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.


Which song off Woman to Woman was your favourite to write, and which is your favourite to perform?
That’s a cool question. It was a bit of a whirlwind to process, but I think my favourite one to write was the “Jolene” response called “Never Chase a Man”, because it was a song I’d always admired, but the female archetype presented by Dolly Parton always just seemed so supplicating and weak and powerless. It was a lot of fun to write the “Jolene” perspective, which was kind of this loving and caring perspective saying, “Hey, you don’t deserve to be treated like this.” I wish more women would offer that to each other in the public sphere. Sort of like, “Let’s not compete over a guy. This guy seems like a dick and you can do better than that.” So yeah, that one was a lot of fun to write.  I think my favourite one to perform is the response to “Billie Jean”, which is called “What Do You Call a Woman”, because I get to be really angry. It’s an emotion that’s really uncomfortable for me - pure anger. I never really let myself inhabit that feeling in my personal life, but on stage you can kind of be righteously angry singing that song and it feels really good. I’ve gotten some feedback from men that it’s really scary, and it’s like, it’s supposed to be scary! Yeah, there are going to be repercussions! *laughs*

I love that!
But it’s been fun to just stand with this righteous anger that’s not mine and that has nothing to do with my life.

Angry on Billie Jean’s behalf…
Yeah! It feels really good. I get the whole punk rock/hardcore scene now for that reason.


What has been the response to the album? It seems like people have been appreciative and positive, but have you received backlash? Has there been struggle?
From women it’s only been positive, and from men I’ve gotten mixed responses, where either they say, “How dare you approach these classic songs! These hallowed songs!” *laughs* You know? Or they’ll compare the songs side by side and say, “Well, that song is a much better song than the one you wrote.” And it’s like, well I wasn’t trying to write a better song than “Eleanor Rigby”, which is not really possible…I just think art should be a discussion. It’s interesting. And I feel more often the feedback from men is, “That was really scary.” Or, “That made me uncomfortable.” And then from women it’s so supportive and more like, “Thank you! What you’re doing is important! This means a lot.” It’s really interesting, the split in the genders that way. And of course lots of guys have given me really positive feedback too, but the only negative stuff I’ve heard has come from men.


So now you’re touring. What is your trajectory?
Well, I’ve been making a new record this year, and I’ll be done at the end of this year and I’m really excited about it. The response album was a labour of love, but I wasn’t writing about my own life. And it was fun, kind of like a puzzle to solve. But this record I’ve been making is deeply, deeply personal and kind of a big part of my evolution of self. I’m turning 30 in a couple of days, and this year has been a big change. I’ve been writing a lot about it and I’ve been making a record that I’m really proud of so I’m really excited. I’m so impatient too! It won’t be out until next year, but I’m really excited to share it. It will be released in the spring of next year and when going through the process of making a record, you just realize how crazy you are. It’s just a journey. It’s nuts, and just a crazy experience that’s been beautiful and terrifying and disturbing and fucking transcendent and magical. It’s all in there, so I can’t wait to share it with people.


I love that. It’s interesting to think about all the different senses musicians need to activate in order to create their work. For example, photography can rely on the photographer being highly visual and still make for good or interesting work, but as a musician, you need not only sounds and melodies, but words and the ability to articulate yourself in order to make a good song. What has been your experience with songwriting felt like?
My experience is that you’re just staring in a mirror. You’re just staring at it, or trying not to look at it, but it’s there and you’re locked in this fucking room with a mirror and that’s it. That’s what it’s like. It’s very intense and can be terrifying and beautiful and healing, it’s everything at once. Looking at yourself is a scary experience that I feel like some people never do but in art, you have to. Well, maybe you don’t have to but you can. Art is a way of doing that and it can be really rewarding but you have to step up and look at it, which can be terrifying.


Have you ever received or given advice that you felt really hit home? What sort of words do you carry with you?
That’s great. That’s a great question. I’m a big reader and words mean a lot to me. I really care about words. I feel like often times, I’ll get advice from unlikely places, like I'll be driving down the highway and there will be a tile place with a billboard with a quote on it that will be really resonant in that moment or something. I’m trying to think of something specifically...the thing that I’m learning more from these days is silence over words. Words mean a lot and advice is important and can guide you, but I feel that the “advice” that has been the best is just sitting with someone in silence. When someone you’re with allows silence to be okay, it can be an accepting, encouraging, peaceful feeling that ends up feeling like advice to me. That, to me, is what I’ve been keeping with me lately, more so than words. 

What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet?
I’ve always wanted to fly a plane. I would love to. I’ve always wanted my own plane that I could fly, and have always felt comfortable in airplanes, like native there somehow. I’ve read a lot of books about people that fly airplanes and have always thought, “someday, it’ll happen.” But I’ve got to make some money first. I think you have to have a bit of money to have an airplane, who knows? *laughs* And I’d have to have some free time, which I don’t have at the moment. But I’ve always wanted to do that.


I hope you do it!
I will! I’ll get around to it. 


CONTACT ESMÉ  |  Soundcloud  |  Facebook  |  Instagram  |  Twitter

Published on November 23, 2015
Interview & photography by Marlee Maclean