In Conversation: Pretty Sick

The singular vision of Sabrina Fuentes...

For Pretty Sick frontwoman and all-around cool girl Sabrina Fuentes, music has always been the primary passion. After forming Pretty Sick when she was just 13 years old, Sabrina has documented a decade long coming-of-age. Lyrically, nothing is off limits for Sab, whose baritone vocal range cuts through her impeccable grungy bass lines, resulting in something entirely beautiful and unique. While being compared to rock legends like Hole and The Breeders, Pretty Sick isn’t quite ready to box themselves in. By drawing on a range of influences, from folk to Japanese pop, Pretty Sick has continued to showcase their technical talent and genuine love of music across the years.

More than just a passion project, Pretty Sick has cropped up on a number of big-name radars, having been picked up by indie label Dirty Hit and covered in a range of musical publications. On the heels of their split 2020/21 EPs ‘Deep Divine’ and ‘Come Down’,the band is set to release their debut album ‘Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile’ on September 30th, with singles ‘Human Condition,’ ‘Black Tar,’ and ‘Heaven’ available to stream now. Additionally, they’re set to tour for Beabadoobee this fall across the UK, and are embarking on a solo tour around North America shortly after. On top of all this, Sabrina still exudes a down-to-earth, inherently-New-York demeanour. She’s finding her footing in the bustle of Southeast London and London music scene, all through creating new relationships and getting banned from Poundland along the way.

Stark, visceral, and stubbornly romantic, ‘Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile’recounts tales of asphyxiating relationships, both romantic and personal, whilst maturing amidst chaos, all set in the dimly lit fault line between New York and London. The two sprawling city-scapes set the scene for Sabrina and a rotating cast of characters, friends, and lovers. By layering candid storytelling over wistful and paralysing instrumentals, familiar discomfort pervades the album. Fuentes cathartically reckons with change in all forms: evolving relationships, a relocation from New York to Southeast London, and personal growth. The album also ruminates on uncomfortable relationships with familiar places. Growing up in New York is tough, but beautiful. Despite its overwhelming and all-consuming nature, the thought life anywhere else is daunting. Stepping into London, despite the two cities frequent comparison, is a stride into an entirely different world. The listener sees Fuentes step into the unknown, dealing with relationships, maturity, and chaos with the swagger only a New Yorker could quite pull off. 

Change is an interesting backdrop for ‘Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile’. Fuentes has had an odyssey of coming-of-age experiences to inspire her work, and a revolving door of bandmates, each imparting their own flair to Pretty Sick. Starting with home-friends Ava Kaufman and Ella Moore, to a New-York dominated incarnation by incorporating ex-Virgins guitarist Wade Oates and Onyx-Collective member Austin Williamson, Pretty Sick has developed with each era of members. Pretty Sick’s rotating iterations reflect the overall growth through adolescence, and parallels the process of evolving through epochs of relationships. The current iteration of Pretty Sick developed naturally:from meeting guitarist Orazio Argentero at university to linking back up with drummer Kaufman. 

I first saw Pretty Sick perform at a Battle of the Bands gig in 2015, in which Sabrina and I both gushed over the appearance of MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden as a guest judge. Pretty Sick would go on to win the local competition, kickstarting a fruitful musical career for the punk mavericks. Having crossed paths with Sabrina at a number of formative gigs growing up (Mac Demarco jumping down from the second story of a venue to crowd surf comes to mind), it’s been beautiful to watch Pretty Sick come of age while still never losing sight of their grunge-influenced rock sound, love of fake blood during performances, unabashed intensity, and overall uncompromising portrait of personal experiences and storytelling. 

Now recently graduated from Goldsmith’s in London, Fuentes funnels the feeling of teetering on the edge of the unknown into Pretty Sick’s debut album. Clash sat down with Sabrina Fuentes to discuss the inspirations behind the upcoming album, the chaos and beauty of growing up in New York, and astrology.

‘Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile’ opens up with “yellow roses in Tompkins Square,” and personally that stood out as a perfect snapshot of the beautiful and overwhelming nature of NYC. You’re incredibly talented at capturing and vocalising New York’s vivid nature, how would you say these snapshots of your experience growing up there have influenced the new album?

