Interviews

essence and the truth in the mirror


   

San Francisco singer-songwriter essence (real name)  has the gift of crafting poignant pop gems that resonate in a universal sense while cracking through the emotional resistance of even the most cynical musical fascist. I know, because I am one whose shell was cracked by her voice, her writing, her use of mood, storytelling, and a finely tuned pop sensibility to connect with the listener. At first listen to one of her older recordings “Mariposa” I  did not want to like it, because I thought it “too pop”, to far outside of the( then ) aesthetic ghetto of musical experience I had embedded my self  in…but the music wormed it’s way in, and became part of my regular rotation, part of my go- to stash of  stuff “to good to be denied…” essence has had a very interesting 2010 thus far, filled with opportunity, hope, reticence and promise. Reticence because she is a veteran/casualty of the major label game, and is poised to make a go of it again in  the midst of the most confusing, market- depleted period in the history of the music industry. She shares her thoughts here on inspiration, motherhood, songwriting, and female archetypes, amongst other observations.

 PH essence, you have been working on your craft as a songwriter for over a decade, and have developed a singular artistic voice. You blend the bittersweet and the hopeful, the catastrophic and the poignant in a way that draws the listener in and creates a sense of communing which goes beyond simple empathy. Is this purposeful, and if so, what can you tell me about the process?  

E I’m not moved much by fiction. My writing is a place I can give certain life experiences a place to live outside myself. I find my best songwriting is often my most vulnerable and honest writing. If people get the sense my songs are more than empathetic, they are right. My songs mirror and reflect the world around me, my relationships and experiences. There is no shortage of inspiration – hopeful or catastrophic my songs mirror my truth.  Writing songs is a means for my emotional survival.  

PH You have had a very circuitous career path concerning your dealings with record labels and the “industry” in general. Please tell us the story.

E Ha! Ok, I will try to be concise. Upon graduating from college I was signed to a division of MCA Records. They paid me to stay home and write songs for a year. It was a dream. Nine months in, they optioned my first record. I was ecstatic. We arranged for me to record my debut with producer Eric Rosse (Tori Amos’s producer of “Little Earthquakes.”) Just as we were to begin working there was a big merger between Universal and Polygram which caused MCA to restructure. The label I was on was shut down; all the artists were dropped and the staff as well. I was devastated.   

On a whim I entered a contest: The National Lilith Fair Talent Search. Out of 5000 entries, I won! I opened the Lilith Fair and was noticed by RCA records who signed me after I sang in a conference room for 40 executives in New York City. I was signed to RCA for 3 years. The first thing they had me do was stop playing live shows. At the time I was playing The Fillmore, Slim’s, getting great press and drawing big crowds. I built that momentum up over years of sweat, doing things the old-fashioned way, one fan at a time, mailing out custom flyers for each show, playing my ass off anywhere people would listen to me. RCA wanted me to focus on songwriting and felt that they could “push the button” when they felt I was ready and have me headlining “Fillmores” everywhere. My A&R man was a frustrated musician himself and had the reputation of being a backseat driver  and micro-managing. He made me fire my producer/collaborator, my band, my manager, and my attorney. He wanted to replace my amazing team, who got me where I was, with big names. It went against my instincts but I trusted that they had my best interests at heart. For three years I was flown around the country and to various destinations in Europe to meet people and try test runs. Mostly I felt the work was mediocre. It didn’t have the originality, and I didn’t have the chemistry with these strangers — the magic that I had going with my people at home was what was moving me and my fans. The bigger names were making what I felt to be generic sounding recordings. I learned you can’t buy creative chemistry. There were a couple producers I met that I really liked, but they ran into creative differences with my A&R guy. He had veto power so the collaborations were nixed. A year into my contract and after several failed experiments, I told RCA I wanted to work with mastermind producer Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow’s “Tuesday Night Music Club”). He was living in Mendocino at the time and had a reputation for being in it for the right reasons–the music. RCA told me he wouldn’t want to work with me because I was unknown. I pursued him on my own without their support. After months of sending him music and showing up at his studio, he agreed to produce my record. RCA was astounded and tripled my budget. Shortly before the onset of my arrival to start recording, Bill Bottrell’s 7-year-old son fell off a cliff behind the studio, and died. Bill’s wife of 28 years blamed him, and left him. She ran off with the last artist he recorded, Grammy-winning Best New Artist Shelby Lynn. Bill was shattered. He was (needless to say) not in a great frame of mind to work. The recordings turned out to be unfocused, after spanning almost a year of work together. When RCA finally heard the recordings they fired him. He had a smart lawyer who put a ‘pay or play’ clause in his contract. He still got paid the full budget to not complete my record. I was subsequently dropped.   

