Swedish singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist El Perro del Mar, formally known as Sarah to some, releases her first album after eight years named Big Anonymous today. Originally commissioned by the Royal Dramatic Theatre, this album is nothing short of personal, delving into her deepest and most daunting fears.
Juxtaposing the “minimal with the maximal” as she puts it, this album contrasts the fluidity of dance with the dramatics of horror. A movement of echoes and emotion, we are transported into the Underworld through the album’s eerie sound; its ghostly movements and lyrics opening a portal to the darkest parts of ourselves.
Recognising the therapeutic qualities of music, EL Perro del Mar uses this album to process the feeling of losing someone forever. Begging and yearning for someone to come back, Big Anonymous portrays hopeful desperation, not offering an escape but rather an “emotional outlet” according to the artist. The use of various synthesisers and angelic orchestral moments creates unforgettable harmonies, reflecting the theatrics that were needed for the accompanying stage production. Touring Europe and the US from February until May this year, we present to you El Perro del Mar.
How was it beginning a music career in Sweden? Was there a big musical industry that influenced and encouraged you? Or did you begin creating music because of an inner calling?
I grew up in Gothenburg which during my teens was a very inspiring city to live in. Or I mean, it had these nice conflicting factors such as it being a harbour city hence a working-class city with a typical inferiority complex towards Stockholm and all that that entails and it was a great independent music scene. So that inspired me a lot. Just by the very fact that making music and playing in clubs seemed like something anyone could do. Music as an industry has never inspired me, I’ve always been drawn to the personal and raw energy - the kind that one singular person can conjure and turn into something great. I was drawn to all of this because I had an inner calling for sure, ever since I was a child. I think it’s been a mix of a very pure and magnetic love for music and a wish to be heard.
This will be your sixth studio album to be released. How do you think your work has morphed and shifted since you first began around 2004? Do you think it has been beneficial for you, as an artist, to not stick to one genre but rather explore all of your capabilities?
In some ways I think the core is still the same since back then; I mean my poetic self. It’s just been dressed up differently. But then of course there’s a me who's lived and changed which has of course also affected my music. It’s impossible to separate the two. I think my being an artist who’s been ever-changing definitely hasn’t benefitted my career but it’s been beneficial for me, as a person. Hadn’t I kept on exploring I’d probably only made two or three albums and then quit. What would be the point? That’s how I see it.
You worked with your partner Jacob Haage and friend Petter Granberg for this album. How is it getting to work with people who are so emotionally close to you? Do these relationships add an extra layer of depth to your work?
Jacob’s been a major part of my work ever since we met and in many ways he’s essential. Especially so on Big Anonymous as creating this album was such a different process than with my previous albums. The work was very much that of a team effort between the three of us. I laid out the synopsis of the story with my words and sketches, and then Jacob drew from that. And together all of us worked the songs out in a very organic way. That kind of subliminal collaboration is so beautiful and I do think that's present in the album. There is a sensitivity and an understanding between us which I read as a respect for the work in itself. I love Jacob and Petter for that.
When reading descriptions of this album, there is a lot of mention of the meaning behind the album rather than the sound. Therefore, would you say this album is more about capturing emotions? A metaphorical album rather than a literal album?
That’s interesting! I love talking sound! But what’s so odd about Big Anonymous is that I don’t feel the need to describe it or dissect it because it’s just there. And even when we recorded it I wasn’t so occupied in picking it apart, criticising it – I only listened and trusted what I heard. My wish was definitely to create a metaphorical world I could transcend and be able to deal with my grief - on a personal level it’s highly literal I guess. The piece of art that it’s turned into is whatever one wants it to be.
This album started as a stage production commissioned by the Royal Dramatic Theatre, so even though Big Anonymous isn’t entirely autobiographical, how has your own grief and experience with death and mortality been incorporated into this album?
It’s true that it was commissioned but I was given total freedom to do what I wanted so the album is in every sense autobiographical. The reason I decided to address death and grief was probably because I thought I’d be able to distance myself from it only because it took place on a stage, with dancers and set design and so on. It might sound strange but I felt like I was just a part of a grander thing, not the centre. In that way, I could give myself freedom to be as personal and frank as possible and still not feel vulnerable and exposed.
I think of the album very much like a conversation I needed to have, touching upon my fears and horrors and in many ways I feel like I was redeemed. The theatre stage helped me think of the music as a three-act play.
