Henry Oliver talks to Wellington artist and producer Estère about technology, attention and her new album My Design, On Others’ Lives.
Estère has had one crazy year. She’s released a conceptual double album, My Design, On Others’ Lives (recorded with help from NZ on Air) opened for Grace Jones toured Africa, Europe, Scandinavia, UK, South Korea, Australia and New Caledonia.
With an esoteric ear for samples, Estere builds layers of rhythm out of swaying bamboo branches and clanging cutlery, tweaked synths and crisp drum machines, often channelled through her beloved MPC (which she calls Lola – all her instruments have names) but increasingly including human elements and instruments played with hands.
A bright, bold, upbeat combination of hip-hop, funk and soul “electric blue witch-hop” she calls it), My Design, On Others’ Lives lights up the parts of your brain that Prince might, or Grace Jones might or those Talking Heads albums where David Byrne and Brian Eno just sampled the rest of the band and put the songs back together without them.
The album is a collection of cultural observations, social critiques and family histories – investigating technology, global politics and personal power. Just no love songs.
This album seems to have been a long time in the making…
Yeah, since I started writing the music and recording, it’s been a long process. The music’s been ready for quite a while so it’s good to get it out there. There have been points where I’ve just wanted to put it all online, like not even worry about anything. And I actually did that once, just put two songs of the album on SoundCloud for like a day and the took them off.
How’s it different to the music you’ve made before? Has your process changed?
For me, an important thing has always been production. With my first EP, the production was quite basic and with this one I’ve put a lot of effort into expanding on my production ideas and methods. I did a lot of research before I started, going to different producers and engineers. I was such a geek, I went around with a notebook asking them questions about their setup. I wanted to have a really good setup that I had access to at any time. I was not very clued up on equipment and that kind of thing. Last time I did everything on my MPC and went to a studio to record it, but with this, I recorded it all in my home studio.
How did that change your music?
I had these production concepts for each song and I knew better how to execute those and knew how to process sounds to get what I wanted. It was less of an experiment. It just made me feel more equipped.
What about the songwriting side? You were at SongHubs – what did you take from that experience?
A whole other take on collaborating. That was after I’d written the album but it kind of just brought to light a whole other side of the music world that I didn’t know existed. Like I had no idea that there were people out there called topliners and that they walk into a room and there’d be an artist and an engineer and then there might be a producer as well.
One of the themes through your work is the societal impacts of technology. You sing about how people don’t have focus anymore…
Yeah, or that their focus is changed. You do have focus but it’s in another existential realm that we can’t all access at the same time unless we’re together looking at a screen. So we’re existing in two paradigms. We’re so drawn to this world that exists purely in the ether. We exist partly in the physical world and partly in the ether and my question is: What does that mean? It makes sense because it’s such an absorbing and fascinating place to go, but when you hear about kids swiping people, like ‘OK, finished. Why isn’t this moving? Why can’t I swipe you away?’
I’m 25 and I feel like an old person because I look at people who are eight or nine years younger than me and they’ve grown up with that. I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 14 and that was a flip top. And all I played was Bubble Trouble on an old PC.
In ‘Pro Bono Techno Zone’, you sing “what we thought was free isn’t free at all”…
The idea of the ‘Pro Bono Techno Zone’ is we’re in this free realm where we can do as we chose but we’re so obsessed that we’re actually confined and constricted by it. We thought we were getting this stuff for nothing but we’re actually paying a price – our attention or our interaction with each other.
So you’ve been playing so many interesting places. How do you tour? Is it just you?
It’s been just me for years but I’ve recently added a rhythm section with a drummer and percussionist and then there’s someone who’s playing samples live and playing the guitar. I felt like with a new body of work I just want to develop the live set in a different direction. And because it’s so electronic, having their acoustics of live drums almost adding lightning into the beats, almost pressuring them up. Making them more pulsating because they’re being manifested by a real human.
The first of the EPs was released on cassette and the album is available on vinyl. How do these formats relate to your anxiety about technology?
I’m a ’90s baby and I’m just taking it back to my era. There’s something so satisfying about cassettes.
You’ve released two EPs and combined they make up this album. Why do it that way?
The body of work is quite tense in its concepts and subjects and I just wanted to break it up, like put it out there in smaller increments so each song has its own opportunity to tell its story a little bit more.
The first part of the album is called My Design and the second part is called On Others’ Lives. And an important narrative of the album is an observation on society and I kind of step out of my own life a little bit. All the songs are about quite different things and for me as a songwriter that’s an integral element. It’s almost like writing narratives about these ideas. I have this love of anthropology and philosophy so that’s a part of my music.
So a shift from personal music?
Some of it’s still personal. I wrote a song about my grandmother. But a lot of it relates to me in an external sense. I don’t like writing love songs. I don’t like writing about romantic relationships. To me, everything can be a song so why just stick to that? There are so many things in this world to write about.
This piece was made possible by NZ On Air and, like all of The Spinoff’s music content, by Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.