Neither sonic nor aesthetic vision come to mind first for Sasha Sloan when she creates an album. Rather, she is a songwriter at heart, focusing on the bigger picture of storytelling in vivid written imagery and poetic takes on everything, from sometimes humorous, unpopular opinions to the seemingly unending battle she faces against body image.
Sloan's writing plants the seed for a great song; the stripped down nature, both emotionally and lyrically, brings forth the raw notes that shape a narrative often stemming from Sloan's personal wheelhouse of memories. When she enlists a producer or visual creative to take part in the storytelling of her art, it blooms in color, sound and energy.
For her debut album Only Child, though, Sloan challenged herself to consider the sounds she grew up with in order to envision a record that encapsulates, in some capacity, the music she loved listening to as a teenager.
"I've never done this before, but I sat down and made like an inspiration playlist," Sloan told PAPER. "And that actually really helped a lot; it's more of a nostalgic playlist, honestly. It has Jewel and Macy Gray and Eva Cassidy and The Killers, and it was really eclectic. It took me back to what I loved when I was 14 and that's what I tried to emulate with this record: just trust my gut and trust my own taste."
Though the inspiration for the album was a list full of throwback tracks, Sloan explained that this album showcases her as an artist at her most adult. It doesn't just serve as the introduction to a new era, but rather exhibits a gradual evolution that takes what was once Sloan's signature "sad girl pop" into something more emotionally mature, marking new territory for her discography.
The visual language of Only Child mimics that sentiment, and Sloan explained that the final product intended to mesh together the image of both who she was and who she is, though the constraints of bringing an artistic vision to life during the pandemic made beginning her complete dream to life challenging.
"I keep calling this sad woman Sloan instead of sad girl Sloan," Sloan said. "I feel like I've changed a lot since I started putting music out. I feel the most adult I've ever felt in my life and this album is the most mature body of work I've ever done. I really just wanted it to feel like it was growing in a more ethereal direction without taking a total 180. I was trying to blend the two worlds together."
PAPER caught up with Sloan over the phone to discuss the inspiration, story and process that led to the creation of each song on Only Child, her first studio album, track by track.
"Matter To You"
"Matter To You" was one of the first songs I wrote. I wrote it with my friend, Danny Silverstein, on guitar. It was very folky and I wrote it about my producer, who is also my boyfriend, [King Henry]. It's a nice start to the album because it's this blend of cynicism, but hope, which this album covers a lot more. A lot of my older self was very dark, and now there's some love in my life and some hope and I'm becoming a half-glass-full person.
The whole song's about how I feel very insignificant most of the time and I overthink and I'm not religious and I don't know what the meaning of life is and I don't know why I'm here. A lot of the time, I just end up feeling very small. It took falling in love with someone for me to feel like I actually mattered, because I knew my life mattered to that other person in a non-emo way. It's a nice balance of "Hey, I actually still really feel like the small person most of the time, but I have this thing anchoring me down and grounding me." I feel like ["Matter To You"] was a nice intro to the bittersweet theme of the record.
Growing up as a kid, a lot of my friends had siblings and I would always be over at their house. My parents were also divorce and a lot of my friends' parents weren't, so I had this really weird, dysfunctional situation. I would go over to my friends' houses, and they would have family dinners with siblings and it was a lot of warmth. I envied watching my friend fight with her sister, because I didn't have that. I didn't have someone to go, "Are our parents insane or is it just me?" I've always been jealous of people who have that camaraderie in siblings. That's how ["Only Child"] evolved.
Once Shane [McAnally] said, "It gets lonely being an only child," we dove into this hypothetical scenario of who I would be if I had a sister, or who I would be if I had a brother and what my life would look like. That was one of the most emotional songs while I was writing it for the record, because I actually got attached to the characters in the song even though they didn't exist, which was really interesting. I didn't expect to get emotional about it.
"House With No Mirrors"
It's definitely very vulnerable. There's a lot of reasons why I chose to make the song a single, but the inspiration behind it was [that] my boyfriend and I were getting ready to go to a session — this is pre-COVID. I was getting ready, and I was putting on jeans and I was looking in the mirror and my jeans were a little tight. I started having a full mental breakdown; you know when you start getting hot in your face? I was like, "Oh my god, these jeans. What the fuck?" And I started saying, "I don't want to go to the session. I don't want to be seen by anyone right now; I just want to be alone." And my boyfriend looked at me and said, "We need to get you a house with no mirrors." I was like, "Damn." That hit me really hard.
