It’s one thing to write a break-up record. But recording it while your ex looks on?
“The songs were an actual communication, because he was very present,” says Sarah Assbring, referring to the recording sessions for Love Is not Pop, her latest album as El Perro del Mar. She built a studio in Gothenburg, Sweden, several years ago with her then boyfriend, and although they broke up over a year ago, he’s still the sound engineer. “He was more or less looking me in the eye while I was doing the vocals.”
Awash in echo and atmosphere, Love Is not Pop is a remarkably spacey album for an artist who cut her teeth making sweet, sad, girl-group-sounding indie pop. Lyrically, though, the record is grounded. When Assbring sings lines like “We’ve been together for so long/I gotta get smart” and “It is something to have wept as we have wept,” she says, she means every crestfallen syllable.
Assbring—who opens for Peter Bjorn and John tomorrow at the 9:30 Club—says it’s no accident that Love Is not Pop‘s title lends itself to several interpretations.
“I wanted to communicate that way of reading it differently, depending on what kind of state of mind you are in,” she says. “I was facing a new love, and at the same time my old relationship was dying, so in that sense Love Is not Pop made total sense to me. At certain times I felt that love is everything but pop. Which sometimes is true, and sometimes it’s not true.”
She wrote the record last summer in Paris, and says she always thinks hard about the complexities of placing certain words together: “I want to write pop songs but not necessarily simple love songs.” Perhaps conversely, she also writes quickly. “The heart and soul of the lyrics are the most important thing, and if I overwork it then those things are lost.”
Assbring’s first two records, El Perro del Mar and From the Valley to the Stars, were Spectorian and economical—twee yet downcast takes on classicist popcraft. But for Love Is not Pop, she tapped producer Rasmus Hägg of the Swedish dance duo Studio, with whom she crafted a more sophisticated sound with hints of minimalistic, Balearic-style disco.
That meant compromise, something that Assbring, who owns her own studio, wasn’t used to. “One of the first things I said to Rasmus,” she says, “was that I wanted to move into a more synthetic sound.” But Hägg, in turn, said he hoped to move away from electronics. So they recorded the album using almost only analog instruments and tweaked them electronically afterward.
For Assbring, the evolution is striking. “I tend to react to things I’ve done previously. I knew pretty quickly after I did the last album I wanted to do something dramatically different,” she says. “I need to have some sort of mysterious element that is hard to put your finger on. I wanted to take my music into a place that was even more hard to distinguish.”
There’s an intentional strangeness to the record, Assbring says, one reflected in the video for the first single, “Change of Heart.”
The clip features the Golden Power, a bronzed gymnastics duo from Hungary who balance on each other in seeming slow motion. The video’s director, Filip Nilsson, first saw the Golden Power perform at the Lido music hall in Paris, “and he was totally just fascinated by it,” Assbring says. “He got hold of this clip, and at the same time he was very into my single, and he just couldn’t let it go. He sent me a test of what it would look like, and I couldn’t let it go, either.”
For Assbring, the moment was as serendipitous as a quickly and perfectly conceived lyric. “It was also this instant thing,” she says. “It just went really well with the weirdness and the mystery.”
El Perro del Mar performs with Peter Bjorn and John tomorrow at the 9:30 Club at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Image courtesy El Perro del Mar’s MySpace page.