It all started with a bat mitzvah. While many of us prefer to remember anything but the way our tween voices sounded as we shakily sang in a foreign language in front of all our closest friends and family, Sasha Spielberg discovered that she was actually kind of, like, good at it. The rite of passage turned out to be much more than the day she officially became a woman in the eyes of the Jewish community: it was also the day she figured out that wherever her life took her, music would be a part of it.
Several years and musical iterations later, the 30-year-old Los Angeles-based artist has come into her own as Buzzy Lee, a stage name honoring her late grandmother, Leah Adler. Buzzy Lee’s much anticipated debut album, Spoiled Love, will be released on January 29, 2021, after being delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sasha describes the first side of the album as pretty bare bones, just voice and piano (“it’s like barely singing”) with the second half more electronic. A single released last October, “What Has a Man Done,” features a soft, soothing beat with breathy, longing vocals like “And don’t you know I can’t ever win / And don’t you know it comes from within.”
Her music is moody, introspective, and intimate — one track features her reading from a real-life diary entry — but that’s just one side to the musician. When she’s not Buzzy Lee, Sasha loves to talk about her anxiety and make people laugh, often with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. In many ways, she was born to be a performer — she’s the daughter of famed movie director Steven Spielberg — and grew up knowing what it means to be in the spotlight. Along with her musical evolution, part of Sasha’s path has been figuring out just how much of that spotlight she wants.
I got the chance to chat on the phone with Sasha last November — pushed back by an hour due to her “classic Jewish gal” type of doctor’s appointment — and we talked about everything from her pandemic viewing habits, embracing her Jewish identity in recent years, living up to the Spielberg name, and of course, that fateful bat mitzvah.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What has been your experience during the pandemic?
My pandemic has been a ride. I have so much anxiety just in general. And I found that I was actually sleeping the best I ever slept in the beginning of the pandemic. I was very zen. Then week three hit and I was like, oh, this isn’t going away. And I panicked. But then I started baking and painting and water coloring and I started walking more and I was way more present. I was being really productive. And then, you know, month three hit and I was like, deeply depressed and back to watching Below Deck Med.
Wait, what is that?
Oh my God. Do you know what Below Deck is? It’s a reality show on Bravo. It’s about people working on a yacht, and then the guests that come onto the yacht. It is so good. I got into Below Deck Med, which is Below Deck Mediterranean. At the end of each trip with guests, they get one night to go out and dance in the club in, like, Ibiza. I was just inundating myself with reality TV. I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t walking. I wasn’t exercising. I was in a deep funk.
Is there any particular music that you’ve found yourself turning to during the pandemic? I feel like I’ve been listening to a lot of the stuff I was into in high school, like a lot of nostalgia listening.
Wait, that’s so funny. I’ve been doing nostalgia listening, too. I’ve also been listening to a lot of movie scores and classical [music]. It’s almost like my brain couldn’t compute lyrics for the first four months or something. But then I was also discovering a lot of music that I never heard — my friends were all making playlists, because everyone has so much time. I was buying more records and vinyl. But right now, to be honest, I’m in a deep top 40.
No shame. Was Spoiled Love finished prior the pandemic or were you working on that as well?
So that was finished September of 2019. And it was going to get released in March , and then you know, COVID hit, and I really wanted to release it in a time where I could tour it. I just kept waiting and waiting. And like, that’s not going to happen.
How do you feel now, knowing that it is going to be released into a world where you still can’t go on tour?
It’s sad. This record is very insular. It’s a very, very intimate record, and I actually had been trying to wrap my head around how I would play this record live, figuring out strategies and practicing with different instruments, and it’s very hard. The first side of the record is piano and voice and that’s it. And it’s like barely singing. And then the second side is more electronic. So part of me is grateful that I have a while to get to nail it.
I read an interview you did with Rolling Stone in 2018, and you talked about the moniker of Buzzy Lee and what that meant to you. You had said that you actually felt like Buzzy Lee was the most “you” you’ve ever been, as far as being able to move past the instincts of being a people pleaser or always wanting to make people laugh and being more introspective. Is that still how you view your work under Buzzy Lee?
Yes, in the music, it is more me. But over the past two years, I’ve actually accepted the side of me that is performative. And I’ve leaned into it. When I was touring or playing shows, I really had fun with banter. And that banter in itself is such an art that I have not mastered. I try to be myself, but anytime anyone tries to be themselves that’s inherently performative. My moon sign knows that when I’m fully, deeply alone, I’m nostalgic, and I’m constantly rifling through old diaries and photo albums. I’m really living in the past and I’m a little forlorn. But when I’m with friends, I also feel fully myself when I laugh. It’s less like Buzzy is more “me” and more like I’m combining the two parts of me with Buzzy.
