Andrew Darley talks to Sasha Perera about her new project Perera Elsewhere and her debut solo album Everlast.
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Sasha Perera is stepping out on her own. To date, Sasha is best known as the energetic and enigmatic frontwoman of the electronic band Jahcoozi. After three albums together, Sasha found herself experimenting and writing songs on her own. With a second-hand guitar she found in a flea market in Marseilles, the music that emerged was of a different realm and pace than anything she had achieved before. She felt a sense of freedom in writing alone and crafting her own melodies and lyrics. Over time the songs came together into a full length album, Everlast, which sees the singer-songwriter at her most cohesive and musically ambitious. The album combines both acoustic and electronic elements to create an atmosphere that is both soothing and unsettling. This provides a backdrop to her lyrics which take on the issues important to her including gender, politics, prejudice and people’s passivity about changing their ways and the world around them. What’s most striking about Perera Elsewhere’s debut is her idea of ‘Elsewhere’ and how she now finds herself there and wants to take her listeners on the same journey. Polari caught up with Sasha to talk about the concepts behind her new music and how she finds inspiration in both the ugly and beautiful.
This isn’t your first time to release music, but it is your first solo album. Are you nervous about fronting a project on your own for the first time?
I’m not nervous about fronting the project but the idea of performing is quite a lot of pressure. It’s just different when you play music with guitars, loop them, pitch them and sing on top of it and bringing in other elements – it is a bit nerve-wracking. The live aspect of playing guitar or the keys, using pitcher pedals and singing at the same time requires me to use three parts of my brain at the same time. Some people have being doing that since they were five but I haven’t. I’ve been doing all those things separately but not together and not in front of people.
So you’ve already put a lot of thought into performing the material solo?
Yeah, I’ve thought about playing with just a laptop and doing a few things with that, but I’ve decided to play with a band. We played The Boiler Room in Berlin which I always think of as a Japanese reality show where it’s ‘Do or Die’. Everyone decides if you’re going to live or not. At the same time; no risk, no fun. With Jahcoozi, I played so much I could do it backwards with 800 vodkas inside me.
I know your surname is Perera but how did you decide on the name Perera Elsewhere for the project?
Actually I was going to call the whole thing Mother Perera after my DJ name but it’s too funny. It sounds like a spin-off of Mother Teresa! In my head, ‘Elsewhere’ rhymes with ‘Perera’ and I imagined how great it would sound said in Italian. In a way, the name is about me being somewhere else. If you’re in a band like Jahcoozi for years, people begin to typecast you and you can start to typecast yourself. This is another side of me where I’m not supposed to be or expected to be anything. I think the music does take you somewhere else because it’s quite atmospheric and sucks you in quite fast. I like to think that I’ve been taken somewhere else and so I’m taking the listener there too. It’s an idealistic concept that there is something or somewhere called ‘Elsewhere’ which has nothing to do with harsh reality.
Going in to make the album, did you have any specific ideas of what it was going to be?
I had no ideas about what I wanted it to be. The album was actually only finished in February and I sent it to Friends of Friends [her record label] and I didn’t even initially know it was going to be an album. I just recorded in my house and I bought a guitar in a flea market in Marseilles that isn’t tight on the strings which I found easy to play. Maybe if I hadn’t had that guitar in my house I wouldn’t have made this album. When I started writing, the idea of a solo album was not even a part of my thinking. I was surprised by the reaction my friends had to the songs so I kept going, without a lot of pressure on myself, then suddenly I had an album. I sent it to Gonjasufi to sing on it and he was like “Wow! We have to bring this out”. I was really flattered but also made me think that it can’t be too bad!
Did you find yourself feeling more creative or free writing on your own compared to being in the band?
It’s weird the way I recorded this time. I would just go to the microphone and sing. On ‘Drunk Man’, I went to sing not knowing what I was going to come out, played the keys and the line “I just want to keep up with me” came out. I couldn’t have done something like that if there were other people in the room. It was the first time I was alone in controlling the melodies. I found that if you’re responsible for the vocal and the melody, you can write nicer songs rather than asking someone to make a key change into F minor as you’re trying to sing.
Taking a few steps back, did you have a moment when you knew you must become an artist?
When I was younger I used to dance and sing a lot. My sister and I used to sing and harmonize in the back of the car. So I’ve always been musical but nobody was ever like “Here’s a 4-Track!”. It was more of a hobby and my parents saw it that way too. They viewed it as a one-way ticket to unemployment. Now they think what I’ve achieved is cool, they support me and see what I do as different. It’s classic second generation speech. I was like “Fuck it, this is what I want”, whereas they didn’t have the freedom to do that. My mother is actually quite musical but she is a dentist and it would have been unthinkable for her to become an artist. I was brought up in London which encourages you to be a bit of an egomaniac and more individualistic and they didn’t.
Now that the album is done, do you think it has any main themes?
I think there’s obvious stuff like ‘Bizarre’ which is about me saying how shit the world is but not doing anything about it and you could call it political. But there’s a whole range of stuff on there that’s more abstract. The music isn’t entirely sad but it isn’t happy either. It’s on this weird emotional border where you feel like you’ve missed or lost something but you’re also savouring something too. That’s where I think its themes are. It goes back to the idea of ‘Elsewhere’; you’re yearning for something else and thinking “This can’t be it!”. It can’t just be the Internet and everything we’re doing now… it cannot be the be-all and end-all. It’s looking at greyer issues and in a way it is kind of political because it’s looking at us and how we feel in the world.
Sometimes there can be a negative response from listeners when musicians take on big issues like politics. Often there is a feeling that the two shouldn’t be mixed. Did you have any apprehension about taking on these big issues?
