On a dreary January day, Buzzy Lee lights up my computer screen. I’m calling from Birmingham, AL, and we’re talking about the South — “I just came through Columbus, GA, and I feel like I just need to embrace my inner southern grandmother.” The polymathic talent born Sasha Spielberg is wrapping up a ton of press for her sophomore album Internal Affairs, out today via Future Classic, and it’s remarkable to see how bubbly she is amidst the glut of interviews and press she’s done around the album. Spielberg seems to be truly everywhere — she’s toured with Dirty Projectors, JPEGMAFIA, and HAIM (and pulls double-duty with the sisters hosting the Free Period podcast with Alana Haim), offers pet portraits with her “By Sashy” watercolors, and simultaneously crafted one of the most impactful albums of 2023 in Internal Affairs. Simple enough, right?
Internal Affairs is an album that’ll quietly uppercut you — crafted in the pandemic as Spielberg was moving on from a noteworthy relationship, the record explores that awkward feeling of not being quite ready to let go of love despite desperately needing to. Utilizing the soft synths of early disco, the lush production of collaborator Gabe Wax, and an elegantly poised voice that can be both delicate and stirring, often within the same phrase, the album works as a self-contained time capsule from the beginning to the end of navigating the post-relationship period. Internal Affairs (and our ensuing interview) seems to both beg and answer the question of “Who the hell is Buzzy Lee?” with a cavalcade of sound and emotion that should launch Spielberg into the stratosphere and all over playlists in 2023. Read on for our interview, where we explore the power of voice memos, nostalgia, and who she thinks she is by the end of this album’s creation:
The press release talks a little about your journey of getting to the record — this record is about finding closure, whereas your debut was more about laying the foundation of who you were as an artist. Amidst all of this is the pandemic, where much of the album was born — what was that journey like for you?
Some of these songs date back to 2017 — I remember taking some of them to Nico [Jaar] and they just didn’t fit on Spoiled Love. It’s so hard for me to throw away songs! I’m married now to the most amazing person, but this record, and really, my first record is filled with so much forlorn anguish and sadness that I’m just not feeling right now. I think I said the last album cycle, that when I recorded “Strange Town”, it was so intense and I was in it deep and crying, and I remember thinking that it was going to just be terrible. And I finished the take, and Nico told me “okay — this next take, imagine you’re singing it as an 85-year old woman telling this story of a torrid love affair”, taking myself out of my experience and really treating it like a story to be told. That’s the take we used for that song, and I feel like I carried that entire mentality into the creation of Internal Affairs, and that felt like a gamechanger for me.
I’m not like “Oh my god, it’s eating me alive” as I’m delivering the words. I was 85-year old Bubby, telling this story of how something didn’t work to my grandchildren. With that, I grew in confidence — I was singing a little louder, and I felt like I was able to get braver with what I was trying to achieve on the record. Working with Gabe Wax allowed me to get braver in the production process, because yeah, a ton of this stuff is sparse and intimate — every song starts with myself, a piano, and a voice memo. But his process injected some levity into the songs so everything wasn’t as tortured as the lyrics might make it seem.
Was that disconnect hard to capture? That’s something I think about with songwriters and I’ve definitely found before with other artists — the divide between feeling great in the moment and having to reconnect with those really tough times that ultimately lead to your material.
With “Strange Town” — yes, because I was just so immediately raw from the impact of that breakup. I couldn’t exist outside of it as I was making that album. But, Nico’s suggestion to exist outside of it on that take really helped me in a therapeutic way, and opened up the process for Internal Affairs to have a nostalgic feel. My whole process became about that story-telling idea, just because I love the feeling of nostalgia when you least expect it. Since I was eighteen, I’ve assigned a perfume to a three-to-six month-long period of my life so that when I look back and I’m ninety, I’ll be able to time travel. Nostalgia hurts so good — it’s almost like masochism. (laughs)
Smell is underrated for that, too! There’ll be times where I’m walking around and catch a whiff of something and BAM — I’m eight years old again.
Yes! Mildew, or gasoline, or very specific car smells — I got into an old Honda Accord recently and thought “oh my god, I’m back”. (laughs) I think I’m good at conjuring up nostalgia because of that. But it was really hard, because I didn’t want this to be a stale, apathetic record because I was so happy with Harry [her husband]. Training myself to be able to live in nostalgic moments temporarily helped me work through this album with Gabe to make sure it was lively and engaging.
