Coming of age with Pretty Sick’s Sabrina Fuentes

Photography by Ophelia Horton

The artist behind the ever-evolving grunge band switched from fashion to music and relocated from NYC to London. With Pretty Sick’s scuzzy debut album finally on the way, Fuentes is living her dream. All she needs now is a chainsaw to wield on stage.

Sabrina Fuentes is in her comfort zone. On a sweltering afternoon in London, she cheerfully pitches up to a pub in Hackney for our interview, ordering a cold pint of the most normal lager” they’ve got. Even in the blazing hot – and very sweaty – weather, the 22-year-old’s mellow disposition remains undisturbed, her bleach-streaked hair translucent in the light.

For the occasion, the core member of Pretty Sick has paired red tracksuit shorts with an off-the-shoulder tee that’s got LONDON” slapped across it – the kind you might buy as a souvenir from a memorabilia stand on Oxford Street – and beaten up white trainers. I love talking to strangers at the pub and going to bars to write lyrics alone,” she says, her eyes shielded by dainty black aviators encrusted with silver stars.

At one point during our chat, Fuentes pulls out a pair of custom-made, pearly white fangs from their case and pops them into her mouth. I carry them everywhere with me,” she says. Look up Vincent Psykic – you can eat with em, drink with em. I feel more myself wearing these.” She also keeps red contact lenses on hand, you know, in case she ever wants to go full vampire”.

The last few weeks have included a couple of milestones for Fuentes. She’s just graduated with a degree in music from Goldsmiths University, hot on the heels of releasing Human Condition, the first single off Pretty Sick’s forthcoming debut album, Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile, which is released 30th September.

Deliciously nihilistic, Human Condition pairs a growling bassline with grungy guitar riffs and deceptively upbeat vocals: Wanna keep you content /​Under supervision /​They got you convinced that ignorance is bliss, Fuentes sings, suggesting freedom is nothing but a thinly veiled illusion.

I like leaving the music open to interpretation, but it’s basically about the double-edgedness of everything,” she says. The highs and lows of life, of work and the work that I do – of society as a whole, as corny as that is to say.” In the song’s darkly humorous and scuzzy video, which was directed by Frank Lebon, a team of make-believe, Matrix-esque agents are sent on a wild goose chase around London, in the hope of protecting Fuentes from the clutches of an obsessive fan.

Pretty Sick aren’t afraid to embrace 90s nostalgia, either – you’ll often see them compared to Hole and Pixies in the YouTube comments section. Both bands have had an immeasurable influence on Fuentes (Makes Me Sick was produced by Paul Kolderie, who’s also worked with Hole, Pixies and legendary alt rock bands like Dinosaur Jr. and The Lemonheads). Her main gripe, though, is being boxed in as riot grrrl”, a term used time and time again by publications to describe Pretty Sick’s music.

It feels reductive to bring it back to a particular movement,” Fuentes says, dabbing her forehead with a napkin. It also genders the music a bit too much – I don’t think my experiences are singularly female. They’re heavily weighed by the fact that I’m a woman, but there are plenty of men and non-binary people that would relate to it in the same way.”

Fuentes’ lyrics have often been themed around the coming of age experience in general – and all the romanticism, confusion and life-altering heartbreak that comes with it. Since starting the band aged just 13, Fuentes has refined and sharpened its sound on EPs Deep Divine (2020) and Come Down (2021). Last year, Pretty Sick signed with Dirty Hit, the label that’s also home to The 1975, Beabadoobee, Rina Sawayama and Wolf Alice.

Fuentes has also become well-loved among some fashion circles, the kind of alt-cool girl who can switch between shooting a Calvin Klein campaign and belting karaoke at a dive bar with ease. She was born and raised in Manhattan, where as a teenager, she interned at Helmut Lang and VFiles, eventually getting signed by a modelling agency – something which her mum didn’t particularly approve of. There were moments where I could tell she thought the work I did was vapid,” Fuentes recalls.

It’s now been four years since she moved to London, and Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile sees Fuentes wrestling with the push and pull between both cities. I liked living in New York, but sometimes you don’t really end up growing as a person there because it’s so fast-paced,” she says. You’re constantly with other people, you never spend time alone. Removing yourself from that overwhelming lifestyle can be super uncomfortable.

It was hard in some ways and beautiful in others,” she says of her time in the city, but I felt like I was holding on very tightly to this identity of being a New Yorker.”

“[Playing live] brings me such joy. Our existence is so individualised and yet so communal in those moments”

Music has been Fuentes’ primary passion the whole time. After listening to friends who advised her to take Pretty Sick more seriously, fashion fell to the wayside, and she decided to make the big move. I wanted to be stimulated all the time,” she says. Here, I can do that. London is the music city to me. I love it.”

Since its inception, Pretty Sick has had a rotating cast of bandmates. A previous NYC incarnation included ex-Virgins guitarist Wade Oates and drummer Austin Williamson (who’s also a member of experimental jazz group Onyx Collective). Currently, the Pretty Sick line up includes Fuentes on vocals and bass, guitarist Orazio Argentero and drummer Ava Kaufman.

Everyone who I play music with, it feels quite cosmic,” Fuentes explains. I love them all very much. I’ve learned in the past few years to let people come and go as they please to the project. People have their own lives going on – I respect that and don’t want anyone to feel like they have to be somewhere if they don’t want to. But anyone who’s ever been in the band knows they’re always welcome to come jam anytime.”

Pretty Sick are supporting Beabadoobee on her UK tour this autumn, before embarking on their first ever headline tour in the US – and Fuentes can’t wait. Creating a tangible connection with a crowd beyond the polished veneer of social media is what Pretty Sick is all about. It brings me such joy,” she says. Our existence is so individualised and yet so communal in those moments.”

There’s also a degree of punk rock theatrics to Pretty Sick’s live shows, which Fuentes hopes to amplify. Fake blood (or in some cases, jam) has become a regular part of the band’s set, with dancers often smearing themselves with it on stage. I love bands that perform in an almost campy way, like Gwar, Alice Cooper, Insane Clown Posse,” Fuentes says. I’ve been trying to get the label to buy me a prop chainsaw that spits blood and whirrs, but the blade is dulled. I’d come on stage and pull the chainsaw, swinging it like in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!”

Today, Pretty Sick have released Black Tar, the second single from Makes Me Sick. With a jangly guitar riff and haunting strings, it’s an example of the softer side of the band’s sound, but the lyrics are part of a thematic thread that’s weaved through the album. Covered in a thick black layer of tar /​I can’t breathe /​But I feel so warm and smooth,” Fuentes sings poignantly about a suffocating relationship.

I think a lot of young people are longing for something outside of what they’re being given and force-fed,” she says of the song’s meaning. I think every single person should chase that feeling and go for more. I have an intense sense of longing, which is part of being human. You shouldn’t let anybody deter you from it.”

This kind of unbridled intensity is Pretty Sick’s MO. Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile, Fuentes says, is the emotionally raw, vulnerable, straightforward rock” album she’s wanted to make her whole life.

It’s about growing up fast, youth and accepting things,” she says. I hope some of the lessons I learned can be passed on and are comforting to others. What you’re going through is not solitary, for better or worse. Don’t feel alone in it. That’s how I feel listening to music, and listening to this album.”

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