Not with ‘Bizarre’, I didn’t have that at all. It just came about with my boyfriend playing acoustic bass that I bought for him. He played it in the kitchen and I recorded the vocals in our living room. But I have had apprehensions with the stuff I wrote in Jahcoozi which was mostly political. Most of the music I listen to isn’t political. To be honest, I don’t want to be reminded of how shit the world is. I want to escape.
Political music is super important but there are catches to it. Firstly, it can get dated. Secondly, you can get typecast as an artist who writes about political stuff. You can’t just sit down and write a song because you’re moved by a melody and that’s the whole approach of Perera Elsewhere. I want to write music when I’m moved by something and feel it. I don’t want to think “Who should I represent in a song?”.
Would you describe yourself as an artist who wants to push boundaries?
Not for the sake of pushing boundaries. I am exposed to music that is a bit oddball. I don’t want to say fresh but you do stop and think “I’ve never heard that before”. If I like music like that, I also want to make music like that. I don’t want to make stuff that is super exchangable. My own tastes dictates what I want to do and what I want to make. There’s a beautiful element to Perera Elsewhere but there’s also a dystopian element in the way I pitch my voice; I don’t pitch them perfect. I could sing those harmonies but I don’t want to because I like that they’re odd-sounding. It sounds right and it sounds wrong.
And that was one of my next questions. Listening to the album, there’s very soft and gentle moments with sweet melodies, yet there’s always something more sinister bubbling under the surface. Was this intentional?
That for me was really important. I’m not a fan of Coldplay or Morcheeba, it’s too straight and sweet for me. It’s like you’re programmed how to feel listening to it. When I listen to music, read a book, watch films; I want to interpret them for myself and I enjoy incoherent and conflicting messages. I love the beautiful and the ugly.
In terms of production, would you say the album has a ‘less is more’ approach?
Definitely! ‘Dimmed Down’ was one of the first songs I made and literally didn’t put anything on it. Stuff like ‘Carousel’ particularly has got more beats on it. It wasn’t a conceptual thing; it was just I could make more beats by that stage of making the album. Overall, the album certainly has a ‘less is more’ aesthetic. That’s probably a reaction to how I worked in Jahcoozi and we always played in clubs which were high-end and intense. When there’s a lot of room in a song, I can do a lot more with my vocals. Somehow the vocal will make you feel more if it’s not competing with a hundred other sounds.
You have lived and travelled in various parts of the world. Do you think these experiences and cultures have fed into your sound and outlook on life?
People often ask me that, and I’m not sure it actually does. You could be a kid in a village right now and just be on the Internet a lot. If you’ve got a good eye or a hunger for stuff, you will absorb a lot of information. Even someone who lives in London will be exposed to more than someone who lives in smaller cities. I find it easy to chuck stuff together. That doesn’t mean everything I throw together sounds good but I have a willingness to do it. If you listen to three or four songs of Perera Elsewhere, people will say “Sasha has made an indie album”. But then they’ll hear things like ‘Bongoloid’ or ‘Ebora’ and be totally thrown again. There’s also a lot of other artists who haven’t lived in as many placed who are making mixed-up and mashed-up music.
Can you tell me about the cover art and visuals you’ve created to go with the music?
I worked with one of my best friends, Hugo Holger Schneider. I’ve known him for ten years, he cuts my hair and makes clothes and he’s a big music fan. I own all the clothing on the cover. The hat I wore is not just one hat but four placed on top of each other. One of them is a Muslim hat from Nigeria with cane, one is a baseball cap and another is a tiara from H&M. It’s a collage like the music. Hugo is just multi-talented and homey so when we work together, we just play around in my wardrobe and laugh. Your earlier question about travelling is quite fair because ‘Ebora’ was made in Nigeria and ‘Lazy’ was made in Sri Lanka when I was on a music exchange project. So when I do go to these places, I love buying all weird stuff like men’s Muslim hats. Shameless cultural mash-ups!
Would you say the visuals are important to the music and how its communicated?
There are so many artists out there who make great music but have got awful press pictures. The visuals really do speak to people. I’m lucky enough where I’ve got Hugo who I can bounce ideas off. You can’t have shit music and nice pictures. I want to make a persona want to go with the music. Also, I want it to be different from Jahcoozi which was always gaudy and in your face. I want my image to be futuristic but with a sense of history. I think the visuals will be important too for the live show because it’s a slow set.
As a new artist, are you concerned by how the album will be received critically, by Jahcoozi fans or the public in general?
Not right now. Unless I get some slating reviews, Andrew! You can’t be too concerned and obviously it hurts. If you got hung up on that stuff, you’d get scared and not release anything. You have to develop a thick skin and not sit around reading your own press. I think it’s a good album, probably the most consistent album I’ve ever made.
Are you expecting any comparisons or have any been made yet?
There’s been an early Tricky comparison which doesn’t bother me because his stuff is amazing. Also, some have said it sounds like a female Gonjasufi album but I don’t know if that’s just because he’s a feature on the album. I took that as a compliment because maybe people hear a similar approach in that that it’s quite lo-fi and there’s so many influences that it’s hard to pin-point it.
Ultimately, what kind of artist do you want to become?
That’s such a scary question! Quite genuinely, I just want to live by making music. I live comfortably in Berlin; I don’t own a car, I have a bike. I’m happy like that. I want to go from strength to strength and not become stagnant or complacent. The idea of dominating the airwaves doesn’t equate happiness to me either. When I finished university, I was just like “I don’t want to be a recruitment consultant or in advertising”. For me, getting by with making stuff I love is the ultimate goal.
Everlast is out now. For more information and updates, click here to visit her Facebook page