Best of What’s Next: Blondshell

Music Features Blondshell
Best of What’s Next: Blondshell

Three months ago, I thought it was obvious that Sabrina Teitelbaum—better known by her stage name, Blondshell—was going to be a big deal by April. However, I might have undersold Blondshell’s starpower potential at the time, as she just performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon before her self-titled, debut album is even officially out. Her rise to indie stardom has been impressive, and joyous, to watch from afar. Not only is she a no-brainer Best of What’s Next; she’s also a no-brainer future festival headliner, Saturday Night Live musical guest and critical darling. It’s hard to do anything but root for her in every sense of the word, as she exudes a mountain of cool and is malleable enough to fully embrace whatever contemporary indie’s current, or her own eclectic, evolving taste, warrants from her songwriting.

The hype behind Blondshell is real. At SXSW last month, she stole the show—so much so that she took home the festival’s Grulke Prize for Developing U.S. Act. With over 1,500 acts in town, all vying for stage time, label notice and new fans, taking home that award has only become a bigger accolade in recent years. It’s no surprise that Blondshell won it, though. I caught her set at FLOODFest, where she performed on the indoor stage at the Mohawk, and she blew the whole room open. The space was tiny, overrun with muggy, Texas heat and packed beyond the brim. There were so many people crowded before Blondshell that I, and her manager, had to watch her from the part of the stairwell the band uses to climb onstage. In a vintage Neil Young shirt and a pair of jorts, she ran through a brisk setlist filled-out with tracks from Blondshell. Everybody in the venue sang every lyric with her.

Blondshell was born in New York City and raised across Midtown Manhattan by a single father. Early on, he introduced her to the wisdom of Bob Dylan and his influence helped her develop a childhood obsession with the Rolling Stones. She started writing breakup songs as a kid and, even back then, she thought she had the chops to make it as a real musician. But of course, with childhood dreams came rose-tinted glasses and, by the time Blondshell was old enough to drive, doubt crept in about whether or not she could get her music noticed based on her talent alone. “When I was a kid, I was like, ‘If you’re able to sing, that’s it,’” she tells me over the phone. “I didn’t know enough. Then, when I got older, I was like, ‘Oh, it requires really hard work, a ton of luck and lots of things that are really out of your control.’ It set in that it was definitely not a given and was actually unlikely that I would get to do it as a job.”

When she was 18, Blondshell moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California and study in their pop music program. That doesn’t mean she was in classes devoted to mapping out the pipeline from the Beatles to Rihanna. Instead, it was a way of making a distinction from the school’s classical performance and composition branch. “When I was a freshman, we focused on a lot of Motown,” Blondshell says. “The whole year was just learning about Motown, how they wrote those songs, the production elements, personnel, all of that stuff.” She’d stay in the program for two years before dropping out. When she got there, she didn’t know music theory, which stripped her of having a lot of confidence. “I was like, ‘I really don’t understand the chords I’m playing,’” she adds. “[The program] gave me a lot of tools that I think I needed. My ear got better. I can write harmonies now. Then I was like, ‘I gotta drop out because I want to start actually working.’”

Being on the West Coast primed Blondshell in ways the East Coast hadn’t. Back in New York, she wasn’t involved in any music scene. She was just a high schooler writing songs in her bedroom and using a fake ID to get into Bowery venues across the city. In Los Angeles, she found a community among people practicing dark pop, a genre that washed over many of the musicians there. “The people I was meeting, that was just what we were doing. It sent me on a path, genre-wise,” she says. “I learned from people, craft-wise. I learned a lot of little production things, little guitar things. I learned from the people I was around all the time.”

After leaving USC, under the moniker BAUM, Blondshell wrote herself out of burnout and made an EP called Ungodly and an electronic, nightclub banger called “Fuckboy” in 2019. It was a song with the right architecture, and it could’ve been plugged into any sonic landscape in the last 15 years and soar. More than anything, it was an immense flaunt of Blondshell’s abilities to craft compelling, hypnotic pop songs. That edge is still present in her songwriting process, but the BAUM stuff better serves as an archive of “all the feelings and thoughts” Blondshell had when she was 21. Her songs now are less digital and more explorative of grunge and folk. “I think I have a lot of instinct to write pop melodies,” she says. “It took me a minute to realize the genre that I wanted to make, because I didn’t know who I was enough yet. I just needed to grow up a little bit.”

