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.
This song brings me back to a very specific moment; sitting at my writing desk in the morning, staring out the window, hung-over, moved-out, and out of love. I recently searched back in my voice memos to find the original demo, and to my surprise it was on Feb 11, 2018. That was two days before Mardi Gras and three days before Valentine’s Day. Figures. I was fresh out of a long time relationship and lonely as hell.
People have told me that this song makes them feel nostalgic in a way they can’t explain. We don’t have a great English equivalent, but in Portuguese they say “saudade” — a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
Some of the lyrics in “Sex & Magic” allude to my love for early jazz and blues. There’s a reference to “All of Me,” and to the gospel blues song “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” My band and I had a lot of fun arranging our song. Matt Bell’s steel guitar solo is surprising and raw. We were able to tap into this woozy, deranged, jaded jazz vibe. It’s fun to sing about sex in an unsexy or sad way, pretending to be blasé about it, as though it’s not the most important thing in the world.
I’ve got my writing process down to a ritual; I take my coffee to my desk and direct my first hour of consciousness toward paper and pen. I sit on a rickety reupholstered bench that my ex-husband found on the street in the French Quarter. I keep my desk free of clutter and technology. I have a couple hurricane oil lamps with shapely antique glass. Guitar picks, matches, piles of paper, pens, and a live candle flame for company. I face a window and I pull the desk away from the wall (I don’t understand how people can write anything with their desks pushed up against the wall). I’m a bit afraid of confined spaces. I think that’s why I feel so comfortable in the desert. I think that’s why I didn’t like being married.
The second part of my writing process is making demos and listening back. I like to walk when I listen. When I first recorded a demo of “Sex & Magic,” I put on my headphones and walked to work. On Royal Street, I overheard a jazz band playing on the corner and the overlapping melodies from my headphones and the song they were playing made a beautiful cacophony. I had this ecstatic moment of feeling so connected to my city; the music, the people, our past and present.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Maybe if I describe my writing ritual in detail, I will reach through to someone who is stuck like I was for so many years. I was a creative person with all of my potential stored deep inside, not knowing how to access it. I knew I loved to sing, and I would always write in my journal, but I didn’t put those things together. I had my Oh, I think I’m a songwriter moment in earnest on my 28th birthday. But maybe it’s nice to wait for a good thing.
Why do I like songwriting so much? I like that it is a solitary game. I like how melodies can make the simplest sentiments devastatingly profound. I love finding those little places of dissonance between my voice and the chords. I love finding a groove and picturing how dancers will move. I like the moments of discovery when an unusual chord progression falls into place.
Part of my ritual is uncovering or unlocking my true feelings which can often become buried in my efforts to exist in the modern world. Out there, it’s as though I’m constantly reacting. So when I write, it’s my chance to examine. I’m alone, I’ve got an idea for a hook, and I’m going to keep writing and crossing it out until I know that I’ve struck something honest and true. Melodies help me make sense of the world in a beautiful and simplified way.
Rose’s second album, You Made It This Far, will be released via Father/Daughter Records August 23.
(Photo Credit: Akasha Rabut)