Paper Bird's Esme Patterson on how there's more to the human experience than love songs
As the latest solo project to come out of the Americana collective Paper Bird, Esme Patterson's All Princes, I is probably the most radical departure from her band's bluegrass/Dixieland sound. Pulling from influences as varied as Van Morrison, CBGB-era punk and Motown, the record is an authentic and infectious gift to the scene. Produced by Roger Green, Patterson's solo album also boasts an impressive roster of local talent, with Nathaniel Rateliff, Ben Desoto, Mike Fitzmaurice and Princess Music's Tyler Ludwick all lending a hand on different tracks. We caught up with Patterson in advance of her Twist & Shout in-store next week (where you can also pick up a copy of the album, nearly a week before the official release party) for a chat about the new record, as well as digressions into subjects like mysticism, Carl Jung and suffering for your art.
Westword: Between the ballet and other shows, Paper Bird seems to have such a full schedule. When did you have time to record a solo album?
Esme Patterson: The album was recorded last April, May and June. Paper Bird was starting to rehearse for the ballet at that time. Actually, one of the songs I wrote for the album ended up going into the ballet -- "Love in an Arch." In the ballet, there are these male and female characters, only you don't know what their relationship is, if they're brother and sister, or lovers, or male and female aspects of the self. I based the song on the Isis and Osiris myth, where they're both brother and sister and lovers. He's the night and she's the sun -- I really like that idea.
Are you really into mythology? The works of Joseph Campbell and all that?
Oh, yeah. I fucking love Joseph Campbell. I got all three volumes of his Masks of God series at the Tattered Cover the other day, Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology...he's amazing. I also do Tarot readings; I've studied it for a while, but am just starting to do readings for people. It's not just a spiritual thing; it's also psychological, very Jungian.
All of the songs have a serious emotional weight to them. Is there any kind of theme that ties them all together?
Yes. At the time, I was really sick of people playing love songs, boy-girl songs, because there's so much more to the human experience than that. A lot of what I was doing with this record -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- was writing songs that were gendered, gendered as a dialogue between aspects of the self. It's the Jungian archetype of anima and animus, which are the male and female aspects of the self.
The song "My Young Man" is the feminine aspects of myself writing a love song to the masculine aspects. I love playing with that idea of gender and how we all have these aspects of ourselves that need to be balanced. Sometimes the masculine aspects need to be seduced, and sometimes the female aspects need gentleness and tenderness.
Yet within all these themes, there's a variety of tone within the record. Songs like "My Young Man" or "Jessica" sound like sweet pop songs, while others, like "Easter Sunday," are quite dark. It seems like there's a variety of experiences going on here.
Certain songs are about certain people, or for certain people. I write from my experiences, kind of to a fault. Once you've been through these cycles of relationships and really thoroughly felt them, they all start to kind of blur. So often we try and project things onto another person, not asking, "How do I view otherness and self and the reflection of self?" And that's how I started to change how I viewed a romantic song.
Are you always concerned with themes and the interior expression of a song -- or do you ever start with an aesthetic, like a good melody or a witty line?
I know what you mean. For me, it's more like a feeling. Like that song "Light of Day" -- it's a meditation on the metaphysics of light. I kind of use my body as a tuning rod, and if something hits me, then I'll write about it. Sometimes it's conscious, an intellectual pursuit of an idea; and sometimes it's just getting your fucking heart ripped out, which gives you feelings to write about.
So the larger picture for you is a retooling of the self, with the music being an extension of that?
Yeah, it's a process. I think that real art has to come from that. There's a merit to doing music as an exercise, with a focused end point; but for me, it's just living. It's the process of experiencing the world, giving and taking. In art there's an honesty that you can explore in the polarity between joy and pain -- something that's hard to encounter in conversation or everyday life.
What was it like working with [producer] Roger Green on this record?
