Estere – The 13th Floor Interview

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Wellington musician Estere Dalton is about begin her My Design (Part 1) Release Tour, starting in her hometown on December 1. Tim Gruar had a bit of a catch-up with Estere prior to getting this show on the road.

The first time I met Estere was over 2 years ago when she gave a short and quirky performance in front of officials, politicians and dignitaries during the official launch of WOMAD 2015 at Parliament. At that stage, she was still a bit nervous and shy. Why wouldn’t you be? After all she’d only played a handful of times as a soloist and this was one of the biggest festivals in the country – technically global! Estere went on to play a stunning performance on the Gables stage at the New Plymouth Festival, where I met her again. Only this time she was interviewed and photographed by my daughter McKenzie, only 13 at the time. It was there that we, and the audience got to know this funny, charming, gracious, and articulate performer.

At that stage, she also had a unique selling point. Whilst she had plenty of friends, she considered some of her best mates to be machines – one in particular. A humble and loyal bandmate called Lola, an MPC, with which she has a kind of “parent-daughter vibe going, I nurture her, she’s my child. Estere told me that she had nothing against men, or women, playing in a band but she loved the autonomy and control she got from her digital friends. Before going solo she spent time in a “psychedelic neo-soul hip-hop chunk funk” collective known as Brockaflowersaurus-Rex & The Blueberry Biscuits – possibly the worse band name ever – but also the launch pad for three of the Capitals’ most extraordinary singers Louis Baker; Zoe Moon Mahal (daughter of Taj Mahal) and of course, Estere.

On her own, she was her own boss, controlling everything, taking on every aspect of the creative output – singing, writing, rapping, engineering, mixing even making the original samples by banging things like drumsticks against a desk and recording it or singing a specific note and then looping and making. “I love owning it all,” she told Mkenzie in that first WOMAD interview. I’m such a sound nerd. I did a Ted Talk about taking it back, not being just a pretty face in front of the big machine. It’s called “Girls in the Beat World”. It’s about sexism in the industry, making beats and the fun of making records in your pyjamas at home on a Friday evening!”. To McKenzie, she gave the best advice – be your own person, and follow your dreams, no matter what they are.

Given her penchant for digital-toys, I had to asked her if she was on first name terms with the owners of the local Rock Shop. “Amongst others,” she laughs, “I think they see me coming now and polish the shiny ones, to attract me. I can visualise what name I’ll give each one and their part in my little whanau.” Her synthesiser, the one that barks out grungy beats, is called Korgi.

However, when it came to taking her compositions into the studio she did concede that a little flesh and blood was required. Hence, she enlisted the help of Grayson Gilmour’s guitars, Matt Isaac (clarinet); Matt Steel (Piano) and a collection of horn players on various tunes. I want to call her out as a sell out to her own ideals but she tempers that. “The music was all created by my machine friends. Sometimes almost without me even in control, like I just pushed a button and there it is. But also electronic music is about layering So with the help of Lee (Prebble’s) Surgery Studios and him at the helm we got to do that. Digital meets organic, I guess.” Mixing self-produced backing tracks that vary from airy, jazzy soul to heavy nightclub EDM bangers, her music is an organic blend of family bonds, cultural diversity, comments on human human behavioural patterns, and coments on how we embrace, reset and resign to technological advancement. It’s organic and mechanic.

‘Organic’ could also describe the way that she’s been releasing this new album – like all her work – in dribs and drabs – a single here, an EP there, another single, a video, etc. “Needs must. And I’m quick and impatient. I want immediacy, I supposed. To know what you think – right now. It is a quirky way to get a record out there, I guess. So I just put out my six-track EP (My Design Part 1) and then a second EP (On Others’ Lives) will be available in March next year.” Together they are a full album: My Design, On Others’ Lives. I wanted to release them like a chapter of a book, with some space between each one (i.e. time) or like those old fashion movie serials. That way give the songs get a a chance to breathe, be absorbed and noticed instead of getting lost all together in one big collection. I think people are just too busy to stop and suck up an album all at once. When was the last time you got through a whole album on the bus to work or walking the dog?” Another ‘quirk’ of this release is that she’s dropping them in the chronological order of their conception. “I think that’s giving them a kind of freshness, too.”

Songwriter- wise, she’s not one for the mushy ballads. That’s Adele’s job. “I like to imagine places, the universe through lives of a range of characters I invent, like aviators in the real world telling you about what they are seeing and feeling. Different ages, cultures, backgrounds, and sometimes they aren’t even human”.

