It’s been a while, but El Perro Del Mar didn’t die. When Sarah Assbring put aside her alter ego for a few years in favor of raising her son, she always knew she’d return. But a funny thing happened when the Swedish musician dusted off the project—like meeting a friend for coffee after several years apart, something had changed. In order to reconnect with music, a reinvention was in order.
This is not an usual story, nor is it unprecedented in the canon of El Perro Del Mar. Her self-titled debut introduced Assbring as a singer/songwriter with a penchant for sugary girl-group harmonies. A sophomore release From the Valley to the Stars largely eschewed pop tropes in favor of mournful chants. And both Love is Not Pop and 2012’s Pale Fire leaned on dance themes including ’90s-influenced house beats, cinematic spoken word interludes and icy synths.
KoKoro (Japanese for heart) is still recognizable as an El Perro Del Mar album. Across 10 tracks Assbring teases out a sense of blue-tinged optimism, her longing for connection, unification and change present in every moment. But now it’s not just the western world she’s aimed at. Inspired in part by her son’s childlike curiosity and a trip to one of Stockholm’s many museums, El Perro Del Mar now features sounds from across Asia, sampled instruments repurposed into a pop packages. Assbring describes her new sonic palette as an exciting discovery, and a great reminder that music—just like life—is bigger and richer than she could have ever imagined.
Paste: What was your headspace like going into this new album after a four-year break?
Assbring: I was thinking about a lot of things. Just having become a parent was a huge thing for me. It changed a lot for me in the way that I was thinking about myself, about my music, about the way that I wanted to communicate my music. I felt that immediately. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the introspective searching, because that’s not what I’m about anymore. I felt like I really went through a huge personal change and that would affect my music. And my songwriting as well. I think that’s what you definitely hear in KoKoro. The way that I direct myself to the world around me. I’m not so interested in digging around in my own weaknesses as much. It’s more in a universal way. What are the similarities that I have with other people with rather than what distinguishes me from the rest of the world, which is very much the way I wrote music before. That’s one of the hugest changes for me going into this album.
Paste: That’s not just an artistic change—that’s a huge life change.
Assbring: Yeah. It was, definitely. I understood that immediately. It kept growing in me as I understood what it was like to have a child. To be responsible for a life. So many existential heavy things. But also really really beautiful things as well. Cherishing your own life and cherishing life in general. I was definitely not ready for that. It came upon me as a shock, almost. It was really deep. In many ways it continues to be like that. I think of it as my life before and my life after having my child. It’s a whole other life.
Paste: I thought the “Endless Ways” refrain was mesmerizing. What has it meant for you to better yourself?
Assbring: It’s more about the idea of thinking that you’re bettering yourself. Maybe fooling yourself that is what you’re doing. The Sisyphus idea, waking up every morning and rolling that stone uphill and to wake up the next morning and see it rolled down and you have to start again. It’s a shallow bettering that’s not in the depths of what changes you. It’s the state that I feel like humans of today are very much engaged in. It’s also a thing that I feel like I have this need in me, and I feel like a lot of people do, to view life is a constant kind of bettering. You go through your life, your days, your season with a plan of becoming better, more beautiful, becoming more fit, more stable, more in harmony.
Paste: As humans can we escape that sort of vanity? Or is it our lot in life to keep rolling the boulder up the hill?
Assbring: I think it’s a part of how we are as a human being, to have that inner strife, to better ourselves. To have that plan that we live with. I guess that is what makes us human beings. Also the reason why we’re strange animals on this planet, having become what we have and done what we have.
Paste: Tell me about the refrain in “Breadandbutter,” “We all start from the bottom.”
Assbring: We definitely did not start from the bottom. We all start from different levels, given the circumstances that we’re born into. But we’re all the same. We start afresh. We start new to the world. What I mean with that is that we have to try and think of ourselves in that kind of way and try to see ourselves in that perspective. And see that we have more in common than the opposite. I just felt like, especially here, around the time that I wrote the song, so much was going on with the refugee situation in Europe. Doors were closing all around us. The discussions and the debates that were going around were so horrifying. It all just came down to the fact that people didn’t look like other people or the rest of the world as similar to themselves. Or could not put themselves in that situation. I felt like it was such a horrific way for humanity to go. It just felt like we need a child rhyme to remind us that we’re all the same. I think that’s the reason I felt like I needed to write a song like that. I was really frustrated and sad. But I felt like I couldn’t write a mad song. I wanted to write something that was uplifting, like a nursery rhyme that makes people sing along. Even if they don’t understand what they’re singing until they do understand.
