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Redefining the Sad Girl

A collection of mentioned “sad girl” albums. Images via Spotify.

Like anything widely enjoyed by teenage girls, the evolving genre of female-fronted “sad girl” music has been met with some derision. While there are certainly valid criticisms of the “sad girl” niche, particularly for its habit of prioritizing white artists, its complete dismissal feels difficult to detach from the tendency to devalue female artists. Men in the indie world seem free to create work that, in the hands of a woman, would be brushed off as shallow melodrama. While sad male indie artists are canonized as legends, women’s sadness in art is often implicitly treated as simply not deep enough to take that seriously. 

However, I think there are a multitude of extremely talented artists, small and large, who have been unfairly minimized by this treatment. As a connoisseur of unhealthily depressive music with a mission to redefine and reclaim the “sad girl” genre, here are some women making excellent sad indie music for when you just need to scratch that itch. 

Perera Elsewhere

Sasha Perera, or Perera Elsewhere, describes her latest album “All of This” as “doom folk.” I couldn’t think of a better description for the rich and gloomy atmosphere Perera evokes with her work. Merging eerie acoustic elements with her experience as an electronica producer, Perera Elsewhere often feels like a fascinating confluence of Tom Waits, Lana del Rey, and Aphex Twin. 

An ever-evolving artist, Perera’s discography offers a wide range of sounds. If you prefer to lean into the gloomier side, listen to her 2013 album “Everlast,” my personal favorites off the project being “Bizarre,” “Light Bulb,” and “Drunk Man”. If you’re more into electronica with folk influence, “All of This” offers just that. Off of that album, some favorites are “Shoes,” “Something’s Up,” and “Girl From Monotronica.” She also has a host of excellent singles including “Yeah Yeah,” and “Drive.”

Adrianne Lenker

Adrianne Lenker is best known as the lead guitarist and singer of alternative/indie band “Big Thief.” However, she also boasts an excellent breadth of solo work, spanning from “Stages of the Sun,” an album she released at only 14 years old, to her most recent solo album, “songs.” What shines most in Lenker’s work is her lyricism: intimate, interesting, and evocative, her unique touch is evident whether the song is “Big Thief” or her solo work. A prodigious musician, Adrianne Lenker was accepted into Berklee College of Music on scholarship at only 16 years old and has since gone on to be one of the most skilled lyricists currently active. She cites Elliot Smith and Leonard Cohen as influences, harnessing a sound that brings in clear elements of folk and 90s indie, as well as something entirely its own. 

If you’re looking to get into “Big Thief,” I’d recommend starting with their 2022 album “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe You.” My personal favorites off the project: “Simulation Swarm, Change,” and “Time Escaping.” Other excellent tracks are “Mythological Beauty,” “Not, Pretty Things,” and “Real Love.” As for Adrianne Lenker’s individual discography, I suggest “symbol,” “anything,” “from,” or “not a lot, just forever.”

Mitski

Mitsuki Miyawaki, or Mitski, began her musical career with the 2012 release of “Lush.” This raw, haunting album marked the beginning of a remarkable discography now spanning six albums—including her most recent project, “Laurel Hell.” Mitski grew from an indie darling into a firmly established fixture following her explosion of popularity with the 2018 release of “Be the Cowboy.” A masterful lyricist with a distinct, yet ever-evolving instrumental style, it’s hard to say this following isn’t well deserved. 

You may already be familiar with hits like “First Love / Late Spring,” “Washing Machine Heart” and “Nobody,” but if you’re looking for some underrated gems try “Drunk Walk Home,” “Stay Soft,” “Francis Forever” (which was covered in an episode of Adventure Time, BTW), “Jobless Monday,” “Bag of Bones,” “Brand New City,” “I Want You,” “Square,” or, my personal favorite, “Townie.” 

Japanese Breakfast

An Oregon native, Michelle Zauner is the frontwoman of indie pop rock band Japanese Breakfast. With piercing, airy vocals and breathtaking guitar work, Zauner often explores themes of Korean-American identity (yes, she’s Korean, not Japanese) and the death of her mother, also detailed in her excellent 2021 novel “Crying in H Mart.” 