After staying in bed for a month crying, I got my self together and called my original producer Garth (the one RCA fired). We completed what became my “Mariposa” record. We compiled the best of the demos I had made with him during the RCA contract, as well as a batch of songs I wrote shortly after the demise of that deal and turned them into a record I am still proud of. A week after an independent release I was signed to a well-funded Indie label out of Manhattan founded by music veteran Michael Caplan called Or Music. He had been at Epic Records for 22 years and wanted to venture out on his own and had secured major funding. I was the label’s first release. They wanted to release my record as it was which was a relief. But they wanted to change the artwork. They made choices about the art that I did not approve. So it was the record I wanted to make in a package I hated. The cover photo has me in jeans and a wife-beater tank top, sans bra, on a cold day. It isn’t the image I wanted to send out, and it did not reflect the music. When I asked them to change it, they said there wasn’t time, and we had to stick to a schedule for a timely release date. “Mariposa” received a five star review in Billboard Magazine, and wide critical acclaim. I opened tours for Jason Mraz and Shawn Colvin. They embarked on a radio campaign to AAA radio. My record was geared to a more of a HOT AC / Top 40 format. I got some support at AAA radio but it was not instantly getting added to every station in America during their 3-week radio campaign. There was another band in the wings called “Los Lonely Boys.” They were perfectly suited to the AAA format. Or Music was set up to work that format only. Los Lonely Boys exploded and Or Music put all their resources behind them. My record was shelved.

This time when I returned to my collaborator Garth May, to turn my focus to making the next record, he was not in a good state to work. He was going through a personal crisis and was not able to be productive. Without going into too much detail I will say that the roller coaster ride we had been on took a greater toll on him than it did on me. There were substance issues. I waited patiently for over three years, gently trying to help him pull himself out of the abyss but finally realized he may never be the same. He may not ever want to make records the way he had before. I had to find people to complete the record we had half finished if I ever wanted it to see the light. It took me a couple years experimenting to find the right collaborators. I also had the challenge of self-funding. Finally I finished and released “Feels Like The Future” independently in summer 2009. The landscape of the music business in the six years it took me to make the new record has completely changed. Major labels are crumbling, and the economy is at an all time low. I am back to doing things the old-fashioned way, one fan at a time, playing shows, entering contests, getting songs placed in television and film, and getting press to get the music noticed. With the new technology, now everyone can make records. With Myspace and Facebook, the market is flooded. But I still believe in the power of great music. And despite the circuitous path you speak of, I still love what I do.  

PH Your latest recording “Feels Like The Future” is much more produced, much more possessive of a sonic “hugeness” than Mariposa was. When you were in the process of creating these two albums, how did the different contexts of you life ultimately affect the flavor, as it were of the two recordings?

E When I was recording “Mariposa” I was immersed in the singer-songwriter scene. I still had a profound affection for electronic programming then, and you can hear that influence on that album, but I think I took it further in that direction on my new record. When I was writing songs for “Feels Like The Future” I was going through some life-changing personal trials. A divorce. I parted ways with my longtime producer. My father died. I got remarried. I had a baby. I also, as a side note, attended Burning man for the first time. My life felt like the volume was turned to 1000 with so many intense sometimes-conflicting emotions. I was in survival mode to a large degree. I discovered dance music in a visceral sense at that time at Burning man. It influenced the soundtrack I heard in my heard as I was finger picking my guitar. Even though I was still writing imagistic, story-telling folk songs I heard them in my head produced as electronic pieces. That, pared with having to find new producers to complete the record I had started but not completed with Garth May, contributed to the sonic transformation.     

