The melancholy singer-songwriter is an overly familiar indie figure, but Sarah Assbring, the twenty-three-year-old Swede behind El Perro Del Mar, has crashed the pity party. Yes, reviewers have labeled her tortured, and her lyrics about loneliness, isolation and friend forfeiture are sad, but the songs aren’t self-lamenting. After a serious depression, Sarah used music to pull herself up; her debut album, El Perro Del Mar, is strikingly outfitted with her high, pure voice; arrangements that evoke stripped-down ’60s girl groups; and an overall quiet optimism. In person, Sarah has intimate blue eyes and her voice is almost imperceptively soft. We talked to her over a cup of tea on a cloudy day on New York’s Lower East Side. — Sarah Harrison

Your music is so vulnerable. I think your live audiences want to protect you.

Maybe, but I don’t think I give out that feeling from the stage. I think it’s vulnerable, but I think it’s very rejecting also. It isn’t asking to be consoled.

The album seems to express a longing for human contact.

It’s me speaking to myself, it’s not me speaking to anyone else or yearning for anyone. It’s me trying to connect with myself.

A lot of reviewers seemed to think it was a break-up album.

Yeah, I know.

But it’s not that?

No. Not at all.

In one of the songs, you sing “I can’t understand people/ I guess that’s all right, cause they can’t understand me.” Do you still feel disconnected in that way?

Not so much. When I wrote it I was very isolated and trying to connect to people in a very general sense — trying to come back to society almost. You need to feel you’re a part of something, and I never felt that I was a part of anything. That’s a feeling that I still have, and I think I always will have. But then, I don’t actually sing “I can’t.” I sing “I can.” I don’t actually say the t. So it can be understood both ways.

Do you think it would be hard to write if you weren’t sad?

Definitely. Sadness for me is very much a kind of quiet, reflective blue. It’s often in those times that I write music. But depression is a whole other thing. That’s when I’m the least creative.

Do you think being in a romantic relationship is necessary to a fulfilled life?

No. I think that you can be completely fulfilled living on your own. Being alone in the forest forever. You can be completely fulfilled living as a single person in the city with lots of friends. And you can be very alone in a relationship.

So are you looking for a relationship?

I’ve been in a relationship for seven years.

What was your music like before this album?

I think of it as a search for the right way to express something, to express myself. Before, it wasn’t right. It was self-centered in a very destructive way. It was wallowing in something in a very destructive way rather than being expressive, rather than making something beautiful, which is what I try to do now. I try to do something beautiful for me, something that is precious, rather than just wallowing in that darkness.

Were you depressed for a long time?

I think I actually got tired of being who I was. I really had to come to terms with things. I had to come to terms with myself. I was very self-destructive, in different ways, for a long time. I just took a very deep dive.

What allowed you to come out of that?

It took a lot of work, and I read a lot of books, and I went into therapy. It was very much a self-study. I did a lot of work on my own. And around that time I started writing music again. During the hardest period of my depression, I had just gotten a scholarship for my music. It was in the middle of the half-year long winter that we have in Sweden. It feels like it’s never going to stop. I just had to go somewhere, and they have really cheap flights to the Canary Islands. I went alone, and it was very desperate. It was not a romantic kind of trip in any sense. I was really in a very bad state, and a small dog came up to me on the beach. It was the first very simple, uncomplicated, wonderful, kind thing I saw in a very long time. I mean it’s not a very big thing, really, but it shows how bad I was that a small dog made such a great impact.

Was your boyfriend there throughout your whole depression?

Yeah. It was difficult. He stayed, and he was really important. He saw me in that state for a very long time, and he stuck through. He devoted all his soul and his life to me getting better.

Is he here? Did he come with you?

No, he’s back in Gothenburg, and I hate that. Two and a half years ago I was totally dependent on him to care for me, to be by my side and to reassure me that it was okay. And now I’m sitting here getting gigs and playing shows, and it’s totally surreal. In many ways it’s thanks to him.

What do you think of antidepressants?

I was on antidepressants for a while, but I didn’t want to escape anymore. I had to look this in the eye, and taking antidepressants would have been escaping what I had to see. I think I needed antidepressants to come out of the most urgent state. I probably wouldn’t have made it without that, but afterward I had to stop.

What do you think it is that people respond to about the music? People seem to respond very strongly

I don’t know. I hope it’s because people hear it’s done with no pretension other than a very sincere need to get well. That’s what it is and that’s what it was. I was making the music for myself.

Is it strange being a sort of public figure after being so inside yourself for so long?

It’s not difficult. It’s strange. That’s the right word.

It must be kind of nice, though. It’s very validating.

Exactly… very. At the same time, it was not my point to be validated. It was exactly the opposite. That’s one of the problems that I had before; I felt that all I did was search for certain ways to be validated. And when I made this music it felt like it was the first thing that I did that wasn’t about that. It was a way for me to find my own validation for myself. But at this point, the validation that I get now feels very good because it’s not why I wrote it. It’s just a very sweet bonus. It feels very uncomplicated.

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