How do you think you expressed movement through the album? What effects and techniques do you think represented the sound or feeling of motion best? The album’s spectrograms all differ so I am wondering if this was done purposely to play with the shape of the sound? The Truth the Dead Know slowly leads into a crescendo and fades out creating a completely different shape compared to Cold Dark Pond, which is in constant fluctuation, rising and falling.
I think the ambient feeling of the album is directly connected to the fact that it was written for a dance performance. The music is free in its space which I think is a big difference to how I’ve thought of songs on my other albums. Upon going into the project I knew I wanted to juxtapose the minimal with the maximal, the dark with the light, the orchestral with the gritty and noisy - these contrasts also worked as a means to tell the story, the dramaturgy that was needed for the stage, but also I realised it was the format I needed to be able to make this journey for myself. Also the instrumentation, synthesisers in various forms, of course plays a big part.
There is a mixture of effects used to create this album, including analogue synthesisers and processed vocals, but there is a reoccurring unsettling cello sound that appears every so often which made me feel really uneasy. Were you, perhaps, influenced by the horror or gore genre? Linking this with the visuals for In Silence, there must be some kind of horrific influence on the album.
It’s there to make you feel that way! Horror definitely has big part on the album! I love horror and wanted it to be a present feeling in the music and even more so when creating the film that accompanies the album (the videos for the singles are excerpts from a longer film). I draw a lot from dreams and nightmares. They tell me a lot. Ghosts visit me and tell me things. Often I wake up thinking the horror in a nightmare is a feeling that wants more than just making me want to run away.
What makes Please Stay the (anonymous version)? Surely all tracks are the anonymous version considering the main narrator is the anonymous creature on the album’s cover? Who, or what, is this creature?
Actually, the cover on Please Stay was the initial spark to the work on the performance and the album. The original version by The Crying Shames made me think what the song would be like if interpreted not as a classic love song but as a song you sing to someone who’s dead. The begging feeling is not that of romantic love, it’s that of begging someone to not go away forever.
I released the song just before the performance had its premiere in 2019. For the album I wanted a special version of my rendition; I wanted it to actually be in the Underworld. The creature can be the sum of undealt matters, words unspoken, feelings untreated.
You were correct when you said we don’t talk about death. As a Western society, we are expected to move on instantly, hence the feeling of being haunted by the dead. We are never given a chance to accept and move on, and it is never positively reflected or celebrated. Is it through music, then, that gave you the emotional outlet needed to escape these feelings of guilt and despair?
You’re very right. Except in some cultures where people have a close relationship to death and then a whole other take on life. I definitely think that music (and other art forms) give you a possible emotional outlet but not as an escape - I think it works completely therapeutically and cathartically - healing and rewarding. It has this enormous power to open doors into worlds within ourselves we didn’t know existed. I think I’m able to deal with all difficult things in life through music.
There are many subtle moments of silence throughout the album. Are these moments the opportunity for your listeners to pause, feel and process? Do you think it is more a case of living with grief instead of accepting it? In the lyrics for In Silence, the lyrics shift from “blackness" to “blankness”. Is it better to feel hopelessness than nothing when facing grief? Processing in silence, to give yourself that void, empty, black space to discover who you are with this newfound sorrow.
I think silence found its way in via the performance and then just felt very natural on the album. As I mentioned earlier, the album is very much about being in a certain place, I think of it as a limbo state or the Underworld itself, and the silence solidifies that feeling even more. A sense of claustrophobia at times and at others a sense of timelessness. I think whatever happens to the listener is up to them.
I know that grief is a case of living with; it doesn’t go away, but then you don’t want it to really. You want it to be a part of you, like the person you’ve lost is a part of you and that’s where acceptance comes in. For myself I need to find a way where all is out in the open - that’s also how I want my life to be – not leaving things unsaid, not keeping secrets - to others as well as yourself. Living so that dying can be easy.
Even though your sound has shifted, has your mentality stayed the same? Or as you progress and digress as a person, does your music mirror this? Do you think you will undergo another change anytime soon sparking the creation of another album?
The core I mentioned earlier is somehow intact but I think there’s a complexity that grows within you as you age - I find that in my work too - a deeper more complex view on life (and death). I guess I need to take care of that complexity though. It might also flatten your mentality. As long as you’re not afraid of change. That’s the key. Then you can go anywhere and that’s what I hope for all my future work. So yes, I hope whatever I will undertake next will [allow me to] be curious to explore something new.