In early 2020, Swedish artist Sarah Assbring, who goes by the Spanish moniker of El Perro del Mar, collaborated with MOMA Stockholm to create a collection of music inspired by the Moderna Museet collection. What started to form from this union was FREE LAND, which would reveal itself in a live performance set around the universality of art in an ambient world of solitude fueled by the worldwide pandemic.
Assbring started creating music alone inside the museum after hours, surrounded solely by the works of Marina Abramovic, Pablo Picasso, Sigrid Hjertén, Robert Rauschenberg, and Henri Matisse. As the world shut down, she continued working at home, and her musical piece evolved into Free Land, an EP encapsulating the spirit and freedom of art in times of segregation, isolation, fear, and eventual renewal.
On Free Land (The Control Group), El Perro del Mar, which translates into “The Dog of the Sea” in Spanish, explores the human psyche, making sense of silent moments and an omnipresent regeneration of mind and body in relation to art.
Entering into the wistful drift of “Life is full of rewards” is the search to hear one’s mind again through all the clatter, before the translucent trance of “White on white.” Leaving behind a more sinister taste, “Free land” explores some undisclosed frustration with Assbring’s menacing refrain of Waiting all my life for this, while “Alone in the halls,” featuring British electronic artist Blood Orange (Dev Hynes), forages the emptiness of transformation in its meditative chant of I’m going through changes, reflecting the current state of the world and its effect on her.
Transitional and moving, “Dreamers change the world” is an atmostpheric protest of perseverance. Depicting a “warrior of artists” in the video, directed and styled by Nicole Walker and exquisitely outfitted by Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, El Perro del Mar is fighting for dreams before they disappear.
“‘Dreamers change the world’ is about resisting giving in,” says Assbring. “It’s about freedom of creativity and freedom of thought. It’s also an appraisal of the free artist as well as a reclaiming of creative integrity in an over-commercialized world.”
Observing the shifts in the music industry, and in pop music as a working musician over the past 15 years, also added more impetus for the stories on Free Land.
“The marginal has been pushed so far away,” she says. “Being commercial is key if you want to survive, or rather being commercial is more important than having something to say. It’s the whole content disease surrounding everything we see and hear today.”
Questioning the purpose of culture in our lives and in society, and if they serve a deeper purpose than mere entertainment, El Perro del Mar sees too much shallow art coloring music’s landscape.
“I feel like there’s a whole lot of nothingness filling the space, so much so that we have a problem hearing our own thoughts,” says Assbring. “I can see a clear difference in my own inner dialogue before and after the smart phone era.”
Moving in waves, Free Land is a release of the senses and an inventory of all the effects of one’s environment. Because of the circumstances surrounding the making of FREE LAND with MOMA, Assbring was given carte blanche to envelop herself in many externalized soundscapes.
“I felt I had a unique chance to completely embrace the freedom of just making sound,” says El Perro del Mar. “It was like the museum in itself allowed me that freedom, to not be limited by the jail that songwriting can impose on you sometimes. The timing was perfect as well as I’d recently dreamt of doing something quick and experimental.”
Threaded through Free Land is something submerged in the unconscious.
“It’s subliminial thoughts and feelings passing through you—in many ways what it feels like walking around in a museum on a good day—and find how in that the seed to an idea can grow if given the chance,” shares Assbring. “Sometimes you’re just not capable of letting it move through you. But as I was spending all this time there alone, it was really quite overwhelming… a complete sensoric meditation.”
Opening Free Land on the shadowy instrumental “Enter,” and closing on the lighter “Exit,” El Perro del Mar bookends her museum experience.
“Free Land is a visit to the museum—entering, as one person, bringing all the fragments of the outside world with you and exiting, as another, with all that you’ve experienced in silence in the museum,” she says. “I think of that walk as a cleansing sensation, exiting as a completely different and enlightened person.”
She adds, “I’m not religious. but I think it might be quite similar to what people who go to church or temples experience. A sense of transcendence to greater knowledge of yourself and the world around you. I wanted the listener to experience just that. It doesn’t all make sense and that’s the meaning of it.”
Now four years since her last release KoKoro, Assbring says she has creatively shifted her focus from being introspective to more externalized, peering out at the world around her for inspiration writing songs however they come to her. There’s also been a level of maturity and transition since her 2008 debut From the Valley To The Stars, created at a time when Assbring was dealing with deep depression she says ruled her existence.
“Outrospection has come along with me feeling better I guess,” shares Assbring of her artistic shifts over the past 12 years. “When I made KoKoro, I was experincing the profound emotions and realizations of having a baby and not feeling alone in the world anymore. Feeling all this brought me out in the world and even further away from the ego-bubble I guess.”
KoKoro also popped a political bubble in El Perro del Mar’s music. “My constant looking out for different ways to express myself along with growing older has helped me to grow a bigger palette with different colors to use,” she says. “I’m really glad I let it happen.”
Earlier this fall, she also released “The Bells,” a song originally written for the 2019 film Ring mamma! (2019) from Swedish director Lisa Aschan. Moving past Free Land, El Perro del Mar is finishing another album for 2021, expanding on another collaboration she did with the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in December 2019, revolving around themes of death and loss—and the dead being present among the living—working from the recording music, along with co-creators Jacob Haage and Petter Granberg and producer Daniel Rejmer.
“I can’t wait to release it, however, it’s difficult to plan an album release these days,” admits Assbring. “I’m hoping, along with the rest of the world, that we’ll be able to make plans some time soon again.”