Name: Esther Rose
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Esther Rose's new album How Many Times is out March 26th on Full Time Hobby.
Recommendations: Listen to Duff Thompson’s latest record Haywire. Watch Garrett Bradley’s documentary film Time.
If you enjoyed this interview with Esther Rose, head over to her excellent homepage for more information. She is also on Facebook and Instagram.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started intentionally writing songs about five years ago. Until then, my writing was sporadic and I didn’t really have any use for the songs. On my 28th birthday something shifted and I began to priotitize songwriting above all else. I was overflowing with words, ideas and melodies. It was as though my life finally caught up to me and I had a lot to say about it.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When I first started writing I was listening predominantly to Hank Williams. Hank helped it all come together for me. Here was this high, weird, emotive voice and three chords on a guitar and I thought, I can do that. Hank helped me embrace my shortcomings as a singer and lean more into vibe.
Since that wobbly start, I have been exploring more of my range and found these little comfy pockets in my voice and guitar playing. I’ve developed this mid-tempo rock and roll thing that feels very good and natural.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I write from my own perspective so identity is everything. Is this a trick question?
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Because I started playing guitar later in life, at 28, there was a learning curve where my abilities to sing and perform were far beyond my fingers being able to grasp the chords. That was a painful first year.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My band and I record our albums live to tape. We sit together in one room facing each other and record with an Ampex reel to reel. I think this process has been very important in our development as a band and our sound. There’s the warmth of a band playing together. There’s deep listening and intense focus as everyone makes space for each other. And there are these tiny little imperfections that we let live in the songs. We aren’t robots and recording this way makes space for us to enjoy the process and be extremely present with the music.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I wonder how lost I’d be without the Iphone voice memo app. When I'm in a mood and getting a song down, I completely rely on my phone to catch all the little bits of words and melodies so I can build the song structure. Then of course there’s the sharing of demos instantly. Maybe I should get a little tape recorder just to switch it up.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
My best friends are also my favorite songwriters, therefore the song circle is my favorite way to collaborate. I love to hear their new songs, where they are heading, what they are thinking about. Being surrounded by other people who are living in that creative space is so important.Knowing that I can send a demo to my best friend and that she will listen closely and provide thoughtful feedback is often what makes me want to finish it. It’s like we keep each other accountable by gently nudging each other to finish songs, take time to write, or write a better verse. Having that feedback is critical because the initial period of songwriting can be very lonely.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Morning. Black coffee and straight to my desk. I love to sing and play guitar first thing and to watch the sun rise. Having my waking moments be with music sets the tone for a good day. If I start writing a new song I will stay with it for hours, so I have to sometimes be careful and keep track of time. Often I feel like I'm pulling myself away from my desk at the very last moment to dash off to work. Then there’s this delicious secret voice memo - a new song! - waiting in my pocket for when I get off.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Self releasing my first record This Time Last Night in 2017 was a breakthrough. There were many points on the way where I wanted to abandon it and thankfully my closest friends pushed me to finish it. I could not imagine something so extremely personal to me, just out in the world like that. I remember thinking everyone’s gonna laugh at me and indeed maybe they are, but I no longer live in fear of it. Moving through that first fear was very much a breakthrough.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think there are many entryways into the creative space because it exists around us all the time. Sometimes it’s from being well rested, or it’s losing sleep, or a traumatic event, or a memory, or an interesting conversation … it’s always changing. But the way into the creative space is by being absolutely present in the moment.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think I know why people don’t want to date musicians … we might write a song about you. I’ve been hurt by hearing a song written about an experience that I shared with someone and feeling uncared for in their perspective. As a songwriter I must be absolutely critical of my work; is what I’m writing my own experience? Is it fair to the other people involved? Would I want this song written about me? I think these are important questions to ask ourselves, as we have an opportunity to shape consciousness with our writing and we ought to be careful about what messages we put out.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think it's extremely important to be aware of appropriation and to examine my art for integrity, and to recognize that music is a language and it is evolving every single day. I find it so interesting that, for example, I heard "In The Pines" covered by Nirvana many years before I ever heard of Lead Belly. There’s a quote that’s really helpul, to normalize changing our opinion when we are presented with new information. Everyone is on their own personal journey back to the source. I definitly do not want my sound to be thought of as throw-back or vintage, I want to make music that reflects the times.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I like to burn incense when I write; cedar, juniper, piñon, sage. I love how a specific smell will awaken memories. More than twice I’ve had to pull over in the middle of a bike ride to mumble a song idea into my Iphone. Wet pavement after an afternoon thunderstorm, warm nights when the jasmine is in bloom, the harsh smell of creosote from the railroad ties. Doesn’t it make you want to write a song?
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Being a human is confusing and making art is how I center. My goals are to live very simply, to not cause harm to anyone, and to put my energy into joyful expression. I don’t have a get-rich plan and there aren’t any retirement options, but choosing this lifestyle is the way that I find purpose and contentment in my every day.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
That’s a great question that I find impossible to answer. Isn’t it nice that some things are still a mystery?