Having supported Grace Jones, Erykah Badu, and Morcheeba, Wellington-based Estère Dalton is no stranger to the twin arts of stagecraft and self-presentation. Appearing at the San Fran on Cuba St to promote her new single, “Calculated Risk,” the local musician sutured together a truly impressive set of syncopated soul beats to form a variegated cloth of iridescent splendour.
Supported by a propulsive drum and bass rhythm section, with Zoe Moon providing some enchanting vocal harmonies, Estère immediately got the appreciative audience gyrating to her hypnotic beats and funky guitar licks. She and Moon (daughter of musical anthropologist and bluesman, Taj Mahal) enjoyed an equally powerful sense of intricate entrainment, as they worked their way through a series of tightly choreographed moves together, wrists curving in the air like pairs of parentheses. Not exactly what you might have expected from a singer-songwriter who's wandered into more ethereal Kate Bush territory in the past, but on Friday night Estère rediscovered her inner funketeer. It was an inspired and refreshing performance, fueled by high octane riffs and punchy back beats that alternated with slower, more soulful explorations of vocal harmony and background keyboards.
Born on Waiheke Island, Estère is a uniquely talented musical artiste who immediately made an indelible mark on Aotearoa's underground music scene after discovering the delights of an MPC 1000 Sampling Station in 2012. “I’ve always loved the name ‘Lola',” Estère first confided to Maddie McIntyre in 2014, “When I met my MPC for the first time … she pretty much communicated to me that that was her name straight away.” "Oh, yes … I love Lola!" she later confirmed in a conversation with Grant Smithies in 2018 from the bedroom studio inside a 1940s villa in Hataitai. "Making my new record, I was so immersed in my technology, not just with Lola but with all my other machine bandmates, too. It's my electronic team, I guess - my gang. I put so much energy into the work I do with these machines, and in some strange way, that energy gets reciprocated. You imagine these things have a sort of secret life, independent of you."
Sampling and processing digital signals enabled Estère to create a jazz-inflected, hip-hop soul music in her bedroom inviting a “rowdy crowd … of plug-in chums, her “wired-up whanau” to join her. Smithies suggested that “A lot of her human family lives in Africa and France, but her second family is always nearby, sitting quietly in her room until she flicks the "On" switch and kicks them into noisy, vibrant life.” In addition to her slightly unsettling "mother-daughter relationship" with Lola, she also owns a synthesizer called Korgi, since it's capable of creating all kinds of digital barks and growls.
Estère studied anthropology and philosophy at Victoria University - "Anthropology is like a lens I use to look at the world. I studied psychology first, but it made me a hypochondriac. I started diagnosing myself all the time with mental illnesses … but then I moved into philosophy and anthropology, and really found my thing. I especially loved cultural anthropology, which is about creating comparisons between different groups of people. As someone with an unusual cultural background, I think about it all the time, write about it, make songs about it … I lived in France and Germany myself as a teenager and I'm fascinated by how people from different cultures are socialised to process information in profoundly different ways. A lot of [my] songs are inspired by looking at other people's positions in the world relative to me and relative to each other."
In addition to taking some sonic arts at the NZ School of Music, Estère was performing and recording with the nine-piece, Wellington-based, psychedelic/neo-soul/hip-hop/chunk funk collective Brockaflowersaurus Rex & The Blueberry Biscuits, that also launched the careers of Moon and Louis Baker. Once she went solo, however, Estère wanted more control over her own music and began arranging an increasingly busy solo schedule. Employing live instrument loops, all played, recorded, then processed by her through Logic Audio software on her laptop, Estère released two widely praised singles, “Cruel Charlie” and “Culture Clash.”
Estère has dubbed her music “electric blue witch hop” because it “describes the amalgamation of sound and influence I believe my music to have. The ‘electric’ alludes to the electronic aspect of the music. The ‘blue’ is what I imagine the synesthetic experience would be. The ‘witch’ plays on the general mystic and magical element of music, and the ‘hop’ is the heavy bass and drums I like to put into my production … People don't realise I'm such a sound nerd. I knuckled down alone in my bedroom with Lola and made all the preliminary tracks, then brought in a few session players. I always let people know I'm a beat maker right up front, but some people struggle with that idea. Being a front person needs more extrovert tendencies, but a lot of producers are low-key and invisible, so people are surprised I do both."
Releasing each side of My Design, On Others' Lives six months apart, as she did in 2018, turned out to be a stroke of genius. "It's a quirky way of releasing a record, I admit. I put out a six-track EP called My Design Part 1; then the second EP, On Others' Lives, comes out around March next year. They add up to a full album called My Design, On Others' Lives … I didn't want it to just get lost among all the other music coming out, which happened with my first album in 2014. My music was pretty minimal back then. There's a lot more layers and complexity this time around, and some other live players besides me and Lola and my other machines."
