n a café in Stockholm, Sarah Assbring, the Swedish indie-pop star who has performed as El Perro Del Mar since 2003, arrives wearing deep red lipstick, plucked from her local drugstore, her cropped brunette hair tucked delicately into a beret. She is tall with dramatic features, and her ethereal voice, the one that spouts melancholy lyrics full of questions about life and loss, juxtaposed with her signature dreamy upbeat, only adds to the high drama. And though her latest cathartic spells can be heard in her new EP, We Are History, in real life, she exudes a quiet confidence, hard-won, she will later tell me, after years of self-doubt. “I found my place in the world once I became a mother,” says the 40-year-old musician, who was recently embraced by Balenciaga, having walked their Spring 2018 runway in Paris. “I never really had a certainty of myself, to be honest, but having my son gave me that.” Here, Assbring talks finding the same confidence to say yes to self-love, and no to unreasonable beauty standards, like dyeing her hair and shaving her underarms.
On Hitting Her Fashion Stride at 40
I’m so terribly happy that [Balenciaga] happened now. I probably wouldn’t have been able to have done [the show] when I was younger, because I was so self-critical, self-aware, and self-destructive. I was 24 when I developed a really bad eating disorder. It had a lot to do with my self-image and what I saw in fashion and Hollywood . . . every actress that I loved and adored turned terribly skinny. My first album [dealt] with recovering from that illness, and looking at myself with self-love. Today I feel liberated from all of that, which is why what Balenciaga is doing with their runways is such a good thing. It’s so important, not only for older women—or women past their 20s—but for the young women as well to [see] all kinds of women and beauty, really.
On Music and Motherhood
[When I became a mother], it was like I found a place in the world. It made me grounded in a way that I’d never been before. I never really had a certainty of myself and a place that was mine to take, to be honest, and having my son just gave me that. It made me feel very natural in myself in a way I think I lacked before. And touring with a 3-month-old baby was one of the absolute best things I’ve ever done, though it was stressful at times, breastfeeding right before [a show], it was also quite good for me to realize that I don’t [need] two hours of preparing and zoning in to be on stage. I can be really stressed out and then five minutes later do my job. It worked. I could handle it, and I felt like I grew a lot [because of it].
On Breaking Beauty Standards
Feminism affects how I care for myself. It’s a small thing, but when I stand in the bathroom thinking, Should I shave my armpits [today]? the answer is, No! Which is something I wouldn’t have ever thought about five years ago. So I’ve stopped shaving my armpits and, during the wintertime, my legs, which I feel really liberated about. [Similarly], when I first started dyeing my hair [platinum blonde], I think I was in denial of myself. It was a way for me to get as far away from [myself] as possible. What changed is I found a freedom of acceptance, and a love of myself as I am. It’s as simple as that, really.
On Embracing Art at Any Age
The youth culture in Sweden is very similar to that of any Western country [in that] it’s controlled by what is being fed to them. That’s why I think it’s important that there are role models [who demonstrate that] you can be different, you can be anyone you want to be, and you can stay like that the older you get, as well. Take Patti Smith, for example. She’s an artist in every sense of the word. She’s powerful, she’s tough, she’s rock ’n’ roll, I don’t think people [even] see her as an older woman. To hold onto that power as you grow older is so important. [For me], I think I’m growing stronger as I grow older.