Inspired by the honest writing and timeless melodies of American greats such as Hank Williams Sr. and Joni Mitchell, Esther Rose’s songwriting has been called “The happiest saddest music.” Her 2017 debut, This Time Last Night, caught fire as her listeners tuned-in to a storied chronology of this soulful, heart-worn artist.
Influenced heavily by the collective pulse of her New Orleans musical community, Esther’s distinct sound began early in her Michigan upbringing. Reared on gospel records and folk songs on the family farm, she learned to sing the high end of three-part harmonies with her sisters. Rose moved to New Orleans in 2010 and became an active player in the traditional jazz and blues scene as a singer and percussionist, gigging regularly on Frenchmen Street and touring both at home and abroad.
I’ve been putting this thing off. Ever since I got the deadline I’ve been avoiding it. Today I worked on a song instead of starting this. The song is called “Pretty Good” and it’s been my primary focus all throughout the past month and the busy-busy album promotional campaign.
The idea for “Pretty Good” was sparked by a very mid-30s moment. Someone from my past reached out on social media asking: do you remember me? I did. I remembered being 23, a blurry weekend, a car crash and a moment of willing self-destruction.
That night I heard from the past, I also heard from the present. My friend texted me asking: please come back to New Orleans ASAP and pack up your belongings.
I avoided buying a plane ticket or making a plan. Instead I started writing “Pretty Good.” I don’t usually like to write at night but somehow it felt great. I cracked a Modelo and got the melody and syncopation locked in. The words fell into place so effortlessly, it would have been funny if I wasn’t so stressed out.
Eventually, I packed an overnight bag and hopped in my Subaru. Driving across Texas, I sang ideas into my iPhone. I arrived in New Orleans under a full moon on March 26, the night of my album release. Over the next 24 hours I began to release my possessions onto the streets of the French Quarter. I placed things in open boxes on the sidewalk for people to take as they walked by. I called Casey Jane, Max and Cameron and gave them the prettiest treasures; an antique silverware set, a washboard, a couch. Casey Jane mostly wanted a hug and to make sure I was OK, but she graciously took an awkward senior photo. I found that I no longer wanted anything from my past.
things I left:
crumpled purses and hats I’ve had since I was 19
two dusty Husqvarna sewing machines leftover from my seamstress days
my cigarette addiction
bags of fabric scraps and sparkly shit for Mardi Gras
my grandfather’s teapot and tiny perfect tea cups
embarrassingly not very many books or furniture
so many pretty rocks that I’ve brought down from New Mexico (it felt silly to bring them back here)
things I kept:
a battered metal fold-up table
hurricane oil lamps
my alcohol addiction
sheep skulls and wooden barn signs from the farm
birth certificate and social security card
leather jacket, leather boots
boxes and boxes of unsold merchandise
Back on I-10 and heading West, I longed for my guitar so I could properly demo “Pretty Good.” I pulled over for the night and managed to get it down. I spent a restless night in Lubbock downwind from an ethanol plant but woke up feeling lighter. I felt a wild ecstasy taking over me that morning. With no home to attach to and no record to promote anymore, just my heart in those songs finally free in the world, I was more myself than I had ever been.
You ask me:
“What was the inspiration for this record?”
I see a pattern emerge. In moments of pressure I turn to songwriting. It happened over and over when I was writing How Many Times. Getting dressed up and going out to a show only to bike home immediately to write a song. Getting a stressy ex-text. Hooking up. Leaving town, again. Always writing. But this time leaving town was different than ever before.
Writing How Many Times distilled the struggle of being a human into something joyful with a sweet release. I wonder what other people do who don’t write. They probably grow vegetables or adopt animals. I will ditch my date at the bar to go home and write a song.
I don’t know why I do this, only that I have to. I think this is why people say: don’t date musicians. But I want to be fair. I want so much to use empathy to heal my fucked up heart and, by proxy, connect with others: Can’t you hear how vulnerable I am, can’t you feel it? Lover, please come back to me? But it doesn’t work that way.
Listening to the river singing as it flows over stones in its bed, I lean over to splash cold water on my face and my glasses slip off my nose, instantly vanishing into the stream. I am filled with horror as my world turns blurry and confused. I double back on the trail and a friend drives me home. The day I went blind at Rio En Medio was the day I found out. I guess it makes sense that I have to live here now to regain my sight.
But I digress. Songwriting, not essay writing, is my preferred medium. I like to hide in the details. I like how rhyming shapes the narrative by restricting word choices. And yet, after answering so many of the same questions during the album’s promotional campaign I find relief in this opportunity to represent myself.
A journalist asks:
So Esther, what’s How Many Times about?
I answer in haiku:
please don’t make me try
just listen to the music
and read the reviews
I ask New Orleans:
How many times did I stomp through your streets, dreamlike, headphones on, working on these songs? In love with every flower and puffy cloud sunset and trash pile and corner bar and creeping vine.
I tell myself:
Don’t get bitter, don’t get bitter, don’t get bitter you’re getting older, you’re no spring chicken, appreciate the attention your music is getting.
But then I also say to myself:
Who cares, you’re going to do this anyway.
I smile at strangers under my mask and look them in the eye. I flirt with Danny in produce. I make cappuccinos for cowboys. I write a bridge for “Pretty Good” and I finish it. I don’t live in New Orleans anymore.
(Photo Credit: Brandon Soder)