In my opinion, the best introduction to Japanese Breakfast is just listening through her debut album “Psychopomp” consecutively. However, if you’re looking for some more specific recommendations, I suggest “Everybody Wants to Love You,” “Road Head,” “Posing in Bondage,” “Boyish,” or “Heft.” 

Phoebe Bridgers

In all honesty, Phoebe Bridgers is an artist that I didn’t quite get at first. I thought her music was nice, but I didn’t quite understand the sort of magnetic emotional attachment people seemed to have to her work. She didn’t click for me as an artist until I sat down and listened through the entirety of her 2020 album “Punisher”—but when I got it, I got it. Her work is intimate yet atmospheric, with a talent for simple yet deeply effective lyricism evident in every track. It’s melancholy and haunting, yet with an undertone of humor and hope and a real sense of storytelling.

If you haven’t been able to get into Phoebe either, I’d recommend doing what I did and just sitting down and listening to “Pushisher” or “Stranger in the Alps” all the way through. As for individual songs, some personal favorites are “Garden Song,” “I Know the End,” “You Missed My Heart,” “Savior Complex,” and “Funeral.”

Lucy Dacus

Lucy Dacus, a member of Boygenius alongside Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, began her career with the 2015 release of the single “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore.” Since then she has released three studio albums– “No Burden,” “Historian,” and “Home Video,” all to critical acclaim. Dacus tends to explore themes of queerness, coming of age, and relationship to faith, wielding a subtle yet powerful emotional intensity. 

Lucy Dacus has remarkably consistent quality as an artist, with even her older work holding up extremely well. I think her 2018 album “Historian” will always be closest to my heart, but I’d recommend giving her discography as a whole a listen. As a place to start, try “Thumbs,” “Body to Flame,” “Nonbeliever,” “Night Shift,” or “Timefighter.“

Indigo De Souza

Indigo De Souza is a relatively new artist compared to others on this list. Her first album, “I Love My Mom,” was released in just 2018. After self-producing “I Love My Mom”, She went on to co-produce her second album, “Any Shape You Take”, with Brad Cook– who has also produced for artists like Bon Iver. De Souza creates very confessional indie rock that wrestles with a sense of anxiety, disillusionment, and a fixation on death. She’s spoken about her journey with bringing more honesty into her music rather than “poetic fluff,” and that honesty is really defining of her current work. Indigo De Souza is direct, sensitive, confrontational, and like candy for the ear. 

If you want to start listening, I recommend “Kill Me,” “This is How I Get Myself Killed,” “Good Heart,” and “Sick in the Head.”

Mélissa Laveaux

Full disclosure, Mélissa Laveaux does not entirely fit into the parameters of this list. While her work covers serious topics and has a deep emotional core, it’s also dynamic in a way that I don’t think I could really categorize it as “sad girl music” in good conscience. However, Melissa Laveaux is so criminally underrated that I would be remiss not to highlight her while I have the chance. A Canadian artist of Haitain descent, Laveaux merges rock, blues, folk, and roots with heavy Afro-Caribbean influence. Her 2018 album, “Radyo siwèl,” is a reworking of Haitian folk songs that she grew up hearing her parents play on their record player. 

Aside from Radyo siwèl, if you’re looking to get into Mélissa Laveaux try “Ching sih,” “Triggers,” “Simalo,” “Fire Next Time,” “Postman,” or listen through her 2014 album “Dying is a Wild Night.”

Jay Som

Milina Duterte, or Jay Som, makes bedroom pop that’s dreamy, intimate, and, in her own words, “headphone music.” With slow, sometimes shoegaze-inspired vocals and rich, swelling instrumentals, Jay Som pulls influence from Carly Rae Jepson, to Tame Impala, to Yo La Tengo, to Phil Elverum. Duterte is the daughter of Filipino immigrants, and also cites that cultural background as an influence on her work. Since somewhat unintentionally stumbling into public attention with the relative popularity of her 2015 Untitled demos (which would later be officially released as “Turn Into”), Jay Som has produced a total of six albums, the most recent of which being 2019’s “Anak Ko.”

Jay Som has a huge body of work, and all of it is seriously worth your time. As a place to start, try “Lipstick Stains,” “Tenderness,” “Stay in the Car,” and “Rush.”

This is just a small slice of a huge niche of spectacularly talented women making indie music. If any of these artists strike a chord with you, I urge you to explore deeper yourself— who knows, you might find something special.

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