With the arrival of the complete twelve-song set, My Design, On Others' Lives, it became clear that both halves combined made a full meal, rewarding on many levels - sonically, rhythmically, melodically, and lyrically. A producer as well as a singer and songwriter, the sounds she feeds into her sampler are raw and organic, such as the rustle of bamboo on the opening track, a field recording on a windy day made on a trip to Vietnam - "There were these bamboo trees knocking together, and I sped up the sample to make this kind of percussive, crinkly sound. I was very mindful of how the war had affected the country and its people, so it's a song that considers conflict and war." Her songs have featured the percussive thumps of a drawer opening and closing and the tut-tutting tongue-clicks of a possum stuck up a tree. In one tune she inhabits the anxious interior world of a small child growing up under a military dictatorship, in another she occupies the headspace of a whale.
Estère likes to impose super-tight, power-pop tunes with sophisticated and well-crafted lyrics on top of these elliptical dance beats and 'found' sounds. “Control Freak,” from the first disc released in 2017, concerned the power struggle between the waking self and the subconscious, while “Rent” was a celebration of artistic creativity and survival that paid rhythmic tribute to Prince’s Sign O' The Times. Many reviewers have also compared her to Badu, but she was more influenced by "dramatic older singers who create a whole world and invite you in," like David Bowie and Nina Simone, as well as sonically inventive indie bands such as Dirty Projectors and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. She certainly doesn’t write the kind of ‘relationship’ songs that epitomise the singer/songwriter genre and just isn't very interested in composing confessional ballads.
Estère much prefers to imagine the world through the eyes of a revolving cast of characters of different ages, nationalities, and backgrounds - even different species. She is more interested in other people’s relationships to the world in which they find themselves - the “others’” lives of the album’s title - and her omnivirous curiosity encompasses a wide range of lyrical concerns, including, an intricately stitched together song that considered the fate of refugees; the witty “Pro Bono Techno Zone,” which explored the relationship between youth and technology, mourning the loss of real-world connections in our digitally amplified age over blaring horns and a quaking electronic bass line; and “Ambition,” a political parable about an up-market prostitute who dreams of becoming US president, delivered in a pointedly hilarious lyric over a shuffle-beat, all underpinned by a bass clarinet. While the video showed her dancing in a bordello, wearing a red cocktail dress and surrounded by hunky, tuxedo-clad men, she has also delivered a Ted Talk entitled “Girls in the Beat World” about sound, sexism, and producing DIY records at home in your pyjamas.
Drawing inspiration from an eclectic canvas of sonic sources, including imaginary partners, reptilian evolution, and the headspace of cetaceans, Estère’s songs are both refreshingly quirky and playfully souful. “I like to write songs that have stories.” she admitted to McIntyre. “There is nothing wrong with writing love songs and stuff, but I have always been attracted to songs with interesting or different subjects … I’m a culture clash baby. My mum is from NZ but my dad is originally from Cameroon and moved over to France when he was young. I’ve visited him and family over there a few times.”
Estère is equally at home singing in French and English and her eyes and ears roam freely around the globe, but she draws special inspiration from her African heritage, which gravitates towards polyphonic melodies and syncopated rhythms. There’s a sense of deep connection in anything she sings about, especially her meditation on the grandmother she never met - "She was my dad's mother, and I'm named after her. Estère means 'morning star.' When people who knew her meet me, they're always amazed at how similar I am to her. I was due to go over to Cameroon to meet her, but she died before I could get there."
When Estère finally made it to Africa, she played to a crowd of 5,000 in Mozambique, performed a series of shows in South Africa (including a showcase organised by the NZ High Commission), and drove seven hours to play in an underground amphitheatre in the desert in Swaziland. The highlight was shooting a video for “Grandmother” on the coast near Cape Town, with acclaimed African author, actress, and UN representative Sindiwe Magona playing the role of her grandmother - "It was an amazing experience. I'm sad to have never met my namesake, but that song is my tribute to her, and it was great to be able to film it in Africa, close to the area where she had lived."
Estère then spent three months performing across Europe, including Glastonbury and gigs in France, Denmark, Australia, South Korea, and New Caledonia. When she returned to Wellington, Bic Runga invited her to perform a duet on her own solo tour because "she has such a great style and beauty and a cool DIY attitude." Over self-produced backing tracks that range from airy, jazz-inflected soul ballads to raw dance floor beats, Estère's songs travel across musical borders, exploring the magical, liminal realms of family bonds, cultural differences, changing behaviour patterns, and our constantly evolving relationship with technology. It's a raw, heady, and cosmopolitan brew.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Stella Gardiner for all the images in this review.