In love and expecting her first child, Sarah Assbring, who writes and performs as El Perro Del Mar, exudes bliss. Speaking from her current home base in Stockholm, Sweden, she maintains her languorous charm even when emphatically discussing her fourth full-length, Pale Fire—an album born out of forced changes to her technique and lyrical themes.
It’s not a wholly unexpected mission statement. Launched in 2003 with the release of her self-titled debut, Assbring’s career has been marked by a string of prismatic variations. Over her previous three albums, she’s proven herself to be a musical chameleon, transitioning from the sugary girl-group-style pop of her first album, to the meditative chants of sophomore effort From the Valley to the Stars, to the heartbreak dance of 2009’s Love is Not Pop.
“There is something very unconscious about the way that I think about a song or a structure of a song,” says Assbring, noting that her inclination when writing is to slant all her work towards the pop. “So I was trying to experiment a lot with that, and trying to break my own rules of what’s right or wrong, or if there is anything that is right or wrong.”
To assist her sonic explorations, Assbring jettisoned her rigidly held ideas of how song structure should function, instead experimenting with samples against free-form ambient electronics. The result is an album where the dark pop is still present, but it’s buttressed by ’90s-influenced house beats, cinematic spoken word interludes, icy synths and what might be considered some of the most optimistic lyrics of her career to date. Pale Fire is a sprawling beast, its emotional center filled with such heavy contradictions that a lyric like “Solitude’s my best friend/the one who sees me cry/Tells me I will never need another man to keep my head up and walk on by,” isn’t a statement of defeat, but rather of empowerment.
That juxtaposition, Assbring asserts, reflects the intricacies of her own complex worldview. “I don’t think I have this right and wrong, black and white scope,” she muses. “For me, fighting for the weak and fighting for the poor, or fighting for the one on the weaker side is the absolute most important. The basis of solidarity and basic humanity. I think that’s the most important thing. Trying to see the good side and the good part of a person. And trying to understand what makes a person react in a certain way.”
For the first time in a creative process marked with tales of personal heartbreak and romantic woes, Assbring resolved to tell stories other than her own. “I also wanted to try and go outside of myself more and not try to be as introverted as I’ve been before,” she says. “Or not to only speak about myself or from myself…I try not to write myself into any corner, because that’s what’s most interesting to me.”
While admitting she harbors doubts about mankind’s state of affairs, Assbring is also quick to note that Pale Fire is about rejecting apathy—particularly on politically leaning, dub-embracing tracks “I Carry the Fire” and “To the Beat of a Dying World.” “I wanted to try to express something that was opposing that feeling and opposing giving up and giving in,” she notes. “A lot of what we do speaks against us. But in the end, I do believe in the goodness of mankind and that there is hope.”
Although they transpired near the end of the recording process, Assbring points to the 2011 London riots—captured in album B-side “What do You Expect”—as a source of inspiration and proof positive that larger aspects of culture need to be addressed in art. “It is a challenge to write a communal or political song, I feel like I’ve opened a door,” she says. “I just felt like [the riots were] bound to happen. This is like a bomb that has been waiting to explode. When it did, I was just so horrified by the reactions from people who were supposed to know. ‘These riots were pointless, youngsters that just wanted to destroy and steal.’ I thought that was a really unintelligent way of looking at people living in a society. I was really saddened by the reactions. I needed to comment in some way.”
However outward-looking the project, Pale Fire was still, as Assbring discovered, a journey she had to take alone in order to protect her project from outside influences. After a short stint developing songs with producer Rasmus Hägg (of defunct Swedish dance duo Studio) Assbring dismissed his assistance and “kidnapped the album.”
“I felt like it was going to go on too many detours on the way, and it’s going to end up somewhere completely different that I’m not willing to go,” she says of her decision to once again self-produce, a choice that she’s also made with her previous three albums. “Every album in a certain time in the process of it has been extremely difficult. I’ve stopped and asked myself if it’s worth it because it’s so difficult and so complicated to achieve what your vision is. To feel like you’ve stayed true to your vision. I guess that’s a state that you’re always going to go through that state. No matter how many albums you make. It’s a necessary part of the process.”
After hearing the glowing terms she uses to describe her work, it’s difficult to fault Assbring’s musical maternal instincts. “It takes a lot of time to try and create them in your mind and collecting ideas and collecting lyrics,” she says of the creative process, which can span months—or even years—before the first note is written or recorded. “They become a company for a very long time. Even before they’re made. They’re there, alongside everything with you. Which is a good thing. In that way, you really have to like them. You really really have to like them before you actually make the record.”
However emotionally draining the process of writing and recording her sonic diaries can be, Assbring contends that it’s a process she could never see herself quitting. “Making music gives my life a higher sense of meaning and a higher sense of purpose,” she notes. “There is a higher thing about it. It gives my life a certain spice, it adds something bigger and brighter and more beautiful to my everyday life…But it is very much a necessary, natural part of my life that I really can’t separate from who I am and what I do.”