Her ‘album’ draws on her job as at times. 9 to 5, Estere spends many hours amongst the machinations of humankind, tutoring Anthropology Victoria University of Wellington. But when the sun goes down she retreats to her room in an old Mt Vic Villa to mix up jazz inspired hip hop, damaged beats, and “scrunched” soul into a brew she calls “electric blue witch-hop” with the help of a collection of very cool digital toys.

Her music, she concedes is a sort of audio document to that. “Anthropology (the study of human behaviour) like a lens from which I can look at the world around us”. Initially, she says that her major was psychology “but I ended up started diagnosing myself all the time with mental illnesses! Knowing too much is not good for you sometimes. Moving to philosophy and anthropology was not only good for her soul but for her creativity as well. She love cultural anthropology, which seeks to draw comparisons between different groups of people.

Anthropologically, Estere is a child of the world with family and roots spread as wide as Africa and France. “As someone with a mixed cultural background, I look at what I can use in my music, there’s so many rich influences”.

Estere, who’s name means “morning star” was born on Waiheke Island but grew up in Wellington. “Mum is Pākehā and lives in Aotearoa. My father is from Cameroon. He’s over in France with two of his brothers”. Estere says she’s lived in France and Germany as a teenager. She was taken by the way people from different cultural backgrounds mixed and how they interpreted information in the context of their own culture. “My songs are sometimes inspired by inspired looking at someone and their status and position from a different point of view – through their lens. “You can see that in the track Vietnam. “The lyrics are constructed around Vietnam’s history, from their point of view. And I wanted the feel of the place so I recorded the sounds of a bamboo plantation and forests from trips and I repurposed those for the song. When I was there, I kept hearing these trees knocking together, and so I recording them and sped up my sample to make it lie a percussion piece, a sort of loop with this crinkly, clashing sound. I knew how war had impacted this country. you can imagine always being on high alert with those sounds being your only warnings. I think it heightens the senses and helps you to think about the ongoing psychological impacts of conflict.”

Control Freak, which has a startling video by her partner director Paascalino Schaller, was more global in its themes drawing on everything from American elections to raising children. The video shows the manipulation of an auditioned applying to be in a show, requiring dancing styles that will remind you of Flashdance. “We brainstormed that one for a while. The 80’s were big hair and big egos. Sexist was clashing against money and fashion. It made sense. The music and lyrics and visuals all talk about the universal human condition. It’s about power and the struggle to control our surroundings and the pleasure of benign things to our will”.

Conjuring up one of her characters, the song Ambition is about a high-class call girl who dreams of standing for election to the White House. “We made this video with her dancing in massage parlour in a red classy dress surrounded by these sexy men in tuxedos. Kind of Maddonna-ish, I think.”

By contrast Pro-Bono Techno Zone has raucous blaring trumpets and a phat electro-bass throb but this ain’t no ordinary dance track as it contemplates the loss of ‘real-world connectedness’ thanks to overloads from social media, internet and television.

The most beautiful has to be her song Grandmother – about Estere’s paternal grandmother, whose has the same name but she’s only ever met in photos. She passed away before Estere could make it to Cameroon to see her. It’s the one really personal nod to her predicament of being so far from family members down her in the bottom of the Pacific and the loss you sometimes get of never meeting whanau you’ve heard about all your life. “It’s the only love song on the album, to my grandmother Estere”

Estere finally got to Africa and got a gig playing to a show of 5000 in Mozambique and more in South Africa, including a very special one in an underground amphitheatre in the desert in Swaziland. She doesn’t reveal much about that show, except it was a very long drive. But she does tell me about the shoot for a video for Grandmother. “We went down to Cape Town, near the beaches and made it there. We managed to get Sindiwe Magona (African author, actress and UN representative) to play the ‘role’ of my grandmother in the video. She was so gracious. She really understood my tribute and why I needed to film in Africa, where she was from.”

By now, I’m exhausted just compiling this piece but since my interview I’ve learned that she’s also done another three months performing across Europe last year, including Glastonbury Festival, to about 170,000 punters and a pile of events in Denmark, Australia, South Korea, New Caledonia, France. And anyone who saw Bic Runga’s tour recently will have already seen Estere. Bic’s a real fan. Perhaps the kiwi tour will be a bit more ‘intimate’, compared to those big international venues. But if you’ve got any sense, you better head along soon, before she heads overseas and the world swallows her up again.

Tim Gruar