Beyond the early-2000s pop duo t.A.T.u. and hardcore political performance group Pussy Riot, most of Russia’s modern music isn’t widely known on an international level. In Saint Petersburg, the country’s second largest city, Sarah Persephona and her band angelic milk are working within different side of Russia’s developing music scene.
With its lo-fi, shoegaze-inspired music, angelic mik has found listeners locally and abroad, garnering attention from international labels and critics, and with its new EP, Teenage Movie Soundtrack, coming July 15 via Swedish label PNKSLM, the band is shedding new light on the burgeoning independent music scene in Russia’s urban centers.
“No matter what I want, I’m still going to stay Russian,” says Persephona. “I live in this country. I don’t want to be strongly associated with it, because people don’t really like it in the world. But I know that there are many things that are super romantic and super cool [here].”
The Russian indie music industry is still relatively young. Rooted in the protest movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, in its early years it was heavily regulated under Soviet control. The late 1980s brought a loosening of restrictions and underground rock albums could finally be “officially” released but even today Russia’s music industry hasn’t been conducive to a widely lucrative independent scene. For artists, tapping into global markets can be hard in the face of cultural divisions and stereotypes. “The music industry is kind of undeveloped and it’s still growing. We’re trying to make it better… But life is hard for music here,” Persephona says. “If [the] Russian music industry ever improves, I’m not even sure that it’s going to be while I’m alive. I’m hoping for it and trying to do something about it.”
Born after the fall of the Soviet Union, Persephona grew up listening to the Ramones, Patti Smith, and David Bowie. While these previously inaccessible foreign artists found some popularity in Russia, its mainstream music industry was (and still is) dominated by domestic pop artists so it took some time for Persephona to find friends with similar tastes. “I was quite depressed about not having anyone to share my music interests with,” Persephona says. That changed when, at 14, she met a friend at camp who played guitar and shared a love for Bob Dylan. “He thought that I could be a songwriter. So I started a band with two girls.”
Her bandmates eventually lost interest but Persephona didn’t give up. “I believe in myself like crazy…For me it’s something mystical,” she says “I don’t even make any B plans, you know, in case I’m left with nothing. It’s quite risky but I think that’s what helped me a lot.”
Persephona taught herself how to play guitar by watching YouTube videos and eventually bought herself an Epiphone Les Paul. After posting a few solo bedroom recordings as angelic milk on popular Russian social network VKontakte, Saint Petersburg music collective Saint-Brooklynsburg took interest. “The Internet is a super cool thing,” Persephona says, “It’s very important for us here, because Russian bands start putting their music on the Internet and they start getting noticed.” Foreign fans and labels began to take note as well (including the staff at PNKSLM, who discovered angelic milk on Bandcamp).
In Saint-Brooklynsburg, Persephona found likeminded musicians who helped her hone her technique. The collective was formed by Persephona’s bandmate Valja and local artist BLAST. “They wanted to have a special place to share their own music, but with time they found new bands and they wanted to help,” says Persephona. Along with angelic milk and BLAST, Saint-Brooklynsburg is home to young bands like Ghost Hippies, a freak-folk group Persephona is also a member of, Summer Coma and АФТАПАТИ. These days, Persephona plays a 1995 Fernandes and her favorite pedal is the Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff but, she says, “my band thinks I use it too much.” She also recently started experimenting with Marshall Reverb, MXR Flanger, and MXR Distortion pedals.
According to Persephona, consuming art is a low priority for many people in Russia. Despite this lack of support, DIY collectives are popping up and making space for themselves around the country. “Each [collective] has special specifics,” says Persephona, “There’s one in Moscow called Pomogite Community, they’re more garage, more evil punks destroying everything. There is another in Saint Petersburg called Colanade Magic Bros.. It’s very special because it was formed by young boys and girls who have just finished school and they do quite successful concerts.”
Still a teenager herself, Persephona feels her current stage in life is integral to angelic milk’s music. Teenage Movie Soundtrack is a conceptual take on the angst and discontent many young people go through. Recorded at Stockholm’s Apmamman Studios and produced by Luke Reilly, lead single “Rebel Black” is dreamy, eerie and relatable. While differences between the west and Russia may seem insurmountable, angelic milk taps into the universal weirdness of being a young person. “That’s the life I live. I don’t want to think that it’s the best time of our lives, but it’s quite unique to be a teenager. It’s quite fun and very overwhelming at the same time,” she says.
Despite their rising international presence, angelic milk remains active in Saint-Brooklynsburg’s operations. “We do concerts and cassettes for many bands. We help with the recordings, too, and we’re going to make a big festival this summer,” Persephona says. The festival, Mutant Indie Fest, will feature a lineup of local and international bands. “We’re hoping for it to be really big and to connect everybody,” she says.