Places and the overall atmosphere of New York influenced the album a lot. I feel like every song on this album has a place assigned to it in my mind, and it’s  very location heavy. My memory is really tied to locations – I have these dreams where I’ll be walking down a street and think oh I’m in New York, and then I’ll walk ten more blocks and thing “no, wait, I think I’m in a town I was on vacation in with my parents when I was like seven?” A lot of my emotions are tied to a location, and I think you can definitely tell in this album.

Do you find that at all after moving to London, with being influenced by these new locations a bit more than in the past? 

Yeah definitely! I feel like there are some Britpop-y moments in the album overall, which is fun. There’s definitely elements of the feeling I get from running around London and being busy and everything being so far away, whereas in NYC I typically stay in the same neighbourhoods and stay in my like comfort zone a lot. The feelings I have about getting out of that after moving to London is definitely present. 

I feel like especially for New Yorkers it’s such a “thing” to leave, like it’s sort of the most overwhelming decision you can make, because you’re typically so attached to this place and tend to defend it to the death, so when you leave you’re sort of leaving a little bit of your identity behind. 

Absolutely it’s such a hard place to leave, and the themes of ‘Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile’definitely draw from that. 

I’m not even gonna ask about the NYC vs London debate, because I know New Yorkers are pretty diehard about their city. But, how would you compare the two music scenes – have you found any differences in performing here and how the album was influenced by that?

People like post-punk here, more than New York, which stuck out to me. It also feels like there are more venues in London. Like, there’s more places to go see music, and I think personally finding venues I like to go see music in New York quite hard. There’s a bunch of great bands in both cities, and I think there’s maybe more competition in London, because I’d say there’s probably more bands here than there are in New York. I also think it’s a bit more reasonable to live and be a full time musician here rather than New York, I think people are daunted by how expensive New York is and how little industry there is. I feel like in America if you wanna do music you move to LA, or if you wanna do music in more of a DIY and community-based way, but it’s sort of unfeasible to do full-time.

Besides rock, punk, and grunge-y influences, are there any other genres that have inspired this new album?

When we were putting this all together, I was listening to a lot of folk, Japanese pop, French music from the 60s, and Cuban music. Cuban music was especially important because there’s quite an aspect of storytelling that I wanted to understand for creating this album. I’ve always really dreamed of having an album that feels very coherent and tells a story – rock opera style haha. 

In Conversation: Pretty Sick

I would say listening to the new album there was definitely a strong storytelling element. I think every song does creates a scene and a narrative, at least the way I listened to it, which is really interesting. Stemming from narrative-based writing, I know in the song ‘Saturn’s Return’ there’s the astrological concept of growth, how did you come to think of that?

I’m really into astrology, I’m quite a spiritual person in general. That song is about the astrological concept of growth in a big way, but also in a more literal sense it’s about being around people who are going through their “Saturn’s return”. Since I was a teenager, I’ve had friends who were older, and being around these people nearly ten years my senior and watching them navigated a completely different phase and part of their life was really transformative. And I’ve learned a lot from watching these people navigate their mistakes or growing pains, or even successes. Beyond astrology, I’m also really into Occultism and symbolism, and just theology in general. 

What’s your sign?

I’m a Pisces, moon in Capricorn, rising Libra.

Speaking of the theological aspect of it, I know that you went to Catholic School in New York, and that your last EP ‘Deep Divine’ had a lot of references to Catholic iconography. Can we see any of that on ‘Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile’? 

Probably a bit less of it. If anything, it dips it’s toe more into the Occultist, Astrological, Voodoo-y pool, more than anything else. I don’t practice Voodoo by the way (haha), but I do just like knowing about different kinds of religions, belief systems, and rituals, so I write about that a bit, especially on our song “Bound.” It’s interesting, actually, because I’m friends online with a good amount of Witches who practice different forms of Witchcraft, just because I’m really interested in the work that they do. When ‘Deep Divine’ and ‘Come Down’ came out a lot of them were like coming to me saying “I feel like you learned part of this from me,” and I was like definitely!! It was just little things they noticed that other people didn’t, and the whole time I was just like: yes! I know what they’re talking about!

Growing up in New York, you’re exposed to a lot at a young age, and there’s a sense of freedom that I don’t think most people who grew up in the suburbs really had. How did you find your ‘place” in all of that chaos, and how did your experiences translate that into the new album?

