With her second album Prioritise Pleasure out, a largely-sold out autumn tour soon to begin and more dates added for the spring, Chloë Edwards spoke to Self Esteem to reflect on the new record, success of its first single I Do This All The Time, and the landscape of the music industry and womanhood. (TW: rape culture, consent)
Soon after national lockdown restrictions eased in April 2021, Rebecca Lucy Taylor returned in her solo guise of Self Esteem with I Do This All The Time: a mantra for alleviating self-criticism and, as her upcoming album title demands, prioritising pleasure. Lyrically, the song offers comfort and defiance for young women under societal pressure to fulfil expectations of marriage and motherhood, Taylor singing, “Stop trying to have so many friends / Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have / Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun.”
“I think it’s made it hit home a bit harder,” says Taylor, of the single’s release into a reflective post-lockdown period. “I wrote it in 2019 – I wanted to do an Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) for today. I went into the studio in Sheffield with this producer that I hang out with and never feel silly around, and was like, ‘I’m going to do some spoken word, please don’t laugh’… he didn’t!”
Prioritise Pleasure is Taylor’s sixth album. The first four were made as part of indie duo Slow Club; a fifth, 2019’s Compliments Please, was her debut as Self Esteem, a project that has propelled her gifted, authentic lyricism and ear for layered, cinematic production further. IDTATT received regular 6 Music airplay and a breakthrough performance on Later… With Jools Holland, before Taylor observed its popular reception at summer festival slots. “It had become quite a big thing – every time I performed that, it really popped off in a way I’ve not experienced.”
Of course, another of the song’s invigorating joys is its unapologetic acknowledgement of a woman pursuing pleasure and the potentials of what popular music can do.
“My agenda is hidden in the tropes of pop. It feels digestible and easy but is going to leave you with more – it’s not exactly what I set out to do, but it’s what I realised I’m doing. I just make what I like – it’s very much what I just think and feel and the sounds and forms I’m interested in musically.”
For some, this approach could make for the classic difficult second album, yet Taylor found the opposite to be true in the case of Prioritise Pleasure: a sense of self-assurance enabled the freedom to record exactly what she needed to.
“I really broke that stereotype! It was really easy – it feels wrong saying that! I was just so sure of what I wanted to do, and finally had a way to communicate what I needed. I had the shorthand with the producer, I’d realised what is possible and what Self Esteem is, and what I want to play every night.
“I’ve been ready for a long time to make my own stuff, unchallenged. I’m getting to a point in my life where I’m too tired to worry about what people might think, so I’m creatively quite galvanised and personally quite fully-formed now.”
The result of this is audible in the pacy, powerful How Can I Help You, a drum-fuelled inquisition of gender inequality that ironically looks instead to further elevate the hands of the individual oppressor. Its self-directed video features Taylor drumming, and takes further aim at the objectification of women’s bodies.
“I learnt drums when I was really young, and then had this woman’s body suddenly. The physicality of playing the drums means that your boobs move! It would always attract attention and make me feel really uncomfortable. I shied away from playing the drums and I’ve always thought what a shame that is – but then, on the flip side, how useful that can be. I knew that people that way inclined would click on the video to see a feminist fucking battle cry.”
Another single, Moody, also seeks to reclaim a term often used derogatively.
“I’m realising now that’s not really fair, or not always a negative, because it’s a lot being a woman, it’s a fucking lot being a woman in the music industry: of course I’m in a bad mood often. That one really pops off live, so I’m excited to tour it.”
Does Taylor, who released her first single in 2007, think that the landscape has improved for women in the industry?
“Yes and no. I guess a lot of it has been my attitude changing and me realising what I shouldn’t be standing for, so that’s changed. When I started in the industry there was this culture of ‘don’t be too difficult, don’t ask for too much, and you’ll get the opportunities and people will like you’. Having any issue at all was always painted as being a diva, or ‘what do you expect’? It really cultivated this feeling of ‘I don’t deserve anything’ that bled into my life.
“I’ve changed, and my advice is always advocate for yourself and don’t be frightened of being put down, because that’s how they keep you down and keep women back, by making you feel shamed for having an opinion. But I think mental health is more in the zeitgeist, women’s rights are slightly a thing now [laughs]. I only really work with women or strong allies, so I am in a bit of a bubble, but hopefully, me doing stuff like what I’m doing helps other women ask for what they need.”
Prioritise Pleasure album track I’m Fine features voice recordings taken from time spent with an all-female-identifying National Youth Theatre group from the summer during which a large amount of the album was written, which also illuminated Taylor’s capturing of some of its broader themes.
“It felt really powerful to include their voice. We had these chats about rape culture and consent, and what we do to keep safe walking home, and made a piece of theatre. It was really depressing that these girls, loads younger than me, are still doing what I’ve been doing my whole life. Sometimes it’s very exciting because a lot has changed: many of them were totally okay with gender and sexuality and things that my generation has suffered through. But then a lot of things haven’t changed.”
We end by discussing Taylor’s approach to production. Self Esteem’s distinctive, slickly produced arrangements are perfectly demonstrated by tracks like The Best and Girl Crush – how is this achieved?
“Me and [producer] Johan Karlberg have very similar references and both love everything Kanye’s ever done. We listen to a lot together, and he has a huge library of samples. Sometimes I describe what I mean, or what I need it to feel like, and he’ll find it. You could listen to every album I’ve made and hear my calling cards.
“There’s a certain wavelength I like to stay on with the texture of sound. I’m very interested in the bottom, the bass and the sub, and in sparkly strings and the brass – I’m not very interested in guitars and synths! You can always tell it’s a Self Esteem thing if it’s very heavy, very cinematic, without much middle ground. A good way to describe me, I think!”
Prioritise Pleasure is out now on Fiction Records. Self Esteem plays Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff on Sun 28 Nov (original date of Wed 3 Nov postponed due to illness). Tickets: £15 (sold out – check social media for returns).
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