I calmed down, we went to the session and we were working with this writer, Nicole Galan, who's incredible; she's like a big sister to me. We were talking about ideas and I was like, "Well, Henry just said I needed to live in a house with no mirrors." She immediately connected with that title and we wrote it down. It was one of those songs that I didn't have to overthink, it just poured out.
I decided to make it a single because I've struggled with eating disorders and body dysmorphia for as long as I can remember, and they've honestly destroyed so many parts of my life that should have been fun. I feel like they've held me back a lot. On social media, it's really toxic for girls to see me underweight and say, "Oh my god, you're so skinny. You look amazing." I feel like this weight off my chest now because "House With No Mirrors" is a single and it's out and people know I struggle with body image. Maybe now, younger girls will see a photo of me and if I'm struggling, they'll know, "Okay, that doesn't look good. It's not healthy." It's my way of putting it out there that, "Hey, sometimes I'm struggling and sometimes I'm not. But being skinny isn't the end all, be all." I thought it was an important one to put out there.
"Lie" is actually the oldest song on the record. Henry and I wrote it about two or three years ago, before the record came out, and we had both just ended very long relationships with significant others. I had been in a four-year relationship with my ex-boyfriend, he had been in a nine-year relationship with his ex-girlfriend and we broke up with them at the same time. We were each other's best friends during that. We were writing from this place, as friends, about how heartbroken we were that we had to break someone else's heart, and it was this weird, shared experience. I started thinking about how my ex-boyfriend was feeling and he was thinking about how his ex-girlfriend must feel. We also drew from our own experiences in those relationships where we were lying the whole time, and trying to make it work for longer than it should have been.
It's a weird emotion; it's indirectly inspired by different experiences. But we wrote that on guitar to a track that Emi [Dragoi], who's also on the album with us, sent over and then that's where my inspiration playlist came in handy because I was like, "Okay, this is like a cool emo, whatever, could-be ballad. But how do we make this sound like Robyn?" Because "Call Your Girlfriend" is one of my favorite songs of all time, and it's so heartbreaking but you don't really know unless you are reading the lyrics and I wanted it to feel like that. I drew a lot from Robyn for this, specifically. And my test for the album, truly, is [that] I'll have two margaritas and if I'm vibing with a song, it made the album. After a very long process of tweaking production and lyrics, it finally made it onto the list and I'm glad it did.
["Hypochondriac"] was actually the first song Henry and I wrote when we were like, "Okay, let's sit down. We're making an album." That was the first one that came out. That song is exactly as it sounds. I am a complete 180 from who I was, before I met Henry. I was smoking insane amounts of weed. I didn't drink any water. I didn't take care of myself. I had a shit diet and I just didn't really care. I think I was in my early twenties and I never went to the doctor. I was kind of self-destructing, but without knowing it' it's just how I had been living.
Henry and I fell in love and, ever since then, I'm a serious hypochondriac. Like the other day, I was having a panic attack and I called the cardiologist. They picked up and they were like, "Hello?" And I was like, "Hey, I'd like to make an appointment." They were like, "Oh, okay, are you being referred by a doctor?" I was like, "No, I —" and then I just hung up. That's how insane my anxiety has gotten. I do take vitamins now, and I try to drink water and take care of myself. And it's because I want to live, but part of that is because I found someone I want to do life with.
"Is It Just Me?"
["Is It Just Me?"] was the first song I've ever written over Zoom. I am obsessed with Reddit; it's like my Holy Grail and there's a subreddit, called r/UnpopularOpinion. I love reading it, I love sifting through. I wrote down in my phone, "unpopular opinion," as a song title idea, and we started writing that and then it morphed into "Is It Just Me?" And that song was really tricky to write because I wanted it to be quirky and have a comedic edge, but I also didn't want it to cross a line or not cross the line at all. It was like, "How do I make this safe, but not too safe?" I actually ended up tweaking those lyrics for weeks after we wrote it that day in the session.
I felt like, coming after "Hypochondriac," it's kind of like, "I'm a hypochondriac and here are all my unpopular opinions in the world." And it picks it back up, because "Hypochondriac" is more of a slow, lullaby vibe. "Is It Just Me?" I really wanted to sound more nostalgic, it was more '90s-inspired than anything else on the album. I wanted this record to be multifaceted and not talk just about love or one thing, and I felt like "Is It Just Me?" was really important in doing that.
