There's a sign posted near the front door of the hi-dive that lists Esme Patterson as the headliner. The opener is listed simply as "Friends of Esme." There have been rumors and even informal announcements about which friends those might be, but all the crowd filling the dark room on South Broadway knows for sure is that Esme Patterson and some other people are playing a show to celebrate the release of Patterson's new album, Woman to Woman, available this week through the Greater Than Collective imprint.
Some of the people are here because they know Patterson as one of the three women who front Paper Bird. Others are here because they were impressed by her 2012 solo debut, All Princes, I. And the mystery surrounding the opening set is part of the draw, too. But this particular album-release show has generated unusual interest thanks to a compelling concept: Each song on the record is written from the perspective of a woman previously known as the lead character in a hit song by a well-known artist.
The venue is nearing capacity, and Denver guitar hero Mike Marchant is the first one on stage. Adam Baumeister plays a slow Phil Spector beat while Marchant unhurriedly strums the opening chords of a popular song written in 1977 by a British guy known for his oversized glasses.
"This is an Elvis Costello song," Marchant says. "It's called 'Alison.' It sounds like a love song, but it's very fucked up."
Patterson knows all about that. She put herself in the title character's shoes when she wrote "Valentine," the opening cut on Woman to Woman. The way Patterson interprets "Alison," the narrator of the song is talking about Alison being pregnant.
That revelation changed her view of the song. "And he's like, 'Well, it's not mine, okay? I heard that you're just a tramp,''' she says in an interview. "You know, he just seems like such a jerk to her. And it's clearly years and years after the fact, too.... He says in the song, 'It's so funny to be seeing you after so long,' and then he goes into all this catty, mean stuff.
"It's like, 'Jeez, Elvis Costello. You've got some issues.' And that's a song that, when it comes on the radio, everyone sings along with it."
Later in the night, just before she starts her set, Patterson will ask the folks in the audience if everyone knows about the concept of the record — about how her songs are responses to all the ones that her friends have covered.
"So I was thinking about how to release it," she'll tell the crowd, "how best to present it and release it into the wild. And who could cover each of these songs? Who the fuck is going to sing 'Jolene'? I couldn't sing that song, you know? I walked into a bar in Nashville and saw somebody singing it, and I was like, 'I will never sing that song.'"
But Patterson found just the right artist here in Denver. With her red Les Paul, singer-songwriter Natalie Tate gets up after Marchant and slowly digs into "Jolene." The gravitas of her commanding rendition of Dolly Parton's classic instantly hushes the crowd. Colorado Springs-based Conor Brougal of Changing Colors then takes the stage for a gritty acoustic version of Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta," the song that provided the initial inspiration for Woman to Woman.
While Patterson was learning to play "Loretta," she started singing the words and got angry, and she started thinking about how one-sided and subjective a lot of love songs are.
"I had all the lyrics written down, and I was learning them," she says of "Loretta." "It was an interesting experience, [one] where you get kind of angry at reading the words, and then you get kind of angry at yourself for just having read them for the first time after you've said 'I love this song.' Really? Did I never listen to the words to this song in a real way?"
Still, she says, "the record's not an angry record at all. That was a spark: 'Wow, I should really pay more attention to what people are actually singing.'" So she did. She started listening more closely to lyrics on the radio, looking for female characters who are treated unfairly. She found plenty that made her think, "'She deserves to tell her side of the story. That's kind of screwed up.'"
So Patterson imagined what it would be like to be the women portrayed in Elvis Costello's "Alison," in Dolly Parton's "Jolene," in Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta," in the Beach Boys' "Caroline, No," in the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," in the Band's "Evangeline" and in Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene" — and from each of those women's perspectives, she wrote a song. "[I put] my life and my understanding into these stories," she says. "I'm giving life to these women, who have been drawn by men, to color them in.
"To me, it was more about bonding to the female archetype than it was responding to the male side of it," she explains. "It was stepping into the character of the female more than it was considering the male perspective."
After Conor Brougal's one-song set, Gregory Alan Isakov, fresh off a national tour with Josh Ritter and not far removed from a sold-out show at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, plays a gorgeous version of "Caroline, No."
"[He] played the shit out of a Beach Boys song that's difficult to play," Patterson notes later in the evening. "It's got really scary chords in it. He did an amazing job and made it beautiful."
It's a tough thing to follow, and cellist and singer Ian Cooke seems particularly focused as he starts "Eleanor Rigby," because he's never done the song before. Still, he manages a stunning version. Patterson's Woman to Woman response is striking, as well: Of all the songs on the album, "Bluebird," which is written from the perspective of Eleanor Rigby, is the most personal.
"[The women] all kind of presented themselves to me at one point or another," says Patterson. "It was like, 'Hey, what about me?' I was living in an attic with no heat, which was pretty absurd in the wintertime. My friends were letting me live in their attic, and my roommate's mom was dying of cancer. It was terminal, and she knew she was going to die.
"And, actually, that response song came from thinking about her spirit and how brave she was. At a certain point, there was a lot of peace. I was thinking about the 'Eleanor Rigby' song in that context and thinking that maybe she's not lonely. Maybe she just knows that she's going to die any day, and she's just kind of accepted it, and she's just ready to go."
After Cooke, the members of the Blue Rider and Ark Life team up for a relaxed waltz version of the Band's "Evangeline." And then it's time for Patterson's final "friend," Reverend Deadeye, who usually plays guitar and drums simultaneously. Tonight, he sits at a keyboard to play Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene."
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Patterson knew throughout the process of creating the album that she wanted to write a response to "Goodnight, Irene." But it proved elusive, and by the time she started recording, she still hadn't figured out how to approach the song.
Inspiration eventually came via process of elimination: Some of the responses on Woman to Woman are angry, some of them are heartbroken, and some are very loving and patient. Patterson decided she needed one perspective to be more tongue-in-cheek. That's how she approached the song "A Dream," which closes the album; it's an unexpected opportunity for levity, given that its source material is a song about a man about to commit suicide.
"I know that's kind of a twisted song to choose as a lighter note," she says with a laugh. "But [it] always kind of seemed silly to me, in a way. It's like, 'Goodnight, Irene. I'll see you in my dreams.' It's sort of a really twisted lullaby. I thought her perspective would be to give him back that same feeling. In my response she's saying, 'I'm no saint. I've done careless things.... So if you die, you're not going to be waiting up in the sky for me. I'm not going to go to heaven in the sky.'"
The Friends of Esme Patterson have finished, and it's time for the women in the songs they covered to have their say. Patterson (backed by guitarist Adam Baumeister, bassist Joe Sampson and drummer Will Duncan) runs through the songs from Woman to Woman, injecting buoyant enthusiasm into her performance before closing out the album section of her set with the relaxed and melancholic "A Dream." She stands smiling before the microphone, in a room full of people rethinking beloved songs. "Heaven's not a dream," she sings. "So wake up, darling."