Calling from her South-East London apartment, Sabrina Fuentes is haphazardly packing up her room to leave London. “I’m going back to NYC to see my little sister’s high school graduation, and to get my vaccine,” she grins via Zoom. The Pretty Sickfrontwoman and New York-native is no stranger to a jet-setting lifestyle pre-COVID, sharing a flat with bandmate Orazio Argentero in London while guitarist Wade Oates and drummer Austin Williamson remain in the Big Apple.
It’s a Monday, and Fuentes is recovering from a weekend spent celebrating her own graduation from Goldsmiths University. She’s also gearing up for the band’s sophomore EP release, Come Down, although admits the festivities will be cut short due to her travels.
Come Down sees the group share reflections on youth and lost love through the erratic lens of teen angst. Steeped in nostalgia, with just a touch of hindsight and moody melancholy aplenty, Fuentes confesses the tracks were written years ago, in the blissfully ignorant summer of 2019 when clubbing, one night stands and hugs with friends were all taken for granted.
“This thing happens to me when I write music and it always has where I’ll write a song loosely about one thing that might not make total sense but I feel called to write these specific words or terms even if they don’t necessarily apply to the situation,” she reveals. “Then a few months will pass and I look back on it and I’ve either predicted what was going to happen or it refers, like word-for-word, to the situation I’m in right now. It’s like I have a weird psychic sense when I write music.”
It’s like I have a weird psychic sense when I write music.
It would have been impossible to predict the events of the last year and a half, and yet, Fuentes’ cutting lyrics deeply resonate with the claustrophobic uncertainty shared by so many. Come Down follows the group’s 2020 release Deep Divine which presents as the younger, angstier sibling to this. On its release, Deep Divine was hailed by critics for expertly capturing the tortured emotions of growing up in New York through Fuentes’ darkly sardonic vocals, heavy reverb and grunge-infused basslines. And, if the former embodies the mascara-stained tears falling in toilet cubicles and spitting resentment of break-up arguments, then Come Down represents the bleak hangover of the aftermath.
“I think it will be interesting to listen to now, especially for people who don’t necessarily know that it’s written a long time ago because a lot of people felt really stuck and trapped this year and a lot of the EP is about feeling stuck and trapped and just not being in a good place emotionally for a myriad of reasons,” she says.
It’s easy to forget that before government-enforced national lockdowns, life was still littered with plenty of restraints and restrictions. I ask her what was causing her to feel trapped. “Just being in a shitty relationship, having really bad habits, substance abuse and stuff like that – you know, regular, bummed out musician things,” she says with a wry smile.
But far from the rockstar cliche, the EP taps into the discomfort and despair uniting a generation of young people faced with uncertain futures. Originally slated as a full album release, Pretty Sick signed with 1975’s Dirty Hit Records in late 2019 who recommended they split the releases. “We had all these songs written and recorded before we even met Dirty Hit, we were going to put them out as this one giant album but [the record label] recommended we do it as two,” she explains. “Most of the time, people don’t listen through one giant album because everyone’s attention span is too short these days – nobody buys CDs or vinyl or cares about track listings.”
Of the 8-track extended play, Fuentes is currently favouring ‘Physical’. “I’m proud of the songwriting and I’m rarely very proud of my songwriting,” she shares, “I’m really critical with myself and my work. I’m critical of just art and music in general even if it’s not mine so I hold myself to a really high standard and it’s rare that I’m super satisfied or proud of something on paper, but I’m happy with that song… I’m happy with all of this EP.”
Fuentes’ self-critical nature could be to her own detriment, but the 21-year-old admits she’s thankful for the support her new record label is able to provide in moments of self-doubt. She says, “I’m really hard on myself with my work in a way that keeps me going, I’m always striving to be better. I love work and I love thinking critically about what I’m doing so that I can create something that isn’t your everyday rock song.”
I love thinking critically about what I’m doing so that I can create something that isn’t your everyday rock song.
Dirty Hit are not the only collaborators to grace the new release, with Fuentes sharing tracks with her classmates and featuring emerging artists including Brooklyn-based musician Nick Hakim on final track ‘Physical’. “I think collaborating with a varied group of people and getting all of those different opinions is what makes good music,” she explains. “That’s why I’m sad people don’t play in bands anymore – almost everyone is a solo artist these days and it’s the dynamic of a band especially that I like about playing with Austin, Wade and Orazio. We all have really different aesthetic tastes, and I know we’re making something together that I wouldn’t have ever created on my own.”
