Finding & leaving comfort with Esmé (interview)

Finding & leaving comfort with Esmé (interview)

I’ve loved Esmé since the very first email she sent me back in 2017, timidly sharing Come With Me, her first release ever, in the hope that I could cover it on the blog. This is the honest truth and my post will prove it.

I mean: what’s there not to love? Esmé is vibrating with kindness. In her words, in her voice, in her lyrics, in her music. Over these past two years, it’s been beautiful to see her grow and transform. In peace. With class. Slowly. Gracefully. I got to know her through a jazzy universe and, a few months ago, she blessed me once again with an invitation to her cosy musical home except this time, the rooms had been redecorated and some furniture replaced to highlight the delicate and intricate character of the house. This can only be done tastefully with a deep knowledge of its best features and top designers – cue in Royce Wood Junior (NAO, Jamie Woon), Twilite Tone (Kanye West, Gorillaz) & Chris Penny (Ghetts, Bluey Robinson). And the story gets better when you find out that the Australian singer/songwriter didn’t have a clue about who they were before working with them.

For two weeks in Brooklyn, they reimagined Esmé’s world together. Rather than denaturing her, the three producers understood her essence so well that they managed to enhance it, making her unique breathy tone (which she developed by copying jazz songs and horns) the real star of the show while giving it a modern spin. Think of it as vintage pieces in crisp, avant-garde spaces. An old soul wrapped in a futuristic sonic envelope.

Esmé’s debut EP will see the light of the day later this year. And to ease her visitors into her new style, she released earlier this month the new single Ella, named after one of her biggest inspirations: Ella Fitzgerald. “It’s about listening to her or any other jazz music when I was young and it helping me feel better”, explains Esmé to Urban Soul, revealing that the first verse is about her parents’ separation. “I would sit on the kitchen bench next to this portable Panasonic CD player and just listen to her when I was really sad. I’d even get up in the middle of the night and put it on super quietly.”

Dealing with feelings of anxiety and loneliness, the track will act as a good, old, comfortable blanket, calming your mind and warming your heart, just as a few moments with its owner would.

Press play to listen to Ella while discovering Esmé and don’t miss the acoustic video at the end of our interview!

Why Esmé?
I have 6 sisters and one little brother and they all call me « Ezmay ». Always have. But a couple of years ago, before I sort of launched myself as Esmé and as an original artist, I went to France with my little sister Olivia. We were brainstorming artist names and she was calling me « Ezmay ». A waiter who was listening showed us that beautiful way of spelling it with the accent over the -e at the end. I felt connected to it and chose it.

I remember that in your first biography ever you were coming from a big family and that you were homeschooled. What do you take from these two experiences? Are there any strengths or behaviors coming out of it that guide you in your daily life or your art?
The best thing about being homeschooled is that you kind of have this courage to do things your own way and you don’t even really think about it! You don’t follow suit or feel like you need to do what other people are doing ‘cause you weren’t in that school environment where everyone was listening to the same thing, into the same thing. When you’re homeschooled, you’re not as exposed to trends. So I definitely feel like my sisters and I have always done things our own way. I guess this was the most valuable thing. 

There’s also the aspect of independent learning. Do you feel like this influenced your approach towards music as well?
Definitely! Because you just sit with something for so long when you’re homeschooled – you’re not going from class to class – and you are really sort of teaching yourself. It’s more of an explorative learning. Like I was always been interested in music but I was able to teach myself piano and a bit of guitar and theory. I had that courage of saying « Ah, I can just do something ‘cause I want to » was instilled in me from that independent learning style.

You’re obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald. But jazz is not the typical genre people are into from a very young age! I mean, it’s possible but quite rare. So how did you discover and fall in love with that music?
I discovered jazz when I was very little and it was through my parents. They just had a huge collection of CDs and they had lots of different ones from Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Chet Baker… and also a lot of the soul albums like Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin… And my mom loved more of the 70s stuff so she had the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. But out of everything, I was really just drawn to Ella Fitzgerald’s voice and breathy sound. Like I love horn sounds as well and I just copy them and sing along with them. I think by the time I was 13 I memorized probably around 50 or 60 different jazz songs. I just loved singing it! And I think because I have a quiet voice it just worked well. So it started with those CDs!

What would be a record that your family and/or friends would be surprised to find in your collection?
I love Radiohead! I listen to them a lot. Their melodies are actually really beautiful and they have quite intricate bass lines. Even though they’re soft rock – well now they would be but back in the days they were probably considered hard rock – their chords are quite jazzy sometimes. They have a lot of Major 7 and A’s…They use a bit of jazz harmonies and it’s simplified but I find that really interesting in that rock sound. And the lyrics are really elusive as well. I find it intriguing to listen to them.

Your lyrics are a bit like that too…
Yeah I like to give something to think about, something that’s not too obvious when you hear or read it.

