On Woman to Woman, Esme Patterson speaks for the ladies, responding to famous love songs
When Esme Patterson was learning to play Townes Van Zandt's song "Loretta," she says she started singing the words and got angry. "I started thinking about how one-sided and subjective a lot of 'love songs' are, and how a lot of women immortalized in songs might tell a different side of the story if anyone ever asked." Fueled by this epiphany, Patterson started writing songs for Woman to Woman, an album of response songs to Dolly Parton's "Jolene," Elvis Costello's "Alison," Van Zandt's "Loretta," the Beach Boys' "Caroline, No," The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," the Band's "Evangeline" and Leadbelly's "Irene." We spoke with Patterson about the record, which is due out on April from the Greater Than Collective.
See also: Paper Bird's Esme Patterson flies solo
Westword: Can you talk about the inspiration for the new album? It sounds like Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta" was the spark?
Esme Patterson: Yeah. Well, I was learning how to play that song "Loretta." I had all the lyrics written down, and I was learning them. It was an interesting experience 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. You know? After you've been, "I love this song," and then it's like, "Really, did I never listen to the words to this song in a real way?"
The record's not an angry record at all. That was a spark of being like, "Wow, I should really pay more attention to what people are actually singing." When I would be listening to the radio or something and I'd hear a song and like, "That one totally messed up, too. She deserves to tell her side of the story. That's kind of screwed up."
When you were writing the response songs what made you pick these seven songs?
I kind of felt like... I hope this doesn't sound too weird, but I felt like with a lot of these the women kind of chose me in a way, where I felt like these were all archetypes that were pretty unfairly portrayed in one way or another. They all kind of presentenced themselves to me at one point or another. It was like, "Hey, what about me?"
The "Eleanor Rigby" one came way out of left field where I was at the time living in a house and living in an attic with no heat, which was pretty absurd in the winter time. My friends were letting me live in their attic. I was working on a project 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, and how at a certain point, there was a lot of peace, like you know you're going to die and you finally accept it. I was thinking about "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.
So they all came from pretty different perspectives, but I felt like the unifying thread through all of them that these were all stories that deserved to be told -- just like a different perspective of just things... songs that we've all listened to hundreds of times. I certain didn't really listen to the words and really think about the fact that these are all people that they're talking about, whether they're made up or real people or whatever. It's starting a discussion of archetype versus reality.
Did you dig deeper into these songs by Elvis Costello and Dolly Parton and others and discover new things about the songs?
Oh yeah. It was fascinating. A lot of these songs are pretty iconic and famous, and there's an interesting... so when I was kind of digging deeper into it, I did a response to the Beach Boys song "Caroline No" and Bruce Springsteen actually had an interesting analysis of that song where he thought that she was pregnant, that Caroline got pregnant.
It's just interesting because these people in these songs are mysterious and on some level, we try and make up our own stories about who they really are and what they do. So it was kind of cool looking through a lot of the stuff and seeing that other people had kind of taken the time to pick it apart and try and unravel the mysteries of these songs, too.
Did you try to research and find out what the songs were actually about, or was it other people's interpretations of them?
I honestly did it more from emotional standpoint, just being a woman myself and just kind of like... you know when you're writing a song, even if it's not about your life, your own life ends up in it somewhere, of course. Your experience is going to color it.
So I was just trying to be voice for a feminine perspective, not necessarily research based; it was kind of more from an emotional recycling and renewing perspective. But with this sort of thing you really don't know, even if someone comes out and says, "I wrote this song about this." You never know. Bob Dylan said like ten different versions of every story.
It's interesting where you can listen to songs over and over and glaze over some of the actual intent and meaning.
Yeah, like that Elvis Costello song, "Alison." What he's hinting at the whole time is that she got pregnant, and he's like, "Well, it's not mine, okay. Like, I heard that you're just a tramp," you know. He just seems like such a jerk to her. And it's clearly like years and years after the fact, too, that he said 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, "Geez, Elvis Costello. You've got some issues." And that's a song that when it comes on the radio, everyone sings along with it. Then you just pick the lyrics apart and "Wow, that's so mean!"
I don't know how many times I've listen to "Alison" and never realized what it was really about.
He's like, "I don't know if you were loving somebody, I only know it isn't mine." He also says, "I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress." It's like years and years later. Why are you so mad still? Like, chill out, Elvis Costello. Why does it matter to you what I'm doing.
Do you think when you play these songs live you'll play the original song and then play the response?
For the album release, I have the wacky idea to have a bunch of friends do the originals, and then I'll just play the record straight through. Mike Marchant is already signed up to do "Alison," which he's going to kill. He's going to totally shred that one. Yeah, you're on the right wavelength, for sure.
I also made the mistake of... it wasn't necessarily a mistake I just got some really good suggestions. I just told my friends and family that I was doing this project, and so I got so many suggestions, and the parameters were that it just had to be a woman's name, and I wrote a song as that woman. There are hundreds and thousands of them, and on some of them, it was like, "Man, I should have tried to do that one." But the parameters were that it also had to be a song that I liked. It also has to be a pretty good song.
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