Esmé Patterson: on the highway of the safety zone
Esmé Patterson's second album Woman To Woman is much more than an album about women. She tells us about art as a discussion, anger as a tool, and chaos as her paint colour of choice.
A lot has been said about Woman To Woman, the second album by Esmé Patterson (out now on vinyl, CD and download via Xtra Mile Recordings) because it dares to do something different. Great art causes friction and gets people talking. The division that has been caused between those who've heard it (and like or love it) and some who have merely heard of it - especially that it celebrates the female perspective of already very popular songs - has ensured that Esmé's creative risk vs reward ratio has swung in her favour.
"People have been very upset at this project," she says of the social media internet warriors and comment box-hogging types. We're in a small, square room at the back of 93 Ft East on Brick Lane, East London, ahead of her support slot for Frank Turner as part of Independent Venue Week. "(They think) that it's kind of sacrilegious that I'm defaming these great works. (But) I think that art shouldn't be held up on a pedestal or put behind glass, and that we should discuss it, get our hands dirty, and look at it from every angle." Which would sound hollow and hypocritical if Esmé just shunned the irrationally unhappy. But she doesn't. "I welcome criticism. I think it's really wonderful when people say 'I really don't like this and this is why', because art should be a discussion. That's all I'm doing. That's all this record is aiming to do - start a discussion."
"I think that art shouldn't be held up on a pedestal or put behind glass, and that we should discuss it, get our hands dirty, and look at it from every angle."
Its aim is true. Generally, the buzz (if we can use that word without feeling slightly ill) around this batch of songs has been remarkably positive and affirming. It's also been very easy for the press to hoist the somehow controversial "feminist" label onto it, which will always bring its unfair share of kneejerk reaction and criticism, often without those offenders having listened to it. Esmé disagrees with the pigeonhole the album has been popped into.
"I wouldn't classify this record as a 'feminist' record though it does deal with some of those ideas and works within some of those confines. For some reason, now it's a real hot button topic." Esmé sips a can of popular Jamaican beer before continuing. "I feel like (the word 'feminism') has gone out of style, actually, that it's now seen as extreme when it's just...the definition of feminism for me is exploring what it is to be a person that identifies as a woman in our culture. That's an experience that lots of people have." 51% of the world's population, give or take a few thousand, fact fans. "I like to identify as a feminist though my work isn't completely under that umbrella. I think I discuss a lot more topics and subjects than just my gender, but it definitely is something that seems to be on people's minds these days."
Naturally, Esmé experiences the age old practices of diminishing women's presence in the world. It would shock me, she says, how often the "pretty good for a girl" comment comes up. She also mentions how when she read Björk's recent quote about women having to say the same thing many times before it's heard or taken on board when a man only has to say it once, she could "completely identify with it."
"You've just got to work harder to be respected and understood," she says, almost matter-of-fact. She doesn't have to shrug, but it's there, as if resigned to it. This doesn't mean she'll be quiet and demure about it, of course, and rightly so. When asked if working harder is what she's had to do, it's an instant, absolute 'yes'. "It kind of sharpens you and makes you hungry. I feel that righteous anger can be a very useful tool if you learn to pick it up and put it back down." She pauses briefly and laughs. "Putting it back down is the hard part, but also important."
For all those ready to froth at the mouth and bitterly decry this album, and the very idea that it allows female characters their point-of-view and side of the story through song, it's not an "angry" record. That would be far from what Esmé wanted to achieve.
" I feel that righteous anger can be a very useful tool if you learn to pick it up and put it back down."
"I was really trying to make these characters human. Human emotion is a varied span, a rainbow of colours. To make it one colour would make it untrue." It is true though that the two songs truly marinated in righteous anger - 'What Do You Call A Woman?', a response to slighted single mum 'Billie Jean' of Michael Jackson fame, and 'Valentine', which allows Alison to smartly riposte Elvis Costello's pining and belittling protagonist - are striking and absolutely necessary in the context of redressing the balance of pop history. But there are far more nuanced musical and lyrical examples throughout the 10-track-strong album.
'Bluebird' is a wonderful song about making peace as your life draws to a close, that loneliness isn't what's in store if you know yourself. 'Oh Let's Dance' lets us find out just how a young man got on with Lola, the experienced, mature woman he meets in a Soho club. 'A Dream' somehow takes a surreal and amusing take on a song about suicide. All of which shows the breadth and depth of her songwriting. These songs stand alone, weaved with glorious pedal steel, and tender acoustic picking, while showcasing Esmé's resonant voice that soars, breaks and floats upon, and through, the music.
Before explaining the true work of songwriting - not getting ideas, but chasing them to a conclusion - Esmé gives a very personal example of how she is able to craft her songs, sculpted from a wealth of feeling and attention to her awareness and consciousness of life as a whole.
"To me, I feel my heart is like a tuning rod. There'll be times when I hear about something or feel something and it resonates, vibrates and it's true to me even if it's fictional, but there's a core, a root of truth to it," she begins. She tells the story of 'The Swimmer', from her debut album (All Princes, I) when she attended her ex-husband's birthday dinner with his family a week after they decided they were getting divorced. His mum then started relating a story about the day he was born, and the weather on that day. "I started getting that feeling, the chills, and I ended up writing a song about why (our marriage) didn't work based on the circumstances of what the weather was like the day we were each born."
"My safe zone is chaos! And that's where I'm comfortable. I don't believe in boredom. I don't think that's something I ever experience."
Knowing some of you will be interested in any advice and information you can get about songwriting, and that Xtra Mile tends to have the ethos of 'do it yourself', I asked Esmé more explicitly about her songwriting. How does one know where songs will happen, and what to do if they are struggling for ideas? The answers turn out to be about most creative pursuits.