There was never a time where Blondshell saw herself as anything but a songwriter. And, like many of us who devote all of our time and energy to the craft we’re passionate about, if our jobs don’t work out, where we would turn next could be scary and uncertain. “I don’t really have that many marketable skills other than music, because I spent my whole life focusing on it,” she says with a laugh. “Even when I was growing up, when I was in high school, this is just what I did when I wasn’t doing homework or hanging out with my friends.” Luckily, Blondshell scored a record deal with Partisan and assembled a brilliant debut record.

Most of Blondshell was written at the genesis of COVID in 2020, as a result of, as Blondshell puts it, “not a lot going on and having a lot of big feelings that I need to talk about.” The record has been fleshed out slowly, as six tracks have come out intermittently over the last nine months. The first single, “Olympus,” came in July 2022 and the last single, “Salad,” hit streaming this morning. The decision to put over half of the album out before its official release date was intentional and methodical. “I’ve looked at it like, ‘I’m introducing everybody to me and my music,’” Blondshell says. “I’m not trying to focus on ‘Hey, I have this body of work that I’ve made that I want you guys to pay attention to.’ I was just like, ‘I want to introduce myself,’ and I felt that the best way to do that is song by song. It’s just not as intimidating, either, for me or for people who are being introduced to the music.”

As a frontwoman, Blondshell commands the stage. She sings like a classically trained vocalist while injecting her charisma with the bravado of Courtney Love and the pop likability of Avril Lavigne. As a songwriter, she instills a complexity throughout the record that perfectly mirrors her own humanity. She is vulnerable, funny, painfully honest and doesn’t hide behind vague language. Her work is a true foil to that of folks who love metaphors. Gauzy filler is just not her thing. “I always like music that’s really literal,” she says. “But that’s also the way I get relief, by being straight up, like how I would talk to a friend. I came at these songs in a ‘I need to get this off my chest’ kind of way.” On “Sepsis,” she rips a love interest for wearing a “front facing cap” and being deficient at sex; “Salad” finds her fixated on poisoning an abusive man’s food; on “Joiner,” she employs a playful retching at the end of a verse.

No two songs sound alike, yet Blondshell is not a collage of subgenres. Instead, it’s Blondshell tinkering with her own renditions of sonic palettes previously mastered by the artists she got really stoked on during the pandemic, like Hole, Nirvana and Patti Smith. It’s indie pop fused with grunge, but it also, thoroughly, rebuffs getting lost among other ’90s alternative imitations. That’s all thanks, in most part, to Blondshell’s songwriting and compositional finesse, both of which allow her to attach a glaze of bubbly acoustic guitar and synths atop the heavy lyrical shit that might necessitate a litany of spell-binding distortion.

Blondshell is a record about relationships and friendships in the wake of newfound sobriety. That transition helped Blondshell find authenticity in a more honest way than ever before. “A lot of things that I went through contributed to me having clarity. Being able to write with that sense of presence was really helpful for this album,” she says. On “Sober Together,” Blondshell meditates on how addiction drove a wedge between her and the partner she initially got sober with. “It’s in the blood / But part of the disease is giving up / Call me, I wanna be there for you / But not in a way that lets you take me down with you,” she sings. What’s particularly striking about the lyrics, though, is how transparent Blondshell is about providing love from a judgeless place—another instance of the personal growth she so frequently champions when talking with me about the record.

A lot of contemporary songwriters find themselves mining through the past for inspiration. Blondshell approaches it differently, preferring to work through the present day in order to find clarity, but without all of the intentionality. All of the songs on Blondshell came very soon after the stories within them occurred, like a living, breathing sonic diary that Blondshell was writing in real time. “There wasn’t a lot of reflecting back on things as much as there was singing about things that were happening at the time,” Blondshell says. “Now, I can look back and reflect on those songs and what they’re about and those relationships. But, at the time, it was really like, ‘I’m singing about what’s going on today, not last month or a year ago.’”

In her post-USC and post-BAUM days, Blondshell was tasked with finding a place among a culture and an industry that levies unfair expectations on the women working within it. Not everyone can be an indie darling at 18, but critical praise and that “one-in-a-million” attitude towards the artists who do break out just after high school have skewed perceptions across the board. “There’s so much pressure, particularly on women, to have everything figured out by the time you’re 20. And I definitely did not,” she says. “It was only when that pressure got taken off by the world shutting down that I was able to take a breath and figure things out more.” During quarantine, Blondshell finally had the space and access to strengthen her songwriting muscles and go all in on unpacking her own reckonings—something that wasn’t entirely visible to her before 2020. “I always think I was being authentic to myself at the time,” she adds. “There just was not as much clarity on what was authentic to me. There were a lot of blocks, because I didn’t know what was really honest and because I wasn’t necessarily being honest with myself.”

