There is much more to New Orleans music than second line parades according to singer songwriter Esther Rose and Jack White agrees
Though she was born in Detroit, Esther Rose has spent the last 10 years living in New Orleans and has been building a career momentum over three albums. The latest, ‘How Many Times’, is picking up quite a bit of press in America as it blends an indie attitude with real country and great songs that, while still echoing the lo-fo sound of her previous albums, are her most polished recordings yet. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Esther Rose at home in New Orleans over Zoom to discuss her new album, her approach to songwriting, her view of emotional pain and the thrill of getting songwriting advice from Nick Lowe and being asked to singing backing vocals for Jack White. Esther Rose makes it very clear that New Orleans is a vibrant music city with multiple genres of music and is so much more than second line parades and she also gives an insider’s tip on a great cajun music festival Blackpot, which she claims is better than Mardi Gras for a real experience of Louisiana music and culture. She also gives local record label Valcour Records a shout-out.
How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
I haven’t got sick so that is nice, and everyone is doing OK and hanging in there.
How is New Orleans coping with COVID? What was 2021 like for Mardi Gras?
Yeah, February was really interesting. I actually got very sick with the flu right when Mardi Gras was starting and Mardi Gras is basically like a month, a very long time, and the kick-off day is like two weeks before Mardi Gras morning, it is called Krewe De Vieux, and there is like this great parade. We had just finished recording the record right on Krewe Du Vieux, and so there is this moment and I am like loading out of the studio with everyone, we had wrapped the record, and it was like just walking into Mardi Gras. It was such a transition, I shall never forget it. After every block, there were just more and more people, getting denser you know. I didn’t party at Mardi Gras because I got flu, I know Mardi Gras was a crazy super-spreader event though.
New Orleans music is known the world over but what is the New Orleans americana scene like?
There are a load of really good country bands coming from around New Orleans. The nicest thing about that the town, New Orleans, the thing that makes sense of it is that there is space for every kind of genre. Because people go out so much there is just room for everything, it is just a music town.
In terms of your own music, is it the tourist market or more the locals who come to hear you?
I’d say it is more locals. However, that is just because we are playing smaller venues off Frenchman’s Street, the fun more rock and roll and dive type bars like BJs’s or Saturn Bar, which closed recently. It is fun to reminisce about it now but it has been like a year of changes.
Hopefully, things will eventually come back but, unfortunately, it probably won’t be quite the same. Coming to your album, what was behind the title ‘How Many Times’?
I guess that song, in the batch of songs I wrote at that time, became the song that really stood out to me as kind of encapsulating the entire message and the feeling of the record, because it is about just being in that heartbreak depression loop, just in your house bouncing about between different distractions. Instead of choosing distractions, like focusing on the feeling and there is a really big release that comes and that was the process that happened when I wrote that song. I feel that it kept happening during the other songs that I wrote, you know being in a bad mood and kind of working through it, haha. I also like the song because it isn’t really about anything that has to do with a relationship, it is just you are in your day, your life, and yet there is this persistent feeling and that is personal. That is what is so interesting about pain, it is not really about anybody it is just about you and how you deal with it, right.
This is your third album, how do you think this album is different from your earlier ones, have you grown as an artist? You brought in producer Ross Farbe to give you a different sound, what was behind that approach?
His band is Video Age and they are pop music, you know, but he is just a great engineer and producer who has worked with some amazing bands like Tuba Skinny and just all kinds of sounds. As a producer, he can do anything and he is young and motivated, he shows up with his reel-to-reel where ever and still gets a great sound. He was just ready to go and I had done both of my earlier albums with Mash Potato Studio and they were transitioning to a new studio space so it just wasn’t right and so I had to reach out to somebody else. I think Ross Farbe brought, I’m not sure, the songs sound a little less lo-fi but they are still recorded live with 2 tracks. I think it is a gradual production evolution, it seems right that every record I make is a little bit like the previous record.
I was wondering whether you are on a deliberate journey or was it just how it goes?
It is just a slow and steady climb, just trying to work out how to get a better sound on them, using nicer equipment each time, maybe someday we will even do a digital record, haha.
What surprised you about the sound of your new record, what pleased you?
This is probably going to sound may be crazy, but on the first two records I didn’t even use headphones, I was just singing live with the band. With the third record, I wore headphones to really just get inside what I was trying to do with my voice to sing my songs the way I always wanted to do. It was just a simple thing like that but I am so slow and stubborn that I didn’t want headphones, I wanted to be with the band, you know haha. I feel that sonically I was really able to tap into more depth, there are quieter moments and the arrangements feel so complete with great trading between solos from the band just really listening to each other.
