It’s been a long journey for Blondshell, aka Sabrina Teitelbaum. Moving to Los Angeles for music school in 2015, she honed her craft with USC’s Pop Program, using the tools she picked up there to pursue her passion for alt-rock.
Words: Finlay Holden.
Photos: Daniel Topete.
Despite quickly launching into debut album territory, Blondshell is a project that Sabrina Teitelbaum has been leading up to her entire life. Following a potent period of self-growth, the refined songwriter details her switch-up from pop hopeful to indie trailblazer.
Growing up in Manhattan and living in a world dominated by radio pop, Sabrina always preferred to spend her listening time on acts like The Rolling Stones and The National, with Lorde and Lana Del Rey making later appearances too. It seems that two genres – pop and indie-rock – would come to define her musical journey for the next decade or so, with the 25-year-old only now able to accurately position these subcultures in a place that works for her.
“I think pop music is cool; it just ended up not being the most authentic thing for me,” she states, directly alluding to her recently concluded BAUM project. Despite building momentum in 2020 and even finishing up a debut EP release, some quiet self-reflection soon shone a light on the fact that this pop pursuit was never truly aligned with Sabrina’s most genuine path, even if she shed blood, sweat and tears trying to chase that dream.
“I wasn’t a quiet indie kid growing up,” she adds: “I didn’t go to a school or see many places where people were making music, so it became a thing just for me and not something I tended to connect with other people over. That was important because I did socialise a lot, and I was outgoing, so it was important to develop my relationship with myself by exploring music alone. It provided an isolated space to learn more about who I am.”
“Music is definitely the way I express myself best because it’s what I’m used to doing,” Sabrina continues. “I’ve always used songs to say things that I wouldn’t want to bring up in conversation.” This is something you can hear quite precisely in the frustration and rejection of ‘Olympus’, the track which birthed Blondshell in a sudden blaze of fury – written in complete isolation with no thought to its potential, the song immediately set a marker for future intent.
“When you’re young, you feel like you’re the only one struggling to understand your emotions”Blondshell
“It kind of freaked me out because I was like, ‘oh no, I’m going to have to rethink this whole music thing’,” she recalls of the cataclysmic event. “I grew up listening to indie, and that’s everything I liked, but it didn’t compute that I had become an indie person making pop music.”
“It was a scary process, but I tried to pursue it very gradually,” she says of what happened next; the forging of a new creative identity, a whole new discography, all of which was never pre-planned or overly thought through. “There was no pressure on myself to make something. It was a project I never intended to release, and I can hear myself in that space when I listen to the songs. I wasn’t thinking, is anyone going to like this? What do people want to hear? Instead, I was focused on: what do I want to say? People connect to peeking through that intimate window of my life rather than me having to pull them in by force; they can tell when you’re doing that.”
Answering those difficult questions proved to be a hard-fought but entirely rewarding process, which you can recognise in the fine lyricisms of Blondshell’s self-titled nine-track LP. It’s a stunningly cohesive debut stacked with cutting highlights, and one so formidable that its formidable gut-punch of a tracklist has taken many by surprise.
“Somebody came to my show in New York, and I heard them say: ‘wow, she came out of nowhere’,” Sabrina recalls of her recent headline tour. “No. I have been working for years and years and years. When I was 16, that’s when Lorde’s first album came out, and she won all these Grammys and became the biggest thing in the world. That’s when I realised: I want to do this as a job too.”
“She was, is, my age. I started to feel this time pressure – the media tells me that as I get older, my chances of doing this as a job get smaller and smaller. I’ve been trying to figure it all out for a long time: how I can say what I want to say, what I want my name to be, how to perform; those things don’t come overnight.”
Although the music industry is certainly one that seems to perpetually pivot towards ever-younger artists, this singer-songwriter maintains a sense of optimism that people are learning to pay more attention to the work that demands it. “Somebody like Caroline Polacheck has been working for years but didn’t find her mainstream success until she was in her 30s. Things are changing. It’s an unfair expectation that people are supposed to know who they are by 25. I couldn’t have written any of these songs when I was 18 because I simply didn’t know who I was.”
It was a pandemic-prompted period of growth that has enabled Sabrina to get comfortable being uncomfortable within the Blondshell persona – specifically, a deep-dive into the world of female-penned memoirs took charge of a confidence-building journey. “It’s such an act of confidence to write an entire book about yourself and think it’s important enough for people to care about what you have to say,” she notes. “It’s not like a song where you’re asking someone to listen for three minutes; putting out a memoir is asking someone to spend hours of their life to hear about yours. Reading essays and books like that where women discuss their experiences without minimising it was important for me. It’s really hard to not minimise your own emotions; I grew up doing that at every opportunity and have had to learn not to.
Now that her creative voice is no longer stifled by her own doubt and trepidation, Sabrina is able to offer a viewpoint of heightened intimacy; smart yet accessible lyricism dance over a stormy sonic palette driven by simmering guitar strings and a clear sense of melody. Formed alongside close collaborator Yves Rothman (Yves Tumor, Girlpool, Porches), the album’s soundscapes reach for the clouds while keeping the focus on gritty but eloquent writing.
As well as production duties, Yves helped to instil a sense of confidence in this new direction, bringing out the emotion of each track while helping to shape up the bigger Blondshell picture. Despite often being surrounded by a wealth of talent – schoolmate Blu DeTiger and best friend NoSo are but two examples – this was the first time Sabrina felt truly seen and supported creatively.
Reflecting on past efforts, she shares: “When I was doing pop music, it was really piecemeal; I’d do a writing session with one person, then go into a recording session with another person. I was never able to get to know people and have them get to know me while I was rotating between collaborators constantly. It’s so much easier building that trust rather than bashing out a song in 12 hours for the paycheck.”
Trust – with herself, her collaborators, and her audience – is perhaps a defining aspect of Blondshell. Sabrina trusts herself to be honest and candid and has faith that those listening might find respite in her world. She offers a vulnerable craving for emotional intimacy on ‘Kiss City’ and ‘Sepsis’ declares a baseline need for better treatment, while live favourite ‘Salad’ empowers her to embrace her fury. “I grew up feeling that anger needs to be squashed down inside, so to be on a stage and have people applaud my anger is very healing.”
‘Blondshell’ tells the story of a woman discovering a new person, one whom Sabrina never expected to see in a mirror, one she’s stopped running away from and has put in the work to foster the development of. It is a record that will forever hold a unique bond with her mental state, but more importantly, it holds the potential to inspire the same realisations in others.
“I always had the hope that things can get better, and I still do, so I hope that this music has the power to help people, even if it’s just them recognising: I feel that way too; I’m not the only one,” she concludes. “When you’re young, you feel like you’re the only one struggling to understand your emotions, but by continuing to be honest not only about things I’m proud of but also as things I’m ashamed of or embarrassed by, I can hopefully show that we’re all on the same path.” ■
Taken from the April 2023 edition of Dork. Blondshell’s self-titled debut album is out 7th April.