She IS Wild | Solo Artist Esme Patterson and the Domestication of Ourselves
We Were Wild is the provocative title of the record out today, June 10, from Denver-native-turned-Portland-dweller singer/songwriter Esmé Patterson. It’s her third solo album and is released by Grand Jury Music. Though she was one of the founding members of the Denver indie rock band Paper Bird (along with her sister), last year she decided to fully commit to her solo music career. She moved to Portland and wrote this gorgeous rock record, chockablock with songs that swing between intimate melodic moments and energetic rock riffs, all buoyed by her honey-sweet voice. I had a conversation with Esmé on the eve of her summer tour in support of the brand new record.
“In a lot of ways this record feels like my first actual solo record. I put all my eggs into that basket and I was ready to try and make something new that I was really excited about and to focus all my energy on it. While the album is definitely autobiographical, in a lot of ways it’s also me trying to step into some new spaces emotionally and musically. My friend Adam Thompson, who produced the record, helped open up some doors to some new worlds in my head. We approached the making of the record in a way I’ve never done before: really exploratory and open-ended. It was really exciting and allowed me to start making the music I always wanted to make.”
I can imagine that in a band there’s always the option of hiding among the group(think), and while of course it’s more intimidating to be on your own, I bet it’s more freeing that everything is now your decision. You don’t have to answer to all these other voices anymore.
“Exactly, and that’s why it was time for me to leave that band. It is definitely both terrifying and exciting and fulfilling to be in control.”
Your album title is in the past tense. Why?
“The album is about the domestication of ourselves, that we are a species that has basically domesticated ourselves along with everything else that we can try to control. It begs the question: if we were wild, what are we now?
It’s kind of negotiating the ideas of civilization vs. wilderness and ownership of the self, and there’s a lot of subtext about what it’s like to be a woman, where legally we’re not necessarily the owners of our own bodies. And we’re often treated as property.
I was trying to encourage people to examine their relationship with the ownership of their own interior landscape and with their own physical bodies as well. The cover photo is of me in a leather choker and leash, but when the picture folds out it’s my own hand holding the chain. It asks: who do we allow to own us? Who do we pass ownership of ourselves onto, are we in control of that? Are we domesticating ourselves, or what does freedom look like, what does it mean?”
How did you find your musical team?
“The fella that produced the record is in a band I’ve always loved, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. He plays bass and does a lot of arranging for her. He’s also my friend. There was a great, perfect storm where he had a couple months free, and I had to finish my record so it worked out really well that we could work together. He helped me put together a band for the record.
I turned 30 last year, and I just don’t want to work with people that aren’t good people. I just want to work with people that I like and that I get along with, because life is too short to work with people that you don’t get along with. I have a personality problem where I give people too many chances. I’m trying to work on that.”
What is your process of writing a song? Instrumentation or lyrics first? Either or?
“I feel like my spirit is a lightening rod, so I’m constantly exploring and meditating on ideas and thoughts. When I have a seed of a feeling – when it feels like it resonates and strikes – and there’s lightening passing through, I pay attention. I try to untie that and unravel it and get to the bottom of it – usually like a seed of inspiration, but it’ll take lots of shapes.
Something that someone says, or the angle of light coming through a tree branch – these things move me and make me feel there’s a song in them. Which is kind of a fun way to live your life, too. I feel as though even if you’re not a songwriter you can see songs in a moment. I pick them and bring them home and kind of flush them out. I’m kind of constantly writing songs in various states, but I feel like it comes from lots of different places – melodic, poetic, or even from a challenge.”
Did you have any particular literary or creative inspiration that fueled this album?
“I wanted to follow the Talking Heads’ example of songs that had esoteric lyrics but also had movement and a groovy-ness in the song but was not a cultural appopriation. I’ve also been doing a lot of study of transcendental meditation and had been spending a lot of time in nature. I feel very inspired by watching plants grow and how they find light. I’ve been inspired by trying to understand the nature of consciousness, and so, yeah, there’s a transcendental…grooviness I was going for.”
Who’s your dream collaborator?
“I mean, there’s a million, and most of them are women. My first thought is St. Vincent, which would be really rad. And even though I’m trying really hard to stop talking about “Lemonade”, because that’s all I’ve been talking about – actually talking at people about it – I have to say Beyonce, too. Don’t worry – I’m not going to get into it right now. I watched it three times in a row, just weeping like a child. Like a little baby. It was insane, and very powerful and important. That’s all I’m going to say!”
It’s okay. I haven’t seen “Lemonade” yet but I imagine how you feel about it is how I felt about Magic Mike XXL when it was first released. I lectured everyone on its massive cultural significance when I saw it, as it was the most body-positive, feminist, ethnically diverse Blockbuster released in a long time.
“Wow, okay, now I have to see that.”
How do you choose your opening acts?
“I love playing with people that inspire me. I think it’s important to bring along people you respect and believe in. For my album release show, I reached out to my friend Eleanor Perry Smith, who’s one of the most fearless and courageous people I’ve ever met in my life. We used to publish a poetry journal together. She’s been doing this super courageous project where she performs her poems in front of people to challenge herself and present poetry in different circumstances than usual – kind of like rock ‘n’ roll shows. I asked her if she would come and read – not read but perform – a couple of her poems at the shows.
In music and art in general, there’s a wonderful opportunity for mutual inspiration and community, and I think often people in this industry get caught up in competition and trying to be the Highlander, or whatever. I think there’s a community aspect of art that can be really symbiotic and nurturing. As a headliner, I like to curate a tiny community for the night.”
What do you want your audience to feel when they listen to your album?
“Ooh. What a cool question. I recently went to a castle in southern Colorado; it’s called Bishop’s Castle. This guy is building this castle pretty much by himself. It’s humongous, and it’s crazy. It’s open to the public, and it’s really important to him that it’s open to the public and that anyone can come there at any point in time and walk around the whole castle. He’s building it for everyone. It’s always in progress, too, and he’s adding a moat, now. There’s a dragon that breathes fire; it’s crazy!
I was walking around in this castle, thinking that for me that’s what it’s like to write songs and to release the music to other people. It’s like I’m building this castle. I’m doing it because I want to do it and it’s of course also for me, but it’s open to the public and I want all people at all times to be able to walk around inside of the song and feel free to explore them and put themselves inside of the songs – feel whatever they want to feel. It’s a place they can visit whenever they want, and it’s for them as much as it is for everyone. It’s for all of us. And that’s kind of how I feel about all of my music but especially this record.
I wanted to make music that you can dance to and feel good but that also had a gravitas to it, and the closer you looked at the meaning of the songs the more there was to discover.”
Esme Patterson is playing in Los Angeles at the Resident on Thursday, June 23rd. See her website for full tour info, songs, and more: http://esmepatterson.com/