You know that moment when you listen to a song for the first time, by an artist you’d maybe heard of, but hadn’t quite given the due attention to at the time? There’s that instance where the chorus drops, and the only two things you’re physically capable of doing in response is to pull your most contorted stank face — the ultimate compliment — and hit replay?
That’s exactly what happened when I heard New Zealand-hailing, electric blue witch-hop songstress and master producer Estère’s freshly dropped single, “Calculated Risk” for the first time. My third reaction was to lock down an interview date. I needed to know more about this beguiling beauty whose fresh sound left me instantly bewitched.
Estère’s smile turns to a look of longing as I greet her over our Zoom call all the way from the Mother City. “Ah you’re in Cape Town? I love Cape Town.” She explains that, apart from having played a number of shows in South Africa, her music video for “Grandmother”, a song dedicated to the grandmother she was named after but had never met, was shot here.
Her experience of lockdown, of which New Zealand is experiencing a second wave of, fascinates me. “It’s almost like being a child again,” she reasons, “You know when you’re a kid and you just don’t really know what’s happening but you’re kinda just like living your life? That’s kind of how I felt, I felt like I was just a child again and I couldn’t plan for the future because I didn’t know what was gonna happen.”
Naturally, I’m now curious about her childhood. Her mother is of New Zealand descent, her father from Cameroon. Both her and mum live in New Zealand, where she spent most of her time growing up — the accent is a dead giveaway — and her father lives in France with her two brothers and sister, and a step mum she adores.
She laughs as she recalls her favourite childhood movie, “I had a French version of The Lion King — it was the only copy of the movie that I had and I loved it, so I’d watch it, but I didn’t know what was going on ‘cause I couldn’t speak the language until I was a little bit older.”
Being surrounded and influenced by so many cultures, so many sounds, I’m curious about what led her into the world of production. “I started learning some instruments, always dabbled a little bit but never really caught fire ‘til I started playing drums when I was 11. I always sang, but drumming was the instrument that kind of got me more into the production side of things eventually,” she explains.
Acutely aware of the world around her, she hears music in the not-so-mundane, sampling, manipulating, and incorporating recordings of literally everything into her music — the clash of a cutlery drawer slamming shut, her afro comb scratching against her mirror, and I ask if she is someone who is easily inspired. She responds enthusiastically, “Yes, yeah I would say so. I have to be in the right mindset ‘cause sometimes I’m not inspired at all, but when I’m kind of in that mind set, I’m so easily inspired. I can see potential in a lot of things.”
Estère’s song writing explores themes far broader than heartbreak, her lyrics scattered with vividly painted metaphors that only folklore and mythology can inspire and it doesn’t surprise me that she not only studied anthropology, but went on to teach at the Wellington University — she’s a story-teller with a fascination of how different cultures interact with and relate to each other.
We trade favourite Greek myths, hers the tale of Persephone and Hades, mine the tale of Icarus, and she elaborates on story-telling. “I think that story-telling is really exciting, and I’m leaning more towards learning how to kind of draw out those personal experiences with myself, ‘cause I think that’s like an evolution that I’m interested in trying out… ‘cause I also admire songwriters who are like, ‘This was my relationship with my boyfriend and this is what happened and it fucked me up,’ but I’ve never written a song like that.” She laughs at the idea.
She tells me how her most recent release, “Calculated Risk”, unpacks a theme she’s seen too many times before. “It’s got to do with this idea of female curiosity and how it just like ruins everything. Same with Eve, like taking the apple. What’s with women and fruit?” she laughs and puzzles. “‘Calculated Risk’ explores how I can be freed from the chains of judgement and failure, opening up about my feelings, desires, and dreams.”
The first release off her upcoming album, Archetypes, due later this year, is beauty, brains, and sonic brilliance and, co-produced alongside Massive Attack’s Stew Jackson, it’s an album she cannot wait to release, and I cannot wait to get my hands on.