From the way Sarah Assbring describes things, her hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, isn’t exactly a sun worshipper’s paradise for most of the year. What makes the endless months of doom and gloom worth it, however, is the arrival of spring.
“Gothenburg is usually totally grey and very rainy,” says the soft-spoken singer-songwriter, on the line from home. “So spring is like a revelation. I like that every time you experience spring, it’s like the first time. You instantly forget that it seems like years since you’ve seen the sun.”
Because Assbring—known to her fans as the lo-fi indie-pop chanteuse El Perro del Mar—is obviously in tune with her surroundings, it’s appropriate that her two full-lengths seem geared for two distinctly different times of year. Bursting with crisp horn flourishes, acoustic-jangle guitars, and angelically optimistic vocals, the singer’s eponymous 2006 debut played out like backdrop music for Paris in springtime. In contrast, hushed delivery, melancholy strings, and soft-focus percussion make the just-released From the Valley to the Stars as breathtaking as a snow-covered forest clearing.
Assbring acknowledges that El Perro del Mar seems tailor-made for May days when the world seems colour-saturated with tulips and daffodils. With From the Valley to the Stars, though, she had something bigger in mind.
“I understand how you could place the albums in totally different seasons,” she says. “With this one [Valley], though, I think I’d rather have it placed in a space where there are no seasons. The triggering idea for the album was that time when you’re flying and you get just above the clouds and realize that the sun is always shining.”
If it sounds like Assbring is describing something like heaven, that’s exactly the point. The singer, who doesn’t necessarily believe there’s a God, had someone close to her die before beginning work on the album.
“I started having existential thoughts about life and death and the idea of what happens when you die,” she says. “I think, for the first time, I asked myself if there was something up there. To me, the idea that there might be something above the clouds in the sky was very consoling. I think that made me want to place myself somehow up there in the songs.”
Heavenly is probably as good a word as any for From the Valley to the Stars. Funnily then, while hellish might be a little too strong a term, Assbring admits she had her dark moments during the creation of the album, which is quietly stunning in the same way as Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See and Cat Power’s The Covers Record.
“It took a long time and was very all-consuming in a lot of ways,” she admits. “But that’s the way I wanted it. I wanted to dive into something very big and important.”
And just as there’s no way to stop the coming of winter or the budding of spring, what Assbring learned from her searching was that sometimes the best you can do is make peace with the inevitable.
“When I was finished,” she says with a wry laugh, “I ended up at the same place where I started. But I now find it more uplifting to believe in what is here, and the things that I experience now. I still don’t really believe in anything, but I at least have a more positive outlook on things.”
El Perro del Mar plays the Red Room on Wednesday (May 14).