This is the fourth post in my series, “Past Made Present”. This series is about admiring something music related that happened in the past. I’ve used this series to write a few essays, one about The Smiths’ connection with Sandie Shaw. I’ve also written about Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues” and my guilty pleasure, Glenn Danzig. This time around, I’m going to give you something a bit different, and more personal. It’s about an old interview (perhaps from 2002) I did with singer-songwriter Esthero (the photo above was taken by littleRedelf on flickr), that ended up being one of the more memorable experiences I’ve had with a musician.
A Conversation with Esthero (Circa 2002)
David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
Before I talked with Esthero, I attended one of her shows in Chicago. That’s where I’ll start this story. I talked to her manager at the time and asked if Esthero would give me an interview for a now defunct online magazine. Turns out, it was more like an interview for an interview. Her manager would pass along my information and request, but the real go-ahead had to come from Esthero herself. So, I was eventually given the green light and her home phone number and rang her up. I didn’t realize this wasn’t going to be the real interview. That would happen two days later. The conversation started a bit like this. (Bear in mind, this introduction is strictly from memory, not verbatim):
Me: “I saw you recently at a show you gave in Chicago.”
Esthero: “Really? How did I look?” (She laughs.)
Me: “Fantastic. You …”
Esthero: “Okay, what was I wearing?”
Me: “Well, it was a skirt. You looked great. Um …”
Esthero: “What color was it?”
Me: “It was green I think. Okay, I can’t remember exactly. It was a bit dark. But I do remember it was tight.”
Esthero: “That’s better.”
No, Esthero isn’t some egomaniac. That’s not why I’m telling you about this introduction. Truth is, the above conversation is just one example of how fun it was to talk with her. She’s playful, and I could never tell exactly what she was going to say. Esthero is a fantastic conversationalist. At times she’s funny. She laughed a lot during the interview and was even charmingly self-deprecating. She was also very real and candid, except if you ask her about where she got her stage name. She was also sensual as hell and eager to press my buttons, as she seems to do even with her audience. There’s the sexy Esthero. The goofy Esthero. The party girl. The quick witted Esthero. When I first talked with her I couldn’t help but think of an article I’d read in Rolling Stone magazine about an interviewer’s time with actress Asia Argento — and how he said she was always measuring him. And how he could feel her sizing him up, trying to feel her way around to see what direction she’d take the conversation — based on what kind of person he was. Don’t be fooled by all the girly pink and shout-outs of “Dukes up baby!” — because Esthero is as smart as she is musically gifted. Before I get to posting part of the interview, here’s a couple of fun side notes: After our interview was finished, I sent Esthero a gift to thank her for being my first real interview, and because I actually do love her music. I appreciated the time she took to do it, and how honest and fun she was about the whole thing. About a week or two later, I was at my parents’ house in Iowa, enjoying a family get together, and the phone rings. My mother picks it up and says, “David, it’s some girl named Es-th-er-o for you.” I’m a bit nervous. Her manager told me she enjoyed the interview, but I wondered what exactly this call was about. Was she mad? Did she regret doing the interview? Did I mis-characterize something she said? What went wrong? And dear God, did my mother just answer a phone call from Esthero? Too funny. I picked up the phone …
Me: “Yeah, it’s me. Hey, Esthero.” (No, I didn’t call her by her real name.)
Esthero immediately begins singing a verse from her song “Superheroes” to me on the phone, “You’re delicious, you’re delicious …” (Brief silence.) I stammer out a meager, confused, but truly appreciative, “Thanks.” Almost as immediately as her impromptu singing she says, “Thanks so much. You’re so sweet. The gift was so thoughtful. Thanks for everything.” We say goodbye. Click. It might have gone on longer than that, but I was a little rattled after she stopped singing. As a fan, it was a surreal and very cool moment. Ever dream of hearing a singer whose music you love sing a verse into your ear from one of your favorite songs? As an interviewer, I was so impressed she took the time to say thanks. It was pure class. I certainly can’t wait to hear new music from her. It’s been seven years since “Wikked Lil’ Grrrls”, and I still can’t get enough of that pure voice. So here’s part of that interview. I can’t remember when it took place exactly, but I want to say it was around 2002:
Partial Interview with Esthero
DR: Before this interview, I’d been re-listening to your songs quite a bit. A lot of your songs seem to be about a girl who’s in a place she’d rather not be or about a lover who’s just a little bit out of reach. Is that autobiographical?
Esthero: Isn’t that what most people write about? It’s the ultimate cliché, the teenager who’s “not where she wants to be” or “that lover just out of reach.”
DR: So you’re a romantic?
Esthero: Yes, I am. Definitely. A lot of the songs came from a very personal place. A lot of it came from trying to find strength in myself. I didn’t want to be the whiny jilted lover. I’m sick of that fucking crying all the time. You know when you’re a kid and you put your head on your mother’s breast and she strokes your hair … and it is the most comforting thing in the whole world? Well, one day you’re going to have to grow up. So you find that breast somewhere else. No, really, I wanted there to be an undertone of strength under the sadness. That’s what I am trying to convey.
DR: I noticed that in much of your music you use very sensual words, like sweet, inside, mouth or feel … ”
Esthero: That’s such a great thing to say. I like you. I love you. What a great observation. That’s a really poetic, beautiful thing to notice.
DR: Would you say you’re a sensual type of person?
Esthero: Yeah. I think lyrically … I’m glad you noticed that … because I take the time to …
DR: I just wish you printed the lyrics inside the CD cover …
Esthero: But that’s the whole thing. They’re not meant to be read. They’re meant to be sung. They’re not meant to be spoken. For me, when you sing it’s not so much what you say but how you say it. The words have to have color and taste good when you sing them. It felt right when I would sing, “You’re delicious …” The lyrics are important to me. To taste good and to make sense. I think if they taste good and sound good then they will make sense regardless.
