Astrid Swan sits down with El Perro Del Mar and discusses her new album KoKoro, feminism, cultural appropriation and motherhood.
El Perro Del Mar (aka Sarah Assbring) is a Swedish songwriter and musician who released her sixth studio album KoKoro in 2016. In this interview she discusses feminism, cultural appropriation, motherhood and body image
Astrid Swan: Recently the discussion on cultural appropriation has really arrived in the Scandinavian feminist and anti-racist platforms of thought. You are an artist that has always made art discussing within and without various cultures, countries, traditions and so on. We share the experience of being songwriters in Scandinavia, but embracing the English language and the US and UK pop song-writing tradition. We are also privileged white women. What do you make of the current discussions? What’s it like to operate on multiple borders? How have you ended up where you are now with Kokoro and where might you be headed?
Sarah Assbring: I think these questions are very interesting and very important, naturally. The making of my album ‘KoKoro’ came about during many long dealings of just this notion of cultural appropriation, but ended ultimately in what I believe matters the most, especially these days, when it comes to culture and the obliteration of national borders. I made what to me felt like both a personal and artistic development when I turned away from what I feel is a Western starved consumer-based feed of a one and one only typical kind of music. I felt empowered musically when turning to look for interesting music via the modern sources (i.e. what is my own personal algorithm). My world (our world) culturally seemed to me more narrow and small than ever and this made me interested in challenging myself and thus challenging my idea of pop music. After having dived deep into merely OTHER kinds of music from OTHER places than only just the “ruling” parts of the Western world I realized there is so much GREAT music all around us, that NEVER or very rarely at least reaches our part of the world. All the different kinds of artists that I found out about made me grow immensely in my understanding and love for music – which is kind of the whole reason WHY I love music and want to make music. This insight for me at least goes way beyond the sometimes shallow and politically correct discussion of cultural appropriation. If we’re not “allowed” to inspire one another, let music be free to travel across borders, to let music cross-fertilise itself from human to human for fear of cultural appropriation, I really honestly think we’ve gone astray. This is my firm belief and the very foundation of ‘KoKoro’. Having had this insight has hopefully changed my outlook on music and what I do and will keep doing for all time. I believe in a world where everyone matters and everyone should be heard.
If we’re not “allowed” to inspire one another, let music be free to travel across borders, to let music cross-fertilise itself from human to human for fear of cultural appropriation, I really honestly think we’ve gone astray.
Astrid: On the cover of Kokoro you pose with a shaved head – a look that strips you from many traditions of femininity. I experimented with that look when I was treated for breast cancer and lost my hair. I have to say that for me it was a very liberating thing to be me without my long blond hair. But it also made me obsessive about hair. How has this look been for you? What else is going on with the visuals you have created this time around?
Sarah: I’m sorry to hear about your breast cancer. I can’t imagine how tough that must have been. I’ve had my head shaved several times throughout the years but haven’t stuck with it as long as I’ve done this time. When having the chance to and lust to experiment with my hair I’ve felt it’s been very liberating to at times start over by just losing it completely. This time around I think it came out of a feeling of basically liking myself enough not to feel worried about my appearance or beauty or whatever. This feeling came from having my son – to put it plainly – motherhood did that to me. I felt very strong and assured in my being and I’ve continued to feel like that. I also feel I’ve lost one major thing to stop obsessing over and that’s given me a great sense of freedom. From that perspective it’s definitely been a sort of a feminist move for me.
As for the general visual concept of ‘KoKoro’ I’ve been in a place where I’ve wanted to put myself in a new way of looking at myself, questioning beauty, norm and womanhood. I’ve gone through long bouts of anorexia through my adult life and maybe finally feel like I’ve become free from that disease and the imprisonment that it means.
Astrid: No one ever really asks about the process of recording albums. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I guess there is a lot there that is difficult to put into words too. An intense process that goes silent and out of memory soon as it’s done. What is your feeling about recording Kokoro? How did you make the album? Be as technical or as poetic as you wish.
Sarah: My experience is that it’s a little bit different. I tend to get asked about the recording process quite a bit or maybe it’s just me leading an interview in that direction since I love talking about it so much. Making ‘KoKoro’ was a different experience for me compared to my previous albums. ‘KoKoro’ is very much the synthesis of a close and loving collaboration with my partner Jacob Haage. My previous albums was more of works done in solitude, me talking to myself more.
This time I really wanted to work closely with Jacob, opening up for him to have a say on the actual songwriting as well. I wanted so much to have fun doing this album. We’d had a son together before starting the recording process and we so much wanted to have something outside of our daily routine that was meaningful, fun and creatively exciting. This is also the reason why ‘KoKoro’ sounds the way it does. It’s made out of love and having fun together. We’d spend more than two years together listening to all this great music and so we wanted to build something that was our own special and unique world out of that. Working with instruments and rhythms we’d discovered as mind-blowing to our idea of pop music etc. I wanted us to push each other, to not go down roads we’d been used to but all the while still make pop songs, simple and universal. That was my goal for this album.
Astrid: How do you write? Is the album concept there before the songs or do the songs tell you where you should go with production? Are you a lone worker or do you rely on other people and in what capacity?
Sarah: I think I very much start on the production angle of it all. I look for textures, colours, sounds and in cases samples to really measle out what it is I’m after in a new album. When having worked out sketches the concept kind of starts coming together and then the actual song writing begins. Most of that early process is a work in solitude but Jacob was brought into it all way sooner than I’ve ever let anyone be in my work. I just didn’t feel like I had time to waste and he’s got an excellent way to quickly see what’s important in a song.
Astrid: What is the role of your work in the state of the world right now? Is your work political and how?
Sarah: I’ve come to a realization in my work that I cannot not be political. Ten years ago I would probably have argued that politics and pop don’t mix but today I’m convinced that the power of music or pop music is so strong that if you feel like you want to put something important across then why not use the tool you’ve got. I want to make people think and perhaps stop in their tracks and want to make a change. That’s what makes my music political – I try to do what little I can.
I’ve come to a realization in my work that I cannot not be political. Ten years ago I would probably have argued that politics and pop don’t mix but today I’m convinced that the power of music or pop music is so strong that if you feel like you want to put something important across then why not use the tool you’ve got.
Astrid: What is a place on this planet that you think everyone should visit and why?
Sarah: A meat plant in any country, in any part of the world. Our way of industrially keeping and killing animals to provide ourselves with meat must end now.
El Perro Del Mar’s KoKoro album is out now.