I think about actors all the time, like when they have a hard fight scene to film and they have to scream and yell for 14-hour days, but they go home to their beautiful families and are normal people. (laughs) I think that, for better or for worse, that I’m always trying to escape the pain that I have experienced from breakups no matter how happy I am in the present. The Spoiled Love breakup was four years of complete toxicity, so yeah, it’s pretty easy to conjure up those feelings because of how potent it was in my life, you know?
I think the album does a great job of encapsulating the experience of closure. Starting with “Can I Have Your Autograph”, which is this really delicate exploration of struggling to let go of someone, then ending with “The Last Time” that a similarly acoustic “hell yeah, I’m letting go” victory lap; but the in-between is disco-tinged and livelier. It feels almost as if it is a storybook — how intentional was this sequencing decision?
It was incredibly intentional — “Autograph” took seventeen takes, because I don’t play guitar anymore (laughs). I wanted it to sound exactly like the voice memo to, again, live in that moment. If I could make an album of voice memos of just me, a piano, and my phone, I would.
Isn’t it a shame that we have to call those demos? I agree — a voice memo can be a whole-ass song if you want it to be. I’ll die on that hill.
Oh my god, yes! The compression on the Apple voice notes? It’s incredible. I can totally do Pro Tools as a demo, but Voice Notes is it for me. We did seventeen takes, because I wanted it to have the perfection of messiness…which is a little convoluted. (laughs)
What were you listening to while you were creating the album? I hear a lot of Pet Shop Boys and New Order in the instrumentation.
My top song during the pandemic was The Motels – “Total Control”. I listened to a ton of Jobriath — their song “Inside” was a big one. I was listening to Dire Straits, 80s disco, Wings—
So you were listening to 70s + 80s world, then?
Yes (laughs). I don’t listen to any contemporary music while recording an album, only because I’m terrified of accidentally stealing anything. Classical music was a go-to for me, as well — a ton of Mozart. I wanted to go as far backwards as possible.
I definitely hear the Dire Straits influence in a song like “Cinderblock”, where it just kind of explodes in the middle into something totally different from the rest of the song. That song has a lot to do with the idea of achieving perfection — do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Yes. I am a messy perfectionist. I’m so in it for the beginning of a project; I’m on cloud nine in the beginnings of things, and then when I actually have to finish the thing, I have a major comedown. I have trouble finishing things because I’m a perfectionist.
Do you have a trove of unfinished material then, even with this album coming out?
Oh yeah — do you want to know how many voice memos I’ve got on my phone? (pulls phone out) — 7,159.
It is horrible. (laughs)
So what is the finish line for you, then? When are you done?
It is so hard for me to listen to my music, because I’ll listen to “Cinderblock” and be yelling to myself “the drums are so loud, damn it.” (laughs) Truly, it’s when I get into the studio and trust someone else to tell me that it’s done. I have to surrender myself to their input and telling me that “we’re good” — collaboration saves my life in that respect. Without collaborators like Nico and Gabe, I’d probably still be messing with a synth line (laughs).
The album’s centerpiece deals with themes of identity; whether it’s answering the question of who you become following a traumatic relationship, or the many facets of yourself as a human being that can coexist, there’s a lot going on here that is integral to your own journey as an artist. With that, I want to hear you explain — who do you think YOU are? At this point in time, who is Buzzy Lee?
I have such a hard time giving myself away to other people in relationships, and I think that the closure of this record has allowed me to figure out a healthier way to really understand who I am. As a kid, I was always prone to letting my imagination carry myself away — if I wanted to be a mermaid, I was a mermaid. I’d build these worlds to sort of escape, and simultaneously, I was a people pleaser willing to do anything for people that I loved. I was attracted and drawn to people who were able to be drawn on a piece of paper — they acted like these archetypes that I could easily fit into these idealized, identifiable categories. I felt like, for the longest time, that I couldn’t draw myself on a piece of paper. In time, I felt like my exes were squashing the parts of me that were growing in my attempt to actually find myself – if I was being goofy, and developing a character on my Instagram, and really embracing that goofiness that has followed me for my entire life, they’d tell me to stop because it “wasn’t me”.
For this record, to meet Harry who met me as me for the first time, and loved every part of me — I felt like I could be truly, authentically me, which truly changed everything. When I was writing Spoiled Love, I wanted my ex to hear it, and I was post-breakup at that point! So this is the first release where I feel like I’m truly myself. I am imaginative, and I am young at heart. I struggle to answer who I am, and what does that say about my authenticity? (laughs) I want to list adjectives, but it doesn’t feel right — but at my core, I feel the same as when I was four years old, with a lot of feelings, and imagination, but now I feel like I can actually harness that into something meaningful.