Isn’t it always the things we do when we think no one is watching that are the most revealing? It was during those long, lonely months of 2020 during which Sabrina Teitelbaum was living alone in her east Los Angeles apartment that she stopped working on the dark pop tracks under the name Baum, and started making music entirely for herself.
The exercise was immediately liberating, releasing Teitelbaum from the shackles of trying to create the sounds that she imagined other people wanted from her. Instead, she leaned into the grungy indie rock that was her primary passion, and within a year she found herself signed to Partisan Records (Fontaines D.C., IDLES) and preparing to release her debut album as Blondshell.
“I think sonically, I’ve always wanted to make this kind of music, because this is the kind of music I’ve always liked the most,” she tells NME. “During the pandemic, I started being like, ‘Well nobody’s going to hear this anyway, so I can just write whatever I want’ – and that was when I got all of the songs that I’ve got now.”
Tracks like the air-punching ‘Kiss City’ and the irresistible slacker pop of ‘Sepsis’ from the self-titled Blondshell debut, released on April 7, are testament to Teitelbaum’s decision to follow her instincts. Teitelbaum, who grew up in Manhattan before relocating to study music in LA aged 18, had spent the early days of quarantine immersed in the work of the heroes of female rock, from Kathleen Hanna and PJ Harvey to Patti Smith and Mitski – although it was Hole’s 1994 classic ‘Live Through This’ that really sparked excitement in her.
“[Listening to] that album was when things came together the most for me,” she says today. “I just think that all of that music that I was listening to happen to be written from a place of anger, desperation and really heightened emotions, and I think that let me feel like, ‘OK, I don’t have to water my emotions down, I can make music with the most intense feelings that I have, and that’s fine’.”
Take ‘Salad’, which finds Teitelbaum reaching deep into the subconscious to plot a murderous rampage against anyone willing to cross her. “Look what you did, you made a killer of a pacifist,” she sings. “That song is kinda scary,” she says. “I was like, ‘I don’t give a shit, I’m just going to write whatever I want, and I can be mean and terrifying, and that’s what I want to be right now.’ I just felt a freedom in that song, where I can say whatever I want because nobody’s going to hear it.”
Alongside the dirty rock influences that pour out during the searing guitar screeches on ‘Veronica Mars’, Teitelbaum’s music is also blazed through with a confident pop sensibility – even if didn’t realise she was doing it at the time. “I think those melody shapes are so ingrained for me because it’s what I loved growing up,” she explains. “In high school, there was so much good pop music, like [Katy Perry’s] ‘Teenage Dream’. It just comes out naturally.”
Produced with Yves Rothman (Girlpool, Yves Tumor), the album also stands out for its caustic, wry lyrics, which often embrace sexuality and female desire with brazen openness: “Just look me in the eye when I’m about to finish / I think my kink is when you tell me that you think I’m pretty,” she sings on ‘Kiss City’.
“I think sex has felt very taboo, like you can’t talk about it,” says Teitelbaum. “The thing that I feel like I miss a lot from music is talking about wanting actual intimacy. I think it’s often more palatable for people to talk about sex in a way that’s really casual, as if it doesn’t matter, so that’s what I hear a lot in mainstream music. I don’t hear a lot of things like the message from [‘Kiss City’], though.”
It might seem like it has been a sudden rise for Teitelbaum, who only released her debut single as Blondshell last June, but she is quick to dismiss the notion that everything has just fallen into place. “It wasn’t smooth at all. I had a whole other project that I did for years,” she says. “There was a lot of very painful personal growth that was happening at the same time as making the album, too, those things were very intertwined.”
She adds: “The thing that I had that was making me feel better was music, I was leaning heavily on that, and the two things were informing each other.”
Whether it was a bolt from the blue or a painstakingly arduous process, the emergence of Blondshell is something that should make the alt-rock world rejoice. Maybe it’s time for more of us to summon the bravery to share the stuff we make when we are alone.
Blondshell’s self-titled debut album will be released on April 14