"Songs come from any direction; something that feels true or feels like it needs explanation and I have the tools to do that. Because, sometimes that moment will happen and I'll be like 'I don't have those tools yet'." What if you don't have those tools yet? "Sometimes you just put them in your back pocket and wait til you have the right tools. Sometimes, they slip away like a dream you're trying to remember. Some creative people get very stressed out when that happens, when you lose something or you have a fallow season. I feel like one of the secrets to being a creative person is to trust that a fallow period is necessary in any growth season. Maybe that's foolish, but I do. So, if I'm not having ideas, I don't stress about it. I just keep continuing to live with a sense of wonder, discovery, seeing the world with new eyes, trying to be a better person, and inspiration kind of crops up naturally."
In order to live that way, and being sure to be open to all sorts of ideas and creative stretches, you need to limber up. You need to experiment, and you need to try and challenge yourself. You also need to indulge in guilty pleasures, things that open up your brain beyond its usual limits. For someone so embedded in the folk scene and whose favourite instrument is the pedal steel, Esmé has an unexpected guilty pleasure and it leads to the core of what she's somehow about.
" I feel like one of the secrets to being a creative person is to trust that a fallow period is necessary in any growth season."
"I love playing an out-of-tune guitar when I'm alone, because I like dissonance. It makes me happy. It's weird I know!" she says, defensive, not realising perhaps that I (and we at Xtra Mile) also love that sort of harsh, coruscating, unpleasant noise. Immediately, I want to know if she could make a song or two like that. "I wouldn't want to subject anyone else to that but personally, alone, I love how dissonance sounds. I really like feedback! I know most people think it's the worst sound in the world, and it is terrible if it's too loud, but I really love chaos. I think chaos is a colour I can't help but paint in. Even if it's not sonically used, it's in the lyrics or in the ideas. I think that's something that is vital for art to be interesting, to have a seed of chaos in it, at least." As she says this, Barry Dolan (AKA Oxygen Thief, also a fan of noise and, no doubt, chaos, as well as having a great sense of comic timing) begins making bizarre, hollering vocal sounds outside the door, warming up for his performance, due in a few minutes. "Maybe someday I'll come out of the closet with it" says Esmé, after Barry peeks in, apologises and takes his warm up yodelling elsewhere. I think she was enjoying Barry's appropriate interruption.
I think it's important to ask how far outside of a familiar life state a musician or artist has made it so far. Esmé's answer isn't entirely unexpected. "The only comfort zone I have is playing music, being on stage. That's where I feel comfortable and that's where I feel balanced, safe and free. So that makes you a turtle where you carry your home with you. Being a regular person is the part that's confusing to me. When you're at home and you're like 'what do people do? I don't know! What should I do? Buy some plants?' So I bought a lot of plants, but that's not really my safe zone. My safe zone is chaos! And that's where I'm comfortable. I don't believe in boredom. I don't think that's something I ever experience. I'm working on it, working on being more comfortable sitting still. I think it's part of being a good person."
"I love playing an out-of-tune guitar when I'm alone, because I like dissonance. It makes me happy. I think chaos is a colour I can't help but paint in..."
This last may sound odd, or wrong perhaps. But there's no one route or angle to the journey you take. Even Esmé's experience in Paper Bird, the folk collective she was in for 8 years, taught her contradictory skills. She thinks that "a good singer is able to listen" and that she learned this by playing with them, but also, on reflection, that "you can listen to other people too well, and not listen to yourself."
With all of this - from tough touring experiences (such as being electrocuted on stage with Paper Bird) and revealing highly personal situations in song to a certain amount of criticism - mostly unfounded or spiteful - that Woman To Woman has received, for everything from its creator being female to having the gall to take on classic artists' back catalogue, is it all worth it? How do you know if this music-making lark is for you. Well for one, it is anything but a "lark".
"It's a hard road. It's an unforgiving and brutal and difficult path to choose. And rewarding and beautiful and ecstatic. Make sure you absolutely have to do it and that it's in your heart, that it's the path of your soul. Otherwise, it'll rip you apart.," Esmé says, as she dons make-up 20 minutes before getting on stage. "It's got to be your passion and it's got to be the thing that you MUST do because it's very hard and unforgiving. If I wasn't playing music, there would be no reason for me to live - not to be dramatic about it. That's what I'm on the planet to do and I'll do it at any cost."
Are there any tips she would give us all, while she's on this roll? "I thought it was easier when I was younger. We all think that. We try to make it harder for ourselves, which is funny. 'This isn't hard enough. How can I make this harder?” No! It's plenty hard enough. You don't have to make it any harder. The real danger in this industry is burning yourself out, exhausting yourself. Make sure to take care of yourself and are good to your heart and cherish that fire and keep it well stoked," she says, all enthusiasm. "And don't listen to anybody else! Just listen to your heart. There's no one right way to do it there are a thousand right ways to do it. You know in your heart what you're supposed to do and that's the only real voice you have to listen to." As we leave, she picks up a book and begins reading, quietly. There's a wealth of wisdom and knowledge and experience in this young woman, and just the right amount of righteous anger, that she clearly knows how to put back down. Everyone would do well to listen to her, her songs, and her stories, whether you agree with her standpoint and bravery, or not. Just start by putting that anger down and listening.
What do you think of Esmé's first album on Xtra Mile? What's your favourite song? Do you like knowing what the songs are about and does it affect how you listen to them? Do you think these songs stand up against their classic counterparts, as well as by themselves? Have you heard similar examples in the past? How about the Merry Wives of Windsor's take on the folk classic, 'Whiskey In the Jar'?