The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Long Distance Communication: An Interview With Sabina
Jeremy Allen , March 25th, 2014 07:48

Jeremy Allen meets up with the musical polyglot and Brazilian Girls frontwoman to discuss her debut solo album, Toujours

Sabina Sciubba is a one-woman walking Google Translate and the nemesis of Esperanto. She laughs in the face of customs officials and gives border control the bird, for immigration restrictions do not apply when you are a citizen of the world like she is.

Born in Italy where her father is a university lecturer, Sabina then moved to the Bavarian heartland of Munich with her German mother - an artist - when she was still little; her biography says she also lived in Nice. In 1999 the singer upped sticks to New York and formed the electronic dance-punk outfit Brazilian Girls with a bunch of guys, and they later went on to be nominated for a Grammy for best electronic album for New York City in 2009 (they lost out to Daft Punk). Now Sabina finds herself back in Europe, living in Montparnasse in Paris to be precise, with her partner and two children. If that's not enough international flavour for you, she speaks six different languages fluently, and it's unlikely she'll be content to leave it at that either.

Songs she wrote before the move back across the Atlantic and songs written back in Europe together form the basis of a special debut solo record, Toujours, recorded with long time Brazilian Girls collaborator and producer Frederick Rubens. Toujours ('always' in French) is an album full of strong and beautifully simplistic musical ideas that mostly recount the autobiographical (it wouldn't take a genius to work out what 'Long Distance Love' was written about) to the more fanciful or philosophical ('Tabarly' is inspired by the late, great French sailor Éric Tabarly). There's a delightful dichotomy of styles fast and slow, with the uptempo and slightly manic title track set nicely against a more seductive and sedate glut of songs towards the end of the album that deliberately draw on the charms of the Velvet Underground and, less deliberately so, Nico ("Well, I'm German you know," she later explains, "I think you can recognise a German woman's voice - not all German women's voices - but that low, guttural Germanic voice, she had it and I have it").

We meet at a postcard perfect coffee house next to Saint Etienne du Mont where some of the pivotal scenes from Midnight In Paris were shot. Coffee is ordered and pleasantries commence, or at least that's the plan, though when I point out that my French could be better, she tells me matter-of-factly that I should get myself "a French lover".

"I'm not sure what my partner would say about that," I retort, clearing my throat, loosening my collar and feeling very English all of a sudden. "She probably has one," she adds with a wink. We've not yet been sat down for five minutes.

So Sabina, how are you?

Sabina Sciubba: I'm good, I just got back from a tour of the States with my band Brazilian Girls. It was exhausting but it was good.

How are you managing to maintain being in a band based in the US when you're living in Paris?

SS: Well, you know, we just don't tour a lot now, basically. We have to keep it moderate where touring is concerned.

Because you've got a family now.

SS: That's the only reason. Actually I'm going to the States in March with my [solo] project and I'm taking my family along, but you can do it once in a while, not all the time.

Do you write for both your band and your solo work?

SS: Yeah. My record was a process of nearly three years of writing, or maybe two and a half. In two and a half years you can write a lot of lyrics and melodies. It's not like I'm writing symphonies; I probably couldn't do that in two years, but it's feasible.

Some of the songs on the album feel very autobiographical. 'Long Distance Love' for instance…

SS: Yes, that's about my now boyfriend who lives in Paris, before I came to Paris, hence the 'Long Distance Love'. There must be so many people in long distance relationships with phones and computers, it must happen so much today with the way the world works. It seemed like a very contemporary phenomenon. But I needed to come back to Europe anyway.

Is the rest of the record autobiographical too?

SS: Everything I do is always autobiographical. Maybe 'Tabarly', about the French sailor, is more abstract. You know him? I mean, he's dead now. He was a very charismatic and very courageous sailor. I named one song after him, and that song is quite abstract.

Is that the one with spoken word at the outset about how it's a true story?

SS: Yes, exactly. That's the only one not based on a true story. [laughs] Well it is true, it's just more abstract, about the cycle of life almost.

Remind me, is that the one in German?

SS: No that's 'Sailor's Daughter', which is also about sailing. That's very strange, I'm not sure why the aquatic theme keeps coming back in all my songs. I was born by the sea in Italy so maybe that's influenced me a lot more than I think, I don't know.

Where I'm from originally there's sea everywhere, and people tell me they could never live anywhere but by the sea. I couldn't give a shit personally.

SS: Well I must say the two cities that were inland that I really noticed it were Chicago - even though it's on a great lake - and Madrid. I think they're both quite central, and that gives me anxiety. Particularly Chicago... It's so deep into the country, I don't know what it is. You can't sail anywhere.

On Lake Michigan maybe?

SS: No no, the lake doesn't count. It's a huge lake so I don't know what it is... A lot of people say its a great city, but I don't really know it other than to tour. You don't necessarily see a lot of a place on tour.

