Throughout her career, El Perro del Mar, aka Swedish singer Sarah Assbring, has suffused her records with a personal kind of anguish. Her achingly despondent voice teetered toward breaking in lines like This loneliness ain’t pretty no more on her 2006 self-titled debut. It could have been a total downer, except that Assbring often chose to pair her pain with the innocently romantic and lighthearted music of 1960s girl groups: angelic sha-la-la-la choruses, faint handclaps, dramatic strings, and jaunty bass lines. Then, on her follow-up, From the Valley to the Stars, the songwriter added sparse, church-like hymnals heavy on organ and the archaic language of praise. Juxtaposing emotions is clearly part of Assbring’s MO. So for her third record, she decided to channel her heartbreak through the sounds of disco.
Love Is Not Pop, released last month, marks a stylistic departure for the singer. It’s by far her most “upbeat” album to date, although it chronicles the emotions of her breakup with her boyfriend of ten years. In other words, it’s still dark. Elastic bass lines, staccato piano chords, and gently pulsating synthesizers simmer underneath her pedal-soft, heavily echoed voice. “For me, I realize a lot of what I find so interesting and captivating about music is that juxtaposing of emotions in every kind of way,” she said from a cafe in New York. “Your reaction to music is always kind of immediate. I just knew that with this album, I’m moving into another territory in working with rhythms and groovyness and bassiness, while still holding onto what might be considered as characteristic melancholy.”
In typical El Perro del Mar fashion, the emotions arrive immediately and bluntly: I’ve got something to tell you, don’t wanna make you sad, she announces in the it’s-not-you-it’s-me breakup opener “Gotta Get Smart.” Assbring says the line is directed toward her ex-lover (who also happens to be her sound engineer and worked with her on the album), but it seems she could just as easily be reassuring her fans. Assbring insists she’s not aiming to turn everyone downcast. “I don’t think I myself see my music as sad,” she said, somewhat surprisingly. “It would be really bad for me if I were to realize if people were to understand it as totally sad. Because I think of it somewhere in between — maybe not disturbing in that sense, but in that kind of way that makes it uneasy about what it is you’re supposed to feel, what you end up feeling.”
Trying to shake off that sad-girl reputation, Assbring hopes Love Is Not Pop will inspire listeners to dance (three remixes are included in addition to the seven tracks) — even when she’s pleading with her lover to reconsider on the drowsy, late-night “Let Me In.” Moving the audience will be her goal when she plays the songs live with a full band at the Great American Music Hall on November 19 and 20. “I try to work with the groovyness and the bassiness of this album,” she said. “I hold that as the most important thing with this album. … And also to make it clear that there is more to me than just this sad girl with a guitar.”
Love Is Not Pop also marks Assbring’s first collaboration, in this case, with Rasmus Hägg of the Swedish duo Studio, who produced and mixed the record. The singer said that while initially she had been apprehensive about involving someone in what had always been an isolated songwriting process, her last album proved to her that she needed help. “I felt like I have kind of reached my own limits of what I could do on my own,” she recalled. She and Hägg had been in touch off and on but their schedules never worked out. This time around, they did.
Assbring wrote all of the music before they got together. But instead of bringing in references of what she wanted the album to sound like, Assbring said they talked about more abstract things. “We talked a lot about feelings and textures and colors,” she said. “I was after a more groovy and perhaps more synthetic sound, but it turned out he was more into using actual analog natural sounds. So what we agreed upon was to use natural sounds and instruments and try to make them synthetic or try to blur them out from their natural sound.” She said they both agreed upon a late-Eighties feel. (The album includes a cover of Lou Reed’s 1982 song “Heavenly Arms.”)
Elements of her prior two records also appear on Love Is Not Pop. “It Is Something (To Have Wept),” inspired by a poem by G.K. Chesterton, begins like a hymn, with just Assbring’s voice and gentle piano chords, then ushers in faint a doo-doo-doo chorus, synths, and a bass line that grooves lightly, sacredly. The holy quality in her music likely came from her background singing in church choirs.
Yet Assbring seems to have been hardwired for sadness since childhood. At age six, she wrote her first song about summer and “living on the beach.” “I didn’t even realize it was a sad song,” she recalled. She wrote it on piano when she couldn’t yet read or write music. “I created some very arbitrary way of writing music that I couldn’t even read myself but I thought I could at the time.”
Music was a constant presence throughout Assbring’s life. As an adult, she played in bands in the melancholic shoegaze scene. But she was also studying languages and wasn’t yet ready to risk a full-on music career. Eventually, she said, she reached a point where she stopped making music and completely reevaluated what she was doing. “I was half-hearted about everything except the music,” she said. “It took me a while to have the guts to completely focus on the music. When I did, there was no doubt in my mind.”
This was the “deconstruction time” in her life, she said, when she deeply questioned what she wanted to do, how she wanted to write lyrics, and what was important to say. When she decided that she wanted to return to music, she took her steps carefully. After years of playing piano, she learned the guitar. The process was ultimately responsible for the minimalist approach she ended up employing as a solo artist in El Perro del Mar. (The name originated when a stray dog tried to befriend her while on a lonely beach vacation in Spain.)
Her first album most encapsulated this deconstructed aesthetic, wherein world-crushing feelings were boiled down to their very essence. “It was very minimal but very direct,” she said. “It was like a direct tool to express myself. It was almost like Dadaism.” Having been inspired by writers and poets such as E. E. Cummings, Assbring says oftentimes a simple word or phrase would inform the melody of a song. “It’s all about the written form, I think,” she said. “There is something about words that can almost feel musical. A sentence can have a harmony built in itself. I feel that is a very fascinating thing.”
That sparse, direct language continues on her new album when Assbring accepts the inevitability of her relationship’s demise in closer “A Better Love”: This isn’t over till I say “when.” …”When,” she sings, her voice trickling down over the notes in as resigned a fashion as her fate. It may not be the next disco hit — more like a solo slow-dance jam with Kleenex.