© Saskia Wilson

You strike me as a very quiet, kind-hearted, introvert person. I saw on your Instagram the other day this post where you say « My heart swells when I sing jazz. Mistakes don’t exist anymore: it’s all about feelings. » Is music a way for you to balance that out and express things you don’t dare to say in your daily life, things that you maybe lack the confidence to say?
That’s definitely true. And that’s part of the reason why I chose an alias name as well ‘cause I didn’t quite feel like I could write my own music and present it to the world as Erin. I felt like I needed a bit of a shield. But there are definitely a lot of things I say and confess to in my lyrics that I wouldn’t say in real life or I wouldn’t actually say it to a person. But it would come out in a song. 

The « letting go » theme comes back a lot: in the way jazz makes you feel but also with the new sound that comes with your upcoming project. Would you say that this was a challenge for you these last couple of years or even throughout your musical journey so far? 
Yes, I’d say it’s a massive challenge! ‘Cause I really hold tight onto things. I like to be in control. But with music especially, I’ve decided to not stay in one genre since last year and to explore electronic sounds, collaborate with different artists… And in order to involve other people’s ideas and create something new, you have to let some of your ideas die a little bit to make way for something new and that’s definitely been a challenge.

You’re 29 and your first release ever was Come With Me, released in 2017. What took you so long? Not that you’re old but a lot of artists tend to jump into it younger, especially nowadays.
There are probably a few reasons. One would be that I never really quite felt that what I was doing or saying was enough. I always felt I had to learn more, I had to practice more. I kind of got to a point where I wasn’t going to release anything because I had become comfortable with just being that way: taking my time with things and enjoying the process of creating without needing to share with anyone. Another reason would be that I just had a lot going on in my personal, family life. My father died when I was quite young and my mom was very unwell so my older sisters and I, as well as my younger sister just beneath me, took care of our younger siblings, helped raise them and get them through school. So I didn’t really have time to just focus on music as a career or even to get in the studio ‘cause I’d be working all the time! It just wasn’t my reality. After my father died in 2014, I just decided I would try to share the music I was writing and creating. That began with Come With Me!

Were you doing gigs before that or was Come With Me really the start of everything?
It was pretty much the start of all my original music. Before that, I was doing jazz. So I wasn’t singing my own songs and I was doing gigs but it was more for extra money. I would do a lot of jazz gigs in little bars and clubs. I kind of had a bit of a name for myself in Sydney as a jazz singer. I remember in 2016 I got flown to Malaysia to perform in one of their little jazz clubs. I was very much a jazz session singer but this wasn’t the same as releasing original music. It was more “for work”.

It’s interesting to note that while it took you a long time to share your art with the world, once you started doing it, everything went really fast! When you first emailed me 2 years ago, you had no manager and you were probably not even picturing yourself in a room with top producers who worked with NAO, Kanye West, Jamie Woon, Gorillaz… and going all the way to Brooklyn, New York, to do it! Have you ever felt scared before the jump or did you just dive in right away?
I’m still scared. I’m still scared of it all (laughs)! But I did kind of just jump in. Although I was terrified. It just felt like such a big risk to take!

What gave you the push then? Did you think this through?
My little sister Olivia was really encouraging. My manager and his friend Omar were so excited. They talked about it with so much enthusiasm and just going through the new sounds and all the ideas and putting it all together was just so exciting at the time… that I decided to just do it! Just jump in and do it!

During that whole creative process, what was the most challenging about the recording? Was there any light-bulb moment or lesson you think you’ll take with you forever?
The most challenging thing was letting my songs go to allow them to evolve into a new sound. As you know, I have this softer sound and I write in a gentle way. The other side of my music now consists in these heavy beats and dark electro sounds. So I had to surrender to that, to that new sound, that new artist identity. That was the biggest challenge but I love it now and I’m so glad that I did that! And I think what I learned is that, even if you’re changing, there’s a small thing inside that you should never let go of. One thing should never change: the essence of your music, the essence of yourself. Go ahead and do what you need to make it accessible but don’t sacrifice your authenticity to achieve that: stay who you are. ‘Cause otherwise you’re not giving anything truthful to the world.

© Saskia Wilson

You’re gearing up to release your debut EP later this year. What can people expect from it?
I would say that there’s definitely a surprise in there: a very big, cinematic song that may not be expected but it still has the beautiful, intricate vocal harmonies. There will also still be an element of jazz, mainly in my vocal approach and phrasing but the result is a dark, electro soul project. I was actually hesitating between describing it as electro soul or electro pop but I went with electro soul because soul defines the lyrics more, as well as the overall feeling of the EP.

What’s the difference between Esmé from 2017 and the Esmé from now, both musically and personally?
I think I’m a lot braver now than I was in 2017, as a person and an artist! With the new music, I’ve gone to different places with my voice: there’s more resonance, there’s more range just from pushing myself outside of my general comfort zone. And as Erin, I just feel stronger in putting my own ideas into action, standing my ground and fighting for myself as an artist – which is kind of a fight in me I didn’t really have before I did all this. I was just sort of… content with putting music out and nothing really happening to it. But now I have a bit more fire in me to push it further.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that you like your poems and your quotes. Is there one that is your mantra for life or simply describe your current state of mind?
I don’t have a mantra for always: I resonate with different things at different times. But there’s a quote I just read the other night, by Morgan Freeman. It’s really simple. He said: « Take risks: if you win, you will be happy, and if you lose, you will be wise ». That really resonated with me in taking steps in my music.

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