Check out our interview with LA-based, alternative singer-songwriter Thea Sass-Ainsworth who just released her debut solo EP “Manderley.” As a reference to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Sass-Ainsworth’s EP is concerned with time, space, and how memory can betray shared experiences, especially when the spinning void of love and heartbreak is the setting at hand.
While “Manderley” is Sass-Ainsworth’s first solo offering, she is a seasoned performer and artist. Between gigs as the lead vocalist in 80s rock tribute bands, singing torch songs in jazz clubs, and playing in collaborative punk bands, Sass-Ainsworth has developed an art practice rooted in performance.
“Manderley” is an offering of twisting memories and lost love pinned together by hands, lips, and cold drinks in smoky rooms. It is a night at the goth bar, a Lynchian dance montage, a scorned lover burning all your things. Armed with melodic guitar and husky vocals, Sass-Ainsworth hypnotizes and seduces to a frenzied point over the course of four tracks.
Follow Thea @theasass
Hi Thea, please tell us a little about you?
First and foremost I’m an artist. I am an artist who uses music, language and moving image to explore themes of memory, longing and loss. I am a singer and a guitarist; a songwriter. I am a feminist, and all of my work—crucially—draws from this lens. My influences include the terror & wonder of the gothic, the abundance and life force found in the baroque, and the scrutiny and poignancy of present day life. I am born and bred in the north–in Minneapolis, Minnesota; came into my adulthood in New York City, and am now settling into the core of who I am in expansive, sun-dappled Los Angeles. My work is rooted in literature, theory and pop culture; bridging the gap between academia, the avant-garde and accessibility. I am a woman, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a lover. I am resilient.
Describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, creative, kind.
How did you get started in the business?
My parents are artists and I grew up surrounded by art—movies, music, culture. I think I was always going to be an artist, but it was nurtured in me from a young age. I was taught that art is important and valuable; that it enriches and reports back on life. My parents work in film so I saw how artists work, how so many people can work towards making a piece of art, how many people have to believe in it. I have always been a musician–I remember to read music parallel to learning to read. I went to an arts high school in my home state of Minnesota, Perpich Center for Arts Education, and that affirmed my existence as an artist in a lot of ways. But I wanted to educate myself in the truest sense of the word, so I went to New York to study nonfiction writing and socio-philosophy. I am a curious person, and I have always been a voracious reader, and the time I spent and will continue to spend writing is crucial to my work as a feminist, an activist, a musician, everything. I was told for a long time that I had to “pick one thing” to do as an artist, but now I’ve realized that for me the way I approach things is multifaceted and interdisciplinary, and my time spent working in film, in fashion, in academia, in just the minutiae of everyday life, informs my music, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I started singing jazz, and showtunes (both of which I love dearly, for their raw emotional centers) and when I was a teenager I suddenly knew very clearly that I wanted to write songs. I started as sort of an emocore songwriter, then shifted to indie-folk, then punk rock, then pure pop, then finally settled into a more authentic in-between place as I’ve gotten older. Songwriting takes a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and a lot of heart. At the beginning of my career I was pretty angry at the world and wanted to prove people wrong, or maybe just prove something to myself. Now the music has evolved into a distillation of my unique style and experiences.
How has this changed your life?
Taking on being an artist is by far the most challenging and life-changing thing that I or anyone can do. It is a “full time job” in the sense that you are never off. Everything and every moment is an opportunity to perceive, to respond, to listen. It is an unconventional job and lifestyle but it has lead me to pure beauty, joy and magic, even if that sounds cheesy. It has connected me with amazing, amazing humans across the world and for that I am so deeply grateful.
Describe your sound in 3 words?
Raw, Emotional, Expansive
Who influenced you and why did you choose to make music?
I grew up listening to lounge and torch singers like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday combined with OG punk bands like Ramones and The New York Dolls, which later became laced with the zeitgeist-y groups of my childhood and teenage years. I was deeply influenced by emo bands like My Chemical Romance and their successors The Academy Is… in the way that I have always wanted to create work that is overtly and deeply emotional. I am in awe of female rock musicians like Debbie Harry and Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde. As a teenager I was obsessed with the Runaways, and have them and other pioneering female rock musicians to thank for what I am able to do now. In terms of why I started making music, I was very into the local music scene in Minneapolis where I grew up. As a teenager I would go to all-ages clubs like three or four times a week and see different bands. It was an amazing experience, and kind of gave me license to just go for it and start creating. The musicians I have met and worked with in my life have been deeply influential to me–like my producer, Jacob Grun. We met when I was just figuring out how to be a musician and he taught me a lot about what the lifestyle of being a musician looks like, how to be a better songwriter. I always say this and I mean it very sincerely, but I am musician now because I have no other option. It’s something I have to do. When I am not making music, there is a huge part of me that is hollowed out. It is what I am meant to do in a way, which is a hard thing to admit. Music is the art form that most viscerally allows us all to access our emotions, and I try to channel that into every piece of work. I and my music are all heart–it’s very authentic and sincere. I’ve never been able to conform to popular molds and ideas, and I think we are at a moment where we are culturally ready to explore more complex, nuanced, and outside-the-box artworks and artists such as my work and myself.
