When asked to describe what home means to him, Joshua Bassett doesn’t pin down a single geographical location. Instead, the 21-year old actor and musician distills the notion down to a single word: peace. “I don’t really know what home is,” he admits over Zoom. “But you just have to find that peace for yourself wherever you go.” It’s a sensibly detached approach for someone like Bassett who constantly finds himself uprooted the moment he’s settled in. Once he’s found a solid friend group in New York, it’s off to LA. But once he’s reacclimated to the city’s flow — finding the perfect coffee shop, or relaxing in his Airbnb — he’s pulled back to Salt Lake City to film High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
This push and pull, and the memories that linger long after he’s hopped on his next flight, rests at the core of Bassett’s latest EP Sad Songs In Hotel Rooms. The 6-track project arrives as a precursor to the singer’s forthcoming debut album, closing an important chapter as a means of moving forward. “It felt like we couldn’t skip steps,” he explained. “We had to put this out as a marker in time for the last couple of years.” Some of the featured songs date back as far as two years ago, while others only recently tumbled out of his mind. There’s “Lifeline,” a moving ballad on which Bassett finds the right words to say to thank his mother for being at his side after a near-fatal, stress-induced health scare in 2021. It’s followed by “All In Due Time,” where he interrogates the idea of non-linear healing. Meanwhile, “LA” and “Used To It” emphasize the importance of setting boundaries in toxic, transactional relationships.
“The more important thing is finding those people who will nurture and protect you and who you can create a community with, instead of needing to fight for yourself or figure it out alone,” he added. Each song on the project surfaced a vastly different story as he looked back on what he considers to be the hardest period of his life, as well as the lessons and people who got him through it. Bassett spoke with Uproxx about Sad Songs In Hotel Rooms ahead of its release, reflecting on shedding what doesn’t serve him at his core and finding peace by getting the hard conversations off his chest in the only way he knows how: through song.
What did you need to get out on Sad Songs In Hotel Rooms that you couldn’t on past releases and needed to before you can make that step towards a full-length debut?
It’s been a tough couple years and I’ve been writing nonstop through them. I felt like while I did put out Crisis / Secret / Set Me Free, that was sort of a statement, a different thing. All the songs are personal to me, but these tell a different story and really expand on the hardest chapter of my life. We’re all excited about the album and there’s so many other songs I’m just dying to get out, it felt like we couldn’t skip steps. We had to put this out as a marker in time for the last couple of years. These songs all sort of rose to the top through the batch and we all felt like this was a great, cohesive little body to put out to give fans something. And also just for me to put out in anticipation for the next step.
“Smoke Slow” and “Lifeline” share a thematic thread about communication — saying things you normally wouldn’t for one reason or another. How has your relationship with songwriting allowed you to embrace emotional vulnerability?
I think ultimately the best songs come when you say the things that you’re afraid to say you know, and I think, well, not what you’re afraid to say, but you don’t know how else to say. “Lifeline,” it’s like how do you thank your mom for being there on your bedside when you’re going through the worst part of your life? Or how do you reflect on a toxic relationship like in “Used To It” in the way that you know… It’s hard for me to express in speaking words, it’s sort of like I have no other option but to let these things out through the music. Each song says the kind of thing that I’m not really able to say otherwise.
Why did “Lifeline” need to have such a simple, black-and-white visual? Especially in comparison to some of your past videos where there’s basically a whole cast set around it, this video in particular is really stripped back and it’s very emotional.
It was pretty clear cut from the get-go — I didn’t want any fluff. I didn’t want it to be overdramatic, I didn’t want it to seem like it was anything but what it was. To me, the song is all about the lyrics and I didn’t want to take away from that. It comes down to that one-on-one relationship. I found myself in the hospital just with my mom on my side, doctors coming in and out, but ultimately it was just me and her. I wanted this video to be a love letter to her [without] any distractions. I don’t want any gimmicks or anything like that. This is what it is. And here I am. This is my story. And this is my love letter to her. So I was like, I’m just gonna sit in front of the camera. I’m not going to look away and I’m just gonna say these words straight to her.
