Erika de Casier is making Y2K music for the future
On her new album 'Sensational', the Copenhagen-based producer blends 90s R&B with turn-of-the-millennium club music.
Photography Dennis Morton
By its very nature, the sophomore album is a daunting task. Especially when your first is titled Essentials. Living up to its name — a riff on the ‘best-of’ compilations of great artists past — Erika de Casier’s under-the-radar 2019 debut was a slow-burning, smash success. Its nostalgic-yet-new sound garnered fans from Clairo to Dua Lipa, and earned the album its rightful place on many of the year’s best-of lists. So how does one follow up Essentials? Well, with something Sensational, of course.
Born in Portugal to Belgian and Cape Verdean parents, Erika and her family moved from Spain to the small village of Ribe, Denmark in 1998. It was the age of MTV and, not yet knowing Danish, school-aged Erika spent her TV time taking in the era’s glossy music videos: Brandy & Monica’s, “The Boy is Mine”, everything Hype Williams, et al. After graduating from high school (where she had dabbled in choir and band) and spurred by a bout of heartbreak, Erika dove headfirst into music, downloading production software and teaching herself how to put the program’s pre-made beats and loops together and gradually adding vocals — hushed and whispered due to her flatshare situation — to the tracks. After moving to Copenhagen, Erika joined Danish rave collective Regelbau as one-half of experimental R&B duo Saint Cava before creating the solo sketches that would become Essentials.
Self-penned and co-produced with Regelbau’s Natal Zeks, Essentials saw Erika revisit the formative sounds of her youth — the G-funk and R&B she’d heard on MTV or the trip-hop she’d ripped from her library’s CD collection — blending them together with a millennial wink to create something thoroughly new. Debut single “What U Wanna Do?” merges the harpsichord of 90s R&B (think the opening chords of TLC’s “No Scrubs”) and a sputtering Timbaland-esque beat with Erika’s signature featherlight vocals. On mood-making track “Intimate”, Erika sings about hooking up — and putting her smartphone down — over a distinctively 90s G-funk topline. It’s these subtle juxtapositions and mismatched mash-ups that give pause, that transform the familiar — a West Coast whistle or the plucked strings of a harpsichord — into the unfamiliar.
Released on Erika’s Independent Jeep label, Essentials was a word-of-mouth success, shared first among forumheads and diehard music fans before bubbling up into the mainstream and making its way to the ears of Dua Lipa. After posting one of Erika’s songs to her Instagram stories, Dua asked her to remix “Physical”, and the producer transformed the Future Nostalgia power bop into a glistening, downtempo groove.
With the attention and accolades, however, also came the pressure. “It was very surreal and very sweet, but frightening at the same time because then people had expectations of me. I hadn’t had that before,” Erika says. “I was nervous [my follow-up album] wouldn’t live up to it.”
When Erika started working on her new record, there were a few words that kept coming to mind. “Sexy, sensual, sensational,” she says. “Dramatic, as well. The idea of being extra, being over-dramatic and over-acting. I wanted to explore that.” As its namesake would suggest, Sensational is a more expansive and self-assured release, both sonically and lyrically, from the artist.
Writing and co-producing almost the entirety of the album during lockdown in her native Copenhagen, Erika found herself in a reflective headspace as well. “In my songwriting I tried to rewrite some of the situations I’ve been in. For example, if I was in a situation where I wished I would have done something, I’d write a song where that’s what happened: I said something, I stood up for myself,” she explains. “I wanted to see myself as something other than the victim.”
The sonic result of one such scenario, album single “Polite” — which begins with an exasperated sigh — was inspired by a nightmare dinner date with an impolite partner. Instead of sitting through dinner out of politeness, Erika wished she’d simply walked out. And in the song, she does, confronting her date with, “You gotta have some manners / If you wanna roll with me.”
This confident, empowered mood plays out in more subtle ways across the album too. “All You Talk About” — a cheeky nod to J.Lo’s “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” — is a send-off to a materialistic partner. “Versace this / Versace that / Dior, Dior, you already said that,” she sings with an audible eye roll. On “Someone To Chill With,” Erika desires a no-strings-attached relationship. And while Essentials puppy love lyrics often played coy, there’s nothing coy about the smoldering “Friendly,” where she dares, “Take a bite of me.”
On the bridge of “Make My Day,” Erika flips the script on cliché courtship conventions, delivering the cheesiest of lines with the utmost earnestness. “When you think about a pick-up line, it’s usually a man in a bar saying it to a woman,” Erika explains. “I wanted to change that up. The whole thing about having this line, there’s this hierarchy already built into that: you come with something and you already know the answer. I wanted to play with this dynamic of being the one that’s on top.”
Beyond the lyrics, Erika expands upon these themes through a trifecta of self-directed music videos. Embodying her self-assured alter ego, Bianka, the shield sunglasses-wearing CEO of Sensational Corp, Erika takes phone calls during a power lunch in the working girl, 9-to-5 ode “Busy” and ditches her date in the “Polite” video clip. “I was imagining this powerful woman going to a date in this fancy car and owning it completely, like ‘This is bullshit, fuck this, I’m going to leave,’” she says of the sentiment behind the video.
In addition to exploring the more complex aspects of romance and relationships, Erika also expanded her musical touchstones with Sensational. “Polite” is backed by a slinky, Latin-leaning rhythm that gently calls to Sade, while album closer “Call Me Anytime” reads as a pillow-soft homage t.A.T.U-esque Eurodance. “I was more open to all genres with this one, exploring a bunch of different sounds. I was trying to keep things open, like anything could happen,” she says. Of course, the R&B of Essentials makes appearances: “Drama” opens with a series of guitar chords familiar to fans of the genre; “Better than That” features the soft, staccato vocalizations of a Destiny’s Child bop; the harpsichord makes many welcome appearances throughout.
One of the things that makes Erika’s music so distinctive, however, is the juxtaposition between its nostalgic sound and ultra-modern subject matter, often delivered tongue-in-cheek (or, in the case of the album’s lyrics booklet, with a literal wink emoji). Throughout Sensational, Erika laments sending a confrontational text (or two), admits to watching a TED Talk on how to get over an ex and walks us through her self-care routine (“I meditate / And do my skincare routine.”) It’s these references to the minutiae of millennial life that make her music relatable, and provide a means for her to connect with her audience — something that Erika’s been sorely missing since she had to cancel her American tour in early 2020. The producer, however, already has a European tour lined up for this coming fall — and she’s excited to get back on the road.
“You put your music out and you see a number on a screen, on Spotify. So many people are streaming your music, but this number is hard to relate to,” Erika says. “When you play a concert, that’s when you get a visual. Like these people actually came to see you play, they appreciate your music, after the concert people come up and talk to you. When you play, you get a reality check, and I need a reality check!”
The sophomore follow-up presents its own unique pressures. Despite them, Erika maintains an optimistic outlook, regarding not only Sensational but the future of her career. “I try to think of it like, I’m going to make a lot of records throughout my life, and this is just one of them. I’m trying to not pressure myself to make some kind of masterpiece,” she says. “I want to be constantly evolving.”