El Perro Del Mar
Sarah Assbring sounds like the saddest 1960s girl group of all time — just one lonesome singer, shoop-shooping and hand-clapping all by herself, four decades after all her girlfriends have gone. But there’s something comforting in the slow-shimmy love songs she writes as El Perro del Mar: with Brill Building melodies and a high-shivering voice like Julee Cruise, the Swedish singer-songwriter’s latest album, Love is Not Pop, makes even the most melancholy tracks feel as calming as sleeping pills. Which makes sense, since Assbring admits that these tunes helped her through a breakup with her longterm boyfriend that left her nearly catatonic.
eMusic’s Melissa Maerz spoke to her about her recovery period in New York, her epiphany about Last Tango in Paris, and other inspirations behind such narcotic tunes.
You’ve said that you spent “bad times” in New York, and that the city made a great imprint on your music and your feelings about love. How so?
After touring with my second album, I felt quite lost. My [decade-long] relationship was over, but I was the first one who realized it, so I decided to go to New York and come to terms with it before I went home to Sweden for the breakup. That summer ended up being one of the deepest, darkest, most isolating times of my life. I stayed at a friend’s place in Greenwich [Village] and I didn’t speak to people and I didn’t pick up the phone. I spent most of my time reading the only book I brought with me, the collected poems and lyrics of Lou Reed. I ended up covering his song “Heavenly Arms,” and he became a key figure for me on this album. There was a contradiction for me: how do you write love songs when you don’t have any belief in love anymore? Lou Reed’s poems taught me how to do that.
Later that fall, you moved to Paris. I hear Parisian pop was a big influence on this album.
Yes, those were much happier times. My split-up was behind me, and I fall for every romantic cliché about Paris — it’s all about classic beauty to me. I was listening to a lot of French pop music from the late 80s, like Vanessa Paradis and Niagra, which was fronted by this bizarre, beautiful woman with big red hair and a big red mouth, and Mylene Farmer, who was like the French Madonna. I knew I wanted a more rhythmic feel to my album, so I started recording the demos for Love is Not Pop while I was staying in Paris at the Le Centre Culdurel Seudois Cultural Institute.
Your album title comes from Last Tango in Paris, right?
Yes, I saw that movie while I was in Paris. It comes from the scene where the female lead is having this argument with her husband-to-be. She’s trying on a wedding dress in a boutique and her husband-to-be is being very arrogant and sarcastic about the whole thing. He says, “Love is pop,” as if it’s not serious, and getting married is just something you do. And she gets really upset and throws her veil off and rushes out of the store and says, “Love is not pop!” That made total sense to me, and it became a theme on the album.
You worked with Rasmus Hagg of the Swedish duo Studio on this album. What drew you to having him as a co-producer?
I wanted a very bass-y feel to this album, and I knew he could do that. Also, he was very easy for me to understand. Even the adjectives he used felt spot-on: he described sounds and instruments in colors, and that’s something I do, too. No one has ever understood me before when I did that!
What color is this album to you?
There are a lot of pastels. One of the most important things that we agreed upon was that we didn’t want to use synthetic or sampled sounds. He had just started playing the drums, so he really wanted a live drum sound, and we wanted to use actual recorded instruments and distort them so that you couldn’t tell what instrument it was. “Change of Heart” is like that — there’s a lot of piano, but it sounds more washed out. It was like taking a pallet of pastel paints and smearing them.
Like an Impressionist painting?
Exactly. You built your own recording studio with your ex-boyfriend in Gothenburg. Did you record this album there?
Yes, he was my sound technician. We’ve worked together on every album that I’ve made, which is kind of strange, but to us it’s always been very natural. Some of those songs are kind of mean, but in a way, it was like therapy: we knew our relationship was over but we were making something very concrete and productive together. Also, writing songs was definitely an outlet for things I couldn’t bring myself to talk about with him.
To me, the most heartbreaking song on this album is “It Is Something.” I heard the lyrics come from an old English poem?
Yes, it’s one of the only good things I took with me from the bad New York experience. It’s a poem by G.K. Chesterton. When I was staying at my friend’s place in New York, I would spend my days taking books off the shelf in his library, and I found this beautiful photography book by Bruce Webber. There were a lot of pictures of early ’90s starlets who were so beautiful and talented and very young before they got destroyed. There was one strikingly beautiful portrait of River Phoenix standing in a meadow, looking so fragile but so strong, and next to the picture was the poem. The full title is “It Is Something to Have Wept.” The exact same day, I had bought my first electric guitar and I just picked up this book and wrote this song. It was like a hymn. To me, it’s about how even though you’re sad that something’s over, you can never deny the experiences you’ve had. Because those memories will stay with you forever.