Sofia Kourtesis on finding her voice and delivering hope with ‘Fresia Magdalena’
The dancefloor can be a place of so many things. Liberation, emancipation, reckoning, revival, or most importantly, emotion. Whether you’re by yourself surrounded by strangers or with someone you love, the dancefloor can be a place of yearning and deeply personal awakenings, and if you’re listening, the music playing can provide messages embedded within its very notes. It’s this kind of music that Sofia Kourtesis makes, and its these kind of dancefloors in which her music belongs. Of course, such is the versatility of her unique and eclectic version of house that it could sound just as natural being played in solitude on headphones or in the sun with gentle folks around you, but that deeply personal edge remains.
Born in Lima, Peru and now based in Berlin, Sofia Kourtesis believes in the responsibility of actually saying something with her music. She notes she could very well make DJ tools, and (in an open world) tour the globe and play major festivals. But, without actually having a message, she knows that would get old pretty fast. She’s always been a bit different, from being kicked out of school as a child for kissing another girl or having the wrong coloured hair. And she’s always found inspiration in those which have stuck their neck out for others. Sarita Colonia, the name of her 2019 EP, was named after the Peruvian “DIY saint” of the same name from the 1930s. She died when she was 26 after spending her life caring for her family, and has become a figurehead of worship for those which the Catholic church has abandoned. As Pitchfork pointed out, a drag queen said to the LA Times their life was saved by Colonia. A community-built shrine exists, and has become a place of worship for the homeless, the LGBTQI+, the poor and more — and also the cover art of Kourtesis‘ EP.
It’s a brave thing to honour someone who means so much to so many, but Kourtesis is nothing if not fearless. She refutes traditional genre constraints, opting instead to make music which is totally “her”. She gathers field recordings from places which mean a lot to her, or when inspiration strikes while in her travels. And, in 2021, she is more fearless than ever in her second EP titled Fresia Magdalena. Once again paying tribute to a powerful woman and honouring her home (Fresia is her mother’s name and Magdalena is their home district), Sofia Kourtesis takes the notion of “saying something” to the next level, and has created music using her own voice for the first time ever. Written during a time when her father was dying of cancer, this new EP is completely unafraid to be anything but real, and so is worthy of being a tribute to those Kourtesis chooses to honour.
Released via Ninja Tune‘s ever-impressive new Technicolour imprint, Fresia Magdalena is warm, emotive and provocative. It’s been carefully made to ensure the feelings Sofia Kourtesis wants to get across instantly connect, but has been left alone enough to still have that rugged, natural appeal. ‘La Perla’ -a moving song dedicated to Kourtesis‘ father- evokes the feeling of looking out to sea and watching the dappled light hit the waters far away, as rhythmic percussion and shimmering synths play together beneath the Spanish singing and serene whistling outro. ‘By Your Side’ flips the script, delving further into what could loosely be described as “club territory” with a tinkering, shuffling house beat and dynamic sound design on full display. Evoking that of the last hours of daylight, it distills the peace of the day ending with the promise of the night to come perfectly, showing Sofia has hardly been taking a break between releases with her refined production prowess taking centre stage. Nostalgia plays a strong part throughout the release, and is particularly strong in ‘Nicolas’, named after Sofia‘s father. ‘Dakotas’, in its near seven-minute-run time follows this same vein, chugging along and into your memories, reminding you of going home. ‘Juntos’, translated to “together” in English, is infused with optimism, and even without actually saying something, it speaks volumes of hope in dark times.
Dance music can sometimes be cold, intimidating and ominous. It can be a place where marginalised people don’t feel welcome, despite its origins in the very spaces and communities prevented from entering. Festival line ups still resemble largely white, cis, straight males, and clubs and dancefloors can be places where assault and harassment occur. But, in the world Sofia Kourtesis has created, all are welcome and all are safe. Just like those who rally behind Sarita Colonia, and just like Sofia has learned compassion, love and hope from her parents in her own dark times, there is a lot to learn in this EP for all of us. And, in a time when the world rebuilds after a a very tumultuous year and still tries to find its way out, the importance of saying something and having a message has never been stronger.
