At the heart of Sofia Kourtesis’ debut album, and the most euphoric song on it, is ‘How Music Makes You Feel Better’. It makes no attempt to explain, but simply affirm the power of music to heal and uplift, and demonstrates the how: by taking you on a journey. In the past, Peruvian-born, Berlin-based artist has leaned away from dance music as a form of escape and towards evoking a sense of nostalgia for home, even as she stretched the definition of the word beyond the literal place where she grew up. She favours vulnerability over the perfect rigidity and intellectualism that marks the genre, and her work on Madres, richly textured and meticulously crafted as it is, is above all emotionally complex. Complex not just in its range of emotion – though there is certainly more of that than you would expect from a glistening and infectious set of dance tracks – but in the way it tends toward joy as something intimate, radical, curiously malleable, and teeming with history. In trying to contain it, Kourtesis’ songs remain autobiographical but venture further than she ever has before, sharpening her ear as a storyteller, curator, and sound collagist.
Dedicated to her mother as well as Peter Vajkoczy, the renowned neurosurgeon who performed life-changing surgery on her, Madres is undeniably personal. But it is also full of intrigue, even if you know the story behind it – that of a musician balancing her touring schedule with flying to Peru to care for her mother, trying to make sense of disparate parts of her life. The title track that opens the record softly introduces Kourtesis’ kaleidoscopic sound, anchoring in sparkling synths and her gentle falsetto before she fashions a fractured vocal sample into the blissful parade. Another track, named after Vajkoczy, takes almost half a minute to find a rhythm, then pulses warmly and beautifully for the rest of its runtime; though it bleeds directly into ‘How Music Makes You Feel Better’, it’s in no rush to get there. It’s this sense of care, coupled with Kourtesis’ ability to cherish emotion in mysterious yet indelible fragments, that makes her electronic music so unique.
It’s not always rapturous: one of the Madres‘ highlights is ‘Moving Houses’, which recontextualizes the whole record by zeroing in on a moment of loneliness and heartbreak. But in contemplating the end of a relationship a decade after it happened, Kourtesis’ approach is similarly focused. Where another producer might have framed it as a dark ambient interlude, Kourtesis fleshes it out and draws it into the same world. She contrasts the assuredness of ‘How Music Makes You Feel Better’ with genuine, desolate questioning: “How can, how can, how… express the feeling,” she intones. Words get twisted, jumbled, echoes of themselves, but the big ones ultimately cut through: alone again. Instead of ending the song there, she soaks in the feeling for almost another two minutes, until the line between beauty and pain, like memory, begins to dissolve.
After ‘Moving Houses’, the three final tracks on Madres remind you that it’s an album that mostly looks outward, guiding you through Kourtesis’ travels as much as they reflect her internal world. The artist left Peru at 17 after being expelled from school for kissing a girl and subsequently forced into conversion therapy, and part of Madres pays tribute to the community she found in Berlin, with ‘Funkhaus’ nodding to the venue where she built a local following. But it also honours her parents’ work as activists. After her father, a pro-bono lawyer to whom she dedicated the 2021 single ‘La Perla’, passed away, he made her promise to go out into the world and document what she saw, and Madres follows through: ‘Estación Esperanza’, which features her musical hero Manu Chao, opens with a sample of a Peruvian protest against homophobia; ‘Cecilia’ is audibly inspired by her mother’s work protecting the Indigenous tribes of South America; ‘El Carmen’ incorporates instruments like the cajón, played by the Ballumbrosio family who helped pioneer Afro-Peruvian percussion. The answer to how music makes us feel better, Madres naturally asserts, is in the movement. Kourtesis just makes it mean so much more.