JASSS: Words Collide
Traditionally, language has been viewed as binary: there’s a correct way of using it, and a wrong way. Until as recently as the 1970s, bilingual speakers were marked as cognitively deficient for dipping into different languages or dialects as they communicated. Now, we understand that the inverse is true: code-switching reveals a linguistic comprehension that’s complex and fluid. Bilingual people possess an ability to flip not just between words, but radically different ways of perceiving the world.
For Silvia Jiménez Alvarez, best known as JASSS, the capacity to exist in the space between languages and modes of expression is at the heart of her creative identity. The DJ and producer grew up in Asturias, a mountainous province in northern Spain, and now lives in Berlin surrounded by an international community who interface mostly in English. Back home she had been a perpetual outsider, dabbling with punk and hardcore music. But she soon developed an obsession with industrial, experimental and club sounds that would inspire an escape from village life.
This infatuation with dance music eventually led her to forge a burgeoning career, channelling her anxiety into a stifling set of dub-inspired rhythmic experiments. Her 2017 debut full-length, Weightless, was a masterful introduction to her talent, but saddled Alvarez with a reputation for gloomy sounds and aggression she found frustrating – she felt as if she’d been misunderstood. For her second album, 2021’s A World of Service, however, the mask is off. She sings for the first time in her solo career, darting confidently between English and Spanish, and weaving through lavish landscapes of trip-hop, Balearic pop and 90s rock. It’s a vulnerable, surprising record that defies categorisation, and calls for contextualisation.
Tucked behind an unassuming apartment block in Schöneberg, the historical centre of Berlin’s queer community since the days of the Weimar Republic, Alvarez’s studio is a chaotic but inviting space, filled with maybe-functioning synthesisers and effects boxes, vinyl and cables. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air; it smells like Berlin. She tells me she’s had a long day already: there was another interview in the morning, followed by a therapy session, then a photo shoot. Despite this, she’s prepared for a labyrinthine conversation that begins almost as soon as I’ve stepped through the door. I perch on a flight case embellished with cushions and make myself comfortable while she meticulously assembles another roll-up.
Alvarez started work on A World of Service in 2018, but it took on a new life last year when her hectic performance schedule was halted during the pandemic. “The moment I had a bit of silence, it was better for me,” she recalls. “I was just obsessing over some notion that we all kinda have, which is being very, very… how do you call it? Not arrogant,” she considers for a moment. “I was being very pretentious. I wanted it all.”
It was during lockdown that she began talk therapy sessions in English (“in Spanish it would be a different exercise”), and addressed the internal issues and traumas that had led her down a creative cul-de-sac. Alvarez came to the realisation that many of her aesthetic decisions had been inadvertently hiding her emotions. “I’m not the most skilled producer in the world. I don’t spend those hours in the studio,” she admits honestly. “The only thing that makes this whole thing worth my time is if I am actually genuine with my work and stop being pretentious.”
Her choices had been driven by a desire to be understood – or at least taken seriously. When she started believing the hype, her armour began to crack. She needed to let go. “Experimental music has a sound, everything is already stereotypes,” she says. “I think it’s a place to hide. It’s much more difficult to try and express yourself. The way I view the record is as a bridge to something I want to do in the future and still have to discover.” This renewed self-awareness offered Alvarez the language she needed to express herself nakedly, and she was able to lean into vulnerability. Now she could bare her soul – and her singing voice. “I step on your pride once again before I leave,” she almost screams on the Garbage-esque Wish. “I’m CRINGING saying that!” she recoils in horror, still raw from the experience. “But that’s exactly what I mean. There’s no way I can say it in another way that translates the feeling.”
Singing in English was “fine”, but Alvarez was far more hesitant to express herself in her native tongue. “It was almost impossible for me to write in Spanish because it hits really close to home. Certain words are so loaded,” she says. “With friends that have been living here for a long time, who are native Spanish speakers, at some point we start talking about a breakup or whatever – they will speak to me in English, because it actually translates better.” The last track she finished writing for the album, an emotionally-charged vocal tour de force called Camelo, is the only song written entirely in Spanish. “Que hagan sentir el yugo/ Por ese intento verbal/ De acercarme a lo profundo/ Cual labor de caridad,” Alvarez sings, targeting the sheer labour of pushing someone to verbalise their feelings in a relationship. The title means ‘phoney’.
As we go back and forth, Alvarez gets snagged on a loose thought about German and Spanish. “I was thinking about random words, something that doesn’t mean anything to me – like ‘tren’,” she wonders aloud. “Bahn, the fuck? The first letter is a b and it’s soft, then afterwards there’s an ‘a’ and the word for it in Spanish is ‘tren’ and it’s made of steel! It doesn’t match with a ‘bahn’, [which sounds] so soft and feminine to me. And the reason that it sounds feminine is: ‘la casa’ – feminine; ‘el tren’ – masculine.” Gender is deeply embedded into both languages, and it’s a concept Alvarez is bent on unpacking. She stresses that she would be interested in having a conversation with someone from her region about it. In the meantime, A World of Service acts as a de facto diary to her teenage self, written in the languages most familiar to her. She’s been wrestling with these ideas for as long as she can remember, but thanks to therapy, now has “the tools to think about it”.
“The only thing that makes this whole thing worth my time is if I am actually genuine with my work and stop being pretentious”
“I feel pretty big imposter syndrome when I talk about [gender] in relation to the album,” she says. Alvarez had been disorientated in the village where she grew up, confused by its narrow, binary expectations, but that feeling didn’t initially disappear when she arrived in Berlin. “Everybody had their identity so clear. I never had my identity so clear. I don’t have my identity so clear,” she states soberly. “I needed to understand what it meant for me to be a woman. I understand that obviously non-binary is the place [to be]. It’s only when I understand this notion that I decide that I am a woman, because I declare myself a woman. From the standpoint that I can change my mind.” Gender and sexuality are not badges Alvarez wants to display for inevitable marketing by capitalist forces – they are ideas that are as fluid and culturally determined as musical style and language itself.
So it follows that she views A World of Service as an open-ended project – not just an album – that will evolve as she decides to develop it. There’s an audiovisual performance planned with creative director Ben Kreukniet, and Alvarez’s album release show at Berghain featured exclusive back-to-back DJ sets with a handful of friends and artists she admires. For eight hours, she mutated constantly, developing a unique creative language with each collaborator, trading pan-dimensional rhythms with CRYSTALLMESS, cutting cheeky vocals with Ziúr, tempering nostalgia and commanding the dancefloor with Herrensauna’s CEM, and digging through the outer realms with Gabber Eleganza. Her marathon session was a love letter to the audience she’s been rooting out for years; it translated the album’s messages perfectly, working both as a companion piece and a CliffsNotes. Potentially, A World of Service is an endeavour that could last for years, metamorphosing at Alvarez’s will.
“I don’t need to change the name,” she laughs mischievously. “It is what it is, and you can tell me what it is, I don’t know what it is. It means this to me, but it means something completely different to another person, and that’s OK.”
A World of Service is out now via Ostgut Ton