With Fresia Magdalena, the Lima, Peru-born, Berlin-based artist steps into the light more than ever before, and emerges ready to be seen on her terms. With so much of our lives out of our control, Sofia Kourtesis harnesses what is within her reach and by doing so, creates something wholly authentic, genuine and utterly magical. Here, I chatted with Sofia from Peru over Zoom, and in between mutually praising our therapists and discussing the differences between COVID restrictions (or lack thereof) in Australia compared to the rest of the world, we delved further into the junkyard dance world of her music, the importance of using your voice, and the meaning of life.
I’m so excited to talk to you about your new EP! Congratulations on it Sofia, it is so beautiful. How do you feel now that it’s been out in the world?
I feel very happy but sometimes I cannot listen to all of the tracks because I still have my down moments. But, I think it’s beautiful. I think now that it’s out, it’s like sharing my grieving. I’m just more vulnerable and I don’t let the machines talk for me now. I want to share and talk about the pain that I’m feeling to open the conversation with other people who feel it too. For example, ‘By Your Side’, it’s about having somebody always that is funny and protects you. I was discriminated [against] a lot in school when I was 14 or 15. I got kicked out of school because I kissed a girl and they said that I was diabolical. I nearly got kicked out from another school because I had red hair. All the times when I wanted to express my past or my journey, there were always a lot of problems for me, but there were always my friends by my side. It’s something about community and somebody being by your side. It starts off tragic, but it’s also a hope song. It’s about somehow being with my dad, we were both in isolation and trying to forget what was around us.
I [tried to show] my feelings without crying so he stayed strong, but I wanted him to tell me about his feelings [too]. I started the conversations through singing like, “Dad, let’s sing a little bit!” It was kind of like him trying to open up a little bit. He’d open up at that moment and started to listen to music again and we’d sing and he’d try to play a bit on his keyboard. It’s beautiful and full of hope, but also sad because -in the end- there was no happy end. I wanted him to forget that he had leukemia, but in the end, it was stronger than him this time. Sometimes I like to think there is a place where he is. I like the romanticism about life after death. I hope it is something, it must be something, right? Where do our souls go?
It’s a big question. Grief is so difficult to try and put into words, but it is so universal. People think that they’ll be grieving on their own but, for instance, anyone can listen to this EP and feel something and connect with your music. I’ve been a fan of your music since 2019, and I’ve always found it really emotive. How do you manage to interweave your emotions like that and why has it remained so important to you to keep that emotional quality in your music?
Basically, this time I kept a lot of my personality in. I am growing older, as all of us are, and I need to be active in giving a message out. I think as musicians, we have a responsibility to use our voices or our music or our melodies to express something. A lot of the songs have kind of samples of messages, but under the table. When you really listen to it, you can find them. It makes you think. I needed to voice more and I wanted to progress so my next release was me saying something. One day, [my music] will be like a book with a lot of chapters. It’s always about the value of strong women and them trying to fight for change in their communities. New voices of hope. I try to make music [that reflects] the places that I go, and the people that I meet as well as my muses. You will always listen to a lot of water in my music, or people or children talking, or people singing in the streets. You will always hear this kind of thing. It would be very easy for me to make just really simple dancey techno tunes. It would be more accessible for everybody because I would be on BeatPort and everyone would play it in Berghain. But for me, if I need to say something. If I don’t have something to say, I probably won’t do it. It’s empty for me. I try to talk through my music.
You’re recording field recordings from places that are important to you. Your music has become more and more vulnerable over the years, and to me it sounds like you’ve had a complete acceptance of being vulnerable and your own voice. This EP has your own voice singing for the first time, it has bits of your parents in there, it’s so personal. How has this journey been for you as an artist to be able to get to this point?
