Esmé Patterson is full of secrets.
Things she won’t share (yet): the name of her forthcoming album, the track list, what the album cover looks like, what themes it draws on, or a release date more specific than spring of next year. Granted, she’s wonderfully diplomatic about it. Regrettably, that’s how these things go.
But there are some secrets she can spill, including that the album is absolutely on its way, that it will most definitely arrive next year, that the followup to 2016’s We Were Wild is most certainly imminent. And that it will arrive via BMG, the company that she has had a publishing deal with since 2015 and that now acts as her label. And that she’s just back from Minneapolis, where she was visiting her boyfriend and making a “spiritual pilgrimage, just because that’s where Prince is from.”
In the interim between We Were Wild and the forthcoming record, Patterson has been busy. She toured extensively and stopped by the NPR offices to play a Tiny Desk Concert. She moved back to Denver in January of 2017 after spending three years in Portland caring for her aging grandmother, who has since passed away. And, of course, she wrote her forthcoming album, previewed by the new single “Light in Your Window.”
The genesis of “Light in Your Window” was something of an accident. Patterson had agreed to participate in a project that paired songwriters so divergent they might otherwise never encounter one another, let alone collaborate. Her partner, a cello player from Kansas — “whose name I thankfully don’t remember because this would probably not be something he would want to be named for,” she adds with a laugh — sent her a collection of minutes-long, single-note cello drones. Patterson, who had only just learned to use GarageBand, assembled a beat and wrote the nascent version of “Light in Your Window” over the drones and sent it back to him.
“He hated it. He was like, ‘I don’t usually like music with beats in it.’ And I was like, ‘That sounds vaguely racist, but whatever,’” she says. She axed his contribution of droning cello tones. What remained was the first proper demo for “Light in Your Window."
The finished version is hardly Patterson as we’ve known her. Her 2012 debut, All Princes, I, and 2014 followup, Woman to Woman, were guitar-forward folksy rock records, the latter often rubbing up against traditional three-chords-plus-truth country. We Were Wild electrified her sound in both a literal and a figurative sense: There’s a rollicking ’70s edge to songs like “Feel Right,” and the title track not unlike Linda Rondstadt at her boldest. Even the slower ballads are imbued with vintage troubadour grit: You can trace the lineage of “You and I” back to mid-’70s Janis Ian.
But the guitar within “Light in Your Window” is strictly secondary; this is a pop ballad with finger snaps, a hi-hat-and-snare tap, and a steady synth line that blossoms underneath Patterson’s crystalline voice. (The cello drone is notably absent, as promised.) It follows that fellow Colorado duo Tennis not only produced the song, but plucked the demo out of the bunch that Patterson sent them. Comparisons between her newer, softer sound and her producers' own project are all but inevitable.
That said, collaborating with Tennis was not Patterson’s idea; bandmembers Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley approached her with the offer in the summer of 2017. Patterson was already conceptualizing her next record, which she envisioned as a “rock-and-roll, psychedelic-style album.” Since that sound isn’t in Tennis’s wheelhouse, she turned down the offer. “I wanted to get a really tight live band and just go in the studio and cut it, flaws and all,” she says. She was excited about making it happen with her touring band — that is, until her drummer left to pursue his own solo project.
“The change in personnel broke the momentum for me,” she remembers. But her drummer had some trenchant advice on his way out: “As he was leaving the band, he was like, ‘The band has always been you. It’s not about who’s the drummer.’ It helped me refocus on how these are my songs and that’s my name. I was blind to that a little bit.”
So Patterson circled back to Moore and Riley. “I was like, ‘I’ve reconsidered your offer, and I would like to make a shiny pop album with you guys!’ Because that’s what they’re great at,” she says. “I hadn’t been able to see that possibility when I was so close to the other idea. Once that fell apart, I was like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I should do anyway.’”
Tennis agreed, and the three of them worked through the summer of 2018, making Patterson’s first proper pop album. She chose “Light in Your Window” as the first single, then sent the record to Daniel DiMarchi, a Denver-based musician and digital artist whom Patterson met when she moved in as his downstairs housemate.
Together she and DiMarchi conceptualized the accompanying video, which draws on the work of avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren (to whom Patterson bears a serendipitous passing resemblance) and her groundbreaking 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon. “We wanted some paradoxical, labyrinthian idea that wasn’t necessarily straightforward and made you suspend your disbelief a little bit,” says Patterson.
To that end, there are two of her in the video (“That’s Danny doing his magic there,” she notes), draped in a silver dress and winding her way through West Colfax venue Invisible City, alternating with shots filmed at Boulder Creek (starring only one of her).
And there’s more where that came from, of course. But for the time being, all that is Patterson's secret.
Hear Esmé Patterson, Tennis and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.