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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.
You must have also had a pop-punk phase, given the time period. You can hear echoes of that on Kiss Yr Frenemies.
Definitely. When I was like 10, 11, and 12 I started finding Blink-182 and Green Day, and then more punk stuff like The Clash. Hot Topic T-shirts were sort of like easy way to find stuff.
In the song “Shape Of My Hands,” there’s a line about “singing Conor’s songs at 4 in the morning.” So I assume that Bright Eyes was also an early influence.
I think you might be the first person who picked up on that it was Conor Oberst! When I really, really got deeply obsessed with music, Bright Eyes was right at the [center] of all that. He’s such a specific and brilliant sort of writer.
At Berklee, you changed course from being a musician to a recording engineer. What ultimately pushed you in that direction?
I really love the medium of recorded art. A record is sort of the most special thing about making music. It’s this product of all these creative minds coming together. You get to play with technology and computers and instruments in a way you don’t get to live, usually. There is this amazing creative world that happens in the studio that’s really addictive, to suspend people’s disbelief in what can actually happen in real life when people are playing instruments. Make something that is greater than the sum of its parts, I guess.
How did you end up stepping out from behind the scenes and making your own album? Was that always an ambition that you had?
I think I was always writing songs, through my whole life, even if they were, like, stupid short songs. But I never thought I was gonna be in front of a band performing. That was always sort of a terrifying thing, and I never thought that I would be putting my songs out in the world in this sort of way. Now I really love it, but it was definitely a scary hurdle to leap over.
I’m not quite sure how I ended up doing it. I think my friends bugged me enough to start playing the music I was writing. For a while, all my songs just lived in my voice notes or in the studio. The easy way to flex was to take songs that I had written and produce them out as if it was like another artist.
Did any of those songs end up on Kiss Yr Frenemies?
Most of the record was written in the summer before I recorded it. I’d been back in LA for two years, after graduating college, and I just felt like I was your average 20-something trying to figure out how to be a human in this crazy world. Meeting people, and getting heartbroken, and making friends, and really seeing life through a new perspective. Growing up in LA was one thing — before you turn 18, there are only certain things you can do, and it really felt like a new city after college. I was living like an adult instead of a student.
Final question: What is Barbara Streisand like?
She is, like, the O.G. diva, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. She totally earned it and she runs a tight ship. It was a great learning experience, seeing somebody who’s been doing music for three times the amount of time the amount of time I’ve been alive. [Laughs.] Oh my gosh, I hope she doesn’t read this.
Kiss Yr Frenemies is out now on Tiny Engines. Buy it here.