And you’ve co-directed a couple of your music videos now, including this one. How do you think about the link between music and how it’s presented visually?
I feel like every time I write a song that really means anything to me, the visuals kind of happen automatically. I can sort of envision the full thing and so to be able to put the visual to the audio is amazing. I’ve always been into video just as much as I have been into music. I grew up making videos constantly with my sisters and writing little scripts and then filming them and then editing them. So I’ve always sort of had that director’s eye and that passion for that. It’s like the most creatively fulfilling thing in the world to be able to bring together the two worlds of my heart and soul in the music, but then again, to be able to sit behind and get in front of the camera and direct in that way. It’s all the things that I love in one.
On “LA,” you talk about the transactional nature of relationships there — where you have to be cautious about who has genuine intentions and who doesn’t. I’m curious about your experience with setting boundaries and learning which parts of yourself to share with people.
I think it’s interesting because people’s true colors really show when shit hits the fan. And people can say they’re your right or die and you know, shit goes south and you learn real quick who actually is. I started to see, when I was going through tough things, people started to fall away. But then, as I had success in different ways, those people would come back around. It’s such a hard thing to gauge and, again, it’s really a time thing. As time goes on, you start to see who your real friends are. I think a lot of times, we’ll think that people around us are the people that are going to be with us till the end. And as life happens, you quickly learn who’s real and who’s not. It’s hard — impossible, really — to really know who’s there for you, but I think their intentions show when you’re at your lowest point and they’re still by your side.
So, that song came when I was kind of being pushed by a lot of people to produce things for them. It’s almost like I’m this cash cow that people are trying to get something from. And I was so sick and tired of, like you said, everything being transactional and being like, “what can you give me?” instead of “how can we work together and collaborate?” I was just so sick and tired of all that noise and I also had to show up to pretend like I’m okay when I’m not. I think it’s such an important thing, while still being professional — being able to acknowledge when you’re not well and you need to vocalize that. I’ll say to my team, I need a break, I need space, I need time, I need everyone to go away. Being able to say that is huge, but it’s crazy. A lot of times we live in fear of upsetting people or letting people down, but when it comes at the cost of your own well-being, then you’re playing the wrong game.
It’s funny, because everyone talks so openly about mental health and taking care of yourself now, but it doesn’t seem to have been actualized in a meaningful way. It’s like, “Take care of yourself as long as it’s not inconveniencing me or how I make money.”
That’s really what I’m trying to advocate for, being able to show up as you are, not having to pretend to be what you’re not. I think we’re getting there in general, but something else that we don’t talk about enough is just how important community is. For a long time, I have self-isolated and thought I’m better off being alone. And the reality is, sometimes you are. But ultimately, if you’re feeling like you’re better off alone, it’s probably because you don’t have the right people around you. The more important thing is finding those people who will nurture and protect you and who you can create a community with instead of needing to fight for yourself or figure it out alone. That’s a big thing I’ve been learning this year.
I’m still learning how to reach out and ask for help, or talk things through with people because it’s so easy for us to quickly just go in our own bubble. Sometimes you need that, but ultimately, we are all we have, we have to be there for each other in more ways than just verbally. We have to actually show up for each other emotionally and provide a space because this life is hard — why make it any harder on each other? This is becoming a TED talk.
How do you feel like you’ve had to learn how to fight or advocate for yourself as an artist as you’ve more deeply entered the folds of the music industry, and what’s been the guiding message that’s helped you come to a better understanding of how to go about navigating that?
That’s a hard one. I won’t say who it was that told me this, but somebody when I was going through a really tough time said something that somebody said to them: don’t let them tell you who you are. And I think a lot of times, we live in this internet age and we gauge our self-worth based on what other people say. But the irony in that is that everyone else is doing that, too. Being able to hold on to myself and being honest at all costs, at the end of the day, the truth rises to the top. Obviously, there are people who have opinions and people who maybe have suggestions and advice, it’s always good to listen to the people around you. But at the end of the day, like I said, don’t let them tell you who you are. Ultimately, you have to learn that for yourself and trust that if you continue to do that, then that’s the stuff that really goes the distance.
Joshua Bassett is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.