- December 2014 -
HAVE A BEER WITH Esmé PATTERSON
Not only is Esmé Patterson a kickass singer/songwriter, she's also an avid fiction reader (she's currently working on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest), a poetry enthusiast (she curated a journal in Denver featuring local talent), an R. Kelly fan (she appreciates the complexities in the R&B opera "Trapped in the Closet") and a hardcore Sherlock Holmes aficionado (she's seen and read everything Sherlock-related, except the Star Trek: Next Gen episodes featuring his character; they're next on her list).
We met up with Esmé at Revolution Brewing while she was in town recording material for an upcoming solo record. We discussed the recent (and difficult) breakup with her long-time folk band Paper Bird, the thematic approach to writing her last solo record -- Woman to Woman -- and why writing and performing music is a cathartic and challenging process.
The Show: Shakey Graves with Esmé Patterson and Sean Rowe at Lincoln Hall // Dec. 3, 2014
Drinks of Choice: Esmé Patterson (whiskey – neat); Paleo (coffee); Sean McConnell (well whiskey on the rocks)
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You guys could have ordered whiskey. We could have done “a whiskey with the band.”
EsméPatterson: Nah, it’s a school night.
Kristen: Gotta love school nights. Yeah, so speaking of, you’re here in Chicago recording. You recorded today and you’ll record more tomorrow. New stuff?
Esmé: Yeah, new jams. It’s really exciting. Last night we were just kind of going for it in the studio until 2 a.m.; trying to lay down as much as possible.
Paleo: We were recording at this place called MINBAL Studios here in Chicago. It’s a warehouse. It’s a pretty awesome space with great gear.
Kristen: Nice, yeah I’ve heard of MINBAL. As a band, how did you guys find each other?
Esmé: We did a tour together – [points to Paleo] the two of us – in April, both as solo musicians. There was a drum set on stage from the other band that was playing, and he just got on stage with me and said, “Can I play drums in your song?” I was like, “You don’t know any of my songs!” He said he would figure it out, and he has played with me ever since.
Kristen: That’s pretty great. Do you remember the song that you jumped in on?
Paleo: I think it was “My Young Man.” And then with Sean, I actually used to live in Chicago and met him here. I don’t remember exactly how…
Sean: We met at a show. You played a show, and I came up to you and gave you my contact info, thinking we would never meet again because that’s how it usually goes. But then he had a few shows coming up, so we got some guys together. Esmé and I have a handful of mutual friends in Denver through touring, and I finally got to meet her in Portland a summer ago. That’s how it goes. Through touring. Small world.
Esmé: Tiny world.
Kristen: And so are you based out of Denver now?
Esmé: I just moved to Portland.
Kristen: How do you like it?
Esmé: Well, I haven’t really been there at all. I moved there and then I went on tour for two months.
Kristen: That’s got to be so weird.
Esmé: It’s so weird. People are like, “Where do you live?” And it’s like, “I don’t really feel like I live anywhere.” I pay rent somewhere, but I haven’t been there for more than three weeks.
Kristen: Is that unsettling?
Esmé: Oh, you get used to it.
Kristen: What prompted you to make the move there?
Esmé: [points to Paleo] He lives there.
Kristen: Okay, so then I have to ask. Are you guys dating?
Esmé: [Laughs] Yeah.
Kristen: What’s your guys’ go-to place in Portland when you’re home?
Paleo: Well, seeing as how we’ve only been in Portland collectively for about three weeks, we’re trying to go store to store and restaurant to restaurant trying to feel like we actually live there.
Esmé: We always go straight to Stumptown and get coffee. They have the best coffee ever. We also live right by this amazing park that has huge redwood trees. I like to go wander around in there, even if it’s just for a half an hour.
Kristen: Yeah, it’s probably a very nice change of pace from being on the road. There’s probably nothing like that when you’re on the road. How do you keep yourself sane?
Esmé: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. You learn how to entertain yourself. You keep yourself amused.