PH The categorization as a female singer songwriter comes with a lot of expectations and baggage, some good, some limiting and frankly, misogynistic, some possibly liberating. What are your thoughts concerning the cultivation of an image that accurately conveys your artistic intent, with the aforementioned expectations, etc in mind?

E Great music transcends gender, period. I think it’s absurd that female artists go in and out of fashion. Ha! It’s laughable. When The Lilith Fair came about and Rolling Stone Magazine deemed it “The Year Of The Woman” I had to laugh. As if any year isn’t the year of the woman! I mean, can you imagine them proclaiming it “The Year of The Man”? I am not woman, or man when I pick up my guitar and sing. I am human. I strive to capture the human experience in song.  

PH You have had a very good year concerning recognition of your work, can you tell me about some of the “buzz” that you have generated in the past few months, and how you see it in the context of your career path?  

E After months of planting seeds around the release of “Feels Like The Future,” things are beginning to bloom, and I’m starting to feel some momentum. The title track has had some television and film placements, I am being prominently featured on NPR’s show “Art of the Song,” I won the top prize for the Great American Song Contest, two more songs are finalists in the International Songwriting Competition (out of 15,000 entries), and I’m playing at The Harmony Festival (Lauryn Hill is headlining). I’ve had some successful re-mixes as well. I feel like opportunities are always out there and if you do the work, make music you stand behind, eventually it will find its place into the hands of fans and the wider industry. I am doing this music thing for life. It’s not a passing fancy for me, so I see this movement as an affirmation of what I’ve been doing and an invitation to keep stretching myself to improve my craft. I’d like to keep expanding. Play new places. Find new vehicles for my songs. Write more. Make new records. Reach new people. And at the same time, I am genuinely enjoying where I am now.   
 

PH The “industry”  is in a state of entropic decline. Record sales are massively down. There is a new zeitgeist amongst younger consumers of music that music is “free” wherever you can find to download it. Record labels are folding by the dozens. Considering these factors, how do you see the role of a label in working with the artist? What do you see as the best way for the two entities to collaborate?

E Labels need great artists. Great artists need labels. I think the labels stopped cultivating and developing and supporting the careers of great artists. They focused on the short term; who’s hot now, this second, with a rampant case of attention deficit disorder. If they can get back to making GREAT MUSIC, people will respond in kind. It is unavoidable that we need each other. Artists need to be promoted and funded. They can’t easily run their own label while touring, writing songs, making records etc…. I guess I am old-fashioned in believing in the necessity of the model label artist relationship. But it’s tricky and sticky, because even beyond the challenges of downloading and a bad economy, historically art and commerce don’t mix well. I think people in the music business, the industry folks, need to make sure they are in it for the right reasons. They need to develop more loyalty, and more follow through for the artists they work with. Then the rest will fall into place. I firmly believe that.  

PH Who inspires you? Not just musicians, but anyone, other artists, friends, family? Who and what is in the well of inspiration you draw from to create your work?

E People who have next to nothing and are generous despite, like a homeless man I know. Wise women like Maya Angelou and my mother. People who overcome hardship and make something amazing out of their lives like Bill Graham. My grandfather who made and lost four fortunes in his lifetime. People who are not afraid to take risks, like my Dad. Bob Dylan is an artist that truly inspires my writing. His emotional and lyrical impact stand unrivaled.  

PH We are a culture obsessed with fame, recognition, and as artists, we desperately want our work to be heard. The new context of a fame-obsessed culture puts the artist in a particular pickle. Do you feel that, like the tree falling in the forest, if relatively no one hears the artists work, it is somehow negated? Or do you have another view?

E The real reward is the thrill of creating the song in the first place. Truly, nothing rivals that feeling for me. But I’d be lying if I didn’t express the desire to share the music. If no one hears my music I will still at the end of my life feel complete because I’ve enjoyed the process of creating. If I get some recognition, that would be good in a different way. It presents different challenges as well. Something to maintain and live up to. If presented with a choice I’d pick the latter. But yes, great work that remains obscure is absolutely still great work!  

PH How has becoming a mother affected your work?