Fuentes first started making music with her friends in her early teens, and by 13 had formed the first iteration of the Pretty Sickline-up with Eva Kaufman and Ella Moore. The trio continued playing together throughout high school, even releasing an EP recorded thanks to a battle of the bands’ prize studio session. By the time they graduated, the two girls left for music college in separate states, but insisted that Fuentes continue Pretty Sick.
She remained in New York, struggling to find replacements for her childhood besties, before uprooting to London. “I had become so used to and comfortable in the scene in New York that the idea of leaving it was definitely scary, but I now would encourage anyone I know to move and find different communities. I’ve never had a more gratifying experience and I’ve never learned so much about myself so quickly,” she says.
In her hometown, Fuentes has long established herself as a bonafide Downtown cool girl, modelling for Calvin Klein, STÜSSY and ALYX and performing at SUPREME’S 25th-anniversary party all before 18. But the teenage success story was wary not to get stuck in her native scene, and the sinister allure of the city’s thriving nightlife.
It’s the dynamic of a band especially that I like about playing with Austin, Wade and Orazio. We all have really different aesthetic tastes, and I know we’re making something together that I wouldn’t have ever created on my own.
“In New York, everything moves so quickly that you can be doing really well and be really successful and fulfilled by the social scene,” she reflects. “But if you’re there long enough, you can realise you’ve fallen in with a pretty wack group of people striving for some unknown goal. It’s such a microcosm and people can get so stuck in that bubble that they don’t realise what’s going on around them because they can’t step back.”
In 2017 she moved to London, enrolling in Goldsmiths University’s ‘Popular Music’ degree, which counts James Blake, Katy B and Ross from Friends among its alumni. With her reputation left behind, Fuentes had to reestablish herself within London’s music scene and cites the culture shift between continents as tricky to navigate: “When I moved here, most people didn’t know who I was but people quickly found my Instagram and had preconceived notions about me, which I didn’t think about. [Social media] is a part of my job as a musician and entertainer – I have to let people know what’s going on with my life and it’s fun and it’s silly, but I think the way people perceive social media here is so different from in the States.”
“Here I feel like people think it’s really lame, which is fine as it is kind of lame in a lot of ways, but I think people thought I was some kind of clout chaser or obsessed with my image which I’m really not, so that was weird,” she says. “It helped weed out bad people, because if you’re going to judge someone on their Instagram profile, you’re probably not that cool of a person anyway.”
The expectation for the digitally-versed generation of homegrown musicians thriving during the lockdown to create a constant output of consumable social content is a far cry from the traditional press sleuth during an old-school album campaign every few years. While Fuentes enjoys using her social channels to keep fans updated, she’s cautious of the pressures this could create on her music-making.
“I love making something that’s satisfying for people to listen to but it’s not necessarily my priority,” she asserts. “I like the idea of musicians that are creating songs with a hook with the intention of making a TikTok banger as no one has had to create music like that before, so it’s interesting to see what comes of that and how it influences how we listen to music. So, no hate to anybody who does that, but I think I’m a purist when it comes to the songs.”
Rock ’n‘ roll is for everybody and if you feel at home with it, hold onto that because it will be home forever.
Instead, Fuentes’ focus remains on the IRL – playing live shows, exploring Europe with her friends and meeting a new wave of Pretty Sick stans – when restrictions allow for it again. Since the UK government announced music venues and nightclubs shut their doors in March 2020, the group has yet to play either of their EP releases live to fans. “We’ve only ever played ‘Superstar’ once and we played ‘Angel Landing’ a few times,” she says. “We didn’t get to play it much before [the pandemic] so I’m excited to tour both EPs, it reinforces the idea that they were originally written together and that’s how I want the fans to experience it.”
In the meantime, Fuentes is looking forward to travelling Europe with her friends and seeing the reactions to the new tracks. For new fans, I ask her what prospective listeners should know about Pretty Sick before diving in. She smiles, “Just that rock ’n‘ roll is for everybody and if you feel at home with it, hold onto that because it will be home forever.”
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