Sabrina Ellis Explores Empathy, Mexican Heritage, and Queer Identity on New Sweet Spirit LP ‘Trinidad’

Sweet Spirit’s music sounds like something you’d see high school kids slow-dancing to in an ’80s movie, but if you listen closely, their lyrics contain far more depth than any rom-com. The Austin-based sextet’s latest LP, Trinidad, out last Friday via Merge Records, covers everything from rejection of social norms to “the loneliness of strangers who pass like ships in the night, unaware of their synchronicity,” as vocalist Sabrina Ellis puts it.

The album spotlights Ellis’s Mexican heritage, both in its title — which is the name of their great grandmother — and in its single “Llorando,” the Spanish word for “crying.” The percussion in “Llorando” was even produced with bottles of Topo Chico, a mineral water brand sourced from Monterrey, Mexico. The song’s chorus was originally sung in Spanish just because it sounded better that way, but as Ellis witnessed increasing injustices toward Mexican immigrants by ICE, this choice of language became an act of rebellion and inclusivity.

“Grief has had its way with me/Grief has locked me up and thrown away the key,” Ellis sings in the synthy single, which was inspired by the grief people expressed in group therapy sessions Ellis used to go to — but was really about grief Ellis was afraid to feel.

Grief is “easier to experience when packaged in a song,” Ellis explains — but there’s another benefit to processing it this way. “If I process an emotion, an experience, into a song, then someone hears it, keeps company with it and identifies with it, feels catharsis through it, that’s empathy. Once a song is made, it belongs to anyone who hears it. The emotional reverberation of a song is an empathy which defies time and space.”

Trinidad — which Ellis says was heavily influenced by Prince, particularly in its use of a Linn Drum Machine — also includes “No Dancing,” a sad but catchy track lamenting how “no one here believes in magic;” “Fingerprints,” an anthem for being in love with someone who’s taken; and “Behold,” which sounds like a number from a rock musical.

While rock sensibilities figure heavily into Sweet Spirit’s previous albums, 2015’s Cokomo and 2017’s St. Mojo, the band aimed to create something softer with Trinidad. “We hoped to make a dance album that would sneak in through people’s ears and end up in their body,” says Ellis. “We love our electric guitars, but being loud and brazen in the tradition of classic rock, during the era of MAGA, just felt gauche. This is Sweet Spirit, without the man-spreading. A little more low-key.”

Ellis came out as non-binary in a series of Instagram posts lasts year, a decision they made to expand people’s awareness of the range of identities that exist within humanity. “To normalize gender, to reduce the importance of assigned sex and of binary gender roles, we need to train our modern society to no longer assume peoples’ genders,” they explain. “This will make the world a safer place.”

They’re currently at work on a solo project, Velvet Nudes, which sits somewhere between folk and R&B and explores gender identity as well as mental health. “Much of the material is personal dedications of love and fascination to my muse, who was also my first big queer heartbreak,” they say. “These songs are so personal to me, it feels somehow invasive, or an imposition, to take them to my band and to share in the most intimate expressions of my experience.”

In Velvet Nudes’ music, which Ellis has performed live and in live-streamed Instagram shows, the vocals are accompanied by acoustic guitar and cello from Graham Low, Ellis’s bandmate in A Giant Dog. Their goal is to eventually compile the songs into a solo album. “The unmade Velvet Nudes album holds my experience in the most intimate way possible,” they say, “and is my true coming-out album.”

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