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By age 26, Sarah Tudzin had already established an enviable foothold in the music business as a recording engineer and producer. A graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee School Of Music, where she took classes from Prince’s long-time engineer Susan Rogers, Tudzin subsequently moved back to her hometown of Los Angeles and worked with some of the biggest stars in the world — Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Barbara Streisand — along with hip indie acts like Porches and Lower Dens. But she still needed some kind of demo reel that she could play for potential clients to show off her impressive range of mainstream and underground sonic reference points.
So Tudzin made a record of her own songs, producing herself as if she were several different artists in one.
“It was a good way to put all my production jobs in one place,” she explained during a phone interview in early October. “Like, ‘Hey, this is something that I did and if you liked it, let’s get into the studio.'”
But what started as a musical resume has since become Tudzin’s calling card for her own recording career. Released in May under the characteristically snarky moniker Illuminati Hotties, Kiss Yr Frenemies is one of the best indie rock debuts of 2018, an understated yet quietly ambitious collection of songs that demonstrate Tudzin’s breezy mastery of modern rock styles, from snotty punk to luminous synthpop.
Given her background, it’s not a surprise that Kiss Yr Frenemies manages to sound lush and commercial while still retaining a patina of outsider cool. But Tudzin’s sharpness as a lyricist is unique for someone who is typically consumed with the minutia of constructing soundscapes. On the album, Tudzin’s funny asides amid the millennial misadventures depicted in her songs are just as captivating as the music. In the supremely catchy “Shape Of My Hands,” Tudzin seemingly writes the obituary for a relationship right as it is about to begin. “While you were online shopping / you said you need a better mattress / I said I’m not staying long enough to see that.” Later, on “Paying Off The Happiness,” she tosses off a timely anthem about perpetual debt. “I could probably use a fourth job,” she sings drolly, right before a huge chorus hits.
“The gearhead aspect of being in the studio is the least interesting part to me by far,” she said. “What’s important is the creativity and the magic. If the words don’t land in a song, it’s hard for me to listen.”
Tudzin and I talked about her background as a kid growing up in Los Angeles and how moving back to the city inspired Kiss Yr Frenemies.
You basically grew up in the heart of the music business. Were you a musical kid?
Yeah. Nobody in my family is particularly musical or artistic. They’re sort of… normal, with normal 9-to-5-type jobs. But when I was really, really little I wanted to take piano lessons super bad. I loved playing music and listening to music in a way that other kids are into playing sports. Then I started playing drums in middle school bands.
What music made an impression on you early on?
I was listening to the radio a little bit, but I was also just sort of digging through my parents’ CDs and tapes and trying to consume as much as possible. Then you could start downloading, and everybody started getting an iPod or one of those Zune things. This may be embarrassing, but the first record that I started playing drums along to was Led Zeppelin IV, which does really inform my music too much at this point. Definitely, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon were artists I found through my parents as a little kid that I really loved listening to.