Speaking of living in the past, one of bright spots of summer 2020 was when you took over Alma’s Instagram account for a day to show us your world. And you sang your bat mitzvah diary to us. It was just incredible. I have a lot of questions about your bat mitzvah, obviously, but I wanted to first ask about your diary. I’ve read you’ve kept a diary for your whole life. Would you say that’s part of your writing process for music?
Yes. When I was with my ex, who was a musician, it felt like I wasn’t writing in my diary anymore. I was more writing lyrics. And that was so incredible for my music, but like, less incredible for, you know, me. I was really thinking through the words, whereas if you read my present-day diary, it’s so stream of consciousness and so simple. I don’t try to use a lot of beautiful language to describe how I’m feeling. It’s direct.
How does it feel to write something without thinking about how this will sound in a song or what other people will think?
It’s so much better. Still, there’s one song on the record, “Circles,” where I read an actual diary entry for like 45 seconds, talking over music. My diary is actually real, it’s actually me writing. And that was a fun way to incorporate that.
I’m sure it feels incredibly vulnerable to put your actual diary out there for others to hear.
I know, but for me, my friend recently described me as the “most open guarded person I’ve ever met.” The things I choose to share with people, I come off as super like, oh my God, how does she do that? That’s so vulnerable. But the stuff that I’m actually keeping deep down, I would not share with anyone. I’m very open about any ailment I have. I’m very open about my anxiety. I post diary entries. I really love being self-deprecating, but I think that is always sort of a front.
I feel like you’re calling me out right now.
Are you a Taurus?
No, I’m a Cancer.
Oh, I love Cancers. Also, I know I’m sounding like an astrology person right now. I do like astrology a lot, but I don’t know why I’m obsessing over it today.
Anyway, let’s go back to your bat mitzvah. Will you tell me… everything about it?
I’ll tell you everything. I had my morning service. I was so very nervous. This was May 31, 2003. My Torah portion was about the census, which I was so bummed about. Everyone else got like, you know, the juicy stuff that you can actually write about — you know how you had to write like a personal essay about it? I got numbers. I was just like, this is my Torah portion!? I came home in tears. And my mom was like, honey, numbers are so important! Counting is so important! Let’s talk about counting! It’s important! But it truly felt like a death sentence to me. But anyway, I read my little thing. I was like, “Counting. I have so many siblings!”
Because I was so focused on the Hebrew and getting the Hebrew right, my voice wasn’t shaky. My voice was actually the best it’s probably ever been. And my parents had no idea that I could sing. They knew I loved to sing, but they hadn’t sat down and listened to me at a microphone with a cantor looking them in the eyes, like, she’s got to join junior cantors! My cantor asked me, truly, maybe four times a year, to please join junior cantors. I know that sounds really cocky of me.
No, you should brag about that. That’s very brag-worthy.
I actually ran into my cantor, so random, at a matcha place. So LA. And I told him that he is the reason why I’m making music. And he started crying. It was so nice. Because I really never sang in front of anyone before. I sort of wowed my family. And then my dad has a funny story of saying he immediately grabbed my mom and was like, we gotta invite our music friends to the party.
Most people don’t get to say they discovered their future career on the day of their bat mitzvah.
No, I don’t think I’ve heard that before. Someone at my bat mitzvah party went up to me and was like, “Do you know who Joni Mitchell is?” And I said no. She sent me four vinyls by Joni Mitchell, and then I got into Joni Mitchell. So a lot happened that night.
Discovered Joni Mitchell. Figured out your career path. Became a woman. Did your party have a theme?
It was “Fashionably Sasha.” I’m embarrassed. It was that. That was it. All I know is I was really not fashionable. There was a fake red carpet, where everyone was interviewed about my style, but I went to an all girls school with a uniform. So no one knew what to say. They were like, she has cool accessories?
So, let’s talk about it. Your dad is Steven Spielberg. How do you think that affected your own ambitions while growing up? Did you ever want to avoid being in the spotlight, or did you always enjoy being a performer?
I enjoyed being a performer, but I was so deeply insecure. I would fantasize about performing and everyone loving me. And then the reality would be, it would finally be my turn and I would freeze up. As I got older, I got more and more insecure about being good enough. And I just kind of was like, Well, I’m never going to be that. But then there were moments where I would sing in GarageBand and then I’d listen back and be like, Oh, I’m gonna do that!
My dad is this force, and he is so ubiquitous — he’s not just loved by me and my family. He’s loved by the entire world. And so I think for me, I saw how people treated him in grocery stores and on the street, and I saw how people were just in awe of him. And I think there was a part of me that really wanted that. I wanted to be famous when I was young, and I wanted the adoration. I think part of my journey in life has been accepting that that’s actually not what I want deep down. I want to make things I’m really proud of. My dream performance is a seated 200-person theater with just a piano and a microphone and that’s it. I crave intimacy.