Paleo: We just figured out a really great trick. We were traveling in a sedan – just the two of us – and until recently, we had all of our belongings in the trunk and in the back seat while we sat up front. The drives are long but we keep each other company. We have a lot to talk about. But you know, we get to the venue, we sound check, we hang backstage for a while … and what we discovered is that sanity is a little easier to maintain if you get a bit of alone time. You might like somebody, but it’s really nice to have a minute alone. So, what we’ve done for the last couple of long drives is we’ve moved a lot of the stuff in the back to the passenger front seat, so the person driving is alone, and then one of the other of us is in the backseat alone.
Esmé: You roll up the invisible taxi window.
Paleo: We’re still kind of talking to each other most of the time, but at least there’s the illusion of the possibility of being in your own space. It has actually made a difference.
Kristen: Do you sit directly behind the passenger seat or …?
Esmé: We tried that and it kind of creeped me out.
Sean: The other person could always reach around unexpectedly and strangle you!
Kristen: You never know.
Esmé: We try to go outside into nature as much as we can and spend some time in the daylight, but a lot of times we can’t. It’s nice to not be in rooms full of people – because that’s your job: to be in rooms full of people. Anytime we can diversify our experience, it keeps us a little more sane.
Sean: I might be a rare example in that I really enjoy isolation on tour. I go on the road a lot by myself and don’t mind it. But I’ve also had the good fortune of touring with really great people who know how to give everyone space. I’ve always toured with good friends, and long drives are fine because I’m really into listening to music or audio books. The people I tour with are really good about either having a good conversation or staying silent for hours at a time. It’s just really comfortable. It’s like family. I try my best to tour with the people I’m closest to that I know I can put up with.
Kristen: It’s about knowing your limits.
Sean: Yeah, and also, if you can tour with other introverts, it’s really good. Everybody stays in their little box.
Kristen: So, you guys are introverts, I’m an introvert. Introverts unite!
[Clinking of glasses]
Sean: It’s great getting into close spaces with introverts … and then nobody says anything.
Kristen: Exactly. So, you’re on tour now with Shakey Graves. How has it been so far?
Esmé: We’ve been on tour for about a month – a little over a month. It has been crazy. It has been fun. The crowd that likes his music is really opening their arms to us, but I’m not sure that we speak the same native tongue necessarily.
Kristen: Is the native tongue a little more rowdy?
Esmé: Yeah, well, he’s a Texas guy. I don’t want to say anything disparaging; it’s just different strokes for different folks. The record that I most recently put out is really some aggressive, feminist-leaning material that guys in cowboy hats aren’t necessarily excited about. They’re like [in a Southern drawl], “Whoa, she’s angry! Wow!”
Kristen: Was that your cowboy impression?
Esmé: [Laughs] Yeah.
Kristen: But then you probably win them over with “Dearly Departed.” I saw a video of you and Alejandro performing that song for Pandora at SXSW. It was like watching a secret friendship handshake. That’s the way I would describe it.
Esmé: Totally. We had a lot of fun writing that song together. We have a lot of fun playing it. For me, it’s a good exercise in not taking myself too seriously. I think I can get kind of overly intellectual and serious sometimes, and playing with him reminds me that it doesn’t always have to be that way. It’s a good thing to remember.
Kristen: It’s a really playful song. And I saw that you shot the video for that recently.
Esmé: Yeah, we did. Actually, we did it on Halloween down in Austin.
Kristen: That’s kind of fitting. Is that song how that tour came about?
Esmé: Yeah, we wrote that song together and it just took off. We wrote it as a joke. I remember sitting around doing whatever the fuck I was doing and people were calling me saying, “That song!” And I said, “What! That song’s a joke!” And they said, “No, it’s going to be the single on his record.” I was like, “Are you serious? Okay! Great! Let’s do it!” Initially, they wanted me to come on the tour and sing. I wrote three songs with Alejandro for that record, but we had also put out our record in April and we’d been touring a lot on it. I suggested, “How about I play my own set and come up and sing with you guys and that will work out great.” They were on board with it, and that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s been awesome. It has been a long haul. We went up the east coast, then the west coast and across Canada and here we are now.
