the absolute bare minimum – should be kindness and attention and real intimacy. But what I was finding was that if you ask for that, you’re made out to be clingy or annoying or whatever.
“I felt like everybody just wanted casual things, and I don’t want casual things. So what’s wrong with me? That’s why the song starts out so quiet, because I was like, should I be ashamed of these feelings? Is this embarrassing? And by the end I was like, fuck it – whatever. This is how I feel and I’m going to scream it.”
Taking its name from the cult teen drama, latest single “Veronica Mars” is less lucid in its focus, instead offering a snapshot of a specific moment from Teitelbaum’s childhood. Recalling lying on the floor of her childhood apartment, she entreats, “Give me shelter,” appealing for protection from the sensory overload prompted by graphic films, explicit lyrics and the harsh realities of everyday life in a big city.
It’s a desire most of us have experienced and – alongside a knack for indelible melodies – it’s this very relatability that provides a large part of Blondshell’s appeal. Teitelbaum isn’t taking the responsibility lightly either.
“I don’t have any rules for where I wouldn’t go [in my songwriting]. It’s the only place that feels like nothing is off-limits. Because what I’ve gotten out of the music I love is the permission to feel really big feelings and to express them. And that’s what I give to other people.”
BLONDSHELL’S BREAK-UP PLAYLIST
The Cranberries – “No Need To Argue”
“This was a recent discovery. Something about [Dolores O’Riordan’s] voice and her melodies, it just cuts right through me. The idea that there’s no need to argue because there’s nothing left between us anymore is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. When I first heard it, I was just stunned by how sad and how beautiful the song is.”
MUNA – “Everything”
“I discovered MUNA with a bunch of my friends when I was a freshman in college. We were all queer and had gotten to college as the only people from our high schools that were out. So we all really bonded over that and over finding music from bands that were openly queer. This song was always my favourite because it’s kind of like Elliott Smith’s ‘Everything Reminds Me Of Her’ but MUNA’s version.”
Dionne Warwick – “Walk On By”
“Just the way she sings it, there’s a confidence to it. And the arrangement is so peaceful. But it’s such a heartbreaking idea to see your ex on the street and to want them to just keep walking because you can’t stand it. I like really devastating break-up songs, I don’t know why.”
Cardi B – “Thru Your Phone”
“I’m a huge, huge fan of Cardi B and this is my favourite song of hers. She’s hilarious. Like, the idea I’m gonna call your mom’s phone and tell her that she raised a bitch – it’s just so funny.”
Sky Ferreira – “You’re Not The One”
“Sometimes you need a break-up song to dance to, and this is the one for me. I must have been in tenth grade when I [first] heard it and I have so many memories of being really angsty and in my own world. I was like, ‘I’m just gonna smoke a disgusting American Spirit cigarette and wear fingerless gloves and listen to Sky Ferreira.’ I thought that I was the only one doing it but now I see that everybody was and it was just the Tumblr era.”