Songstress Esmé Patterson has crafted a bright, bold and intriguing collection of songs that give voice to music’s most known – and famously silent – female muses.
“I grew up in a town called Boulder, Colorado at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains,” explains songstress Esmé Patterson. “The climate in the mountains and the plains is very dry, the altitude is over a mile above sea level, and the culture still proudly claims the ‘wild west’ in a lot of ways. It is hard for plants to grow there, and the people are hardy too – they have to be. I think that my music has a low vibration beneath the friction between ‘surviving’ and ‘flourishing’, between being hard enough to survive living in the world and soft enough to make art about it.”
Patterson certainly has a knack for reconciling gritty topics with sweet, countrified pop melodies, as her critically acclaimed concept album Woman To Woman revealed earlier this year. The album is a sensitive collection of songs that offer sassy and nuanced responses to canon hits by the likes of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Lead Belly – songs that use female archetypes – mad, loose, betrayed, obsessed and forgotten women – as their silent muse. In Woman To Woman, Patterson gives these muses a voice, recourse to answer back and tell their side of the story. The project began, says Patterson, in a hotel room in Spearfish, South Dakota. “I was touring with my old band, (seven-piece Americana collective) Paper Bird. The venue had given us enough hotel rooms, so each of us could have our own. Alone time was a rare treat, and I decided to use the space to learn Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta and was looking up the chords and the lyrics. In the process, I started thinking about how one-sided it seemed. I imagined, ‘what would that woman, Loretta, say about him?’ I gave up on learning Townes’ tune, and found my song Tumbleweed rattling around in my heart.”
Growing up in a musical family helped Patterson to find her voice. “My father sings – he has the most amazing, huge voice. It makes me tear up to think about growing up standing with him and my sister in the church my grandfather built and singing as loud as we all possibly could.” The guitar she was given when she turned 15 was life-changing. “When I was first learning to play guitar, I learned to play a few Joni Mitchell songs. She is one of my favourites – lyricist, guitar player, singer, everything. As far as guitar playing goes, I think I am most influenced by blues players like Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt – that really raw slide playing.” There’s a fair amount of that slide sound gliding across the nuanced, Americana bedrock of Woman To Woman. Alongside those electric guitar strings, Patterson is a formidable songbird, capable of both sweet, fluttering cadences and throatier yells. It’s a thrilling style, informed in part by the soul singers her father favours. “My dad introduced me to soul and 1960s R&B: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and that kind of singing – singing with your whole being – had a huge effect on me.”
There’s certainly an abundance of spirit in Patterson’s music. Her debut album, All Princes, I, was a deeply personal affair, written in the wake of a “long, ugly” divorce. Woman To Woman is no less personal, informed by her own, lived experiences but also making room for the stories of other women Patterson has known – all tied together with a bold, passionate and righteous feminism that negotiates everything from old age (in Bluebird, a light, acoustic response to The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby) to transfemininity in Oh Let’s Dance, which gives voice to the love interest in The Kinks’ Lola. “In this project, it was important to me that the experience of being a woman be expanded to include everyone that identifies as a woman. I think that the voice of trans people is one that is particularly overlooked in the gender equality debate, and one that is particularly brave and important. I chose Lola by The Kinks (a song I really love) to respond to their playful characterisation of a misadventure when a man at a club ends up having feelings for a transgendered person. The song feels like a story he would tell his friends over drinks the next night and laugh, but it seemed to me that Lola wouldn’t laugh about any part of it. It wasn’t a funny story to her; it was her experience of life – that’s a normal night for her. She’s looking for love or maybe just a good time, and she’s never dishonest about who she is. I can’t overstate the fearlessness and honesty one would have to possess to stand in Lola’s shoes.”
In Valentine, Patterson offers a wonderfully catchy response to the narrator of Elvis Costellow’s hit, Alison. “Often times when a relationship ends, one party will hold on more, longer and harder than the other. Elvis Costello’s song Alison is an extreme example of a guy holding on longer and using the intimacy once had in the relationship to cause hurt again. I took the opportunity to speak on her behalf, to say: dude, we broke up a long time ago; it’s none of your business who I sleep with or where I’ve been.” Patterson’s songs offer a smart, distinct response to these old-time hits, but they are also a challenge, asking the listener to reconsider the idea that these original, much loved songs about women shouldn’t be considered sacrosanct. A small faction of Costello fans took offence at Valentine, but the man himself Tweeted his pleasure at this call-and-response style, much to Patterson’s joy.
Not all of the responses Patterson penned on Woman To Woman were to male artists – the effervescent, slide guitar country of Never Chase A Man offers a catchy, empowered answer to Dolly Parton’s Jolene. “In responding to Jolene, I imagined a woman who, when asked to speak about another woman’s personal life – especially another woman who is wounded – is trying to encourage her and give her strength instead of tearing her down. This was a compelling subject because it was my reply to a woman. Also, it was an opportunity to address a theme that isn’t often found in popular music. Jolene, to me, takes this opportunity not to hurt or steal from the other female, but to encourage her and lift her up, and to remind her that we should not be enemies, but each other’s champions.”
Is feminism a large part of Patterson’s personal politics as an artist? “Feminism and art are like religion – very personal and made to connect oneself with a larger system. Art has helped me find my own voice and feminism works to create a voice for women in general.” Her own, personal heroes include fellow songstress Anais Mitchell – “Her work is shamelessly smart – something that I have wrestled with in my own work. It takes a lot of courage as a woman to let people know how smart you are and to use it in conjunction with feeling” – and Luz Elena Mendoza. “An artist and friend that I am very inspired by. Her work is vital, the strength of her passion is like wildfire.”
She counts Nina Simone, PJ Harvey, Lauryn Hill and Patti Smith as inspirations, and it’s in their bold, subversive trail that she mines her craft. Witness the video for Woman To Woman single, What Do You Call A Woman? “The video and the song negotiate the ideas of sexuality in fantasy and in reality,” explains Patterson. “The song is a response to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, in which the male denies fatherhood of a child. I thought it would be an interesting idea to feature a pregnant woman – don’t worry, no one was in danger, the belly was prosthetic! – dancing at a strip club, with men in the crowd like shadows. A strip club seemed to me a good symbol of the fantasy of sexuality that often ignores the reality of sexuality. I thought that the video would be an interesting way to confront these ideas without judgment.”
After a fair amount of touring for Woman To Woman, Patterson is taking some time off – a necessary rest before she begins her upcoming US tour with William Elliott Whitmore. In the meantime, she’ll be feathering the nest of her new Portland home, where she will be busy working in her garden, planting seeds and potting new blooms. She’s honey-throated and green- fingered, then? “I am learning to have the patience to watch things grow. I can’t say I’m terribly gifted in that way, but am hoping to learn.” Patterson’s Woman To Woman is available to now at www.esmepatterson.com.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews