Videos by American Songwriter
Esmé Patterson recently released Woman to Woman, an album about the untold stories of women immortalized in others’ songs, from The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” to Elvis Costello’s “Alison.” It’s her second solo album outside of Americana collective Paper Bird. She spoke to us about her first guitar, having fun with dissonance, doing handstands in the studio and more.
How would you describe Woman to Woman?
Woman to Woman is a series of responses to famous songs focused on women. In the tunes, I try to embody that woman and tell her side of the story. The album was recorded very live – I sang it all live, there are no vocal overdubs. Through recording in that style, I was trying to convey a sense of immediacy, of raw feeling and energy.
How would you compare it to your last album?
Compared to my first album, All Princes, I, this new album feels a lot lighter. All Princes, I was very autobiographical, heart-on-the-sleeve. Some of the material was emotionally difficult to write and perform, but a necessary, cathartic experience. Woman to Woman is more fun – I rock out a bit, and it feels lighter to me, because I wasn’t writing about my own life and my own experiences.
Do you have any tricks you like to use in the studio? Reverb, candles, a certain kind of microphone you always use?
I have to do a lot of headstands. It really centers me. And I either have to drink a steady amount of bourbon, or stay crystal-clear sober for the entire process. I love recording. When you get in that zone, it’s like existing in another dimension. It’s really empowering.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
When I’m playing alone, to really indulge myself, I like to play guitars out of tune, or make up really bizarre tunings. I love dissonance and atonality. I have to make sure no one is around to hear, cause it really does sound terrible to anyone who might listen in, but it sure is fun for me.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
I got an acoustic guitar for Christmas when I was 16 and really taught myself to play it. I got a few lessons, but I never practiced. I’m not one of the most disciplined people around. However, I like looking at a guitar with a sense of wonder, with a feeling of how the #$% does this thing work? I think it draws a different kind of playing from a person.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
The last song I wrote was about being on tour with my friend who goes by Paleo, a truly brilliant songwriter, and in the tune I was trying to describe the feeling of complete, abundant and terrifying freedom. As Nina Simone said – “we’re all as free as we want to be.”
How do you go about writing songs?
I think that songs themselves do the writing, I just try to be near a pen and paper. There will often be a trigger, someone says a phrase or a scene will unfold in a way that feels like a song to me, and I’ll have to rush off to write it down, sometimes on my arm or a tablecloth or whatever is nearby.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I care about words a good deal, and it’s very important to me that lyrics rhythmically fall in phrases and with melody that sounds natural, the way it would if you just said the words aloud without music, and that melodic lines and progressions support and illuminate the meaning of the lyrics, adding a more vivid dimension.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Other mediums of art inspire me to write. I am inspired by abstract expressionism, painting especially, I am inspired by poetry, I am inspired by science, astrophysics especially, I am inspired by different qualities of light, lightning especially. I am inspired by new things all the time.
Are there any words you love or hate?
My favorite word is the Spanish word for blackberry: zarzamora. It feels great to say, delicious.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I love to write poetry. I curate a journal of local poetry in Denver (http://www.zephyrpress.net) and really believe in the medium of poetry as a raw, necessary, truly human form of expression and connection.
I love to write poetry. I curate a journal of local poetry in Denver and really believe in the medium of poetry as a raw, necessary, truly human form of expression and connection.