E I am extremely hands on with both my son and my music. Both require my all. I bring him with me to the studio and to shows and to meetings when I can. It can be hard sometimes, but its life and I think it’s healthy for people to see me as a whole person, and that includes being a mother. I want Rhys to see me as a singer and a songwriter, someone who follows their passion and works at their craft, and not just in the context of being on the playground. On a practical level, being a mother means I have to be more focused than ever with the limited personal time that I do have for music. Much of what I do cannot include him in. I need to be 100 percent on much of the time. Rhys is incredibly energetic and demanding. It’s a real challenge balancing everything. But I feel truly blessed to have both my music and a beautiful family. We do what it takes to make it work. Ultimately I want to be an example for him to follow his dreams. I want to share the joy of music with him. The most unexpected and hilarious effect of being a mother are the silly songs that pop into my head at odd times, songs that he and I make up together. About baths, and getting dressed, sneezing, and choo choo trains, and zoo animals… We sing our way through each day… Who knows, there may be a kid’s album down the line.  

PH Many songwriters are strongly grounded in a place concerning some of the textures and nuances of their work, most notably artists from New York and Los Angeles. How has being a San Francisco native affected your songwriting?

E I grew up with hippie parents (the understatement of the century), attending free concerts in Golden Gate Park, listening to street musicians in the Haight Ashbury, jams at communes, meditations starting at age 3, Indian ragas, Tibetan bells, patchouli, crystals, tie dye, every kind of psychedelic improvisation – musical and otherwise, and being exposed to the music, art, and counter culture ideals that exemplify the cultural revolution of the sixties and early seventies. My parents always had music in the house. My Dad loved Dylan. My mother loved classical. One of my Dad’s best friends was Dave Getz, drummer for Big Brother & The Holding Company. My Dad rolled with those kinds of people, hung with Janis Joplin. Incense, tofu veggie stir-frys, craft fairs, street fairs, huge concerts, mountain retreats, guitars, folk music, and great songwriting are all so stitched into the fabric of my being. The threads of my subconscious were woven by the atmosphere I grew up in here in San Francisco. Love was in the air. It sounds cliché, but it was true. I can’t get away from that, it was the way I was raised. With real artists and hippies, not the fake ones that appeared years later with the Dead Heads… My father reading poetry, through a thick cloud of pot smoke in our kitchen… Making candles, jewelry, painting, sculpting rocks, creating his own stained-glass windows and selling them in the streets, with me collecting the money at his side. How could it not impact me? The music and liberal culture of San Francisco has made me the artist I am. I write from a perspective of emotional honesty, like many of the artists of my parents’ time. I want my lyrics to stand up as poetry, like some of my heroes.  

PH Have you ever considered making a very simple acoustic album? I think your voice is conducive to a more stripped down, bare, present type of performance with say small drum kit, double bass, and piano…..

E I write on acoustic guitar so an organic record is an obvious thing for me to do. I have many acoustic recordings that I’ve never released. Recently I’ve been itching to get those out. Originally my vision was to juxtapose folk elements with loops and electronic elements. I’ve done that as well as veered into other territories and enjoyed doing so, but I feel ready to get back to my roots. Acoustic music is my first love. But a great song transcends production. A great song tells stories and evokes a feeling. That’s what I want to do.  

PH We seem to be hurtling into another phase of the female diva that is one part succubus, one part bad little girl, one part sexualized victim (a la gaga). What are some of the contributing factors to this revolving archetype coming around every so often?

 E This is nothing new. It’s the classic virgin/whore complex. Many careers in music, fashion, and film are built on it. People are so conflicted about sexuality. Our puritanical Judeo Christian values are in direct conflict with our biological programming and instincts. Western culture vacillates between worshiping and admonishing the objects of our temptation. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I do my best to keep a sense of humor about it all and just have fun with it. I enjoy being a woman.

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4 thoughts on “essence and the truth in the mirror

  1. duner says:

    Now that’s what I call an interview- both sides sound like they studied a whole semester to craft the answers and questions. It is so lucid- asking questions that elicit answers that go way beyond self-promotion (hardly even get a wiff of it here-refreshing) and deep into the realm of artistry, in a way that is so faded from
    normal “journalism.” We get a sense of essences motivations and what informs
    her inspirations. We get a sense of the music jones that drives her, her muse is
    in full view. The questions are some of the best I have ever read/heard.

    If there were a Grammy for best interview this should be nominated and it should win.

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