Tell me about the band. Obviously, if the record was recorded largely live the band must know each other and they must know you.
Haha, yes very well, OK guys album number three, getting together, haha. I met my fiddle player, Lyle Werner on the levee and he was going for a job, for once in his lifetime, and I said I hear you are a great fiddle player, and he ran down to his house and got his fiddle. Matt Bell was known around town as one of the only guys who really digs old-school traditional country and he was kind enough to learn my songs. I guess I just got in with some really like ace musicians, for sure. Everyone is in 3 or 4 bands when the season is right, and that is 3 or 4 different songbooks. I play in Max Bien Kahn’s band, he’s the electric guitar player, and I play rhythm guitar and backup harmonies so there is trading going on, you know, we support each other I think.
How do you go about writing your songs, are you disciplined and treat it as a job or is it more when the muse takes you?
I think there is discipline because it is the willingness and the care to pay attention when I have an idea. I have always been a creative person and songwriting for me was a fun thing, I have dabbled with it all my life, occasionally writing like a song a year or something. I really started paying attention around age 28, about five years ago, when I started this journey on my own project and for the first time when I got the idea for a song I didn’t just brush it aside and say I will take care of it later I prioritised it. In doing that it really opened up this whole world where everything was feeding into melody and song ideas, also getting in with a really great songwriting scene where you have a place to have songs shared was really important to me before making records, and New Orleans just has this incredible songwriting community.
From your personal point of view, how do you know when you have finished a song and it is ready to record.
Well, some of the songs did change a little bit and actually, I re-recorded two of them, which was awesome as they developed a little bit from just being played out. For the most part, I finish songs quickly and I put all of my energy and focus into them to make sure there is nothing lingering and left undone.
I think I heard somewhere that you have toured with Nick Lowe. Did you learn anything about songwriting from him?
He said something that was incredibly validating as a songwriter, and something I have always found to be true and that I will never forget because I loved it so much. I heard that song ‘Blue On Blue’ of his, and every night I heard that song being played live I was just so, I don’t know, it was magnetic. Time stops as soon as he starts playing that song, I don’t know what it is about that song, and I just love it out of so many great songs, that one just stood out to me. I asked him how do you come to write these songs and he said ”I was just in the mood”, and I was like yes that’s it. That is the thing, you are just in a mood, this intangible thing. I love that he said that, I love that song and relate to it 100%. I then wrote ‘My Bad Mood’.
Which other artists have been an inspiration to you and who do you look up to?
I think one of my biggest influences, apart from my friendships which are monumental and aren’t really an aside, like my friends in this band The Deslondes who have been incredibly supportive, they have played in my band and I love all of them as songwriters in their own solo roles. People who are more mainstream, I mean I have listened to Joni Mitchell and just tried to absorb every little bit of wisdom, power or whatever it is that makes her songs so incredible, she is a big one. Nina Simone, I get really stuck on albums and I just want to understand just every little nuance.
You like getting full value.
Did you say full value, haha, that is the name of one of my new songs? I’m serious, my most recent song is ‘Full Value’ and that phrase got stuck in my head but you won’t hear it for another 3 years.
Why will we have to wait 3 years to hear ‘Full Value’?
It takes a long time, doesn’t it? I could always do it as a single I suppose.
These days there is a question over what is an album because it is increasingly more difficult to control how listeners consume music. You know how you package your music but with streaming listeners don’t have to consume albums as a whole.
Yeah. I know. It does take time from when I write a song to when it goes out into the world. These songs on ‘How Many Times’ I wrote in 2018 and some in 2019, you know. They don’t feel old though.
Songs after a while take on their own life and stop aging after a while I think. How did you get to sing backing vocals for Jack White?
We did a duet for his last record. It was kind of a funny moment when I self-released around this time in 2017, people were sharing it and there was word of mouth and someone gave it to Jack White and two weeks later I was pretty much-making plans to fly to LA to record with him. I feel like the moral of this story is really kind of fun, exciting and you never know who is listening and you don’t know what is in store or what interesting collaborations are about to happen. It is really exciting to be in music, I know it doesn’t always seem that way, but that is my perspective.
That must have been a pretty amazing experience as he is difficult to predict as an artist himself with his knowledge and experience of multiple genres.
I was born in Detroit, I grew up in Michigan and I went to school in Plains so getting to work with Jack White was definitely one of the coolest things that has happened to like a mid-west teenager, you know what I mean, haha.
A mid-west teenager who is now in New Orleans, haha.