DR: Does this image of you as the sexy-songstress bother you?
Esthero: No. Not at all. I just wish I could live up to it. (Laugh) I’m recording again, and I do feel a lot of pressure to be Esthero — whatever that is. And to be this … I feel when people think of me, they think it has to be different, it has to be underground — really brilliant in its own right. So I feel a lot of pressure that I have to make this amazing, fucking breakthrough. And above all else, besides writing good songs, I have to be cool. That’s really fucked. What if I’m not cool right now? Besides, I’m grown up now. I don’t really care about being cool.
DR: How old are you, if I may ask?
Esthero: I’ll be 22 in December. It’s not like when I made the first record. It was all about hiding things, trying to make mixed tapes for people. It was sort of pretentious. Now I think, why can’t I write a pop song? Why can’t I be Britney Spears? What’s so wrong with that? Why can’t I dance in my videos? (Laughs) Not that I want to.
DR: I’m hoping you come out with some traditional jazz … jazz covers.
Esthero: I’d like to do that.
DR: Do you have places you like writing your music better at?
Esthero: Not really. I don’t pay much attention to it. I suppose I should, since I’ve had writers’ block for so long. I don’t have a lot of moments to myself. Maybe I should do that. Maybe I should tell my engineer I’ll going to be sitting on the roof — writing. That’s a really good idea. (She actually starts walking up to the roof of her apartment.)
DR: Do you miss having anonymity? Or do you get recognized all the time?
Esthero: No, I still have a lot of anonymity. The recognition I get, I’m really comfortable with, because its among my community. And I feel loved and respected.
DR: Do you get a chance to go out to the clubs in Toronto, see the local talent?
Esthero: Every once in awhile. I went out last night, to see Fat Lip. I used to go out a lot. I’d go out at night alone, listen to music … You always run into people you know.
DR: Alone? So the “sexy-songstress” goes out alone …
Esthero: … I can’t wait till the next record comes out. It’s going to be all about my defeated heart. (Laughs) So far, anyway. Hopefully I’ll be able to mend things and write really happy, annoying songs.
DR: So how is this new album coming along?
Esthero: It’s coming very slowly. But I just wrote a song the other day. I was really sad when I sang it. I was just in this daze where I hadn’t slept or eaten. I listened to it today from a much different place. It made me really sad. I realized how sad it was. I wanna make something fun. I want to do everything. I want to do it all.
DR: I just heard your collaboration with the Peas … “Weekend.” It’s a great song. But I don’t want to seem like the adoring, drooling fan. So just stop me.
Esthero: Why does everyone say that? “I don’t want to seem like …” I say go ahead, fuck, I’m up for it. (Laughs)
DR: Do you ever fear losing your edge, or that thing you were writing about before you became Esthero?
Esthero: I’m going through that fear right now. I went through a fear for months about not being able to write. My fear is coming from a place … I became so self-critical. But I had a girlfriend who said your job isn’t to criticize yourself. Your only job is to write. Just fucking do it. Then I went to this writing retreat in London and ended up getting five songs out of it. I just had to do it and stop making excuses.
DR: You know what I like about your writing — your love songs? Everybody has love experiences, good and bad, but not everyone can write a song about it that isn’t cliché — yet is still universal or understandable to people on a large scale.
Esthero: Well, I think too, it (her first album, “Breath From Another”) was written from the perspective of a 17-year-old girl. And when you’re 17, you’re fucking passionate. Because everything is new, everything is fucking now, do or die. You get older and get a little more relaxed. I think a lot of that comes from the passion of being young.
DR: When I was at your show in Chicago, you danced with someone in the audience. I can’t remember what song …
Esthero: Superheroes. (Laugh)
DR: Why do you do it? I know some musicians like to keep a safe distance from fans …
Esthero: I think Tori Amos called them “people that come to the shows.” She refused to call them “fans.” And I think that’s genius. I don’t separate it either. I don’t separate into star and fan. I think of it as a bunch of people getting together to witness something magical, and everybody is a part of it. I don’t think about it too much. Everybody behind me is playing an instrument and I see a fan with free hands … The line between the stage and the audience is very blurred to me.
DR: What do you find is more important than music, if anything?
Esthero: (Pause) Maybe … breathing. Feeling. ‘Cuz if you couldn’t feel, then music wouldn’t matter.
DR: In one of your songs, “Swallow Me”, it seems music takes the place of a lover. It’s such an intimate song compared to the rest. It’s as if you’re saying you don’t need anyone if you have music.
Esthero: It’s what I was trying to say. Music is something for me … that keeps me from being lonely. That’s my favorite one (song). That’s the closest to me. And that’s the closest anyone will get to me.
DR: So where did this name ‘Esthero’ come from?
Esthero: The fairies gave it to me. (Laugh) Really, that’s where it came from.
DR: You’re going to leave it at that, huh? So, it’s like a person who gets a tattoo and won’t tell you what it means — or they’d have to kill you?
Esthero: I do have it tattooed on me. But the fairies did that too. Actually the tattoo was given to me by Mark Mahoney, my tattoo artist in Los Angeles at Tattoo Mania. But the name was given to me by a fairy. (Laugh) What, you don’t believe in fairies?
DR: Oh, I love fairies … (Laugh) What would you like people to know about you that they may not know already.
Esthero: I’m different, just like everybody else.
DR: So, do you have any questions for me — since I asked so many of you over the last hour?
Esthero: Yes. When did you lose your virginity?