Fresh from a tour of Southern Africa and days out from opening for music legend Grace Jones in Queenstown, multi-talented Wellington-based musician Estère Dalton talks to Phoebe Watt about her upcoming album release and why she doesn’t write songs about heartbreak.
You’re gearing up for the release of part two of your album On Others’ Lives, part one of which — My Design — dropped in December. Tell us about your decision to split this body of work in two…
Making My Design, On Others’ Lives a two-parter was in some ways an instinctual decision. Ultimately, I thought it made sense to introduce people to the music as if each was part of a story or chapter book.
This album was a follow-up to the self-titled debut EP you released in 2014. How have you evolved as an artist in the four years since then?
I think my production knowledge and skill level has developed considerably. I’m continuously crafting and shaping myself as an artist, and I like to think that this process is clearly reflected in the work that I release.
You describe your sound as ‘electric blue witch hop’. What does this mean?
Electric blue witch hop describes the amalgamation of sound and influence I believe my music to have. The ‘electric’ alludes to the electronic aspect of the music. The ‘blue’ is what I imagine the synesthetic experience would be. The ‘witch’ plays on the general mystic and magical element of music, and the ‘hop’ is the heavy bass and drums I like to put into my production.
As if being a singer-songwriter doesn’t require enough talent, you also produce your own music, play all your own instruments, and choreograph your music videos… where did you learn to do all-of-the-things?
I am lucky enough to know lots of generous people who I can call on for a helping hand or advice when undertaking a project or trying to learn something new. To reach out to those with skills and experience has always been my approach and what’s enabled me to expand my skills and experience. I’m also a bit of a ‘tunnel vision’ personality in the sense that once I set my mind on something I have quite direct focus.
Tell us about the members of your so-called ‘machine band’…
The members of my machine band in no particular order are Lola, who is my MPC (Music Production Controller), Korgy, my cute little synthesiser, Toto, my three-headed analogue drum kit (otherwise known as Rototoms), and I also use an electric guitar.
From a song written from the perspective of a whale to one about a high-class prostitute who wants to be president, your audience is treated to much more than the standard confessional fodder that dominates mainstream radio. Why this approach?
My philosophy is that everything on this planet deserves a song and could be a good song. Being limited to just a few themes doesn’t really interest me as a writer. I think being explorative and creative is the most fun thing about art, so I choose to write songs about whatever I want.
You do of course write songs that are closer to home, including ‘Grandmother’, a single you released last year that was inspired by your father’s mother. What can you tell us about her?
My grandmother’s name is also Estère. She was from Cameroon. I never got to meet her, unfortunately, and that’s what spurred the song.
The music video for ‘Grandmother’ starred UN ambassador and author Sindiwe Magona. Talk to us about the connection between the two women…
Sindiwe Magona had written a book called My Children’s Children, so my song resonated with her as a grandmother and immediately connected her to Estère. I think that’s the reason she agreed to be part of the video.
View this post on Instagram
You’ve described your latest single ‘Rent’ as “an ode to the pressures placed on us by society and social media to achieve our goals without celebrating the personal triumphs”, which sounds a bit like a takedown of the tall poppy syndrome. Is that something you’ve experienced?
The focus of ‘Rent’ is how society has certain expectations that can be hard to live up to. I think commentary about tall poppy syndrome is definitely an interesting way of interpreting it, although it’s not something I was explicitly referring to when I wrote the song. I think there is a culture of humility in New Zealand that might be seen as sometimes detrimental, but I mostly recognise it for what it is, so don’t feel like I have been very affected by it.
You’ve just returned from a three-stop tour of Southern Africa. Describe that experience…
Going back to Southern Africa was awesome. I first performed there in 2016 and it was quite different this time as everything felt much more familiar. It’s a place I really love going now and I hope to continue a touring career there — the experience is always really enriching.
Do you have any pre/post-show rituals to help amp you up or wind you down when you’re touring?
I’ve started doing press-ups to warm up my pectoral muscles before I go on stage. I also like to take a moment to myself to focus and feel centred.
You’re about to open for Grace Jones in Queenstown. What’s running through your head in the lead-up?
I can’t wait to see her live! Grace isn’t just a music legend, she’s a fashion icon. Is this something you aspire to?
How would you describe your style and what’s your process for picking looks for on stage, music videos etc?
I like fashion. I don’t think I’m in any way at the forefront. For me, it’s about wearing what feels comfortable and enhances my experience as a performer.
Who are your musical influences?
They span far and wide, from Grace Jones to Fleet Foxes, David Bowie to Gillian Welch, Bob Marley to Lykke Li and Missy Elliott. I love them all!
Who or what else influences you?
People owning their creative freedom. I think you can tell when that’s what an artist is doing. There’s something so powerful about them, regardless of external elements such as hype or reach.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Producing a lot of music.
What would you tell your five-years-younger self?
I’d encourage myself to create more content, to just write, write, write!
Interview: Phoebe Watt
This interview originally appeared in Miss FQ Issue 1, 2018.