He definitely helped me explore [the songs] in really cool ways. He got what I was going for. There wasn't a lot of me having to explain things. He's so creative -- the way he thinks about music is the way I think about music, which was nice, because I just wanted to barrel through that record. The subject matter was so hard for me, I just needed to do it fast.
Yet you had so many guests on the album. How did it work as a collaboration? Did you already have the songs ready to go before you started?
When we did our first recording session, we were working with over thirty songs, which is a lot. I'd been writing forever, and there'd be these songs that Paper Bird wouldn't want, or I wouldn't want to use them in Paper Bird. And so I had this stack of songs in the back of my mind, and I wanted to give them a shot.
And while recording that record, I was going through an intense period of change. I was constantly writing. I think I drove Roger crazy -- I'd call him and say "I just wrote another one. Can it go on the album?" Then, three days later, I'd say it again. They were written in the climate of that exact moment.
Do you typically go through intense periods of writing? Or is it more steady?
I feel like I'm always dragging my experience into tiny pieces of inspiration -- it's a constant process. Sometimes I'm putting the pieces of a song together in my head, and it will be over a long period of time; or sometimes it will be like, "Holy shit! I wrote ten songs this week." There's never a time when I'm not writing songs, but sometimes the scope is protracted. I have dozens and dozens of songs.
While you're writing so much on your own, how important is collaboration in fleshing out those songs?
Huge, especially because that's my artistic experience. Paper Bird is a collective, and there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen -- which makes for a rich atmosphere to draw inspiration from. It's so many brilliant people, all combining efforts, and playing off each other, and creating together. I really thrive in that.
So what was it like making a record without them?
It was really interesting. There were parts of it that were like, "Yeah, I get to make my own choices! I get to say yes or no -- just me!" But that's also hard to step up to sometimes. In the studio there would be moments where I'd be looking around about to say, "What does everyone else think?" and then I'd realize it was just me. It's important to have a balance. That's why it was so healthy to be doing the solo record and [Paper Bird at the same time]; you can't have too much of one or the other.
Is everyone in Paper Bird sick of the phrase "old timey" yet?
It changes. I think it has everything to do with people's intentions when they use it. There's a huge part of that band that draws from tradition a lot -- really valuable parts of tradition, that make us feel connected in a really beautiful way. The band does a great job of drawing from those traditions.
But this new solo album sounds so modern -- it sounds very different from Paper Bird.
I feel like the traditions being drawn from were very different. Before I was in Paper Bird, I never listened to music with banjos in them. And that's become a huge part of what I listen to -- it's allowed me to see the merit of country and bluegrass. But the songs I'm writing [on this record] are coming from a completely different cultural experience. The soul music I listened to as a child was a huge influence on it. I really like mixed meters and bizarre stuff. Some of it even comes from a punk rock place -- I'm a huge Patti Smith fan.
You have to be unapologetic when it's just you that you're responsible for. So some of the songs are explicitly sexual, or very dark. They're perspectives that I wouldn't want to speak for a whole group of people -- this is just me, not necessarily songs I would want to put on the whole band.
In the past, you've said that these songs are of such a visceral and personal nature, that you wouldn't want to tour with them. What are your plans for shows and promotion of the album?
When I said that before, I was in a very difficult emotional situation, and that reflected where I was at in that process. And now time has marched on, and it gets easier to step back into certain spaces. I'm actually in a place where I find it really healing and really good to play these songs. It goes back to that thing I was saying before: These are just aspects of myself that I'm wrestling with. The songs aren't necessarily anything I'm projecting onto a certain person. And I want to keep that dialogue going. It's something we all deal with, going into those difficult places.
We all deal with it, but most of us don't deal with it publicly. Something I imagine is made even more difficult when you're alone on stage without Paper Bird.
Right. You feel pretty naked sometimes. But I need to do that -- it's what I've been craving. Everybody needs to do that sometimes: Stand with your feet planted, presenting all your gifts and your faults. It's part of the process. It's what I'm here to do.
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