A new solo album, a stage shared with Erykah Badu, a passport stamped with international performances—the already prolific Estère is ready to move front and centre. Photography by Daniel Rose.
When I first met Estère we were marching up Molesworth St towards a line of baton wielding policeman. We were chanting; marching towards them as they linked arm and arm. It was bitterly cold and the Beehive sat beside us like some detached, unmoved observer. Eventually, our lines clashed. Baton met crash helmet, fist met face. Someone in front of us fell, and we tried to drag them to their feet as the police bore down upon us. Then someone yelled cut and we laughed and readjusted our early ’80s throwback jackets and hoped someone would bring us another round of hot tomato soup.
As extras in a made-for-television movie about the infamous 1981 Springboks tour, many of us were there as poor university students, enticed by the promise of a day’s free food and a restaurant voucher. With Estère, this was probably true too, but it’s indicative of her attraction to drama, an attraction she also brings to her music and performance.
At the age of 22, Estère’s achievements are already impressive. She won the Smokefree Rockquest Women’s Musicianship award when she was 17. As part of the Red Bull Prodigy project last year, she recorded with the highly regarded Oddisee. As one-ninth of the funky as hell Brockerflowersaurus Rex and the Blueberry Biscuit, she has been touring their recently released debut album Build it while also performing her solo work internationally—all of this before the release of her debut record this week. It seems fair to say, Estère has been keeping busy.
Musically, Estère stands out due to her ability to seamlessly blend the ethos and passion of soul music with modern technology and soundscapes, as well as lyrics and sentiments, that have been the plow with which she’s carved her own path. Threaded through beats that tickle your feet and oil your joints are modern, urban stories. It’s a sound and perspective that fits well with that of her hometown, Wellington.
“Wellington’s a great city to be a musician in, because it’s a real community and there are lots of musicians/bands to play with or go see. On the other hand, with everyone playing with everyone, points of difference can be sometimes hard to emphasise.”
For Estère, that point of difference comes not only from her modern soul ethos, but also in the narrative of her writing, which draws the listener into the story, while also shifting and influencing the song writing, and the tone of the production of the song, itself.
“I like to write songs with strong concepts. It sometimes takes a while for these concepts to form and often l sift through quite a few ideas before I find one that I’m really inspired to write about.”
Those songs are forming what is to be Estère’s debut album. She describes it as “the product of mine and Lola’s getting to know each other.” (Lola being her affectionate name for her MPC player.) “We then brought the music we’d made to Blue Barn Studios [to refine], but it was really important to me that the album stay true to what Lola and I had done just by ourselves in the bedroom—so that it would honestly reflect our creative intent and retain an organic, home made sound to it.”
With solo ‘bedroom’ writing and production, songs can slowly build and grow organically in a way that more beats based, electronic bedroom production music lends itself to. There’s attention to detail that indicates a consideration about every aspect of the song, building into how it all works together as a whole, even if that whole is far and away from what was originally envisioned. As she puts it, “I rework songs quite a lot before I am satisfied. Often it’s like planning a trip to Amsterdam and ending up in Moscow.”
In the last year she’s played shows in Melbourne, Paris, London, Denmark, and South Korea. While presumably planning to end up in those countries, it’s impressive for an artist without a solo record to her name.
“I think that New Zealand is a cool place to grow and expand as a musician, but it can’t be denied that off-shore has a lot to offer by ways of industry and the potential for success.”
Born to a Cameroonian father and a Pakeha mother, perhaps there’s always been an element of the global in her. She started singing around the age of two, before developing an “uncanny knack for mimicking Brittany Spears,” but in due time realised that her “voice was something of a tool that I was able to use relatively thoroughly.”
After a stint in an all girl group called Cyber Sex On Mars, in which she played the drums, Estère came into her own as a vocalist.
“I started performing quite young at school shows and assemblies. One of the first performances I did of a song I’d written myself was an anti-smoking rap I wrote when I was 10 called ‘Why Light It Up?’ I started performing more of the songs I wrote once I got to high school.”
It’s a long way between the school hall and The Civic, where she supported Erykah Badu earlier this month, a slot that is testament to the reputation of her performance ability as well as her song writing skills.
“Erykah Badu is one of my all time favourite musicians/performers. She’s a huge inspiration to me because she is such a strong, uncompromised female figure within the music industry. Not only that, her musical ability is awe-inspiring, so to be opening for one of my idols is an amazing privilege for me.”
When I last saw Estère, her 10 ft. face was watching the Mayor of Laketown rouse his peoples as Smaug took flight towards them. Though she plays the extra well you can’t help but feel that, with the culmination of her many exciting projects, front and centre is where Estère really belongs.