The Mischief, Pleasure and Levity of Pretty Sick’s New Era

Bandleader Sabrina Fuentes breaks down her new free-spirited direction, pivoting from alt-rock to electronica, coming of age in the New York City DIY scene, and her band’s latest EP, Streetwise.

Music Features Pretty Sick
The Mischief, Pleasure and Levity of Pretty Sick’s New Era

New York grunge revivalists Pretty Sick are shedding their alt-rock skin for a more experimental, electronic sound—a pivot that bandleader Sabrina Fuentes feels she has earned after years of paying homage to the rock heroes that populated her youth. Pretty Sick’s newest EP, Streetwise, carves out a space in the land of dimly lit club music, ready to pack the dancefloor with droves of sweaty bodies and gauzy beats. “When I was writing, I imagined Streetwise playing a tiny club that’s just sweaty, fun and personable,” Fuentes explains. “There’s no green room and not so much separation from the artist and the audience—a bit more of a ‘leaving the party together’ type of thing. We’re all in the same room hanging out, I’m singing, and we’re dancing. Just having fun.”

This free-spirited energy is a long time coming for Fuentes, who has spent the last decade cutting her teeth in the gritty New York DIY scene. She started Pretty Sick in 2014 at 13 years old and has been releasing music under the moniker with a rotating group of band members ever since—releasing three EPs and a debut album along the way. The project has lived in a world of ‘90s noise until now, as Fuentes is ready to embrace the music that resonates with her now that she’s 24. “I grew up on Tumblr, and half of my interests were rock and grunge, which I’ve been listening to since I was born—but I’ve always really loved electronic music,” she says. “In my early adolescence, I got really into witch house, early Grimes, Purity Ring, Salem and Björk, and I loved the Hackers soundtrack growing up, too. All of those things have always formed a big part of my identity as a music fan. That style has always been something I wanted to get into, but I didn’t really know how to get into it. I’ve been doing rock for so long—and I felt so connected to it—but after the last album, it felt like it would be nice to have a change of pace to explore other interests.”

Streetwise employs rich, digital textures in place of fuzzy guitars and pulsating synths in place of garish drums, yet Pretty Sick’s new sound feels as authentic as ever. With lyrics written in her usual wry tone, the heavy gloom of the band’s projects has burned off so that the glittering blithe of a lighter Fuentes can shine through. “Tried And True” eases longtime fans in with a weighty riff, slowly introducing a biting cascade of synths as Fuentes sings, “Don’t you think about me / When all I do is think about you” through vocoder distortion. “Violet” softens things up with a laid-back beat paired with Fuentes’s blasé tone, and “Miami” and “With You” continue this relaxed energy before reintroducing that classic Pretty Sick melancholia. Fuentes brings the wit on “Headliner,” singing that she “master[s] bass lines on the track” in a playful euphemism. “Streetwise” wraps things up with authentic trashy party-girl energy with Fuentes singing, “I’m the queen of the city, I’m the one you adore.” There truly has never been a more accurate declaration.

Fuentes was only able to inject this carefree energy into Streetwise because she’s spent so long working out the agony of her youth in the band’s earnest and bleak debut album. “Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile was about the harder side of being young and all these negative experiences I had growing up as a teen in New York that I needed to process and let go,” Fuentes says. “It was therapeutic making that album, but I also realized, when we were touring it, that I don’t like singing about bad things that have happened to me every night. My approach for the whole new album was to avoid so much heaviness, especially because I felt like I was in a different place. I’d been in London for three years; I was living with a group of friends I loved, and we all made music or art, which was really lovely. For the first time in my adult life, I felt like I could create my own community outside of the one I grew up with in New York, which was really important to me.”

Though the change from guitar-heavy, gutsy rock ‘n’ roll to flashy, bass-loaded beats could feel like a stretch, for Fuentes, it wound up becoming an organic next step in the band’s musical progression. “I spend about as much time at raves and clubs and my friends’ DJ sets as I do at my friends’ band sets at DIY venues,” she admits. “It doesn’t feel like those worlds are too different from each other these days. I feel like rock and electronic co-exist under the umbrella of alternative. Everything [on Streetwise] just came together really organically and naturally. There wasn’t much of a plan going into it just kind of fell into it.” Even though she is leaving the distorted grime and wistful teenage malaise of Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile behind, the new six-song EP still packs a punch with the hefty production from Arthur Nyqvist, who goes by the moniker Woesum.

Fuentes returned to London—where she spent much of her late teens and early twenties—to record with the Swedish producer and dig into this less serious side of her songwriting. “Working with Arthur was dope,” she recalls. “I’m used to writing by myself, bringing it to the band, and then building out the rest of the song around the pieces I wrote. Streetwise was my first time working in a recording studio without a full band—just me and Arthur making beats, which was nice, because it took some of the weight off of me as a songwriter. Especially as a contrast to Makes Me Sick Makes Me Smile, which I wrote in lockdown, it was such an isolated way of working. It was refreshing to write with other people in the room and have friends come by—super laissez-faire, whenever anyone was free to jam on stuff. The process opened my eyes songwriting-wise to different ways you could do it, and I have been enjoying it since then. It allows for so much more creativity and unexpected things to pop up in the music. I got to try that with Arthur. I feel like I learned a ton from him.”

Although Pretty Sick’s debut album was mostly written by Fuentes in isolation, the band has always harnessed a collective energy—with people coming and going from the project as they feel right, and Fuentes at the center, of course. “We’ve always had friends come and go. Almost everybody who has been in Pretty Sick has solo projects as well, so everybody will dip in when they want to,” she says. “So, it’s always been like a really relaxed working relationship that I have with everybody who’s been in the collective of the band. But at the same time, I used to be a lot shyer, guarded and insecure to show my process or work with others because it’s vulnerable.”

“Working with Arthur and pushing myself to invite just like friends to come to the studio to jam with us or to hear what we’re working on really opened me up so that I felt a bit more comfortable sharing and being spontaneous with people that I haven’t known forever,” Fuentes continues. “Everybody who has been in Pretty Sick I’ve known my whole life and have built trust in those relationships, where I finally was comfortable sharing the vulnerable sides of the creation process. Now I’m getting to a point after this EP where I feel like I can just jump in the room with anybody, make it fun, and share in a bit more fluid and less guarded way.”

“Cities are like people, and people always change,” Fuentes sings on “Streetwise.” “The only home I ever knew was the sound of my name.” It’s not just a release but a realization that she can go anywhere and be the person she wants to be. Growing up with an identity so tied to New York made it scarier for Fuentes to explore outside of her comfort zone, but Streetwise didn’t just nudge her out of that comfort zone—it catapulted her miles and miles away from it. “It was so nerve-wracking I almost didn’t show up,” she confesses. “I just really didn’t think it was going to work. I can be a really stubborn person. In my mind, I was like, ‘I’ve been doing music my whole life, and this is how I’ve always done it. I don’t know if I would like working with electronic producers.’ I preferred working with instrumentalists and not producers—even being in a room with a producer used to make me anxious. I have been nervous about all this collaborative stuff for a long time, but this whole experience reopened me and challenged me to try new things.”

Growing up in New York in a precocious manner, Fuentes had to learn how to handle herself at a young age, and that is what inspired the EP’s title. “Being ‘streetwise’ means always checking over your shoulder and being on your toes but also knowing that you can get away with anything because you’re always on your toes,” she laughs. “Being charming gets you really far. Everyone I know who’s streetwise is super charming, and that gets them away with like fucking murder all the time. Just being a little delinquent and pushing the envelope but being smart about it in general. Keep it safe. Keep it sexy.” Seven years after releasing their eponymous debut EP, Pretty Sick re-emerge unbound to any previous era or sound—a true mark of Fuentes’s forward-motion, as she channels a rambunctious, streetwise energy that’s helped her usher in a new era of mischief, pleasure and levity. All of it is a gift to herself for making it this far.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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