It's been over a decade since Sarah Assbring released her first album, Look! It's El Perro Del Mar! That debut, and later records like Pale Fire and Love Is Not Pop, established Assbring's reputation for cinematic lyricism, gripping vocals, and memorable rhythms. Her strength lies in her ability to craft songs that imprint themselves with ease onto the hearts of each listener. On her forthcoming release KoKoro, Assbring revives the sanguine thrill of '60s pop from Cambodia, China, and Japan to explore how limitations can spark innovation and the way love teaches us about the self. I got the chance to speak with Assbring a few weeks ago while she was in Manhattan. Seated at a small table in an air-conditioned cafe, she shared with me what made her heart grow wiser, the inspiration behind "Ding Sum," and why her latest album isn't a departure but a return to where she began.
Dianca Potts: What drew you to music initially? When did you realize that you wanted to make music of your own?
Sarah Assbring: From what I've heard from my parents, I was constantly singing ever since I was really small. I still do. There's something very soothing in just singing and letting everything flow through. I was also very into classical music. I can't even think of a time when music was not a natural thing in my life, really.
DP: KoKoro is your sixth studio album. Did you learn anything new about your creative process while working on this project?
SA: In many ways, I kind of went back to my roots with this album. I looked at that first record and felt that there was a connection between where I was aiming with KoKoro in that it was a minimal, very straightforward, structural way of working and thinking about the songs. At the same time, I wanted it to be playful and unexpected, so I really experimented with that by working with harmonies.
DP: This album explores the nuance and contradictions of the heart. How did the concept of love and intimacy shape your songwriting and recording process?
SA: This record is very much about maturity for me. I think of my heart now as older and wiser, especially when I compare my new songs to my previous work. They feel very teenage-y, the way I viewed love. There's a song called "Ging Ging" on this album that is about having everything that you aspire to when it comes to love, relationships, and life, but still being unsure, even though you have it all. I still think that even though you feel like you have everything that you need, you're still going to ask yourself the question of if you're happy or not. I started asking myself these questions when I had my son. I felt very grounded, and so much of what I had thought was uncertain and unsatisfying and fleeting in my existence just fell into place and everything made sense.
DP: KoKoro's sound is distinctively different than your last album, Pale Fire. Was there anything in particular that made you want to explore less familiar soundscapes?
SA: With my last album, I started working with samples, and this was one thing that I really wanted to continue doing when I started working on KoKoro. I started collecting a library of drum samples because I knew that I wanted to make something that was very dancy. I didn't want to make a clubby album, though, I wanted to make something that was almost like folk music in its directness. I think that I happened to find my way when I started listening to Japanese, Chinese, and Cambodian '60s pop. I felt like I could make the theme that I wanted to talk about catchy and dancy — and kind of in a weird way cheerful — even though what I'm addressing isn't. I needed a new template.
DP: The lyrics to "Ding Sum" are so relatable, and its melody is catchy as hell. Can you tell us a bit about the story behind this song?
SA: A lot of the thematics that I'm speaking about on KoKoro also go along with embracing who you are. It's also about fighting for the individual and the individual heart and [the way] we are bombarded when it comes to the consumerist culture that we're living in, how it's based on not being happy with ourselves. I wanted to challenge that. I feel like I'm consuming all the time, always striving toward becoming someone else instead of myself. It's a classic pop song really, based on my idea of the Bollywood disco song, which I listened to so much of while recording this album.
DP: Do you think that music is a remedy or a way to dismantle the pace of our consumerist culture?
SA: I'm kind of afraid of the way the world works right now. It's based on consuming fashion, music, and youth in a very basic way, without any depth, so I'm trying to make pop music out of ideas that I've read a lot about, philosophies, structures. I just want to give people a way to dive into questioning what they're doing, what they read, what they hear. I want to raise awareness about the self. It sounds extremely pretentious, but that's what I'm doing because everything is so linked together in the world that we live in. This feels like a good way to talk about the state that we're in.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.