Do you play any instrument?
Yes. As a songwriter, playing an instrument is crucial. It makes me feel empowered and in control of the sound. I started playing guitar when I was 15 because I wanted to be in a band and write songs, and I remember thinking that as a young woman no one would take me seriously without an electric guitar in my hands. I taught myself so the way I play is very idiosyncratic, haha. I can play rudimentary piano but I wish I was better!
Do you ever get nervous?
Absolutely. I get crippling stage fright every time before I get on stage, which is ironic because performing is one of my favorite feelings and experiences in the world. But as soon as I start the nervousness completely goes away and I get caught up so entirely in the moment. I get nervous about releasing work all the time. The nerves come from caring so much, so I wouldn’t take that away.
Tell us about the new EP “Manderley?”
After a lifetime as a musician, I started making music again because I felt that I had no other option. It was just what I had to do. That led to me having the courage to step outside of the band format that I had gotten comfortable in, and finally consider releasing work as a solo artist. A long-time friend and collaborator of mine—Jacob Grun— had also set up shop in Los Angeles, and when things slowed down considerably during COVID, we were able to really sit down together and think about what this record could and would sound like; what a solo offering from me would ultimately be. We recorded everything in a converted bedroom/studio in Koreatown, so it really is indie in the true sense of the word. Myself as a solo artist is a concept I’ve been considering since I was a teenager playing at DIY punk venues, and it took until 2021 for things to crystallize and become tangible. So there’s half a lifetime of memories and emotion and experience in this work.
Manderley is a reference to the Daphne Du Maurier novel Rebecca. Manderley in the book is a house, but it is symbolic of grandeur, opulence, love, hopes; paranoia, anxiety, decay, lost love. For me, Manderley is a space that exists in liminality–in dreams, empty rooms, echoes, memories. The four songs on the record have a lot to do with dreams and memories and intoxication and solitude and the feeling of after. Manderley is a lot about time, space, and how memory can betray shared experiences. It takes place in bars, beds, and in conversations with lovers, where shadowy memories live in perpetuity. I’m still in shock that I was able to release it. It feels like such an amalgamation of my life as both person & artist but also such a document to who I am now.
When I was working on Manderley it was very important to me to have a strong visual component as well, which is why the merch and the images and the zine and videos we shot all tell a strong story. Records can tell such strong stories, and creating an all encompassing atmosphere to go along with the music was crucial for me. Making something immersive will always be a big part of my aesthetic as an artist, and especially on this record, my debut.
What’s the story behind the song?
All of the songs on the record tell their own unique stories, but there are narrative threads that I think listeners can pick up on—certain relationships, settings, spaces. The Farthest Point and Coping —the first and last songs–are the themes of the record. I see them as very atmospheric and cinematic. They’re about waking up from a dream, only to feel like you’re still in another dream. Of riding in a car as twilight sinks in around you–of wishing you were different than you are, or that things had been different. Of losing love, and the aftermath of that. They’re more about images and liminality. Disposable and Keloid are the meat of the narrative, the action. The power and vulnerability of being a young woman. The kind of love that intoxicates but takes. A sort of masochism. What it takes to feel alive, and the ways we alter our consciousness as humans to do that. It’s so fun for me to hear what other people take away from each of these songs, because everyone has a different response depending on who they are and what they’ve experienced. These songs were all written over the course of several years, so the different iterations of my life and experiences are embedded within them.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Any time you make art, if it reaches even one person it’s worth it. If one person can take in what you have created and find themselves provoked, challenged, moved, affirmed… it’s the most incredible feeling. I am lucky enough to have had interactions with folks who have listened to my work and had the courage to either come up to me after a show, or find me online and reach out, and say some version of “this moved me”, and it’s the most electrifying feeling. Being an artist is so difficult in so many ways, but those moments make it so worth it. It’s this specific sort of connection that only art can create. That’s why it’s so important for artists who are queer, or feminist, or POC, or have an identity that challenges mainstream ideals be accessible for people to find. We all need art that helps us recognize ourselves and our experiences, as well as challenge us.
What book should every entrepreneur read?
I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur, but I do think that everyone should read. Reading is the most imaginative way to consume media. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences for books, like music, like wine, haha, because the author’s voice is so distinct. Some of my all-time favorites are
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. I’d recommend all three of these books to anyone.
What would say are the greatest lessons you learned so far?
To trust yourself and your process. To create a community of people who believe in you and will root for you, while you do the same for them. To prioritize love and joy. To create things that are imperfect. To understand that art is meant to be challenging as well as affirming. To stay humble and curious no matter what; to keep learning.
What advice would you give to your younger self and why?
You know who you are—believe in it. Being different is hard now, but when you get older those differences will make you valuable and special and a part of something greater. When you are very young, you are so vulnerable and I always want to protect that sensitivity in the really young people I meet, because I remember that being so hard. When you’re sensitive and feel or when you are different, the cold truths of the world are so shocking. Now that I’m older, I know that the difficult things that happen to us make us who we are, but if I could tell my younger self that it was all going to be okay, I would in a heartbeat.
