Live Through This: Blondshell’s fearless debut is one of 2023’s finest

Sabrina Teitelbaum’s debut is an unflinchingly raw and nuanced reflection on life’s messiest – and most painful – moments

Blondshell’s self-titled debut album is an important lesson in fear. If the musician – New York-born, LA-based Sabrina Teitelbaum – had given in to her trepidation around sharing the very revealing songs that make up its tracklist, the record wouldn’t have been released, and the world would have been deprived of one of the year’s darkly humorous, fury-filled and triumphant releases. When she touched down in Brighton in mid-May for her first UK shows at The Great Escape 2023, though, the crowd joins her in yelling out some of the confessions she was most anxious to share, like ‘Kiss City’’s “I think my kink is when you tell me that you think I’m pretty.”

“The fear was, ‘Will people accept these stories, ideas and feelings from me? Or should I just not even show anyone because it’s so intense and dark and heavy’ – all these adjectives that we normally ascribe to women who are talking about serious things” she tells NME from a stop over in New York. ‘Kiss City’, in particular, was hard for her to get her head around putting out because of its subject matter – not just sex but evocative pleas for true intimacy. Clearly, she needn’t have worried. In a 5-star review, NME called her “raw rock anthems amongst the year’s best”; now, she features on The Cover, our commitment to exclusively spotlight emerging and rising artists across the globe on a weekly basis.

Teitelbaum might have quickly built up a ton of buzz as Blondshell last June when she released her first single ‘Olympus’ – a melancholy piece of bare bones, spectral grunge – but making it to a record deal and a debut album hasn’t been an overnight journey. The 26-year-old started writing songs aged seven and spent her formative years in Manhattan performing at open mic nights in Manhattan. In 2014, she started putting out music on Soundcloud as BAUM, initially sharing songs where the Adele influence was apparent before moving into bubbling electronic-tinged pop.

Billie Eilish on the cover of NME
Blondshell on The Cover of NME. Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

But something didn’t quite feel right in that project, a void she couldn’t put her finger on until she wrote ‘Olympus’ and sent it to producer Yves Rothman [Miya Folick, Yves Tumor], with whom she’d been writing pop songs. He challenged her to write more songs like it, and she obliged, finally feeling like her music represented her. The lyrical content scared her, but instead of running from it, she leaned into it, telling herself no one else ever needed to hear these songs.

Now, she’s joining a lineage of female artists in alternative music that take up space with uncomfortable stories, emotions and experiences – the PJ Harveys, Fiona Apples and Liz Phairs of the world. In her first NME cover shoot, Teitelbaum extolls another of those women, paying homage to a 2010 cover starring Courtney Love. Serendipitously, while recreating the Hole frontwoman’s pose in an LA pool, she was essentially handed Love’s crown.

“The woman who owned the house [the shoot was at] designed all the tiaras that Courtney Love would wear,” Teitelbaum explains. “She was asking people about my music, and I guess people were giving the ‘90s references, and she was like, ‘Let me put a bunch of my jewellery on her because I did all the Courtney Love jewellery’.”

Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

At 26, the rising star is only slightly older than Love was when she formed Hole, but, in her late teens and early twenties, Teitelbaum feared that by this age, she might be considered “too old” to make it in music. “There’s that horrible thing where people say you have to be under a certain age to be a musician, and I felt that because it was explicitly said to me,” she says. “The idea was always there through media and people talking about the music industry – there was always an emphasis on youth and this idea that you write your best songs before a certain age.” The pressure to find success before she got too deep into adulthood was exacerbated by her gender, which added the need to fit into beauty and age standards.

“It affected my sense of urgency in a very painful and stressful way,” she reflects. “I was like, ‘I gotta make this album now, and then I have to find people to work with so that they can help me put it out and get it heard. And this one has to be great because I don’t have a million tries’.”

Thankfully, her experiences have proven that not to be the case, and now, she can reframe her thinking. “I don’t want anyone listening to my music who would be like, ‘She’s not young enough’ or who would think I’m less interesting because I’m over 25,” she laughs. “Alright, don’t listen to it, don’t come to the show!”

Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Like the women before her, Teitelbaum is flying the flag for female rage and encouraging her listeners to let themselves feel all the big, “ugly” emotions society usually tries to make us bottle up. On the creeping ‘Salad’, her anger boils over into a murderous revenge fantasy. “I would take a gun out / Put some poison in his salad,” she murmurs dourly, plotting the downfall of a man who abused her friend. “Look what you did / You made a killer of a Jewish girl.”

The resentful song reflects the increasingly common practice of female/non-binary artists deploying similar violent imagery and language in their music, keeping up a long – but usually more infrequent – tradition of murder lullabies. Earlier this year, SZA topped charts with the bloodthirsty ‘Kill Bill’, while Ashnikko ordered an ex’s head to be served on a plate on her recent single ‘You Make Me Sick’. Even Taylor Swift got in on the action with 2020’s ‘No Body, No Crime’ – far milder, but still implying some gruesome vengeance. Online, our language has casually become just as brutal and extreme, whether we’re nonchalantly tweeting about “killing” ourselves or sharing feelings of desire in posts asking celebrities to “run me over with a truck”.

“I would guess it’s because we had to do the opposite for so long, particularly with desire,” Teitelbaum reasons, noting how women are expected to feel shame for feeling anger or asking somebody to commit to them. “There’s just this pressure that’s built up, not being able to get these things out.”

Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Suppressing her feelings about the real incident behind ‘Salad’ felt like that rising force ready to burst, but the song might never have been written without other artists showing her the way. “Palehound has a song like that [2019’s ‘Killer’], and I think it probably went into my subconscious,” she says. “I know I wouldn’t have thought about using that kind of language if I hadn’t heard it happening more and more culturally.”

Rage and anger might be the headlining emotions on ‘Blondshell’, but it’s a far more nuanced record with more different shades of feeling to it. The despairing slow build of ‘Sober Together’ details trying to quit alcohol and drugs with a friend who keeps relapsing. Writing it, she explains, helped her find more compassion. “I was so mad at this person, and I went to write a ‘fuck you’ song to get that out,” she recalls. “While I was writing, I was like, ‘Fuck you, but also, I love you, and I wouldn’t be mad if I didn’t love you’. It helped me get in touch with that part of my feelings for somebody else. I was really grateful for it – it’s much more comfortable to feel like ‘but I still love you’ than it is to feel like ‘you’re shitty for doing this’.

An undercurrent of hope runs throughout the record too. It’s in the idea that the person she sings about in ‘Joiner’ can be saved or that things might be different if she gets back with her “dick” boyfriend in ‘Sepsis’. For Teitelbaum herself, the album wouldn’t exist without hope. “The writing process for me was ‘I would like to feel better – OK, I’m going to try talking about it because maybe that will make me feel better’,” she explains. “If I didn’t think the situation could be better, I wouldn’t have sat down to write about it. Hope was a really important part of it for me.”

Now, she wants the album and the incredibly personal stories that fill it up to help others. While she acknowledges the hardships she has faced can’t compare to what some others have gone through, life still hasn’t always been smooth sailing. “There are more important stories that need to be told,” she nods, “but I would have benefitted from my album because I wrote about the things that I went through, so hopefully somebody else will too.”

‘Blondshell’ has helped Teitelbaum become more comfortable with herself and the big emotions inside her, and now, she’s already at work on whatever will come next. “I’m hoping I can get deeper on some stuff I was writing about [before],” she shares. “I’ve started, but I want to take my time with it. I want to not rush myself.” With her fears eradicated, there’s no need to; by owning her unprettiest thoughts and feelings, Teitelbaum has given herself and all who relate to her a vital, visceral safe space.

Blondshell’s debut album is out now on Partisan Records

Words: Rhian Daly
Photographer: Jonathan Weiner

Stylist: Blondshell
Label: Partisan Records
Management: Shira Knishkowy & Holly Cartwright

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