Formed in: 2003, Gothenburg, Sweden
Key Albums: El Perro del Mar (2006), From the Valley to the Stars (2008), Love is Not Pop (2009)
El Perro del Mar is the musical work of Swedish songstress Sarah Assbring. Drawing influence from '60s girl-group music, church hymns, buddhist mantras, and twee pop, Assbring makes slow, sad, achingly beautiful pop-songs that favor simple repetition over overblown ostentation.
Assbring (born in 1977) was raised in Gothenburg, and was exposed to music at an early age via the record collection of her jazz-loving father. From her childhood, Assbring wanted to "first and foremost" be a singer. "I remember being amazed by Annie Lennox and Kate Bush as a kid," Assbring has recalled, to Identity Theory. "I was totally into their way of going in and out of different personalities, almost as a form of acting when singing."
Assbring abandoned early piano lessons because of their "restrictive" nature, and took to singing in a church choir throughout her adolescence and into early adulthood.
In 2003, mired in depression and feeling like a victim of her own "destructive and negative" attitude, Assbring escaped on a holiday to Spain. On an isolated beach, she came across a dog, and via a strange process of self-identification —"I had had this feeling of feeling like a dog, all hopeless and tired," she told Pitchfork— she came to two conclusions: she had to start making music, and her name had to be El Perro del Mar (Spanish for "the Dog from the Sea").
Working on her debut album, Assbring "was coming back from a very severe depression," and her early songs are steeped in sadness. On a song called, simply, "Sad," she sings: "I'm sad all day long/and at night I think about/being sad all day long."
"It’s a lot about how I’d been feeling for a long time, and coming to terms with those feelings, and being kind to myself," Assbring told me, in 2005.
Though she "wasn’t really thinking of ever having anybody else listening to [her] music," when recording, in 2004 her first release came out: a split single with friend Jens Lekman. Assbring made her debut, in Sweden, with 2005's Look! It's El Perro del Mar!. After following it up with the richly orchestral God Knows (You've Gotta Give to Get EP later that year, the two discs were combined into Assbring's international debut LP, El Perro del Mar.
The album/s found Assbring "trying to combine two very not-related musical worlds: the ’60s girl-group things —be-bop-a-lu-la and ba-ba-ba-ba vocals; these happy-go-lucky things that you just sing— and [her] lyrics, which are just quite sad, expressing something completely opposite to that mindless happiness."
For her second album, 2008's From the Valley to the Stars, Assbring flipped the script: the once-said lyrics were now repeating mantras of pure happiness (titles like "Happiness Won Me Over" and "Into the Sunshine" sung as incantations) over minimalist, incredibly sad-sound hymnals.
Assbring called the record "a sonic journey to the sky, up above the clouds and back to earth again," and made it as a way of exploring "existential questions about life and death."
It was followed by a split single, shared with Assbring's touring buddy Lykke Li, in which El Perro del Mar performed "At Your Best (You Are Love)" by Aaliyah.
In 2009, Assbring made a break from her previous work as El Perro del Mar, working with an outside collaborateur, Rasmus Hagg of Gothenburg acoustic-disco producers Studio, for the first time. "To be able to do something new I had to bring in someone else," Assbring admitted to me.
Informed by a break-up prior to its making, the mini-album was called Love is Not Pop, a set which included a cover of Lou Reed's "Heavenly Arms."
"There were so many things Rasmus taught me about pop; about making songs and producing," Assbring said. "It was a very personal, very fruitful situation to be in."