How would your best friend describe you?
I think my friends would describe me as kind, loyal, smart, creative. A person who fights for what they believe in—in art, social justice, etc. That I like to create a very specific atmosphere in spaces and withinin my community. That I’m very inclusive. My friends–really my chosen family– are so important to me and are a big priority in my life, and so I seek out people with similar qualities.
If you are a book, what would be the title of the book and why?
City and Memory, Infinite Feeling: The Spaces Between
The ephemeral and indelible, the profound emotions of art, the little, important moments that happen in-between the big things.
What’s next for Thea Sass-Ainsworth in 2022?
Playing a lot of shows, ideally ones with some kind of community engagement. Yeah, performing as much as possible. Writing new songs. Writing a lot in general.
What is your favorite healthy food?
I eat nourishing foods that I find delicious, and it ends up being really healthy. Fruits and vegetables are amazing, especially where I live in Southern California. Having grown up in Minnesota where tomatoes taste like plastic in the winter, I’ll never take gorgeous fresh produce for granted. I am a big big fan of the food scene in Los Angeles and I love cooking, it’s very inspiring to me. I especially love cooking for friends & family. However—many folks don’t have access to healthy food, and that’s something that needs to be reiterated over and over.
And your favorite cheat food?
I don’t believe in the concept of cheat foods. I struggled with an eating disorder for a long time so now I let myself eat what I want when I want to, and I think it’s important for young people, especially young women to receive that message. If you listen to your body it’s easy to eat in a way that makes you feel energized and great.. I’ve had the privilege of therapy and a lot of love in my life to be able to repair my relationship with food and it’s made my life so much more fulfilling and interesting. So—eat the donut, drink the glass of wine, the dollar slice of pizza, if it’s what makes you feel good. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. We aren’t what we eat, but food can be sensual and joyful.
How would you explain your fashion style?
Fashion is really important to me and always has been. It’s a natural form of self-expression. We all have to wear clothes every day, so make it fun. My style is very rock-n-roll meets streetwear, but also classic. Lots of leather and denim, black & white, boots, classic sneakers, a ton of gold jewelry. Tattoos. I love Harley Davidson & Converse & Fila & Kappa and Levis.
What is your own definition of happiness?
Having the freedom to create without fear. Having a lot of love in your life. A lot of joy. Balancing work with play and rest. Having a strong community. Being able to travel and then come home. Being constantly surprised and delighted.
If you could meet someone living or dead, who would it be and why?
This is such a hard question. I would love to meet Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald, at the time they were the most influential. Both of them are such gorgeous writer and artists and so enigmatic to me. That time is so glamorous but also tragic. Very poignant, important figures.
What would be the dream holiday, and who would you go with?
Right now I want to be in a little Italian village, riding my bike around, swimming, writing & playing guitar, drinking a lot of good wine and eating a lot of amazing food. Taking naps maybe even, which I never do. I’d go with a partner, my mother, a close friend, or all of them!
Best advice ever given?
Nothing ever lasts, good or bad.
Do you support any charity?
Yes! Planned Parenthood because sex education and reproductive health are crucial, and BLDPWR, because they engage with entertainers in order to use their platform to advance social change and dismantle systemic oppression.
This is an important question to ask artists, because ideally anyone with a platform should speak out on the things that are important to them.
Where do you see yourself and your career in 5 years from now?
Touring a ton, released at least one full length album. Reaching people in a way that helps shift consciousness. Still combining music with image and language. Essentially what I am doing now, but at the next level. It’s really important to stay grounded in the present, but I feel really excited about the future.
Favorite song? Why?
Okay this is the hardest question ever. It shifts so much day to day. Right now I am super into Kate Bush and have been listening to Running Up That Hill on a loop. Billie Holiday is always on at my house, and I listen to 100 gecs in the car. It sounds like a crazy combination but it works, haha.
What do you think of Social Media?
Social media is such a double edged sword. It can be used for such good, or such evil. I think all of us have that experience. It builds community but also makes us more alienated. If I had it my way I would totally get rid of my social media, just because my personality is sort of antithetical to the way it works. I’m really shy about posting things, it’s a habit I’ve had to get into as an artist to promote my work because it really is an effective tool for that. I’ve met some incredible friends and collaborators just through social media so I don’t want to sound like a luddite or negate the power of that, but for myself personally I would love it if as a society we took a huge step backwards from it. I would be good even with not having a cellphone and just having a landline again, haha. I write with pen and paper and even on a typewriter sometimes so I’m old school like that. I like tangible things.
Where we can follow you?
Book: Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller
Quote: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” —Leonard Cohen
Movie: Point Break dir. Katherine Bigelow (1991)
Tv Series: The Sopranos
Favorite Food: Anything Mediterranean!
Travel Destination: Sayulita, MX. Sicily. Beautiful beaches and warm people.
Sports Team: I don’t follow any sports!