Paste: That’s a really beautiful image, nursery rhymes as a source of wisdom.
Assbring: I did without thinking too much. It was intuitive; it wrote itself more or less.
Paste: Does intuition drive you a lot when you’re writing?
Assbring: Definitely. In that way I work quite similarly to the way that I worked 10 years ago when I wrote my first album. I start with a very simple phrase that’s intuitive. It comes to me. Around that I feel like I can work out the identity of the song.
Paste: How do you remove all the dirt and things in your life that keep you from trusting yourself?
Assbring: I think for me it’s just a matter of accepting that prejudice and fear of the unknown and stuff like that is also a natural part of being a human being. It’s a natural thing for us. It comes without thinking. You have to go deeper and ask yourself why. Why am I afraid? What makes this feel awkward or strange to me? And then accepting the fact that it’s just fear. It’s just fear of the unknown. That is the thing I feel like you have to accept about people. It’s within us. That’s what I try to go back to all the time. If it’s to myself or to people who are openly racist, you have to have an understanding for the basic fear of people. And then try to work yourself around that and try to understand. And then try to have a discussion if possible. I try to do that with myself as well.
Paste: At what point did you become comfortable enough with yourself and your strengths and weaknesses to be able to do that?
Assbring: For me I feel definitely it became a totally natural thing when I had a child. I had this responsibility not only to my son and my self but also to humanity as a whole, without sounding like I’m Mother Teresa or anything. It’s a less egotistical perspective on life and the world. And feeling that everyone has a struggle. Everyone is carrying a cross, everyone has scars. Everyone is trying to cope.
Paste: It feels like this album is a really beautiful tribute to motherhood.
Assbring: I think it is, actually. In a way that it’s more like a tribute to the child, really, and what it does to a person who maybe thought he or she was grown up and knew a lot and was steady. And realizing that you can never know everything and a child can teach you so much. That is the deepest insight that I feel. The phrase that I didn’t feel like I totally understood until I had my son was “The child is the father of the man.” It’s so true. That’s exactly how I feel every day being around my son. Learning all the time and being reminded. Understanding how I was shaped and what made me go in different directions in my personality and so on. For me that gives me an understanding and respect for other people.
Paste: It also sounds like your son influenced the sound of the record as well.
Assbring: When I started working after having been on a maternal leave, which more or less meant being all about the child and putting my own brain at a pause, and starting to work, I realized I that all that was in my head was thoughts of food and nursery rhymes and Japanese movies. A lot of it was based around the life I had led. Then I realized that’s what I’m about. This is something I feel like I want to draw from and write from. So I started out of that, and that itself became this world and statement. I looked at my life like there was a before and an after. I felt like I couldn’t go back to my old musical references. All of my former musical idols, pop and rock and roll references, I felt like I was done with that. Being in this new world and also thinking the way I was thinking, I felt like there was this whole other world that we don’t think about. And I wonder why that is? I felt more drawn to other places in the world really. I knew that I wanted to make a pop album. But I knew that I couldn’t do anything with my old references. I started exploring other music. I found Asian pop music is my new reference library. For me it was a revelation, really. I felt like I was 14 years old again, walking around in the record shop, aimlessly looking for music. Having some clues but not a lot and just exploring and finding out and learning.
Paste: Your self-titled debut is turning 10 this year. When you reflect back on it, do you identify with the person who made it?
Assbring: I feel like I’ve come a long way. Definitely. I feel a lot of love and tenderness for the person I was 10 years ago. In some respect I’m still her, but I have a balance in my life in a whole other kind of way, and I have an acceptance for myself in a whole other kind of way. I’ve become old enough to feel very at peace with being older and having experience. Ten years ago I would not think that that I would be able to say that. Even that insight feels really humbling.
Paste: Considering that, we should all give ourselves more grace. Who knows where you’ll be in 10 years?
Assbring: That’s how we should look at it, I think. I keep going back to this idea of looking at myself as a tree. Looking at what you go through as a person. You adapt to what you go through, if it’s sadness, if it’s grief, if it’s love, or joy—you adapt to it like a tree adapts to wind and rain and snow. You become a little bit crooked, and you become beautiful in a way. The way that a crooked tree is beautiful. You should look at yourself as a tree, with all the special things that happen to you and made you and all your crookedness. I look at myself that kind of way, and it’s much easier to love yourself if you do that.