The first time I really heard Esmé Patterson’s voice was after coming across a live, acoustic rendition of ‘Dearly Departed’, written and performed with Shakey Graves. While I developed a deep appreciation for both of their bodies of work, the strength and sense of playfulness in Esmé’s voice had me digging through her repertoire. Her concept album, Woman to Woman, is an exploration of songs historically written about different women that attempts to give these famous characters voices of their own. Creating perspectives for names like Elenaor Rigby and Billie Jean, Esmé’s inclusive and encouraging disposition is equal parts fascinating, charming, and inspiring. I caught up with her after her recent show at Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, and talked about the past, present, and future of what it is to be a music-making human being.
Describe what brought you to what you're doing now.
I’ve always played music. I was always singing. My earliest memories are of me singing by myself on the playground really loudly. When I was 15, my mom gave me a guitar for Christmas and I just fell in love. I think it saved my life in some ways. I never learned how to play anyone else’s songs. I just wrote my own. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing music. It’s just a part of me. I was never as good at anything else.
Your music always seems to explore what it is to be truly human. Everything is so relatable, and even when it’s not, I still feel a sense of empathy towards the stories in your lyrics. Is that an intentional theme?
That’s so nice, thank you! For me, music is just the essence of the spirit. It is so special from other kinds of art forms because it gets inside of you without you necessarily choosing for it to, which kind of sounds scary actually. But it can just seep into your brain and get into your core. Like, you don’t have to open a book or walk into an art gallery, it can just be playing in the street and it’s such a universal, ubiquitous type of expression. I feel like the power in that has a way of connecting people, so when I’m writing I’m trying to tap into that deeply human place that connects us all. I’m just trying to distill spirit into some kind of vibrational form.
It was really special, after the show, to witness all those people come up to you and profess their appreciation for your music. The concept of your album is really fascinating, and I completely agreed when I overheard one of them say how important it is that you've created voices for these unheard women. Why did you decide to do that?
I was sitting in a hotel room in Spearfish, South Dakota (which is a lovely town if you ever get to go there) and I was learning how to play a Townes Van Zandt song called “Loretta”, and I had written all of the lyrics down and was just thinking about how many songs there are where a guy is telling a story about a woman, and where the song title is just her name. These songs are about these women, but they’ve got no chance to tell their sides of the story. It’s just some dude looking at her life and her actions talking about how she is and who she is. To me, it was maddening. And it’s kind of an impossible task, but I felt like someone should give those women their own voices. There are thousands of songs that are like this, and even if it’s in a positive light, it’s still an objectification. I think that so often in music, women are seen in a two-dimensional way. Even if it’s through adoration and about how “she’s so fine” or something, it’s like, this is a person (potentially) that has feelings and thoughts and a heart and her own life experiences. I wanted to kind of bring that back to popular music, the idea that these objects of desire or scorn are people. Women are people. It’s shockingly forgotten a lot of the time, that we’re complex human beings with all kinds of feelings.