Buzzy Lee On The Colorful Soul Of ‘Facepaint’, Working Through Critiques And What’s Next
Buzzy Lee, a.k.a. Sasha Spielberg, caps her run as TIDAL Rising Artist of the Week in conversation with us about her production partner Nicolas Jaar, the inspiration behind the Buzzy Lee moniker, and what is next for her established, new voice.
Where did the genesis of the name and the whole aesthetic come together for Buzzy Lee?
Well, my grandmother, Lee, had passed away and we were so entwined. We were the same person and she would always mention that. My grandmother had this restaurant she found in the ‘80s in Los Angeles, called The Milky Way. It’s a kosher restaurant and she was there every single day until a week before she died. People wanted to go there to see her, she was a star there. I didn’t want to make The Milky Way mine, but I wanted to include her on what this was all going to look like and be. I wear her clothes all the time, she had the same uniform everyday, it was these overalls and a Peter Pan collar. I love my friend Brantley Gutierrez’s photography work and he had shot me a few times. We went to the restaurant and shot there after hours.
What would be the mood board for the Facepaint EP? The album art and music work really well together, as this cohesive experience.
I think I always made these internal notes about California Adventure, it’s a theme park, and there is one part that is a simulator and there’s an orange grove you float over. So, I think I was thinking of that for “On the Radio.” The oranges and greens were there. The rest of the album are these burgandys and light blues. “No Her” felt deeper, like a crimson. I always had Fellini and Italian movie references in my head, like Juliet of the Spirits, with all these bright colors, but the movie still tends to get dark.
Is Buzzy Lee the part of you that wanted to be a pop singer?
Ahhh, yeah, but we also had that in Wardell, there were a ton of influences there and one of them was pop.
Are these all reference points that developed later in life, or were these all things you’ve always wanted to capture?
When I was a kid, I had a pale yellow bedroom. I was so drawn to the color yellow, and still am, so I think the album was me trying to pull out that yellow, and give it these darker hues. My whole “chase” is to capture that yellow, I don’t know if I captured it on the record, though.
Every song on the EP has its own life and its own sense of placement on the record. “Coolhand” is this really strong highlight from the EP, but “On the Radio” is such a humane, “real” song and arguably because you can hear the squeaks of the keys being pressed at the beginning, each sound is so delicate, but important to the atmosphere of the song. Is that an intentional inclusion and what does that speak to?
Yes, yes, that was the sustain pedal, actually. It was the first song we (Sasha and EP producer Nicolas Jaar) recorded and the first thing we recorded was the piano. I did two takes, but the squeaks were so rhythmic. I was always listening to squeaky songs growing up. I think a lot of Elliott Smith songs you can hear noises in the background, and also people like Chilly Gonzales, had those inclusions. I love that “in the moment” method of songwriting. I love improvising. If someone is giving me a chord progression, I’ll say “press record right now.”
You’ve amassed a collection of voice notes and snippets of ideas on your phone that you rely on for places to start. What’s the process of how you captured your sound through that method, as opposed to the more collaborative project, Wardell, that you had with your brother, Theo?
When I sit down at a piano now, I don’t sit down and start writing. I press “record” and go at it, because there are many times where I’ll play and then find something good, and there’s been plenty of times where I think “shit” and I have to find my phone to record the notes I liked, and it’s never the same as the sound was “in the moment.” I’m very paranoid of losing the sound, but then I delete the ones that I don’t think are worth it. With Nico(las Jarr), I had a lot of these songs all ready, but there were still improvisational moments that stuck on the songs. It was a combination of our history previously working together (in the group, Just Friends) and my work tendencies on the piano that created this great collaboration.
What do you think from Nicolas Jaar’s extensive work bled into the Facepaint EP?
His records are so atmospheric and spatial. He definitely brought that to this project. I said to him, “We are making so many songs where I am singing in my highest register. Should we make something where I am kind of belting it out?” and he said, “No, I think there is so much power when you’re singing in a falsetto, there is so much soul there.” When I was a kid, I was obsessed with being a pop-type singer, like Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey, I’ll always want to go there.
How integral was Nicolas Jaar to the final product of the EP? Could it have sounded remotely like how it turned out without his inclusion?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I could have “gone there” without him. Mainly because he is my best friend. With Theo, there was this understanding, it was tacit. But, ultimately, sometimes I felt like I’d be reluctant to maybe share something about this relationship, because he is my older brother and he’ll get protective. With Nico, it’s more of two best friends just gabbing on the floor about what it all means and things like that, and we’re also recording it. He definitely pushed me. I’d say a lyric and he would say, “okay, okay, we can totally use that. What does it mean, though?” I’d tell him that it just worked phonetically, so he’d then take a piece we were working on and set it on a loop and have me write to it.
How does it feel, in the moment, to get that sort of feedback from your friend and producer?
It’s the last thing you want to hear. I hate writing lyrics. I think it is because I have a guard up and it’ll take me to a place where I’ll have bad thoughts and kind of isolate myself. I know that those phrases didn’t work logically, but they worked sonically. I know that, but I don’t want anyone else to know that and I certainly don’t want to hear it from someone else. He would challenge me though and I appreciated it.
Did you know what the project would be beforehand and did you know how much of yourself you wanted to put forth? Did you start to see how personal the project was becoming?
I didn’t think too hard about it, but I did make a decision to myself to strive for full transparency. I felt like I had no choice. The timing worked out and I needed someone to talk to and I needed to record music.
I like the idea of being able to mimic your emotions directly through melody. I was kind of transposing my diary into lyrics. With Wardell, it was a combination of our dreams and emotions and thoughts. I was trying to cut through and be as “me” as possible. No songs that say “I’m doing great” inspire me.
What is next for Buzzy Lee? Is it a full-length?
Well, yes. I have a lot of songs ready, which means I have a lot of songs ready to be picked apart. I have a big batch of songs I’m ready to record, but I feel like I’ll record it song-by-song. Ideally, I’d have a bunch of studio time, but realistically, it’ll be recorded piece by piece. I appreciate being able to work in an improvisational manner. I was writing new songs while the EP was recorded, so I think I’ll find a place for them since the emotions are still there.
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