Haha, I have lived here for 10 years which is the longest time I have lived anywhere as an adult, so New Orleans definitely feels like home more than Michigan. My family have all left Michigan. Home is complicated for me.
At least you have one.
Tell me about Father/Daughter Records who are released in the UK by Full Time Hobby?
Oh wow, yeah. I still have family and honestly, I just didn’t have any idea about breaking into the music industry, I was just writing songs and not releasing. Tyler Andere, A&R, found me out and wrote me an email and then he wrote me again. I guess they have really helped shape this experience with me. Growing up you hear all kinds of stuff from the music industry, that it is just sleazy and terrible with artists always getting the short end of the stick or whatever. Working with Father/Daughter records is like the opposite of all that. I feel super cared for, well represented and just have these caring people investing in my songs. So it has been amazing, yeah.
Do you have a view of your career now? You are into your third album, you have a supportive record label and you are beginning to think about your sound more. Are you more focused now with a clearer career path?
Well, I have a better understanding now of how to make records that I love, it feels less mysterious to me, and that is really exciting. I have a new collection of songs, of course as it has been a year, but there is still so much unknown and I am trying to draw excitement from that. I don’t have a clear vision, and I have always thought of myself as being stuck in the present and being really creative and writing, but that duality is challenging for me. So if you have any great ideas for my career just let me know or maybe I will get my tarot cards done, haha.
Hopefully, by the middle of the year, you will be touring again. How have you managed to fill your time during COVID?
Well, I have been doing some work in a café doing barista stuff and that is something that feels very like 2010. This pandemic has felt like a return to youth in that there has just been a lot of freedom for a lot of folks, though not everyone though. It is reminiscent of the time before my career and all that, so one of my go-to things that I always wanted to do was just to go back to making coffee and do something super simple that is very satisfying and have a fraction of a social life. That came back and that was surprising.
COVID hasn’t been all bad, has it? Yes, it has been terrible with the number of deaths but the downtime has been useful for lots of people, enabling them to reassess and refocus their lives.
I understand about the silver lining and I understand the optimistic point of view but…
Not good, I can tell.
Not good for our species, we are not doing very well.
As an artist how are you dealing with the challenge of the streaming of recorded music and the giants like Spotify?
I really want people to approach my record as a record. People who like doing that will appreciate my album because I have thought a lot about sequencing, and I have spent a lot of time building this experience. That being said, I use streaming and I think it is incredibly useful for new artists to pop-up in algorithms. I have discovered a lot of music that way, do I wish it paid a bit more yes of course, and I believe there are people working on that. I am not against it, I am resigned to it.
What do you hope to be doing in 2021, apart from stop making coffee and getting back to playing live?
I am going to make my best record.
You mean you haven’t made it yet?
Haha, I mean an even better one. I must say the album campaign kind of thing and talking to people in interesting cities is wonderful, but my heart is in recording and writing, but I appreciate talking to you, haha. What is something you have listened to this year that you have really enjoyed?
It changes nearly every week. Let me see, the new Corey Ledet record ‘Corey Ledet’s Zydeco’.
Oh, Ledet. Cool, really cool oh my gosh.
That album reignited my interest in zydeco and cajun music
Right, so you have to come to Blackpot. Don’t worry about Mardis Gras, Blackpot is this music festival that I played and it is in Lafayette which is where all that music is from. It is a tiny festival and it is called Blackpot because all its chefs make free food with their cauldrons for the attendees.
That sounds good
It is so much fun, there is a huge dance floor and it is small, like 4,000 or so. You also need to listen to everything from Valcour Records with is owned by Joel Savoy and they are based in Eunice, Louisiana. They are really tapped into the incredible cajun culture and recording. Don’t worry about Mardis Gras, haha, maybe do it all, haha.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which 3 artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Ok, this isn’t that helpful but I listen to a lot of private Soundcloud links from my friends. Somebody who I am really excited about and has a new record is Chris Aker, his music is awesome. I’m really excited by Riley Downing’s new record that is coming out, he has just released one song. I’ve been listening to a ton of Sam Evian and I am really inspired by the records he has recorded for other bands which are awesome.
Any chance of you getting over to Europe in the next couple of years?
Of course, haha.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
I did play a show at KOKO with Pokey Lafarge and that was the most beautiful room I have ever been in, I can’t wait to come back. To everyone in the UK, have fun with this record, I think it is a really fun record even though it is like maybe heartbreak, heartbreak, there is still a lot of joy to be found.
Esther Rose’s ‘How Many Times’ is out now on Full Time Hobby