The Swedish Songstress Has a New Album (And a New Baby) On the Way
Words and Interview by Kathy Iandoli.
There was a time long ago when Sarah Assbring had no intention of making music again. The Swedish siren spent years in the volatile slash analog Do-It-Yourself music scene at the start of the new millennium, questioning if it would ever pay off. At 25, she decided to give it another fair shot, and El Perro Del Mar was born. Named after a little stray dog she met by the ocean in Spain, El Perro Del Mar has been a work in progress since her semi-debut El Perro Del Mar (a reloaded version of 2005’s Look! It’s El Perro Del Mar!) back in 2006. Perhaps that’s why she prefers to be called a “project” rather than an artist.
As she anticipates the release of her fifth album Pale Fire in December, she has another arrival coming a month later. Sarah Assbring tells MTV Iggy exclusively that she will welcome a new child into 2013. It’s an all around exciting time, as El Perro Del Mar made a conscious decision to bring more “awareness” to her music this time around. The lyrics are deeper and more reflective, with the hopes of igniting some change in the world. In speaking with the soft-voiced mommy to be, she breaks down her thought process leading up to this project, how pregnancy affected her musically, and how a little hypersensitivity can yield brilliant results.
You’re inching toward a decade making music. Getting to this point, how do you feel you’ve changed musically?
Well, it’s quite hard to tell actually. I think in many ways, I’d say I feel more free, free in my ways of expression. I’m more open to experimenting I guess. At the same time, I’d say in many ways I feel very connected to the way that I’ve worked and the way that I wrote when I was working on my first album. There’s a definite progression and a definite development there, but there’s also a foundation there that I feel is quite the same. It’s just the way that I feel more secure that I can experiment more and be more free in the way that I make music. I don’t really feel that I have any boundaries and such.
When you first started out, the elements of music that you experimented with were very underground or indie. Now though, that experimentation you did years ago is slowly being woven into the fabric of mainstream pop. It is weird for you to witness that shift?
It is quite interesting. I hadn’t really though about that. You’re right, and in some ways you’re really right. I was considered “indie” and “DIY” when I started out, and what I do now isn’t indie as much. I just think it’s fun and I think it’s a good thing. Indie music has become more accepted and more commercial in that sense – in a good way. I think it’s a good development.
What inspires you to make music? What is your formula, if there is a formula?
I guess the formula is me using the hypersensitivity that I was born with, which could have been a real handicap if I didn’t find a way to process it and express it. I think there is a hypersensitivity where I pick up very distilled, very concentrated feelings. Those feelings usually come out in sentences. And those sentences for me have harmonies to it. In a very simplistic way to describe it, it’s just this kind of drastic, dramatic hypersensitivity that I’ve found a way to use and make something of. Also, every artist is triggered by other art, not necessarily music – films, architecture, paintings, and poetry. It’s a combination of being a very sensitive person and picking up stuff wherever I go
Being a hypersensitive individual, what were you like as a child?
I think I was quite good at using music quite early. I was singing most of the time. I wasn’t an extroverted kid; I’ve never been an extrovert. Very early on, I found in music a way to escape and put things into music. That was the absolute safest place for me. I kinda found some solace in music. It sounds pretentious, but it’s not. I could just start singing wherever I was, and that would make me feel very good. It’s very much the same way with the relationship that I have with music today. When it’s at its best, it’s very uncomplicated; just like a very spontaneous, very soothing thing.
When did you know that you were going to pursue music?
I had a kinda, not a breakdown as such, but I was in a typical mid-twenties existential
crisis. After doing music for a long time, I was asking myself if this was actually something I could do really actually do or if I had to pursue something that was more real or that would pay off more maybe? Like an actual career? [laughs] Then I spent like a year off from music – I didn’t really listen to music and I didn’t make music. It was a very unique time for me, because I hadn’t ever done that before. I did that both consciously and unconsciously, trying to challenge myself and seeing if I would ever go back to making music, or if music was that important to me. And it was. It was around that time when I started again that El Perro Del Mar was founded. I was like 25 or something like that, when I accepted the fact that this was the only thing that really meant that much to me. Around that time it also started working and happening, so I see it as it all coming together in every way – existentially and musically. Career wise also. Yeah, it was a very important decision for me.
Where did you come up with the name El Perro Del Mar?
That was around the time of that hiatus and just trying to find my way and myself in the world I guess. I just happened to be in Spain on a beach where a stray dog started coming up to me and kept coming up to me during the time that I was there. I know a little bit of school Spanish, so I named it El Perro Del Mar, and it became like a very sweet reminder of sweetness that I needed. I kept it in the back of my mind. When I started writing music again, it just felt very logical and very natural for me. It stood for a lot of the things I was feeling and going through. It was just going to be a name that I was going to be able to hold on to for a very long time. It’s been like that, so I’m very happy about the name.
With Pale Fire, did you name it after the novel by Vladimir Nabokov?
I didn’t actually! I never read the novel. I was just working on the actual song “Pale
Fire.” As with most of the time I come up with phrases, they come from nowhere. ‘Pale
Fire’ was one of those phrases that came to me. In time, I found that everything about the
album in the way that I was thinking about the theme – even though it was very abstract
– my feelings my thoughts, kinda found its way through those words. I decided right then and there writing that song that the album was going to be called Pale Fire. It was afterwards that I heard that Nabokov had a novel called that as well.