Paris is quite inland.

SS: Yeah, but my theory isn't very coherent.

Toujours is one of my favourite records of 2014 so far. It's fairly sparse and intimate in places and I was wondering if much of it was recorded at home.

SS: A lot of it was recorded in a studio in the 18eme behind Montmartre with Fred, and I recorded a lot of it at home. So in fact basically we had time with the recording process, it was a self-made production, and Fred [Rubens] is also a friend. I was recording when I was pregnant and then I had the baby and I brought the baby along; it was a very unprofessional situation. And the songs themselves always started with a guitar riff. The guitar is a new instrument for me, it's pretty fresh. So I'm stood there feeling like Keith Richards, a very amateur Keith Richards.

Was it tiring? You don't sound tired, whatever that sounds like.

SS: I can't hear the tired, but with children you just have less time. But I knew that. I suppose you never know what will hit you before you have them, but it's also very inspiring and you become much more time-efficient. Before you'd smoke a joint and spend the whole day sitting around and doing everything in a delirious state, whereas now I'm very efficient, I smoke a joint and then I write a song in twenty minutes. I'm kidding of course, I just don't want to sound like a housewife.

Paris is a nice place to bring up children, right?

SS: Well. Mmmm pollution, not so good. Stress, people pissed off all the time...

The childcare is cheap.

SS: Cost-wise it's very good for children. The health care, the schools and everything.

I wouldn't mind having kids in France just because French kids sound so cute.

SS: That was actually part of my considerations. Now I'm trying to drill them with Italian! No no, it's good, but I'm going to generalise now. French schools are very challenging and that starts very early. At three they already have to memorise things and start counting, I find it a bit too much. I know in Italy it's a lot less ambitious and I kind of appreciate that. They're a bit less anxious about their children becoming geniuses or whatever.

I've noticed children wearing glasses when they're two or three.

SS: Having seen the French schooling system I can understand why French adults are the way they are. They're very head-y. It's like the head is detached from the body. And I see why, in school there's very little exercise and it's all about up here [points to tête].

There isn't much leisure in Paris aside from cycling and smoking. Those seem to be the things that keep everyone thin.

SS: It's not part of the mentality, people feel very uncool in a gym. You have to do fencing or horseback riding here, something a bit more old fashioned.

So you speak six languages. Does that come from moving around a lot?

SS: I grew up bilingual with German and Italian, my mother is German and I was born in Rome and then as I said... lovers are very useful. You want to learn a language, it's the best school. I lived in most of the countries where the languages I speak are spoken, except Portuguese - I spent a little time in Portugal and I had a Portuguese lover - and Spanish, because I had an Argentinian boyfriend for a long time.

If you grew up bilingual, does that make your brain more receptive to other languages then?

SS: I don't know - for example I'm trying to learn Japanese and Chinese and I am shit. I don't learn anything. I think it's more because I speak a Latin language and a Germanic language and via the Latin language I can learn French and Spanish and Portuguese very easily because it's just very similar, but other language groups like Serbo-Croatian you've got to have a special talent to facilitate learning them.

English is Germanic and Latinate so we Anglo Saxons should be amazing at languages.

SS: Everyone speaks it though.

Is being a lingua franca excuse enough?

SS: People are always using you to exercise their English, right? Don't you feel used?

Why did you drop your surname for this record? When I first saw Sabina I read it as Sabrina, singer of 1980s euro holiday hit 'Boys, Boys, Boys'.

SS: Tell me about it. It's because everybody misspells my family name, but actually now I'm almost picking it up again, because I see there are a few other Sabinas out there on MySpace and iTunes etc. So it becomes confusing. I wanted it for simplicity because even publicity people get it wrong.

Are you enjoying the freedom of working on your own more?

SS: It's very different. I enjoy it a lot. For any band it can be very trying, it's supposed to be a democracy but it's more like anarchy. You have to fight a lot for any decision. I would often get my own way but it could be a protracted struggle with the others. So I'm really enjoying being the boss and bossing people around.

On tour it's just you and a load of smelly men, right?

SS: Smelly men in a bus. Touring is a nightmare, like Lord Of The Flies, it can break even the strongest people. Drugs, groupies, I've seen it all! All the other boys in the band now have children so it's so different. We now talk about babies all the time - these same men who were so into their debauchery.

What are your ambitions now? Win that Grammy?

SS: Ooh I don't know, continue making a living. Brazilian Girls was a dance band, a real party band, and I suppose with this I just wanted to touch people more. Make them cry, make them shiver...

On 'I Won't Let You Break Me' you claim to have an ego the size of England? Is that true?

SS: I do, yes.

Why not an ego the size of Spain?

SS: I was trying to be understated.

Sabina's Toujours is out now via Naim Edge Records.

27th - Manchester, Death Institute
28th - London, The Lexington

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.