Kristen: And you’re going back to Canada – to Toronto – before your show at Lincoln Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 3. You’ve played Chicago before – at The Hideout. What has been your favorite Chicago moment?
Esmé: I’m just here for the hot dogs! My old band Paper Bird – that I actually just left after eight years – played in Chicago a few times. I always had such a blast here and was always so pissed we were leaving. I just wanted to stay.
Kristen: Was the decision to leave Paper Bird a difficult one?
Esmé: Yeah, it was a lot harder than I though it would be. It was really emotional. And my sister is in the band, and she’s still in the band. So there’s this crazy connection. It was a breakup, and even a breakup on good terms is still hard. I’m excited to see what happens for them and I know that it was the right choice for me to do my own thing. It was getting too busy. It was hard though, super hard.
Kristen: Well, you’re here now.
Esmé: I’m here, drinking a beer!
Paleo: I just want to add a little footnote. It may be hard to imagine the difficulty of breaking up with a band if you’ve never been in a band. I’ve never really been in a band, so it was hard for me to relate. I don’t know what analogy would sink in … but as a witness to it, I can definitely say that it seemed harder for her – for Esmé. She was pretty heartbroken about it. But it’s about greener pastures and moving on. Life goes on. But it’s a big deal. Bands are your best friends, your collaborators, your soul mates …
Kristen: Yeah, I imagine it’s like any other relationship, especially when you’re making something so personal and creative…
Esmé: Yeah… there’s a really dramatic story if you want to hear it.
Kristen: Of course.
Esmé: The conversation that I had with the band … we had it in Oklahoma City before one of our shows on the tour. They sat me down and they gave me an ultimatum: either you leave the band and just do your solo thing or you stop doing your solo thing and just be in the band. I was like, “What? Whoa! That’s no question. I will absolutely do my own thing. You can’t make me choose. If I have to choose that’s no question.” So, my mind processed that and we all shook ands and it was alright. I decided I would play the rest of the shows that were on the calendar because I didn’t want to put them in a bad spot. My mind grasped that decision. Then, we got up on stage to play the show. and about halfway through the set, I passed out cold at the climax of one of the songs. I just fainted.
Kristen: Did you feel it coming?
Esmé: I got really thirsty and then I blacked out. It was a room full of a people, a crowd. I just fell down and it was crazy. I felt like a part of me died. If you faint, you obviously go unconscious for a minute and you go somewhere else. In that moment, I felt like a part of me had died. The part of me that was in that band. It’s kind of dramatic …
Kristen: Did you get back up and play the rest of the show?
Esmé: No, no. We were like, “Sorry guys. We’re going to drive home!”
Kristen: It was clearly the right thing for you to leave, though.
Esmé: It was totally the right thing, but knowing something’s the right thing and moving through that point to where you need to be is different and hard. Some people say that you don’t know that you’re doing something good unless it’s something that’s hard to do.
Kristen: I agree with that.
Esmé: I’m glad to be where I am now. That was at the end of summer. It feels really good now to be where I am, but it was a really dramatic story. I called David [Paleo] and I said, “You won’t believe what happened!” He said, “I hope this doesn’t sound weird, but I’m really happy for you!”
Kristen: Why was that?
Paleo: She has always wanted to faint on stage and I knew that this was a big moment for her. [Esmé laughs]. It had to happen. Everybody had seen that in the crystal ball for quite some time.
Sean: It’s like a phoenix. It goes to ashes and it comes back.
Esmé: It’s a cycle.
Sean: That’s something to be proud of. You start somewhere and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re going to grow up. You’re going to grow out. That’s how it goes. And if you started with family, you’re going to grow away from that family. If you start on your own, maybe eventually you’re going to want to grow into a family. There’s a polarity there.
Esmé: That’s beautiful.
Paleo: You earned that beer, Sean.
Kristen: Speaking of growth and evolution, I’d like to talk about your last record, Woman to Woman, which was a series of responses to songs about women, written by both men and women. Is there a similar theme for the new material you’re working on?
