I’ll plead American ignorance and admit that I know next to nothing about the current state of Russia’s music scene. But I’d venture to guess that’s the case with most people, whose knowledge probably begins and ends with the protest punk of Pussy Riot, who are more conceptual art project than traditional band anyway. To hear Sarah Persephona — the driving force behind angelic milk — tell it, there’s a reason for that: mainly, that contemporary Russian culture isn’t very receptive to music that comes from within its own borders. That makes angelic milk something of an anomaly, and also a breath of fresh air.
Persephona’s project angelic milk — stylized in lowercase due to her superstition about uppercase letters bringing bad luck — is based in St. Petersburg, where she’s part of a label/art collective/performance space called Saint-Brooklynsburg. There’s a handful of bands associated with the scene, all with names like Ghost Hippies or Teen Boy’s Stash or ELEKTRA MONSTERZ that are loud and a little obvious, taking their markers from traditional Western rock culture and adopting it into their own. Even the tongue-in-cheek name of the collective itself points to an aspiration beyond their borders. It’s an attitude that reminds me a lot of stereotypical American suburban ennui, where it feels like you’ll never escape the confines of your hometown so you look toward the flashiest, brightest city to have something to aspire to.
angelic milk’s songs feel similarly universal. The music Persephona makes along with her band isn’t the most complicated or groundbreaking — at least not yet — but what it lacks in that respect, it makes up for in being relatable and real and powerful. It exhibits a kind of transnational experience, one that everyone goes through even if you’re in a country that’s locked off from the rest of the world. Maybe I’m fetishizing that aspect a little bit, but it feels good to know that the trials and woes of teenagedom are intrinsic to the human experience — that anyone can pick up a guitar and spill their heart out, and their words ring true thousands of miles away.
Their first two EPs — sacred holidays and PALE, the latter of which was originally self-released via Saint-Brooklynsburg and is now being reissued by London/Stockholm-based label PNKSLM — are sprinkled with references to Western culture, like the warped sample of “When You Wish Upon A Star” on “no-disney hangover” or the acknowledgement of the allure of punk’s dirty side on “let me be your connie ramone.” But largely, Persephona’s lyrics are concerned with finding love and keeping it. And she goes to some menacing, dark places to get her point across, making a relationship feel like an almost violent excursion. Take this verse on “true love,” while she’s waiting for her knight in shining armor to arrive: “What if he comes here with gun in his hands/ I will have no fear, as I never had/ I will fall deeply into his caress/ Then he’ll be sleeping upon my chest.” It’s the kind of tragic, all-encompassing obsession that’s the stuff of the best Russian novels.
Mixed in with the macabre are flashes of the typical confidence issues of young adulthood. On “pathetic,” Persephona laments about how useless she feels — “I’m too depressed and strange” — or on “tiger,” where she admits, “You’re the only happy day of my life/ Thinking about suicide when I’m not with you.” But she also recognizes power in her insecurities, and the strength that can be derived from wanting. With “pale,” the title track from her most recent EP, she sublimates desire into something threatening. “Girls, unlike the devil/ Girls can take your little soul.”
The shining example of angelic milk’s charisma is “IDK How,” the goofily ecstatic single that Persephona jokes is about figuring out how to give head, but features an empowering mantra that can be applied to pretty much any situation: “I don’t know how, I don’t know how, but I learn fast/ I don’t know how, but if I learn how, I’d be the best.” angelic milk is still learning, but once she’s figured it out, I’m pretty confident that she will indeed be the best. Until then, it’s confidence, dumb luck, and a lot of unbridled talent.
We asked Persephona some questions via email — read her answers below.
STEREOGUM: What’s the music scene like in St. Petersburg?
SARAH PERSEPHONA: The life of a band in Russia isn’t that sweet, and it’s mainly due to the audience. Most of them are used to thinking that all Russian music is shit, so they don’t even give some good musicians a try. Many people listen to the same bands which are quite disgusting and let down new musicians without even listening to them. But there are still some awesome DIY Russian bands that I really hope will be heard of soon, like Ghost Hippies, Beach Loss, Meti, Pretty Sad. This is what you really should check out if you wanna know something about the Russian scene.
STEREOGUM: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
PERSEPHONA: Well, those were loads of different stuff, but mainly various bands from the ’90s. As a kid I hardly ever saw my mother, so I really thought I had some spiritual connection with early Muse, the Pixies, and No Doubt, which I knew she appreciated. I also was obsessed with ’90s riot grrrl bands — they were my life, my ultimate wanna-be girls. Hole became the first love of my life. But in some way I’m still not a grown-up, you know.
STEREOGUM: When did you first start writing music?
PERSEPHONA: When I was 14 I met a guy in a camp. We had matching music preferences so we started writing songs together. It was really awkward for me to try to sing as I had always been told that I’m really bad at that. Writing music has always been a dream of mine but I was scared to begin, as from early childhood I’ve been told I had no talent.
STEREOGUM: How much does traditional Russian music influence your songwriting? I noticed on tracks like “true love” you pull from some of that.
PERSEPHONA: “true love” isn’t like traditional Russian music at all, it’s actually more like gypsy music. I think that gypsies are just really romantic, there are so many beautiful stories about them. I don’t really like traditional Russian music, it’s not elegant at all. ;)
STEREOGUM: What’s the makeup of angelic milk? Is it mostly a solo project right now or do you have other people playing with you?
PERSEPHONA: It was a solo project at the very beginning but now it’s a 100% band. There are now four of us — the guys who play with me are called Valja, Venjamin, and Roma. I still compose all the music and write all the lyrics, but they are way better musicians then me so they help me to complete my songs and make them sound more professional.
STEREOGUM: What was the inspiration behind “IDK How?”
PERSEPHONA: There’s a dirty teenage story that inspired me to write it. It’s about a girl who gave head for the first time in her life. What else could it be about?
STEREOGUM: And how did the video come together for that track?
PERSEPHONA: Our label (PNKSLM) told us we should make a video to promote that song. We went to our friend’s studio Oxygen and used a green screen. I didn’t really wanna make a video on that song, it’s far from my favorite. You know, angelic milk isn’t about being happy all the time. I also really hate parties and most of the other things I’m singing about in this song. But I thought that if I had wrote it, it must have been some part of me I’m unfamiliar with just yet. So we shot the video and Valja did the montage. It seems quite fun now.
STEREOGUM: How much do you think growing up in Russia shaped your perspective on life?
PERSEPHONA: I hope it shaped my future in no way. The only thing I really like about growing up in this country is having to read a lot of Russian literature, which is really amazing. But the perspective of any kind of artist is quite awful here. And I don’t wanna be anything but a musician. Well, maybe it’s not about the people that much. We just live in a country with a really unstable situation. Most of the people here just don’t have that much time to enjoy art or something. It had always been this way I guess.
STEREOGUM: What do you hope to accomplish with angelic milk? And what plans do you have for the future?
PERSEPHONA: I just really hope it’s only the beginning of the life of this band. I wanna do all the stuff old-school rock bands did — writing songs, recording them in the studio, touring, jumping into pools from the roofs… Unfortunately, I won’t be able to hang out with the groupies as my boyfriend plays drums in my band. Now I’m graduating school and my life is going to change completely. I’m trying to get to the university but if I don’t… I’m afraid I won’t have any choice, I will have to play my shitty songs until I die someday.
This interview has been edited for clarity.