Did your dad ever give you advice on how to make it as a musician, or even discourage you from pursuing that path, given how difficult it can be at times?
He knows nothing about the music industry. He truly doesn’t know anything about it. He only just directed his first musical ever, West Side Story. He loves music, but he doesn’t know anything about it. He didn’t have enough information on how brutal it was to discourage my brother and me from doing it. He’s been super supportive; he is very encouraging. He encourages us to push ourselves and also keep making art rather than being precious with it and holding onto things. I can sit on things for a while, and he encourages me to push myself a lot.
Can you talk about your Jewish upbringing? What kind of rituals or traditions did your family do?
We celebrated every Jewish holiday. My mom actually converted to Judaism for my dad, though I don’t even think my dad asked her to; she just fell in love with Judaism. My dad’s side of the family would go to Arizona every year for Passover with all my cousins, my aunts, my grandparents. My grandma also owned this kosher restaurant in LA called The Milky Way, which is still there. It’s incredible. I hope everyone goes. She was the main attraction. People would go to The Milky Way for my Grandma Leah, who Buzzy Lee is named after. She flirted with everyone. She worked there until she was 97 years old, on her feet, taking suitors. People were in love with her. And she would skip from table to table rather than just walk. She was like 4’9” and would wear Peter Pan collars and suspenders and she just was such an individual. I know it’s so on-the-nose, people are always like, my biggest inspiration is my grandma. But she really was something.
How do you think about your Jewish identity these days, if at all?
I think about it so much, actually. I remember in college, I felt a bit negative about my Jewish identity. I think it had to do with feeling like everyone wanted me to be part of their group because of my dad, and not because of me. And I associated those feelings with Judaism in a weird way. Like Hillel at my college, I was constantly getting emails, like, please join. I needed the four years to explore other sides of myself.
But in the past three years, I’ll say I’ve been deeply connected to the more spiritual side of myself, in terms of Judaism, and the higher power notion — praying to a higher power, whatever that higher power may be.
But yeah, there was a time when I wasn’t as connected. And when people would say, “You look Jewish,” I used to think that was a dis. People were like, “Oh, you’ve got such a Jewish face.” I felt sad about that. And I would be like, but I want to look like Kate Hudson!
I’m so sorry, I did know that. You know, I had a nose. I had my dad’s face. I used to get that a lot. And then of course, I’d get antisemitic comments saying I look Jewish, but in an obviously bad way. It’s such a strange thing to be like, you look like a religion. But now I really am so happy when people are like, I can tell you’re Jewish. I’m like, great. Thank God. Hello.
Hopefully one day soon, more and more people will realize that Jews look like many different things.
That’s the thing! The whole “looking Jewish” notion is such a strange idea because, exactly, there are so many different looks in the Jewish community. You have Sephardi, you have Ashkenazi, you have Moroccan, you have French. Just everything.
Do you have any rituals for the day you release new music out into the world?
In the past, it’s been vintage shopping. I do that with a friend usually, and then we’ll get a drink. Now, I’m probably going to bake because I’ve gotten very into baking.
What have you been baking?
I made black and white cookies last week that were so good. I’ve been a full-on Julia Child in my kitchen. I started with banana bread as everyone did. And then it evolved to cinnamon buns. And then it evolved to Swedish cardamom buns. And then babka, I like making babka a lot. And then it got to all these French pastries.
I hope you bake something really extra special on your release day.
I know. I wonder what should I make?
This weekend I made a cinnamon challah that was really good.
Oh my God, that is what I will do. I get my challah from this guy named the Challah King in LA and he makes this white chocolate challah. It’s white chocolate with cinnamon, and it’s so good.
Also, it’s funny. I will say, going back to Judaism for one second, I have never been so open about Judaism [before now]. It always felt so intimate, so familial and introverted for me. But I’m really enjoying having these conversations now. And I’m reflecting on why I was so private. And I think it’s because I didn’t think I could live up to my own name. Like, I’m the daughter of the guy who started Shoah [Foundation]. I feel like an imposter. I think I’ve been shy with talking about my own beliefs, because I feel like there’s expectation with my last name.
That makes a lot of sense! Okay, let’s end with some quick-fire Jewy questions. Favorite Jewish holiday?
A curveball. I like it. Favorite Jewish celebrity?
A very valid answer.
But I have so many. Actually, I can say the Haim girls. All three of them.
Are you friends with them?
Yes, they’re my closest friends ever. Alana lived with me last year. We were roommates.
I love that. Just thinking of the coolest Jewish women I know, hanging out together. A very pleasing image, thank you.