Esmé: There’s no theme. If there is a theme, it’s a secret – even to me. It’s funny, we were talking about this before. At the time, I was really feeling like that album was a project that I was doing outside of my own life and outside of my own experience. It was refreshing because it had nothing to do with my own experience. But, I was actually married at one time. I got divorced. And my community was kind of fractured. I was feeling really powerless that I couldn’t go to each of these people and tell them my side of the story. I had to lose friends, and it really broke my heart in a way. I think that project secretly started out of that desire to tell the other side of the story. That was the seed for it – the idea of championing the untold side of the story – but not just as men and women speaking, but as women speaking to women as well. In the song “Jolene,” Dolly Parton’s character is being allowing herself to be really vulnerable and you expect Jolene to be a bitch about it. I really wanted to take the opportunity to speak for Jolene. I wanted to have it be a moment where Jolene is reaching across the aisle to her and saying, “We’re not enemies. We’re not going to fight over a dude. We should stand up for each other. You should respect yourself, respect me and we should be on the same side and encouraging each other with a mutual respect of our sex rather than being catty and cold to each other.” I thought that there were a lot of perspectives on those sorts of conversations that were really unexpressed in popular music. I wanted to create a collection of songs that shifted perspectives on these really common situations and common arguments and trying to see things in a different way and in a way that was more fair and more human and more real.
Kristen: I like what you said about women reaching across the aisle. I think if women were nicer to each other we could take over the world.
Esmé: I know, right? And then there’s that weird fighting over a man. The dude in that song is such a shithead. He was sleeping in one girl’s bed, talking in his sleep saying the same of another. You need to dump that guy, c’mon! That’s what any friend would say to another friend. I wanted to try and confront that in the project as well, as the woman telling the other story of a relationship with a man. There’s often a history book written on his side, but there’s a whole other history that is totally silent.
Kristen: You were storytelling, and using fiction to evoke very real emotions. Is this record more personal?
Esmé: Yeah, I’m swinging on a pendulum back and forth between embarrassingly personal and totally fictional. There’s no middle ground.
Kristen: Sometimes fiction can be truer than real life.
Esmé: That’s beautiful. That’s so true.
Kristen: What have we not talked about that you want to discuss?
Paleo: We can talk about end of the world strategies: how to survive The Apocalypse.
Esmé: You’ve been watching too much “Walking Dead.”
Kristen: Let’s say it was the end of the world…
Paleo: This is a good team to have.
Kristen: And you three are together. There would be a person to hype everyone up and stay positive, there would be a lazy one …
Sean: I think all of us would be like, “Hey, can we agree we’re totally fucked?”
Esmé: Two things: shoes and surgery.
Esmé: Those are the apocalypse skills that no one has that they need. Everyone needs to know how to make fucking shoes that are sturdy because there’s going to be debris everywhere. We need to know how make footwear, and we need to know how to perform surgery on each other.
Sean: We’d be good. I do have a pretty comprehensive medical background.
Esmé: Really? In what?
Sean: I can perform minor surgeries. Yeah, yeah.
Paleo: I feel like I should be scooting farther away. Setting a bone? Or stitching someone up?
Sean: I can cover the medical stuff.
Kristen: Alright, he’s got it. Who’s got the shoes?
Paleo: I can make the fuck out of some shoes!
Kristen: Then Esmé would be the hype girl.
Sean: Actually, yeah, I feel like that would be Esmé. When we’re in the studio and we’re fading, she’s the one to bring us up. There has to be a hype person.
Paleo: Yeah, that’s true, because I would just be irritable making shoes and shit.
Kristen: I would just be sitting there writing a feature article about it.
Esmé: That’s important. Someone has to document everything. I’ve thought about this really in depth though.
Kristen: So, Paleo, you’re a “Walking Dead” fan?
Paleo: I am.
Esmé: It’s too scary for me. I can’t watch it. I made him let me watch it.
Sean: [Laughs] You made him let you watch it.
Esmé: I’m a scaredy cat. And I finally said, “C’mon, I can handle it!”
Paleo: And then she had some fucking terrible nightmares.
