For most artists, having visions of a prophetic animal while on sabbatical in coastal Spain might be chalked up to nothing more than the post-Ibiza blues. But Sarah Assbring, the singer/songwriter behind El Perro Del Mar, didn’t go to the Mediterranean seaside in 2003 for recreation. She went to escape.
“I was feeling down for two, two-and-a-half years,” says Assbring. “Suddenly, I found myself in a dark place. I just realized there was something I really needed to do, something very big and very frightening that I had to look in the eye. It was now or never.”
So she returned home to Gothenburg, Sweden, with two motivating memories: facing up to her depression and discovering the affability of a feral hound that paid her daily visits during the beachfront purgatory. Adopting the Spanish moniker El Perro Del Mar (which translates to “the sea dog”), Assbring began putting her life back together one sad song at a time.
“It was very gradual,” she says. “After the Spain trip, I felt a strength, an ability of some kind to come back again. I wrote the music in a positive state of mind, starting over and writing from the beginning in a whole new direction. The melancholy was always there, but not in a good way.”
Taking in each marvelously morose track on El Perro Del Mar’s self-produced, self-titled debut (issued in the U.S. by The Control Group), you might assume Assbring still needs talking down from a ledge. But not just any ledge; specifically, the weathered façade of Manhattan’s Brill Building, the iconic Midtown structure in which Phil Spector and friends conceived the girl-group sound of the early ’60s. Where the Ronettes and the Crystals dressed up their “sha-la-la”s in obedient platitudes and concordant major keys, El Perro subverts them with sullen mantras and opaque, dreamlike arrangements.
“I started listening very closely to that era,” says Assbring. “I studied the sound and the craftsmanship of the songwriting, that ’50s movie style, CinemaScope. It was like opening this treasure case that never stops.”
This approach is wholly evident on highlights “I Can’t Talk About It” and “God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get),” whose unhurried pacing, soothing strings and swooning harmonies recall a drowsy, downbeat Little Peggy March. The album’s liner notes credit those defining, omnipresent backing vocals to the Same Girl Group, a winking nod to an overdubbed Assbring.
“Yeah, that’s me,” she says. “On some songs, we used 30 or 35 tracks. I love doing that. It’s such fun work, almost like theater, trying to get into the different personas of the choir girls.”
On tour, the backup help comes courtesy of what Assbring calls her “band”: an entourage made up entirely of suave Swedish men. Asked whether an attractive supporting cast could have any therapeutic qualities, the singer maintains her stoic, Julie Andrews-like composure.
“They are hot,” she laughs, before quickly recovering. “But great musicians.”
—Noah Bonaparte Pais