Depressing songs are hopeful. There’s nothing worse than hearing something happy and saccharine when you’re in a dark place — it’s called toxic positivity for a reason. No, it’s the depressing songs that get you through the night. They’re proof someone else has felt the same anxiety or rejection or despair before, that you’re not utterly alone in the world. They’re proof that a person can even manage to do something productive with those feelings, like pick up a guitar, strum a few chords, spin that straw into gold.
Blondshell, the self-titled debut from 25-year-old Sabrina Teitelbaum, might be categorized as a record full of depressing songs. It is. It’s also a next-generation rock record full of fury and grace, the product of a 20-something coming of age in a media landscape bloated with HBO shows, frenzied by social media, devastated by a global pandemic and saddled with the same struggles with drugs, alcohol and addiction that have been facing artists — and the rest of us — for decades. Why shouldn’t it be depressing? But thanks to Teitelbaum’s formidable skill as a songwriter, that’s not all it is.
Despite her rookie status, songs off Blondshell sit alongside some of the best rock of the last two decades, as Teitelbaum cites sources as disparate as The Rolling Stones (her first concert), Nirvana, Karen O/Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and The Strokes. Covering a track by The Cranberries on her latest tour — and frequently invoking critical comparisons to greats like PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple and Hole —Teitelbaum is being touted as one of the year’s most exciting breakout artists. And after the morose reign of trap drums for the last two decades, it’s nice to hear a snarling guitar or a sick, lengthy solo dominate a record’s entire sonic palette.
Against All Odds, Neutral Milk Hotel Are Grammy NomineesTheir new collection’s packaging got the nod
Born and raised in New York City, Teitelbaum moved to Los Angeles at 18 to study at USC’s pop program in 2015, before dropping out a few years later and making synthy pop songs under the name BAUM. One song she was working on didn’t quite fit with that project, but she took a chance and showed it to her frequent collaborator and producer, Yves Rothman, anyway. He liked it more than anything else she’d brought him. That song became “Olympus,” the first single off Blondshell, a downtempo, bluesy strummer that builds from acoustic embers into a blazing chorus.
“I met him before I started writing these songs, and we were working on a different project,” Teitelbaum says. “I showed him ‘Olympus,’ and I just knew he would get it and the direction I wanted to take it. I thought it was a good first single because it sort of has a little bit of everything that’s on the album. It’s a song about heartbreak, but it’s also about a lot of other things and personal struggles aside from heartbreak. Lyrically, it’s a good example of what’s on the album. And then, in terms of the production, it’s kind of a ballad, in a way, but it’s also a rock song.”
Teitelbaum calls working with Rothman “a very important relationship,” noting that the pair “understand each other musically and work really well together.” After he nudged her to continue mining the vein that produced “Olympus,” the transition into Blondshell became more permanent. “I went through a lot of changes during the pandemic and a lot of growing,” she says. “I felt like I needed a new name for this music. The last one was Baum — and bombshell, blondshell — if you follow the line down it’s just a different version of me. I was at dinner with my sister and one of us said it, and I was like ‘okay, that feels right.’”
Crediting her move to guitar with pandemic-induced boredom, Teitelbaum remembers binging TV before turning to playing an instrument for a change of pace. “In the pandemic, I was super isolated and living alone,” she says. “I’d be bored watching all these shows on HBO or Netflix — Grey’s Anatomy or Girls. So every time I was bored, I’d play guitar to try to get better. That was how I wrote a lot of these songs. I’d be bored and sit down to practice for a half hour, and I’d end up writing a song instead.”
It’s easy to see how that process would lead to a song like “Veronica Mars,” another early single off the record that rails against the power that (even the most progressive) TV shows have to shape a young person’s idea around relationships, attraction and self-worth. “Kiss City” takes a slightly different tack, a subdued love song that builds into a roiling storm of affection, a formal rejection of culture’s current mode of oh-so-cool casual sex, a declaration of desire for something serious.
Toward the back half of her nine-song album, “Tarmac” and “Dangerous” get even more introspective and are just as fascinating and complex, even if they’re less visceral. A still-unreleased song, “Sober Together,” is fairly straightforward in addressing a friend who was once part of a common journey and has left the path. With five singles currently out and the album’s release date on the horizon for April 7, Teitelbaum’s current mindset is focused on the live show and connecting with her fans.
“With my shows, I’m trying to meet people who connect with the music,” she says. “I’m also trying to give a different kind of life to these songs. There’s more that gets translated when you’re in a room with somebody singing these songs and it’s not just…on their AirPods.” She played two hometown shows in February, hitting a personal milestone by taking the stage at The Fonda, her self-proclaimed favorite venue. “I have wanted to play The Fonda since I moved to LA,” she says. “It’s my favorite venue in the world, my favorite venue in LA. I’ve seen so many shows there that I loved.”
Though by the time she comes back around to play LA again, that stage will likely be too small — and there’s nothing depressing about that.
This article was featured in the InsideHook LA newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Southland.