Images and Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers
“I never felt like there were any other options, other than music,
as to what made me the happiest.
Then it was really hard figuring out how I could pay rent and eat doing it.”
— Sarah Tudzin
Sarah Tudzin is a producer and engineer hailing from Los Angeles, who records and performs under the guise of indie-pop outfit Illuminati Hotties. Her debut album Kiss Yr Frenemies (2018) was released through Tiny Engines and featured on NPR as well as Pitchfork, Stereogum and The Fader.
Illuminati Hotties is the creative outlet for self-proclaimed “tenderpunk pioneer” Sarah Tudzin, a songwriter, producer and singer who recently emerged as a bright light of the Californian music scene. Her self-produced, self-recorded debut album Kiss Yr Frenemies (2018) generated a flurry of critical praise from the best in the biz, and a seemingly endless string of tour dates. Tudzin takes a break from the tour van to chat about the benefit of phone notes, exploring life’s mundane moments through music, and how an unknown intern got Illuminati Hotties on the radio.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Los Angeles, California.
When did you start making music?
I feel like I have been making music forever but I started playing music when I was seven and then I’ve just been writing little songs here and there all along.
Who did you listen to growing up?
Growing up, my folks had a lot of Stevie Wonder laying around and Simon and Garfunkel and Motown and I listened to that and whatever else I could get my hands on. I think the first record I played drums with was a Led Zeppelin record.
How did you get started?
I started taking piano lessons when I was seven and then started practicing drums and playing a lot of drums in middle school. I was always writing and making weird stuff and then got more into studio stuff once I was in college. I spent a lot of time recording my friends and recording myself and just trying to figure out creatively where I fit into music, and then slowly but surely this project came together.
What felt like your first break?
Has my first break happened yet? I don’t know. I think the most surreal moment with this project was hearing about NPR picking it up and not knowing that was even an option on the table. Somebody sent me the link and was like, “You are on ‘All Songs Considered’” and I was like, “Err, cool.” I had no idea but the intern at the show had brought in one of our songs and showed it to them. I found out in this weird roundabout way, and that felt like there are more people that have heard this thing than I thought.
How did you decide that this is what you were going to do?
I don’t think I ever had a plan B. I just always wanted to be making music and so I did it all of the time. I never felt like there were any other options as to what made me the happiest and then it was really hard figuring out how I could pay rent and eat doing it.
What life events have impacted you and your music the most?
I think every day we experience the regular things and the outrageous things and I just try and observe all of them the same way and collect them in little scraps in my notebook or in my phone. Just everything that goes on around us every day—from getting coffee to seeing something crazy happen or talking to your mom on the phone, finding out good news or bad news or anything really—I think informs my music and my art. That is a very big broad answer. I don’t think there was a singular event, I think it is just being able to process all of the events that are happening all of the time in a different way.
What is the story behind the name Illuminati Hotties?
Well everybody has a note in their phone full of stupid band names and this one seemed less stupid and kind of fun and it fit the project really well and had this duality of goofiness but also serious weirdness and a lot of the songs were fitting that vibe. It just made sense when I was figuring out what to call all of these songs that are coming together in this way.
“Every day we experience the regular things and the outrageous things, and I just try to observe all of them the same way and collect them in little scraps in my notebook or phone.”
— Sarah Tudzin
Tell me a bit about your debut album Kiss Yr Frenemies.
Kiss Yr Frenemies started as a project to be a calling card for my production stuff and my engineering stuff. I had all of these songs that had been sitting around for a while and then a summer of really productive songwriting. I wanted to show people what I could do in a producer way and so I started producing my own songs. Then they started coming together more in this way that felt like a project that I could perform, and that I was having fun playing out, and it just ended up being more of an artist project than a producer project and in the end Kiss Yr Frenemies happened.
What are some things that are important to you that you like to address through your music?
Relationships between people, not necessarily a dating relationship or anything, but friendship, family members, really anything interpersonal and intrapersonal. Just the basic everyday things that happen to us and what we have got to do to get from waking up to going to sleep every day and start it over again.
“Kiss Yr Frenemies started as a project to be a calling card for my production and engineering stuff. I wanted to show people what I could do as a producer so I started producing my own songs.”
— Sarah Tudzin
Mitski Miyawaki, known simply as Mitski, is a Japanese-American singer-songwriter and musician. She embarked on her musical career while studying at Purchase College Conservatory of Music, during which she self-released her first two albums: Lush (2012), and Retired from Sad, New Career in Business (2013). After graduating, Mitski released her critically acclaimed third studio album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014). It was followed by Puberty 2 (2016) and Be the Cowboy (2018), released on Dead Oceans to further acclaim.
American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens released his debut album A Sun Came (1999) on the Asthmatic Kitty label, which he co-founded with his stepfather. He received wide recognition for his 2005 album Illinois, which hit number one on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart, and for the single “Chicago” from that album. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song and a Grammy Award nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media for “Mystery of Love” from the movie Call Me by Your Name (2017).
Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
There are a lot of people I would want to collaborate with. I’ve been in the van and I’ve been listening to the whole Sufjan Stevens discography, and that dude has hero status for sure; I think I could learn a few things so that would be a fun collaboration. Mitski; I really love her new stuff and that has also been on heavy rotation and it seems like it could be fun for a collaboration should the stars somehow align.
What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I love being outside, going to the beach, hiking and exploring. Reading, I read a lot. There is a lot of music. It is hard to get away from the music and it definitely never goes off. Getting good food, hanging out.
What is your favorite book, film and music right now?
I’m in the middle of reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem right now which I really love. I had never read much by Joan Didion, but I dove in and I finally figured it out, I learned how to read in the car. I’ve been reading in the van and really excited that I can start blowing through books like that.
Favorite movie? That is hard. I told someone the other day my favorite movie was Top Gun and I might regret that decision but it is kind of a banger.
Favorite music is impossible because there is so much. I wish I could answer that better but there is so much good music out right now and I think most of the stuff I have really been enjoying listening to is my friends’ records that have or have not yet been released, and just being inspired by the people that I know that are also trying to make their artistic mark. It is so cool to see those people get their voice together and some of it has been really beautiful to watch coming together from beginning to end.
Making the next record maybe. Working with some other artists on some of their records. Maybe taking a day off once in a while. Hopefully, I’ll be back in the studio soon and working as much as possible.