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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    How Blondshell pulled off the rock debut of 2023

    Sabrina Teitelbaum has seen every episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” every episode of “House” and every video she can find on TikTok where you try to diagnose a patient’s disease based on a given set of symptoms and lab results.

    “My algorithm thinks I’m a medical student,” says the 25-year-old singer and songwriter who performs as Blondshell. “I’m fascinated by all that stuff. I love learning about, like, how to properly put on latex surgical gloves.

    “But I’d be a really bad doctor.”

    Medicine’s loss is music’s gain: A bruised yet darkly funny set of serrated, hook-riddled guitar rock, Blondshell’s upcoming self-titled LP is the most impressive debut of 2023 to date. Singing in a cool Gen Z deadpan that occasionally spirals up to a wistful falsetto, L.A.-based Teitelbaum ponders social anxiety and toxic sex — “I think my kink is when you tell me that you think I’m pretty,” she admits in “Kiss City” — amid fuzzy-crisp arrangements that echo ‘90s classics by the likes of Liz Phair and Belly.

    The album, due April 7 from Partisan Records (five of its nine tracks are already available to stream), makes an immediate place for Blondshell in a young cohort of talented female songwriters — think Phoebe Bridgers, think Soccer Mommy, think Olivia Rodrigo — expanding rock’s emotional grammar with sophisticated ideas about empathy and vulnerability. But it also showcases a distinctive voice shaped by Teitelbaum’s Jewish cultural heritage and by her interest in all things medical.

    Take “Sepsis,” one of several songs on “Blondshell” with a basis in her many hours of amateur research. “You read about these stories where someone didn’t know anything was wrong, then they suddenly go to the hospital and two days later they’re dead,” she says of the dangerous infection response that gives “Sepsis” its title.

    “I was like, hmm, that’s kind of like my dating life.”

    The confidence and thrust of the tunes she began posting last June on platforms like Spotify — starting with the hypnotic “Olympus,” which she says is about “the chaos of being 21 or 22” — can give the picture of an artist who got into the game knowing precisely what she wanted to say and how to say it. In fact, Teitelbaum had to figure it out.

    Before Blondshell, she took a stab at a slicker electronic pop style under the name Baum, eventually racking up more than 2 million streams of a Halsey-ish track that dropped in March 2020. Yet the isolation of the early pandemic made her rethink her approach, in part because she was writing mostly by herself at home instead of with pro songwriters as she had been pre-COVID; all that alone time led her to chew over heavy themes of betrayal, addiction and self-destruction and to rediscover music she’d loved as a teenager.

    “I was listening to a lot of Hole, getting into the attitude and the relationship to anger,” Teitelbaum says over coffee in Highland Park on a recent morning, her curly blond hair spilling toward a denim jacket over a faded jersey. “So often women are told, ‘If you don’t get this person’s interest, it’s because you’ve done this, this and this wrong.’ But a lot of those songwriters in the ‘90s were like, ‘Something’s not necessarily wrong with me. Something’s wrong with you. And go (expletive) yourself for treating me this way.’”

    Producer Yves Rothman had completed an EP with Teitelbaum in her earlier guise and remembers getting a call in which she told him she no longer wanted to put out the music. “So I asked her what she was working on and she played me this heart-wrenching acoustic demo of ‘Olympus,’” says Rothman, known for his work with Yves Tumor and Girlpool. “It literally floored me, especially compared to what we’d been doing.” Other friends of Teitelbaum’s agreed, she says: “They were like, ‘Finally, you’re not trying an outfit on. This is just you.’”

    Rothman, who went on to produce “Blondshell,” asked her to write more songs in the same vein, which she did, filtering her confessions and her indignation through a sense of humor that Teitelbaum says “runs through this whole history of Jewish singer-songwriters going back to Carole King.”

    In Blondshell’s “Veronica Mars,” Teitelbaum distills the fraught gender politics of that early-2000s teen soap while “Joiner” offers a vivid snapshot of a damaged life: “Think you watched way too much HBO growing up / Now you got one arm cut / And when you eat you throw up.” On the record she punctuates that line with an exaggerated retch.

    Says Teitelbaum, shrugging: “It’s just how we talk about painful things.”

    Teitelbaum, who identifies as bisexual, grew up in New York, one of five children (including a twin brother) of a hedge-fund mogul father. (Teitelbaum’s mom, who died in 2018, wasn’t around when she was a kid, she says.) Her dad took her to see the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Cher; “Jersey Boys” was a formative musical influence — “I saw it on Broadway and was so moved,” she says — as were Adele and Amy Winehouse, whose respective albums “19” and “Back to Black” she learned to play on piano from sheet music.

    She attended the exclusive Dalton School, where she got into the Strokes and the Killers and where she sang in talent shows like one caught on YouTube in which she’s backed on guitar by Jasper Jarecki, whose father Andrew Jarecki directed HBO’s “The Jinx.” Songwriting, she says, became “a way to talk about my feelings, because I felt like I couldn’t in conversation.”

    After high school she moved to L.A. to study at USC’s Thornton School of Music but dropped out after two years to pursue her short-lived pop project. In interviews she gave as Baum, she spoke about how the music reflected her queer identity. Does she feel the same about Blondshell?

    “That’s a hard question to answer because I don’t really think of songs being grouped by sexuality,” she says. “There’s all this stuff online — articles about queer artists, playlists of queer artists — and it’s complicated because on one hand, people need to be able to go on the internet: ‘OK, I’m queer and I want to see other people who are openly singing with joy about their sexuality or about the difficulties of it.’

    “But at the same time, every artist is so much more than their sexuality,” she adds. “There are Blondshell songs where it’s in there and songs where it doesn’t come up as much. It’s just part of who I am.”

    Success came quickly for Blondshell, whose music set off something of a bidding war last year after a SoundCloud link began circulating among a mix of major and indie labels. Zena White, chief operating officer at Partisan (which is also home to Idles and Fontaines D.C.), says she and her colleagues typically stay out of those crowded situations.

    “There’s a lot of great music and a lot of great artists out there,” she explains. “But we just couldn’t stop listening to Sabrina’s songs.” Asked what she responded to, White says that the first album she owned as a 10-year-old was Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill,” which became “a gateway drug to all kinds of music for me. And I think as an alternative rock artist, the stories that Blondshell is telling — it’s exactly the kind of world experience a teenager could benefit from hearing.”

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