For Sofia Kourtesis, the sea is a formative place. The Peru-born, Berlin-based producer spent her teenage years surfing on her home city Lima’s gorgeous Pacific Ocean coastlines, conquering the waves and finding a place where her rebellious spirit could flourish without interference. But when her father was diagnosed with leukaemia a decade later, the pair became willing observers, not partakers; they would sit together on the beach, lost watching the tide drifting in and out, succumbing to its meditative ways. The serenity doesn’t necessarily compute with her “overworked” brain, but the hours whiled away together provided a form of mental and physical pain relief for her father during his battle.
That moment – among many – became the inspiration for her new EP, ‘Fresia Magdalena’, in particular the opening song, ‘La Perla’. As a steady beat locks onto ethereal backing vocals and a minimal melody, Sofia tells her father that she is “trying to change” and that the pair should be “trying to forget” about the illness and the world around them. For anyone who has experienced grief in the last year, it’s a soothing balm.
“That song is the real start of me opening up,” she tells NME on a Zoom call from Costa Rica, where she’s scouting for field recordings and heading out for a quick surf. “He was a very closed person but when he was very ill, I needed to open up and show him how to express those difficult emotions. When someone is fighting a big illness, they always have a lot of things that bother them and secrets to tell at the end; I would say that I was scared that I was going to lose him and writing a song about this would help vocalise that. I wanted to take his weight.”
Showing vulnerability to her family makes for a radical move in Kourtesis’ career. She describes the previous two EPs – 2019’s self-titled effort and 2020’s ‘Sarita Colonia’ – as a playground for ideas, where club-orientated groovers jousted with samples from her favourite films. But they showed little of her emotions; the imagery of Sarita Colonia – the Peruvian patron saint of the poor – on the releases’ artwork providing the only real thread between releases.
On ‘Fresia Magdalena’, she is frank and open, namechecking family members (Fresia, her mother), sampling them (her father on ‘Nicolas’), and for the first time, singing. On ‘La Perla’, in particular, her vocals waft in and out of earshot, like a shell tumbling onto the sand and being pulled back into the water. It’s a wondrous step forward. “My last EPs were about happiness and losing it and three-day raves with my best friends, but this one had to be more about reflecting on my life – it was a big step to be without my samples or machines talking for me.”
“We should use our voice for singing and making music, but to make change also”
The energy from those early releases remains, though. A twinkling piano loop guides the triumphant ‘By Your Side’ to a euphoric finish and ‘Nicolas’ has all the lightness of Paris’ French touch scene in the ‘90s. The sounds of her Berlin base seep into the moodier final two songs – particularly ‘Dakota’s beats and bass combination – detailing her journey back from Magdalena, the area she grew up in.
Using her voice had previously landed Sofia in trouble. As a teenager, she was kicked out of a convent school for allegedly corrupting her classmates, and grew sick of Lima’s conservatism, opting for a free-wheelin’ life in a more liberal city, Berlin. She still pays close attention to causes in her region of Magdalena Del Mar, and recently lent her support to the campaign to elect the first indigenous transgender woman to Congress in Peru.
“The health system failed my dad, so I want to help fight for better healthcare opportunities for people with cancer like my dad had,” she says. The loss of her father acted as a reminder that life is short, so why not fight for something? “I think it’s important for artists to demand change. We should use our voice for singing and making music, but to make change also. I don’t care if anyone hates me because of this, I think there’s a bigger purpose out there.”
In Berlin, however, her focus is squarely on creativity. She came to the city, aged 17, to study film, and currently works as a curator at the city’s trendy Funkhaus music venue. The hedonistic surroundings didn’t always match-up with her best interests, though. “At the beginning in Berlin I would never ask for help. I wanted to be a strong person, but I would lose myself to drugs and I was scared to admit that I wasn’t a perfect person. I was battling anxiety and I was escaping the other way, which wasn’t right.”
Once acclimatised, she became a “little bit wiser” in her approach to life and work. She’d find inspiration in the city’s imperfection – the towering apartment blocks, a gentle-thud spilling out the doors of a club. After working with acclaimed Swedish label Studio Barnhus (Axel Boman, Bella Boo), she now finds herself releasing on Ninja Tune’s Technicolour imprint, and credits the label with helping her “grow up” and start developing as a well-rounded musician. The unlicensed samples of Star Wars’ R2-D2 bleeping and blooping have will no longer make the cut.
“I could never be a musician like Jon Hopkins and make all beautiful music with pianos and songwriting because I don’t have that in me. I’m a frustrated filmmaker, to be honest,” she laughs. “But the upcoming releases have me developing as an artistic director and producer.” She’s continuing to collect field recordings on her travels, but hopes that studio sessions with more ‘classically’ traditional music players and readers will continue the creative journey.
And a live experience is where Sofia hopes to marry all of her talents; exhilarating house bangers set to stunning visuals shot on her travels. “I want a cinematic aspect. I want to transport the audience and send them messages via singing, visually or improvising and speaking directly. DJing is very superficial for me at the moment, so I want to be able to take the audience to my world through the things that I have created. I want to be more vulnerable, so this is why I wanted to open up and show them this live show.”
Though the inspiration ‘Fresia Magdalena’ was conceived in an insular moment with her late father, this EP is a welcome place to dip a toe into Sofia Kourtesis’ world. There are flashes of the many experiences she and her family have lived, fused together with a spirit that envisions a better world, without prejudice and liberation for all. The personal motto that she lives by should come as little surprise: “Life never has a happy end, but there is hope if we work as a community.”
Sofia Kourtesis’ ‘Fresia Magdalena’ is our on Technicolour on March 19