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Sweet Spirit’s ‘Trinidad’ is a dark pop soundtrack for these very strange times

Deborah Sengupta Stith,
Sabrina Ellis of Sweet Spirit performs on the BMI stage during Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2018. The band’s new album, “Trinidad,” comes out May 29. [ANA RAMIREZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Sabrina Ellis is not OK with this.

Seventy-six days after South by Southwest was canceled, 58 days after Mayor Steve Adler issued a stay-at-home order for Austin and eight days before the May 29 release date for Sweet Spirit’s third album, “Trinidad,” singer Ellis and guitarist/songwriter Andrew Cashen jumped on Zoom to talk about the new album and life in isolation. It is not going so well for Ellis, Austin’s glam-pop titan whose flamboyant stage antics and powerful pipes have thrilled audiences around the world.

“My mental health is pretty triggered right now,” Ellis said.

Ellis was drawn to performance “as a means of catharsis and as an outlet to deal with some really intense behavioral impulses and intense chemical imbalances,” they said. Ellis identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. “I don't have that now, so I've been feeling pretty lost from day to day.”

To make matters worse, they’re also recovering from a breakup.

“You would think I would be inspired and full of song ideas, but I actually just feel so drained from not having our performances to regenerate my energy and regenerate my endorphins,” they said.

Cashen, who’s been Ellis’ partner in power pop and punk since the pair were teenagers, is moving back to Austin after nine months or so living in New York City. He plans to join the weekly livestreams Ellis has been hosting every Wednesday at 9 p.m.

Ellis perked up at the thought, “I think we're going to move it over to Sweet Spirit’s (Facebook) page and focus it on some of the new songs,” they said.

Sweet Spirit had a support tour for the album on the books for June and July. They pushed it back to November, and now “the big conversation is, ‘Should we probably push it to next year, to March?’” Ellis said.

While some other artists have postponed albums to the fall in the hope venues and concert halls will be open by then to accommodate touring shows, Cashen and Ellis felt it was important to go ahead with the release of “Trinidad.”

“We've been sitting on these songs for a very long time, and we were ready for it to come out,” Cashen said. “Creatively, this needed to come out to be able to move on to something else.”

From a business standpoint, Sweet Spirit worried that a fall release might get lost in a deluge of delayed album drops from superstars and indie artists alike.

Their new label, Merge Records — home to Cashen and Ellis’ other band, A Giant Dog — was supportive.

“They're underground, and they're revolutionaries in what they do, and I can hear the revolutionary impulse in them saying, ‘This is what people need right now. Now is the time when what we do is the most important. So let's put this music in their homes,’” Ellis said.

The new album is darker in tone and more introspective than Sweet Spirit’s earlier work. It feels eerily appropriate for this strange moment in time.

“It's very scaled back,” Ellis said. “It's not a big bombastic rock performance. So in that way, it's darker. And also a lot of the lyrics are very focused on loneliness.”

Cashen says darkness has always been present in Sweet Spirit’s music, but the band disguised it with grandiosity. “Let's put horns and strings and it usually sounds happier ... more uplifting. This time we really tried to strip it back and, like, get down to what the feeling of each song was and try to hunt it down.”

The video for “No Dancing,” the second single off the album, is a glitter bomb of bittersweet exuberance.

The original concept was “to get this, like, huge football field and a marching band,” Cashen said. It evolved into something far more profound.

With help from band manager, Sophie Ryan-Wood and the Tingari-Silverton Foundation, an Austin-based organization that funds innovation, the band connected with folks from the band department at Eastside Memorial Early College High School. In January, Sweet Spirit played a benefit concert for the school’s underfunded music program. In early March, they visited the campus to film the video, enlisting members of the school’s marching band and drill team as extras.

“We filmed in a room together,” Ellis said. “There were probably a total of 70 people in that room during the biggest shots. And we were just crammed in very casually and we were being very human. You know, we were kind of this microcosmic, multigenerational group.”

The band marveled at the adolescent drama unfolding around them, tripped the fire alarm with their smoke machine and collected footage for a campy back-to-high-school lark.

“A lot of the kids were very excited about working on the video, which was awesome to see,” Ellis said.

Then everything changed. Suddenly the world shut down and gigs were canceled. The video shoot was the last time Sweet Spirit’s six members were together as a band.

“A month later, we don't have the same society structure that we had. We aren't crammed in rooms together. We aren't exposed to strangers in real life as much,” Ellis said.

One day in late March, as director Ed Dougherty was editing the video, he left Ellis a message. The video was becoming all about the pandemic.

“He's like, ‘None of us knew that it would be about the pandemic. But as I watch it, that's totally what it's about, and you're just gonna have to trust me and see,’” Ellis said.

The final cut weaves together group shots of the band performing with the Eastside students, the young performers’ faces beaming with enthusiasm, and shots of members of the band dancing in isolation. It underlines the melancholy lyricism that drifts over bubbling rhythms and buoyant melodies in a way that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Emotions run high throughout the album. On the most recent single, “Llorando,” Ellis’ voice echoes the rich drama of a mariachi singer as they switch from English to Spanish on the song’s chorus, which soars over an insistent disco rhythm.

It’s the first time Ellis, who is half Mexican American, has sung in Spanish on a Sweet Spirit release. It wasn’t a plan from the outset, but working on the song, they realized the chorus just sounded better in their grandmother’s tongue.

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“We were recording it, very unfortunately and sadly, during a time when ICE was just really going haywire on our border and separating children from their families, detaining people, I'm sure physically abusing people,” Ellis said. (A USA Today investigation published in December found hundreds of allegations of abuse at detention centers since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.)

In the studio, as Ellis sang in Spanish, Cashen had a revelation. The song itself was not political, but the very act of singing in Spanish is a political statement at this moment in time, Ellis said.

When they were younger, Ellis reveled in their Mexican American pride to the annoyance of some friends. “They were like, ‘Why is your heritage cooler than ours?’ And I'm like, ‘You'd have to go to Mexico to know,’” Ellis said.

Their friends were not impressed.

“I felt like maybe by talking about being Mexican American, I was bragging,” Ellis said. For most of their 20s, Ellis was quiet about that part of their heritage. But recently, watching a narrow definition of “American” increasingly used by some political factions, it felt important for “someone like me, who's white-passing” to speak up, they said.

“I should brag about being mixed race. I should brag about coming from an old culture,” they said.

The title of the album honors Ellis’ heritage. Trinidad was the name of their great-grandmother, who died when Ellis was a young child.

“I remember her and my great grandfather as the people in my family who did not speak English,” they said.

Ellis’ grandmother spoke “beautiful English, beautiful Spanish,” and her children, including Ellis’ mother, were fluent in both languages. When they went to visit their elders, Ellis “dressed in some more traditional, ethnically Mexican clothing, and that was always a really great treat for me,” they said.

“As a little kid, that was my first way of understanding that I come from a mixed culture,” they said.

Ellis bears a strong physical resemblance to Trinidad. Their uncle, a psychologist with a passion for genealogy, believes Trinidad suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental health challenge that Ellis shares.

“I relate to stories that I hear about her,” Ellis said.

Trinidad had an intense ability to “show the force of her rage” and “to show the force of her love,” they said.

“I'm just proud that in a time when it was hard to be Mexican American, that my family retained their language and took pride in where they came from,” they said. “And that as a kid, and as a young adult, I had relationships with my older family members and visits to Mexico. I'm so grateful for that. Now, it lives as a texture in me.”