Esmé: And then I had a nightmare. The song I wrote with Shakey Graves is called “Dearly Departed,” and every night at the merch table people come up to me and ask, “Are you gonna sing ‘Dearly Departed’?” And I say, “Yes, I’m going to sing the song. I’m here in Edmonton, Alberta. What else am I going to do?” So, I had this dream after that show that I was being attacked by zombies, but they could talk, and right before they’d go in for the kill to bite my brains or whatever, they’d say, “Are you going to sing ‘Dearly Departed’”?
Sean: Holy shit.
Esmé: And then it got really violent. I killed a lot of zombies.
Paleo: And then two days later she wants to watch “Walking Dead” again and I said, “No.”
Esmé: Well, I felt like I had been through the worst of it after that dream. It was bad.
Paleo: But “Walking Dead” is a love story. It’s about families and about loving each other and the relationships that develop.
Kristen: That’s true. Esmé, what’s your go-to TV show?
Esmé: There’s only one show that I really care about: “Sherlock.” I’m an embarrassingly serious Sherlock Holmes fan. I’ve read the stories tons of times, I’ve watched all the shows they’ve made… And I always wondered: “Can this guy really exist in modern times and be effective?” And in the show, he does! He texts and it’s fucking awesome. It’s so great. It’s in modern-day London and it’s so brilliant.
Sean: I’m into the “The Venture Bros.,” and I’m also into “Breaking Bad.”
Paleo: Let it be known! Sean is into “Breaking Bad”!
Esmé: What shows are you into?
Kristen: I haven’t gotten into a lot recently because I haven’t found any that I’m really invested in. I’ll watch the first three episodes and then be bored. It sucks because I want to keep watching, and I feel bad for these writers. It actually scares me. As a writer myself, you could write something really fucking good, and then no one ever reads it. Or people read the first half and then get bored.
Paleo: A lot of writers age like wine though. I mean talking to a musician…musician’s have a really bad batting average.
Esmé: If you make a good record and it’s well-received, try making anything after that. It’s really hard. The sophomore slump they call it.
Paleo: And that’s just record to record – first to second.
Esmé: Yeah, and with writing, if you write a good first book your subsequent ones are generally pretty well received.
Paleo: As a writer, I think you have a better chance than any of us.
Esmé: Your work is based on your experience and it becomes more rich with time.
Kristen: Do you feel like music is the same thing?
Esmé: With music, you have to perform that experience. As a writer you don’t have to perform it, you just put it out there and it’s done. As a musician you have to stand there and perform it and speak for it every night, night after night, and you – as a human – are embodying that art and presenting that art. You are responsible for the reception of that work. And you’re always evolving and changing. With a book, you read it, and it’s always going to be the same. It’s a controlled environment. In music, it’s constantly changing. It’s so dependent on time. And that’s the beautiful thing about it. Is that it’s elusive and mysterious, but that works for you and against you.
Paleo: And also the fire that you’re sculpting is passion. What people want is passion in music a lot of the time. Performing that over and over again is hard. Time and wisdom chips away at that sometimes. It’s hard to maintain.
Esmé: Or it changes its nature.
Sean: There’s this thing called catharsis, right? At a young age, it’s easy to purge that catharsis into something. You just throw it out there. But eventually, you get older and it gets harder to purge because you become disillusioned with things or you don’t believe in the same things anymore. I think the older you get, the harder and harder it gets to stand behind what you do because the older you get, the more and more you become disillusioned by what you believe in. When you’re young, you’ve got so much angst. It’s easy. And you get old, and you’re like, “What do I want to say? Will this last forever?” You question everything you do, and it becomes harder to put it on the page.
Esmé: Catharsis, to me, implies some sort of destruction –and a certain amount of explosion happens. As you get older, I feel like you realize how easy that destruction is. It takes so much more strength and will and kindness to build something than it does to destroy something. As you get older, you focus more on developing the skills that it takes to build rather than to destroy. When you’re young, you have that innate desire to destroy. And to feel. That’s important. That catharsis, that release, that explosion, that destruction…you need that to feel the truth of your existence. As you age, the skills you want to develop are skills attuned to building as opposed to destroying. It’s much less fun to watch paint dry than see a building explode. It’s not as interesting, but it’s part of growing up.