Blondshell is exactly where she needs to be
Growing up, Sabrina Teitelbaum spent a lot of time listening to the radio.
Driving around with her parents, choruses, verses and transcendent middle eights revealed themselves to her via the car stereo, as the New York City of her upbringing rushed past the window. Teitelbaum – who now writes and performs wry, confrontational indie rock as Blondshell – found herself entranced by the chart music she heard as her legs dangled from the backseat. She loved the drama of tracks like Madonna’s Hung Up, arrested by its whirling melody. “It really drew me in,” she remembers. “It was like a drug. I was like, ‘I don’t know why, but this makes me feel good.’”
It’s fitting, then, that when I speak with Teitelbaum, she’s on the road – although this time her mode of transport is a tour bus. She’s playing a string of US dates in support of Suki Waterhouse as she gears up for the release of the debut Blondshell album: nine tracks of unfurling personal revelation, delivered via the medium of wisecrack lyrics, burly riffs and infectious melodies. Though making these songs was an intense experience – Teitelbaum says that at the time of writing them, “I was like, ‘It feels like I’m gonna die from the feelings’” – she’s had enough breathing space that now, she smiles, “it’s nice to relive them”.
Today, she’s beaming in from a Holiday Inn in Dallas, Texas – her wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail, the hotel room behind her a fetching shade of identikit beige – and our conversation is just one piece of the complex puzzle that is Teitelbaum’s day. We have an hour-long window in which to talk before she hits the highway again, down to Austin for the last gigs of her run. Despite her chaotic schedule, Teitelbaum’s demeanour is upbeat. Of all the composite parts of the life of a musician, taking her music on tour is, for her, the most exciting part: “I want to meet people who are connecting with the music and show them how I connect with it live,” she explains. As such, while she’s looking forward to going home to LA, she speaks from this little hotel room with the satisfaction and seriousness of someone who knows she’s exactly where she ought to be.
At just 25, Teitelbaum has already lived a few different musical lives. After an adolescence spent poring over footage of The Rolling Stones on her dad’s “chunky video iPod”, obsessing over bands like The Killers and Rooney (thanks to early 2000s TV show, The O.C.), and learning to play piano and guitar, she realised she wanted to pursue music professionally. At 18, she moved to LA to join the University of Southern California’s prestigious Pop Program, which trains up the next generation of US songwriting talent. She dropped out after two years, however, disillusioned with a way of working that was endorsed by both the course and the writing sessions she joined through connections she made there. “I didn’t have a lot of success with it because it’s not my skillset,” she explains. “It was really hard for me, because it’s not natural to me to go into a room and have like five hours to write and demo a song and cut vocals.” Meanwhile, in an attempt to escape the pressure-cooker environment of writing by committee, Teitelbaum was making soul-adjacent pop as BAUM until early 2020, which was a turning point for more reasons than just the obvious one.
It was during this period that she decided to commit to the hard work of getting sober – a process she diarises on Blondshell – and also finished up what would be her final BAUM project, with producer Yves Rothman, who has worked with artists like Yves Tumor, Kim Gordon and Girlpool. But as the pandemic hit, she realised that the music she had begun writing in isolation was taking a much rawer, soul-penetrating turn, addressing difficult topics like substance abuse and romantic disappointment head-on.
While Teitelbaum had never shied away from sadness in her songs before – “I never write happy songs because I wouldn’t feel the need to do it!” – the rage she was channelling felt thrilling. “I hadn’t gotten a lot of anger out through music [before],” she explains. She decided that her new direction was different enough that she wanted to start totally afresh, as Blondshell.
“The songs felt like a breakthrough,” Teitelbaum admits. “For me, to write in a way that’s real and comfortable, I have to be completely isolated. That’s how I get stuff out.” To pass time through lockdown, she listened to Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins and challenged herself to improve her guitar skills, all the while instinctively gravitating towards the rock music that had characterised her earliest musical loves.
Encouraged by Rothman, who told her to “keep writing”, Teitelbaum initially intended to make an EP, but ended up with a full record. “I was sick of trying to make music that I wanted people to like,” she tells me. So on Blondshell, she shifted her focus. “What would I say if nobody was going to hear it? What would I say if I really wasn’t thinking about any of that?”