I think it all started with my mental health problems. I was not really coping well with them. I wanted to distract [myself from] my mental health problems through music and be happy and goofy and [have] everybody think that I’m like that all the time. I was never really okay and when I was doing music, that was my happy zone. When my dad got sick, I started to go to see my therapist and he said, “Let it go. You have to talk through your pain. Talk to your friends and be vulnerable.” When I started seeking help, I started to be more confident to expose myself. To be discriminated against at school is just very horrible and you always have it in your mind. I have a lot of insecurity issues as does everybody. I’ve had my suicidal moments. But I never really worked on that. I thought it was only a time and it would go away but after a year of therapy, my therapist made a miracle because he made me talk about it more — and that helped me to create something. I wanted to be more real and to expose my voice so people are not just listening to the machines or to the computers. They’re listening to what I’m saying to them and to my messagesI’m telling them. I think growing up and then facing my problems was the key. Growing up, facing my problems and trying to be more secure to then do the next step. First, I had to face my problem and then I was more self secure to express myself without the idea that people would laugh at me.
I love to talk about this. It is a topic that is very important for me. There are so many young people struggling right now. When I talked to a friend -this happened three times and I found it very interesting- I said “how are you?” and they’d always say, “Yeah I’m okay.” But they’re NOT okay! Then I’d say, “Come on, let’s talk!” And I would talk about my problems so then they open up.
Coming to terms with your vulnerability and that you’re not perfect is so powerful, but also that power comes from wanting to share and I think that that’s what you’re talking about here is that power of sharing. When you look at music as a form of therapy, that kind of connection continues there as well. It’s something that’s so important to you but it can be really scary as well. Have you ever had any hesitation?
A lot of times. I think the worst thing was when something in my family was going very bad, I tried to close down, but sometimes I get the feeling that I have to be strong and I need something to say. I think I feel really happy when I do music and when I create something that I could imagine people being happy about it. There are a lot of times when I say I don’t want to do this anymore, because all the time you’re like, “You have to be better than the first EP, then you have to be better than the second EP!” I’m very anxious and I say to myself, “What if people are gonna hate this? They’re gonna hate me. I’m gonna fail them.” It’s a lot of anxiety. “What if I didn’t give the right message or I didn’t give what they wanted from me.”
The week before the release is horrible. I love talking to people, I love interviews and I love knowing the other person who I’m talking to. Sometimes I’m very, very scared of the critics and it takes me back to the feeling of when I was school. Like, “Oh my god, I’m scared, you know? What if they don’t like me and I get bullied?” I’m in a place of exposure, you know, and sometimes I don’t like to be in a place of exposure. I just want to make people happy. I want to make them sometimes dance, sometimes sleep, sometimes help them. Like, [be with them] on the train to see their grandparents, or maybe taking a plane to see their mum. This is what always keeps me going, but I don’t like the exposure.So far, the most that I was worried, it didn’t go badly and it went well. But the anxiety of being a number is hard.
Especially with something that is so vulnerable and so personal. It might be a bit easier if you don’t have this emotional connection to the music that you’re working with.
It’s very important to me. This EP is for all the women. All my muses are strong women from the beginning, like Sarita Colonia. She was a fighter in her community. Fresia Magdalena — Fresia is the name of my mother and Magdalena is the name of the district she grew up in. Magdalena was an activist and was in a political party from the left so she was always fighting the system. I admire that. Everything is related to powerful women.
Did you ever feel any pressure with the music that you’re making about them?
Yes. I always feel that I owe them so much respect that it has to be something good and something I’ve thought about really well.
It is such a beautiful EP, you should be so proud. I think it’s very special especially in this time, the world can feel so disconnected and I think we need more music that connects people and makes people feel like they’re not alone.
You know what you have to learn? If I could say something to my younger self, I would say life doesn’t have a happy ending. But there is hope that you will do good every day if you really fight for it. Nobody hits you more than life. It pushes you down and pushes you down. You’re gonna cry so many times. You will cry for love, you will cry because you lose something. Life is so nasty sometimes, and it can hit you with things one after the other. The key is to concentrate and visualise that you’re gonna stand up and go forward. Never forget that life is gonna hurt you. It can hurt you at any time. You don’t know when it’s going to hit but when it does hit you, please stand up and go forward and try in that moment to be strong. Say to yourself, “This is gonna be okay. This is gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay.”
‘Fresia Magdalena’ by Sofia Kourtesis is out now via Ninja Tune imprint, Technicolor/ Inertia Music. Buy/stream here.
Interview by Emma Jones
Image by Haley Lan