Erika de Casier spent a few weeks recently holed up in a century-old house on a small island off the coast of Denmark, called Fanø. She was there with a group of other musicians and artists who’d all decided to isolate together while they worked on various projects — something like the TikTok Hype Houses that have proliferated across the U.S., except decidedly less annoying. Over Zoom, de Casier describes the surrounding town as quiet, and even spookier than usual in the ongoing pandemic. “You can really hear your thoughts in a weird way,” she says.
Luckily, de Casier is no stranger to introspection. Her singing voice is gentle, nearly a whisper, and her love songs have an existential bent. Take “No Butterflies, No Nothing,” the first single from her upcoming second album. De Casier conjures the sensation of love fading with the clarity that comes from turning a situation around in your mind over and over again: “Yeah, I’ve been looking real closely/Didn’t really find nothing,” she sings over a deconstructed club beat. “Guess I got no excuse/It’s just not feeling right, what we doin’.”
Her 2019 debut album, Essentials, featured sensual R&B and Nineties nostalgia, laced with the frenetic production of U.K. garage and a hint of drum ‘n’ bass. Songs like “Do My Thing” garnered comparisons to Sade and Aaliyah, and made de Casier a quiet star among a certain set of sensitive dance music fans. Her approach is not unlike what Tracy Thorn did with Everything but the Girl, transposing emotional depth onto dance culture’s innate euphorics. That quest for depth has been a defining characteristic of the past year, with global shutdowns forcing the entire world to look inward.
De Casier spent the majority of quarantine alone, remotely finishing her last year of university while simultaneously finishing the new album. In another Scandinavian twist on American annoyances, she studied music in a self-directed program that her country subsidizes for its citizens. As part of a university project, she presented tracks from the album that will likely soundtrack moments of introspective romance around the world. And yes, she passed. “They thought it was cool,” she says. “I was really surprised that they were so open to it.”
De Casier was born in Portugal; her mother is from Belgium and her father is from Cape Verde, a small island off the coast of West Africa. When she was a kid, she relocated with her mom to a small town in Denmark called Ribe, where she and her brother were the only mixed-race children at their school. She remembers finding solace in music videos, where she saw people that looked more like her than any of her classmates. “MTV was a place where I could turn it on and it’s like, ‘Oh, people like me,’ and feel a sort of relief or a sense of belonging,” she says.
After completing an exchange program in Vermont as a teenager, de Casier enrolled in university in Aarhus, where she’d meet the DJ and producer known as Central, who would provide production help on a number of tracks on Essentials and, perhaps most importantly, furnish some of the record’s most memorable remixes. The club mix of “Intimate” was many people’s first introduction to de Casier. That track, an assertive drum ‘n’ bass beat softened by her gentle croon, is a case study of everything the singer does well. Her melodic flourishes, inspired by the glory days of black music in America, when artists like Missy Elliot and Aaliyah were stretching the confines of what defined popular music, graft naturally to the sonic sensibility of club music, itself indebted to the experimentations of mid-’90s R&B. The result is something pure; it’s borderless, timeless, and genreless.
De Casier says she approached the new album as a clean slate. She’d released Essentials independently, and its positive word-of-mouth reception gave her a sense of a proof of concept. For this new record, which will be released later this year on the label 4AD, she wanted to trust her instincts in the same way. “I wanted to just put Essentials behind me and say, ‘That was a lovely record, now I want to do something new,’” she explains. “I was trying to remember what it felt like to just let go and stop trying to meet any expectations.”
With the surplus of alone time afforded by the pandemic, that freedom came easier than it might have otherwise. As a songwriter, though, de Casier has a knack for keeping things centered regardless. “Instead of writing about how I did react to a situation, I write about how I wish I would have reacted,” she says. “You know how sometimes when your friends ask you for advice, you’re like, ‘Yeah, you should just do this,’ but you never follow your own advice when it’s about you?”
There’s an admirable patience in the tales of love, loss, and rejection that de Casier constructs. On “Busy,” an upcoming single from the album, she takes a classic U.K. Garage beat as the canvas for her to politely inform any potential suitor that she’s focused on herself first and foremost. It might be a letdown, but at least you can dance to it.
In moments like these, de Casier’s music recalls the empowerment ballads that Destiny’s Child or TLC constructed in the early 2000s. Except where a previous generation might have called for outward displays of confidence, her music — like the rest of the world for the past year now — is all about bringing that confidence home. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about how I am with people,” she says, “and parts of my emotions that I haven’t maybe dealt with before.”