It’s interesting how you put those two words together as well. Pale Fire is such an abstract idea.
Yeah! And it’s because of that, that it has the possibility to contain a lot of meaning.
But all of the meanings that I was looking for were contained in those words. It was
fascinating how that works.
Well the book is about a lunatic who goes into exile. Does your album reflect that?
I don’t think so. No. [Laughs] I remember I was looking up what the novel was about when I realized that “Oh gosh, this is the same title.” I was thinking maybe the book is a little bit about the same thing that I’m writing about, but then I realized it wasn’t.
How would you describe your project?
I would describe it as being about songs that live in a dark world, but there’s this pale fire flickering that stands for this will to love and the will to fight, and that no matter what it can’t be stifled. I realized that when I was working, my mind was very much focused on the darkness of the world around me, and what’s going on in the world – both politically and in the way that I feel and pick things up. Quite early on, I wanted to fight that feeling.
I felt like I wanted something that feels more – the kind of feeling that gives rather than just takes energy and hope from the listener. It was a challenge for me, because I was in the mood, in the dark mood. So it is a way for me to fight my own moods to write about love and to write about the will to fight or the will to protest and so on.
On your Tumblr page, you included this excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and it mentions how uncovering certain dark truths are like a horror story for people. Does this reflect how you approached your album – shedding light on some truths in the world and in yourself?
Yes, definitely. That was also something that I felt like I was struggling with. It hit me when I was working on the album. I haven’t really put in my observations or my ideas about the outside world before in my lyrics, so that was kind of a new thing for me. I was working on finding ways for myself to express that and the best way to find the right words. I realized that it has to do a lot about what you want to see or what you dare to see or what you shut your eyes for or what you uncover in beautiful or romantic words. I guess the album is a lot about that as well. There’s a song on the album called “Hold Off the Dawn,” and it’s very much about, “Should I just run away and not face the reality of what’s going on and the future that’s about to hit me? Should I just hide and shut my eyes and not take my responsibility for it?”
Your album comes at a perfect time for the US since our election is coming up.
Yeah, for me that was the only way that I could make a new album. This was the only way that I wanted to make a new album, something that was not just important for myself. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in any kind of way, but it’s been my drive and it’s been what I’ve been aiming for at least.
What is the music scene like in Sweden?
I don’t know; there are a lot of scenes going on in Sweden. Maybe for a time there was more of a happy family kind of scene. A couple of years ago, it turned into more a divided scene. A lot of different stuff is going on, which is very good. There is a lot of very interesting stuff going on. But it’s more of a divided scene.
Another act from Sweden iamamiwhoami refer to themselves as a musical experiment, or project and you refer to yourself as the same. Is that a Swedish thing?
I would say that the reason why I’ve called myself a project is because I am working as
a solo artist, and it’s easier to find another way to be open musically. That’s one of the
things that is very important for me – to be able to feel like I can move wherever I want
to musically and try everything. It’s easier to call it a project than anything else I guess.
Since I know that I’m always reacting against what I’ve done in some kind of way. I’m
always trying to evaluate what I did before, I feel like I need to star anew with every
album I do. In that sense, it is project-based. With every new album, I’m stepping into a
So what’s next for you?
Well, I’m heading out on a European tour until the middle of December, so that’s the
first stop. For you, I can reveal that I’m having a baby by the end of January. It was very
unplanned, so I had to face the reality of it. I’m kind of being cut right in the middle of
the release with having the baby. But I’m gonna be up on my feet and bringing my baby
as soon as I’m able to and continue my touring and head over to the U.S. as well.
Do you know what you’re having?
No I’m keeping it a surprise!
Do you have any names planned?
I’m a big fan of Ariel Pink, and we love the name Ariel. So if it’s a boy, I think we’re leaning very much towards that. For some reason, I’m very into Jewish names. But Ariel is a favorite.
How has pregnancy affected you musically? Women’s voices typically change and other things happen.
I’ve had a very good pregnancy so far, which I’m very thankful for. I think my voice has definitely been affected. I think it’s much deeper than it usually is. Apart from that, I haven’t really experienced anything yet. I know that my stress level, my way of dealing with stress, has been really badly affected. I’m hoping I’m finding a good way to cope with that.
So wait, you’re going to be eight months pregnant and touring?
[Laughs] It’s going to be a great challenge. I’m looking forward to it. I definitely think it’s going to be a good challenge for me. I’ve been a bit of a control freak before, especially when it comes to touring. So I think it’s a good way for me to challenge myself and meet myself in that position, knowing that it’s okay and everything is going to be all right. I’m looking forward to it.
Maybe it was a subconscious feeling that you needed a heightened awareness with this project, knowing that a baby was coming…
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It seems like a good sign.
So does El Perro Del Mar have a dog?
No, but I love dogs. I’m crazy about dogs. I was actually in the plan of buying a dog when I found out that I was pregnant. That plan had to be postponed a bit. I’m really obsessed with dogs though.
Now you have to get one for Ariel…
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