The result is Blondshell, an extremely honest record on which Teitelbaum exposes all four corners of her psyche. She does not shy from her own taboo impulses – the things we all think but few dare to say aloud. Salad is a fantasy about murdering an abusive man (“I can’t stop having visions of following him/ Gonna make it hurt”), while on Sepsis she self-deprecatingly acknowledges her inner saboteur, drawling: “I’m going back to him/ I know my therapist’s pissed/ We both know he’s a dick.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that the album is partly inspired by Hole’s 1994 Live Through This album – particularly Courtney Love’s “this is what I’m going to make and fuck you if you don’t like it” attitude, as Teitelbaum puts it matter-of-factly. Her most valuable skill as a lyricist and musician is that she uses all of the tools at her disposal, expressing the extremity of her feelings with understated specificity and humour, and leaving the rasp in her voice and the firepower of her instrumentation – she shreds, bro – to be responsible for all of the necessary melodrama.
Album opener Veronica Mars is a mission statement, comprising a few of Blondshell’s calling cards – witty, eye-rolling lyrics about shitty men (“Logan’s a dick,” she deadpans on the track, gesturing to a love interest in the titular TV show, before hitting listeners with the punchline: “I’m learning that’s hot.”), and an electric guitar solo. Elsewhere, Tarmac, Olympus and Sober Together (home to the record’s most incisive lyric: “You’ve been in the bathroom/ Perfect for an asshole”) wrestle with various aspects of addiction, including being “in love with a feeling, not with anyone or any real thing” on the latter, the struggle of loving another addict and Teitelbaum’s own journey to sobriety.
While she is not specific about her history with substance abuse – other than in the controlled space that is her music, where she sings of “sweat[ing] out the drugs all through the summer” on Olympus – Teitelbaum does discuss certain aspects. She laments, for example, the lack of information about addiction. “A lot of what we get about addiction comes through TV, tabloids and movies.” She pauses to roll up a sleeve of her white t-shirt. “[It’s] not through the most realistic lens. There are as many different forms of addiction as there are people who have it.” She also states, with certainty, that she wouldn’t have made Blondshell if she hadn’t got sober.
“It was a big exercise in self-compassion for me to be like, ‘[Recovery] doesn’t have to look like it does in a movie,’” she says now. “It was a big thing for me to say, ‘I’m going to take my pain seriously enough that I want to get better.’”
This approach was shaped by Teitelbaum’s pandemic reading list of books by Patti Smith, Rachel Cusk and Rebecca Solnit, all of whom have documented lived experiences specific to being women in their prose, as well as the lyrics of Phoebe Bridgers (because “the writing is so detailed and literal”). Expanding on these influences, Blondshell is a rock record firmly in the lineage of uncompromisingly forthright music made by the likes of Courtney Love, Fiona Apple and early Liz Phair, though Teitelbaum stresses that she feels these songs represent an examination of her own femininity which feels new.
While writing the album, Teitelbaum was also working through her own understanding of her gender identity. “I’ve always felt really masculine, compared to what people assumed I would be. At the doctors, they do my bloodwork, and they’re like, ‘You have high levels of testosterone.’ And I’m like, ‘Obviously. I feel that.’ Even though that doesn’t correspond to gender identity, it was a way for me to be like, ‘Well yeah, no shit.’ With a lot of these songs, it was the first time I thought that exploring my femininity doesn’t take away from my sense of masculinity.”
As she explains this, Teitelbaum – who has been measured and practised throughout our conversation – seems like she is still feeling these ideas out for herself. She speaks slowly, turning the words over in her mind before she says them.
“With a lot of these songs, it was the first time I thought that exploring my femininity doesn’t take away from my sense of masculinity”
“The binary is hard for me,” she continues, “because how I feel about my gender changes a lot day to day, and in this album there were days where I felt more masculine and others more feminine. That came out in the songs. It was one of the first times I was writing – just because of getting older and being in therapy – from a place of ‘I don’t have to be one thing.’”
Blondshell – the project and the album named for it – has clearly functioned for Teitelbaum as a vessel for self-expression and self-discovery. As she’s about to be hurried through to the next part of her busy day – a voice is calling for her at the hotel room door – she explains that she wants the record to assist others going through their own self-searching. “These songs are me in the trenches, trying to figure out how to be kind to myself. I want people to have a window into that, and hopefully it can be helpful to them while they’re in that process,” she says simply, smiling into her webcam as we wave goodbye. “I’m still in that process. I feel like I always will be.”
Blondshell is out now via Partisan