It’s a perfect day for a swim in Los Angeles, but Sarah Tudzin is struggling to relax. The Illuminati Hotties frontwoman is trying and failing to find her balance on an inflatable tube in the deep end of my pool, clutching her sunglasses with one hand and a Tecate can with the other. “Wait, hang on, I got this,” she says as she splashes around on a 91-degree afternoon in June. The more she thrashes, though, the less the float wants to cooperate, like an aquatic, bucking rodeo bull. She’s tilted so far back that she’s almost upside-down, with the ends of her thick black hair starting to get wet. “Don’t put it in your article that I couldn’t do this. This is off the record!”
Balance is something the 29-year-old has never quite been able to master, in the water or in life. She’s a textbook workaholic—when not investing time and effort into her band, she’s clocking in hours in the studio as a producer and engineer, having worked with artists like Sad13 and Weyes Blood. And on top of her demanding work schedule, she is woefully incapable of passing up an invitation for post-work fun. “I think my favorite and least favorite quality about myself is that I cannot say no to a hang,” she says. “Being neutral makes me really nervous. When I’m not feeling extremely stimulated or extremely low, it feels wrong, like I’m floating in liminal space. That can be a dangerous quality. I want to live in both worlds—fun and serious.”
The meticulously arranged scheduling blocks in her calendar make her weeks resemble a game of Tetris, and she swears she’s never taken a proper vacation in her adult life. But June is her “Rumspringa month,” as she puts it, and she’s been trying to force a rare and much-needed break on herself until she has balanced her professional and personal lives a bit better. It seems to be working. Tudzin is a few shades tanner than she was a month ago (she just took a trip up to the Bay Area to visit family), and she’s been going on long morning walks with Maeby, the mutt she adopted at the start of the pandemic. It’s the calm before the storm, with only a few short months before the October release of Illuminati Hotties’ third album, Let Me Do One More.
It’s a bit ironic that Tudzin can’t unwind in the pool today. Two weeks ago, she released a video for “Pool Hopping,” the record’s sunny summer jam. In it, she comes off like a carefree human cannonball, splashing and crushing beers with pals through a montage of swimming pools. That’s the entire Illuminati Hotties vibe—party punk with an ear-to-ear smile. Like most things Tudzin works on, though, a great deal of effort went into making the video look so breezy.
“It was a lot of work!” she says of “Pool Hopping.” “It was the one weekend when it was 60 degrees in Los Angeles. We started at 8 in the morning, and it was raining when I got there. The pools weren’t heated, and I was fucking freezing the entire day. It was intense and vulnerable. I was trying to lip sync and not get water in my mouth at the same time.”
Prior to “Pool Hopping,” she released another video, for the single “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA,” a take on D’Angelo’s legendary “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video, in which the R&B singer showed off his glistening torso. In the Hotties version, Tudzin does a dutiful reenactment, but spends the second half getting drenched in green slime, an experience that was also not as enjoyable as Tudzin made it seem on screen.
“I was not wearing a lot of clothes,” she remembers. “My pants were rolled all the way down so everybody was looking at my butt all day. The slime was so gross and visceral. It smelled and looked crazy. I have a lot of phobias surrounding throw-up stuff, and it triggered that more than I thought it would.” Midway through her first attempt, she slipped on some slime, fell, and ruined the take. She then had to shower, dry off, redo her hair and makeup, and psych herself up to be drenched in the dyed-green mix of oatmeal and applesauce all over again.
All of her slime-enduring, pneumonia-skirting efforts seem to be paying off, though. “Pool Hopping” recently hit No. 1 on college radio charts, thanks in part to a hefty push from Illuminati Hotties’ new label home, Hopeless Records. The band is also scheduled to open a string of fall dates for Death Cab for Cutie, whose music Tudzin has loved since grade school. It should be a thrilling time, yet there is cautious restraint in her voice whenever she talks about it. It’s hard for her to get excited about album releases these days. After what she went through last summer, releasing a new record might never hold the same wide-eyed excitement for her again.
It happened last July, when Tudzin was readying the release of her second album, Free I.H.: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For. It was a conflicting thing to promote. The record had been conceived as a contract-fulfilling throwaway to get out of her deal with embattled indie label, Tiny Engines. But the freedom to make a zero-stakes record wound up leading to something she grew accidentally proud of—an idiosyncratic kitchen-sink batch of rush-job songs that pushed her to experiment more and second-guess less. Noise tracks mashed up against calypso beats with raging hardcore rippers thrown in, sandwiched between a few of the hook-heavy indie pop songs for which she is best known. “I was making it really fast and wasn’t thinking about quality,” she says. “It was this intuitive, weird gem that I uncovered.”
The night before Free I.H. was scheduled to drop, though, her mother died of cancer. Tudzin handed her social media passwords off to her managers, who kept the promotional machine rolling while she grieved with family. “I logged out for two weeks and let them do everything,” she says. “I checked in occasionally, but I wasn’t really thinking about it at all. There was some unease about celebrating it.”
Tudzin’s life eventually resumed, but the sense of unease never really went away.
“When my mom died, the magic disappeared from everything,” she says. “I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the songs as when I started making them. I felt like I was doing the motions.” Not helping with the emotional disconnect was the fact that she never got the chance to perform the Free I.H. material live, due to the pandemic wiping out touring plans.
Even now, with an entirely new album to promote, she still has trouble reigniting the spark. “With these new singles coming out, I don’t have a way to engage with it. It feels just like another part of my day,” she says of Let Me Do One More. “My friends are like, ‘Aren’t you so pumped?’ But it’s such a weird thing to engage with because the last record, I didn’t do it at all.”
Although the album’s initial singles have been well received among fans and racked up press honors like a lengthy feature in Rolling Stone and the coveted Best New Music title on Pitchfork, Tudzin still feels “a little numb” about it all. “When any trauma happens and you get close to it in a tangential way, it prickles you in a weird way. Your day feels off,” she says. “You’re like, ‘Why am I so upset? Everyone is saying nice things on the internet and the stream count is going up and the video is doing well.’ But your defenses are firing because it’s something that happened next to the trauma.”
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful or unenthused. I’m so stoked,” she continues, checking herself. “This really feels like the next level for the band. Yes, I want to celebrate, but it’s a reality of musicians’ lives. You have to find your own way to celebrate it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to celebrate anything without thinking of my mom in some way. But I think, step by step, I’m moving forward. The further away I get from it, the two things will invariably separate.”
For today, at least, promoting a record is just one of those pesky blocks in Tudzin’s calendar. She’s also promised a friend she’d write a new song with them, as well as kick in a cover song for a compilation record, and mix an album she was hired to work on. But those are all problems for next month. Right now, it’s still her Rumspringa, and she has finally found her balance in the pool. She sinks into the float, takes a huge sip from her beer can, and adjusts her sunglasses as she gazes up at the blazing California sun. “This float is giving me life right now,” she says with an exhale. “I want that on the record.”