Esmé Patterson is a songwriter from Portland by way of Denver. Known for multiple projects including the Americana group Paper Bird and collaborations with Shakey Graves, she has developed her own body of work. Her second solo effort, 2014’s Woman to Woman is a concept album giving voice to the ever popularized yet silent women that inspire the songs they’re named after. Catch Patterson this Thursday at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. Pick up Woman to Woman here
I got in touch with Esme Patterson shortly after I saw her play at Al’s den on New Year’s Eve, hoping to set up an interview with her. The rapidly developing talent newly residing in our Pacific Northwestern midst was open to a meet-up interview; She has a show this week (January 15th) at the Tractor Tavern so we agree to meet before then.
We meet in the lobby of the Ace Hotel. I arrive punctually, and she’s already seated on an antique hunter-green sectional below a tall window facing Stark street; An 8oz cappuccino in one hand, and a book in the other. I almost don’t want to disturb her. I say hello, she looks up from her book, smiles and says hello back in her honey-sweet tone of voice. We walk up to the study above the lobby and I fumble to take off my coat and set up my recording equipment. Patterson glides across the room and instantly eases the tension. The new Portlander is grateful to know about this ‘secret spot’ and laughs with me about how she needs to learn to ‘get out more’. I begin recording and we get started.
Love moved Esme Patterson to Portland.
“I fell in love with a guy who lives out here and there was a big transition happening in my life, so it just made sense to turn a new page. I moved out here in… September? And then promptly left on tour, so I haven’t been here, really, for most of the time,”
She says, reminding me that she practically just arrived. Once she gets her bike fixed she’ll feel like she can really learn the city. Driving is one thing, but taking a bike tour helps her to understand her new home better. I wonder what her favorite part of Portland is so far, and she tells me it’s Laurelhurst park. The area inspires her, and it’s a blessing to have so close to home.
Quickly after arriving back in Portland from her tour with Shakey Graves, she executed a week-long residency at Al’s Den. Each night, she performed a brand new song, written that day, about a body of water, (one of which was written in French, a language she does not speak). I ask her about this method, and whether or not she commonly writes songs in the heat of the moment for inspiration. She giggles at the notion that it could be her ‘artistic method’ and explains that her writing style is more accurately described as ‘constant’.
“I write words all of the time and I have journals- like stacks and stacks of journals- full of stuff that I go back to and comb through sometimes. I’m just constantly working on new things and always have been. Sometimes I’ll go through cycles where stuff really sucks, and I’ll go through cycles where I think stuff is a little bit better but I’m constantly writing. Stacks of it. I should get an assistant to help me sort through it. “
Patterson’s latest album, Woman to Woman came out last April. Excitedly, she tells me that she’s going to be in Europe next week for the European release.
“The feedback has been incredible,” She claims with a grin on her face, “and we had some amazing feedback here in the states too. It was really surprising and exciting for me that people were interested in a record that involved ideas on top of melody and chord changes. It seems like people really embraced the intellectual aspect of it as well as something you would (hopefully) listen to and enjoy. I was really surprised and excited by that because it was kind of a risk doing a concept album. People really embraced it and I feel so grateful and excited about it.”
I, of course, am caught racking my brain over the term ‘concept album’. She clarifies why Woman to Woman is named as such:
“Each song is a response to a famous song that’s titled with just a woman’s name. I would write a song as that woman telling another side to the story, telling her experience, which is, you know, all fictional. It’s just me guessing what these characters might see or feel or experience. The whole record is responses to different songs about a woman. The record is all these woman telling their own stories.”
I’ve already heard a few of the songs from Woman to Woman performed by Esme. They’re clever, tongue-and-cheek and thought provoking. I sense a deeper purpose from her explanation, so I boldly decide to vocalize my interpretations,
“Being a woman in the music scene do you feel like there are ever any obstacles or boundaries that you have to cross that men in the same path do not?
She is quick to answer.
“Oh yeah. I think most of it is if you’re a strong willed, proud person it’s mostly just insults that people don’t intend to be insulting. ‘Who writes your songs for you?’ and you’re like, I’m a big girl! I write my own songs! Playing this record out and having it digested by the media has brought to my attention a huge rift between the sexes and art. I think I wasn’t aware of how much of a discrepancy there was between male and female humans being perceived in the music world. I’m looking forward to a point and time where people see me as an artist rather than a female artist. It’s like ‘pretty good for a girl’ type thing where you’re just like I don’t want to talk about the fact that I’m a woman, I just want to talk about my work… No offense!”
I laugh, embarrassed, but not regretting the question. It’s not the first time Patterson has faced this idea, so she responds with premeditated grace.
“That’s the main thing for me, being a woman in a very male-centric industry, where people ask if they can carry my guitars for me all the time, and I’m like I can carry a guitar! Thank you, that’s sweet of you. But I think we’ve got more work to do. There is ‘feminism’- that being a touchy word these days with all these flares that are happening in our society around people either claiming ‘feminism’ or denouncing it; it creates these huge waves in society. People are not comfortable talking about these things! We have some more work to do I think.”
I take a moment to absorb that thought, enlightened by her observations and impressed at her organic ability to share them. Her captivating presence gives flight to her talent with words in any environment.
I inquire as to her tour with Shakey Graves which came to a close recently. She was out for two months, all around the country, and with a few touchdowns in Canada. It was originally planned that she would tour alongside the band to sing with them, which ignited an empowering opportunity for Patterson. She would agree to do the tour so long as she could open with her own music as well, which inevitably became reality.
“I feel like I fought for the right choice and it feels good to be doing things on my own terms and in my own way. It takes some doin’! It’s harder to do it that way because there’s so many people that would love to hand you the ideas you have or the way you should do things. So, I’ve committed myself to following the path that I want to follow and that makes sense to me. It’s harder in some ways but its fuckin’ worth it.”
She goes into more detail about touring with her friends, Shakey Graves. When she met him on tour in 2013, Rose-Garcia was a solo opener performing first-of-three. The momentum gained in the past year has been “really exciting” and she’s proud of him for the movements he has made.
“I was explaining this to my friend who (is not) a musician the other day that what being a musician is, is everybody is just building a lightning rod and some people take twenty years to build the tallest, straightest lightning rod and some people just put up the cheapest quickest thing they can do, but that’s all everyone is trying to do. It seems like he’s done a good job, hes done it right and it’s getting some strikes!”
As for Esme Patterson’s lightning rod, it’s clear she’s powering a strong electric current in 2015. Once she returns from the Euro release of Woman to Woman, she’s booked to perform Letterman in New York City with Shakey Graves, after which she has some bunkering down to do in preparation for the next record which has already recorded demos last Fall. Luckily for us Northwesterners, you can catch Patterson at the Tractor Tavern on January 15th with Fruition (doors at 7p show starts at 8p) before she jets off.