The metamorphosis of Blondshell arrives in fits of heartbreak, loneliness and proclamations of wants and desires, as she gleans the most brazen details from her surroundings into a three-minute vacuum. “Just look me in the eye / When I’m about to finish / Kiss city / I think my kink is when you tell me that you think I’m pretty,” she sings on “Kiss City”; “And it’s so dangerous / Forming an attachment to something / Know that every time I love it might pull the rug out,” she sings on “Dangerous.” Blondshell is, at times, a painful listen, but only because of how familiar the narratives are. If you don’t hear relics of your younger self in the embarrassing details—whether it’s when she connects someone’s internal damage to binging HBO shows, or when she calls some guy’s dickishness hot—maybe this record isn’t for you. Blondshell offers a perfect balance between sex, relationships, violence and trauma, and lines like “And I think I believe in getting saved / Not by Jesus validation / In some dude’s gaze / And I think I believe in getting saved / Holy water pull my hair right / From the base” could only be written by Blondshell. The record will forever be a harmonious alchemy for those of us who live in the purgatory between being a Millennial or Gen-Z.

A lot of what makes Blondshell sound great comes from producer Yves Rothman, who elevated the music by approaching the songs in a “holistic way.” His experience (from working with Yves Tumor, Girlpool and Porches) and knowledge expanded Blondshell’s vision, and he’d pull and parse musical references that helped make Blondshell the rock record she dreamed it could become. “He was able to look at the songs and fit the pieces together and pull the best that I had to offer out of me,” she says. “He was able to say to me, in a really honest way: ‘Hey, this song isn’t done. You should go home and finish this.’ And I’d be like, ‘But it’s supposed to be a minute’ and he’d say, ‘I think it’s supposed to be a full song.’” The end result is, frankly, one of the cleanest indie records of the year.

As I return to Blondshell again and again, I’m discovering more things to love about it. That feels cliché to say, but it’s true. “Joiner” worms its way into your ears and never leaves. It’s one of the few perfect indie pop songs that 2023 has given us. Blondshell’s performance of “Salad” on The Tonight Show obliterated 30 Rockefeller Plaza. When she debuted “Olympus” last summer, it became the first chapter of her new sound. It was her biggest deviation from pop music yet, and was achieved through a COVID-induced, solitary moment of songwriting. “I think I felt like I had to be writing with other people,” she says. “I felt like the songs that I was writing alone weren’t accessible enough. I felt like I would put them out and they wouldn’t be catchy enough, or they would be too heavy. I just thought, “Whatever I’m saying alone isn’t going to work” and then, I had to write only by myself. I wasn’t doing sessions. And I just figured out that I liked that music a lot more and I was like, ‘I don’t care, maybe it’s not as accessible. Maybe it is. I’m just gonna keep doing that.’”

Every Blondshell record is destined to be different, since her work in the moment greatly reflects the media she’s consuming at the same time. Back in 2016, the songs she was writing were heavily influenced by Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. The next project is likely to lean into folk more than Blondshell, because she’s been spending a lot of time recently with Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You and the airier Indigo De Souza tracks. In fact, she’s already crafting another batch of songs. She’s been touring a lot, including a stint opening for Suki Waterhouse, and has found a lot of joy in playing for people who know her work. Of course, whatever joy Blondshell is feeling in her personal life won’t be the first thing that gets translated onto the next record, because she’s working on being more present in those moments rather than taking a diaristic approach to them. “I’m always inclined to write ballads, because I don’t feel that motivated to write about really happy subjects,” she says. “Because, if things are happy, I just want to live it. I don’t want to have to write about it.”

Blondshell is a triumphant debut from the next indie superstar. And what an honor it is to say that, because you’ll be hard-pressed to find a project that’s more confessional, urgent or needed than this one. It’s Live Through This for Zoomers, wrought with stadium-sized scorchers and dainty acoustic gems. After years of having one foot in the door of pop music, Blondshell has knocked the hinges off in a genre that best compliments how she sees and colors the world. She might tumble through that world in vintage band shirts like a record-store worker in a ’90s coming-of-age film, but the stories she gives us are worth untangling for generations to come. Normally, I’d say that Blondshell is the future. But today, it’s never been clearer that Blondshell is the present. While performing “Salad” last night, she sang “Gonna get big / Gonna get big” over and over. In the biggest moment of her career thus far, in front of millions of people tuning in, it felt like an appropriate proclamation.

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