I always had this title written down on my phone, called "Santa Isn't Real." I wanted to write it as my anti-Christmas song, so I tried taking a couple stabs with that and it always came off a little too bitter. Then I got really scared, like if a kid heard it and I suddenly ruined Santa for this child, so it died.
This song was written during the pandemic. My boyfriend and I were at a grocery store and I saw these little kids running around with masks on. I turned to my boyfriend and I was like, "Man, wouldn't it be sick to be a kid during this?" You know things are weird and messed up and scary, but you don't really understand the full scope, and you're protected by your parents who are scared, but you don't really know they're scared. It reminded me of — I was in first grade when 9/11 happened and I remember the feeling of being like, "Oh, wow, Mom's watching the TV a lot and things are really scary, but I'm just going to go play with my toys anyway."
So, "Santa's Real" came from that place of innocence and wanting to be naive again, and wishing the things that I thought were real as a kid actually existed and magic and just that feeling of innocence that you slowly lose throughout the years. It was mostly inspired by wanting to be a kid during this year instead of having to face the reality of it and also wishing the world was a better place. I know that's very pageant queen-y to say. I think it's the first time I've sat down and tried to write a song about the world from my view. I was always scared to tackle that subject because it's so easy to make sound corny, but that's how "Santa's Real" was born.
"Someone You Hate"
"Someone You Hate" was actually — the guitar you hear in the beginning, Emi sent it to Henry, and it was just this guitar riff. I heard it and was immediately inspired by it. I started singing the hook over it and I was like, "I'm not going to overthink it, let's just lay it down." Later that night, I started thinking about my ex-boyfriend and how he used to be my best friend. Now, we haven't talked in years; it was like, "Hey, we're done," and we haven't talked since. I started thinking about the guilt that I have with that, and I went from someone he loved to someone he hates. He might not hate me as much anymore, but he definitely probably resents me a little bit.
My ex-boyfriend moved out to California from Boston for me. And the lyrics in that song are really autobiographical, "Told your mama I'd take care of you/ Loaded up the car/ Drove into the dark," I was standing in his kitchen and we were about to drive cross-country, and she was like, "Are you going to take care of my son?" And I said, "Yes." And it has haunted me to this day. "Billboard signs and skylines painted blue," that's about living in LA, and "We made it a home/ But I felt alone," it's just about us growing apart. It's very literal to what I went through; I think it's crazy that you can love someone and hate them so quickly.
"Until It Happens To You"
"Until It Happens To You" is a really special song for a lot of reasons. My boyfriend and I have this friend in LA who we are very close with. His cousin, who's basically his sister, that we hung out with a lot and got to know, got diagnosed with leukemia out of nowhere and she died really quickly afterwards; she was in her early 30s. It was such a shock to everyone around us and it was incredibly sad. I remember sitting with my boyfriend, and we were talking and neither of us have really experienced a loss like that. We've both been to funerals, but it was from a distance and we've never lost anyone that close to us.
That song is really talking about empathy vs. sympathy and how we could offer sympathy, but we couldn't be like, "We've been there, we know what that feels like. I'm so sorry." It was more of us just saying, "I can't even imagine." My friend Danny came over and we were talking about it. Danny had been through something very similar. His now-fiancé's father passed away a couple years ago and he was holding her hand through the whole thing. It was this song about wanting to be there for someone and not really knowing how. It was written as a guitar demo and then I wanted it to feel like an emotional roller coaster at the end because that's how it feels.
"High School Me"
There's this line at the end of "High School Me" that I wrote off the cuff; it wasn't originally in the song, but it's "Wish I could go back/ Tell her it's okay." I felt like that was a really nice way to close the album, because a lot of my anxieties and issues, and even "House With No Mirrors" and "Matter To You" and everything I'm touching on, in a lot of ways it's just me. All of those things were rooted from my high school experience and that's when I started noticing what it looked like. I had an eating disorder and it started in high school. "High School Me" is just me wanting to go give my old self a giant hug and say it's going to be okay.
The last line of the last chorus, it's like everything you went through is why you're able to make the music you make now and tell your story. It just felt like a bow at the end. It's this nice beacon of hope, things get better. They're not perfect, but they get better and I felt like that was a nice way to sum up the album.
Photos courtesy of Susanne Kindt