I think my friends from New York played a huge role in that. The friends that I’m still closest with, and that I’ve known the longest, are all from different age groups and walks of life, and I think all of those people are the ones who encouraged me to be creative and continue turning my experiences into music. Most of my friends who I’m still close to in New York are my biggest supporters, they’ve always been telling me not to give up. I’m really grateful, they’ve definitely had a big influence on my music. 

Your ‘Human Condition’ music video was incredible, and a big creative aspect was clearly friendship, with all your mates being in the video. I think all of your music videos, like ‘Dumb’ and ‘Telephone’’, are sick and super unique, and always incorporate the artistic and creative capabilities from your friends. How was the experience of filming the video for ‘Human Condition’ with everyone, did that make it particularly special?

It was sooo much fun. It was busy and hectic; We went to go shoot in Poundland and this lady got really angry with us and now Frank, the director, is banned from Poundland forever. Happens to the best of us. But yeah it was really fun, we ended up going to a lot of spots that I normally hang out in with my friends, we we’re just having a lot fun with it bouncing around the city. The second day we shot all the stuff with the car, and it was crazy to be on a big set for a video – it was the first time we’ve ever worked on a set really. I had to get in this big car that they bought and flipped on it’s side, and they took out all of the seats so I could climb in through the window and the whole time I was so claustrophobic, but excited to be doing my own stunts ya’ know. 

Music videos are definitely a huge part of someone’s creative work – I’m a huge music video appreciator. 

Me too I’m a huge music video fan – it makes or breaks a band for me!

So, how was it working with the producer Paul Kolderie, who’s produced for juggernauts like Pixies, Radiohead, and Hole?

It was great. I met Paul a couple of years ago before the pandemic through my friend Rob, and we hit it off immediately. I showed him all the songs that I’d recorded for ‘Deep Divine’ and ‘Come Down’, and he was like we should re-record them. But before that conversation could even continue it was lockdown, and I didn’t wanna wait so I called the label and said let’s just use these recorded versions as two EPs, then we can do something new once we all get let out of here. When it came time to do this new album, I had all of these songs prepared that I was writing during the pandemic, written in-between being with my parents in New York then coming back to London and living with friends. I’d become really attached to all of those song and I wanted to develop in some way, but wasn’t sure with who or how. We wanted to make sure we developed it with the right person, and Paul was down, so we went upstate and recorded it for two weeks, knocked it out and had a lot of fun. He had so much great input on the album, he really has such an ear for the kind of music that we play, and has such an ear for trying to make something catchy and memorable, which is a big part of my songwriting process. Also, he’s just someone who’s so experienced in this kind of music, and has made so much amazing stuff already. 

Who’s the most memorable person you’ve seen live? Or, are there any people you’ve seen live across your concert-attending-life that made an impact and made you think like “aw, yeah this is what I want to do”?

Hmmmm. We saw Nine Inch Nails live a couple of months ago because we were playing the same festival as them, which was pretty insane, because I love Nine Inch Nails! One of the earlier concert memories I have is when I was in high school I went to go see Mac DeMarco at Terminal 5 ,and he like climbed up the rafters to the second level and jumped in to stage dive, and I just remember thinking that was insane. Me, my drummer Ava, and my little sister were just there like holy shit is he gonna jump? And then he did! And it was just really cool.

What was the writing process like for the new album, are there any sort of experiences or inspirations that you’re excited to showcase?

The writing style is interesting because I wrote a lot of those songs in one go, like bass melody and lyrics. When I write songs I feel like I kind of just do it all in one piece. A big part of the process was that I had way more songs than I needed, and I needed to trim it down. I had 60 songs that I’d written, whittled it down to 35-40 that I liked, then I made my friends listen to all 40 of them in front of me and tell me which ones that they liked the most, and why. Then, I had a notebook where I had all of the names written down and gave all my friends a different coloured pen, and they’d tick off the ones they liked the most. If one song had all the checks and colours I’d use that one, and then some had no checks but I was too emotionally attached to them to let them go, so I vetoed them haha.

That’s incredible. Personally, my two favourites on the upcoming album are ‘Lilith Song’ and ‘PCP’! Do you have any favourites you’re particularly excited to share?

I think ‘PCP’ might be favourite, or at least the one I’m more excited to showcase. I love a good outro, so I’m excited to release it. 

‘Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile’ will be released on September 30th.

Words: Ruby Carter
Photo Credit: Frank Lebon

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