En Masse // Sarahsson

Continuing our preview coverage of the imminent En Masse festival, Joseph Francis linked up with one of the many intriguing live acts on the bill, Sarahsson.

“This is very new to me,” smiles Sarahsson. In the coming months she’ll be performing her debut album The Horgenaith around the UK and one of those performances will be for En Masse festival next Thursday. But this is the first time she’s ever rehearsed ahead of a gig. Until now, she’s always improvised, and if you swipe through this post you’ll see what that entails. One minute the atmosphere’s tense as she performs an eerie piece with her homemade daxophone; the next, people are flailing around to happy hardcore; and by the end, “everyone’s crying,” she laughs.

It’s a reflection of her journey as a non-binary transfemme. Beginning in her hometown of Exeter, Sarahsson then moved to London at the age of 18 in search of a more open and diverse environment, before finally settling in Bristol, a place where she feels most at ease and admits that her album might never have happened without its supportive music community.

Released by Bristol label and club night Illegal Data in July, the album expertly captures the highs and lows of her transformation through a volatile blend of classical and contemporary music. Lead single ‘Tonsil Pearls’ opens with a faint warbling of brass beside serene vocals, but soon the listener is catapulted through Rustie-like bass music, pumping vogue and swathes of noise. 

Amorphous, free and organic, the songs’ textures explore femininity’s cultural link to nature. Throughout history, women have been picked, plucked and studied. One moment they were the Venuses of the world adorning a lucrative painting, the next they were condemned of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. Today this objectification continues but in more subtle and insidious ways. For The Horgenaith, Sarahsson reshapes both of those antique models of femininity — classical beauty and mystical horror —   into something fluid and empowering.

Photos by George Avill.

“Queerness is about change,” she explains. “It’s about saying yes to everything, saying, ‘yes I can be this and this,’ and simultaneously marrying these opposites within yourself.” Essentially you could say that anyone who is open-minded is queer. It’s merely an acceptance that our bodies — both physically and spiritually — are in constant flux. As children, we’re much more open to this idea but somewhere along the way we harden into a cocoon. Tired excuses like “I’m too old to learn another language” creep in as we shy away from mistakes, too proud to explore all the possibilities of life. 

“Play is a really important element of learning and growing and becoming a person,” says Sarahsson. In fact, she told the Quietus that the name The Horgenaith came about when, as a child, she misheard the lyric “independent as a hog on ice” from a Tom Waits song. Toying with those words in her imagination, they soon became entangled with myths of Jason and the Argonauts, and eventually evolved into a beast of their own. Other mythical influences like the Welsh Mabinogion, the Bible and bits of Greek mythology also bleed into the album, so that now its influences are like a highlights reel of the Horrible Histories books — striking a balance between serious and silly.

For Sarahsson, certain past experiences have played an important role in her understanding of those moods. She mentions how, growing up, she used to get nose bleeds all the time and how once one of her teeth rotted in the back of her mouth. But instead of shy away from these gory and gross episodes, she relishes the primal side of it all that isn’t so caught up in appearances. “There’s something about the grotesque that is really seductive  — like, don’t you just want to go and roll around in the mud?” she asks. “A part of me wants to go feral.” There have been similar musings by the likes of Luke Mawdsley and fellow Bristolian Max Kelan, whose works revel in our human filth and, in doing so, transcend cultural constraints.

So with Sarahsson mucking in at Strange Brew on the Thursday night of En Masse — alongside Bruce’s first time performing a vocal set and a debut foray for Anina and Guest as Aagnes — it’s going to be all about pushing boundaries, taking risks and being open to change. Folkish post-punk from Fever 103 and an all-night hybrid DJ-live trip from Dan Thorman in the back room will also bring a transcendental ambience to the event, so everyone can feel liberated of the shackles of adulthood and embrace the flux of their inner child for one night.

Check back here for a chat with k means, one of the many talented selectors bringing the heat in amongst the live music at En Masse next week.