Sally Potter


Sally Potter ruminates on adolescent rage, longing behind debut album 'Pink Bikini'


JULY 16, 2023

On the cover artwork of his seminal 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan languidly hunches over, sporting a slight smile. He’s accessorized by an unnamed woman clasping his arm — her overflowing, dizzy sentiment evoking enough feeling for the two of them, even as his imagination is, of course, the guiding force behind the record.

“It was puzzling that, on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, there’s Bob Dylan slouching in the snow arm and arm with this person. She’s of equal size, equal weight in the image, but isn’t quite named anywhere. We don’t know who she is. So there’s this funny mixture of being present but being invisible,” Sally Potter mused in an interview with The Daily Californian. “What did she do? Did she sing? Did she write lyrics?”

It was this very yearning to know the faceless woman — a woman that, in essence, was an amalgamation of her mother, her grandmother and the sublimated desires of generations of women — that stirred Potter as a budding artist then and now, informing the temper and tenderness of her debut album Pink Bikini, which releases Friday. One particular track on her debut album, “Black Mascara,” notably references “fighting with my mum,” haunting her and not being able to bear to see her for long. 

“The feeling I got above all from (my mother), and to some extent from my grandmother as well — who also studied singing and was an actress in her twenties — was disappointment,” Potter said. “Disappointment about what they weren’t able to do … with limits that life seemed to have placed on them. … Both my mother and my grandmother didn’t dramatize it all the time. But I felt it so strongly. I felt the grief for what they weren’t able to do with their lives. Why did they accept these limited lives? I wanted them to fight back. Later I realized they couldn’t.”

Grief bubbled into rage, and rage into perhaps an insatiable desire for authorship amid these very constructs and institutions that had long barred women from entry. Indeed, the album sees Potter traffic in a modus operandi entrenched in a longing to transcend a psychosomatic, intergenerational malaise. 

Over the past few decades, Potter has found success in filmmaking, a standout of her directorial oeuvre being the 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation “Orlando.” In “Orlando,” Potter wielded an unabashedly postmodern lens, conversing with Woolf’s text through a lush, formal subjectivity that brandished a score of anachronistic synths and constructed a narrative concerned with leitmotifs rather than continuity.

Potter’s work in music, though, is not a new endeavor for the artist, having toured with the avant-garde band the Feminist Improvising Group in the 1970s — and having produced some of the music for “Orlando.” It is perhaps a more acute cut to her artistic roots, with music being an intergenerational mainstay: Potter’s mother was a music teacher and her grandmother an actress and singer.

“I never really left music,” Potter said. “One of the feelings that stayed with me (from touring) was the feeling of a live audience. You begin to sort of feel through them what works, what’s getting across and what’s not getting across. That feeling of audience that you’re working for becomes internalized after a while. It’s very useful as a filmmaker too — to be able to feel the audience even when they’re not there, even when you’re working in solitude for a very long time and imagining them watching it in the future.”

In her return to “a world of pure sound,” there came “a pleasure of deep listening” that comes through what Potter deems an art form that evinces what is “beyond representation.”

“Film is always representational. The way that the eyes take in information — every frame of a film is jam-packed with thousands of pixels and bits of information that people can absorb,” Potter said. “But music evokes a kind of universal feeling, transcendent feelings. It’s a shorter form. Each time it can take one into this whole other zone through the ears in which you link with your own deepest feelings, but you don’t necessarily have to represent those feelings in a concrete form.”

Through a single, succinct title, Potter employs the short form of song to sublime, meticulous ends. The title of Potter’s debut, which is also a track on the album, is one that encompasses an amusing, melancholy anecdote, demonstrating the paradoxical feelings of adolescence and the gradual, liminal descent into womanhood. 

“Just the phrase ‘pink bikini’ makes me laugh. It’s ludicrous,” Potter said. “I really did see a pink bikini in this shop window and I thought, ‘if I get that bikini, my life would be different. I’ll be attractive. I’ll look good on the beach.’ So all of my longing got focused on this bloody pink bikini. So, for me, it’s a sad thing as well, about teenage longing — particularly for someone growing up as a young girl — and about all that focus on your body, on your clothes and that idea that if you have just that one thing, it’ll make the difference.”

The thematic ambitions of Pink Bikini recall the artist’s perhaps most directly self-reflexive film “Ginger & Rosa,” a coming-of-age picture centered on a young girl growing up in 1960s London; her fraught relationship with her housewife mother and intellectual father; and her trajectory toward activism and rebellion. Just as Potter toed implicit and explicit barriers then, she finds herself doing so through the release of Pink Bikini, even as she returns to recurrent themes and feelings in her body of work.

“I was the first female director in the UK since the Second World War,” Potter said. “It was ridiculous when I started — I really was one of the few female filmmakers and that’s very different now. Now, I find myself in this strange position at an older age of putting out a debut album. I’m going against the grain if you like, and trying to just follow the longing and the certainty of what I feel needs to be expressed in some way. Not necessarily for my benefit — hopefully for my benefit — but also mainly because I hope that this is something that there is a place for in the world and in the culture.

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