Morning Becomes Eclectic Show
show that aired Wednesday, June 10, 1998
BY LIISA LADOUCEUR
PHOTOGRAPHY BY EDWARD POND
estheroWhen you first see Esthero, it’s tempting to ask, “So where have you been?” Seven years is a long time between records. Time enough for labels to fold, musical genres to peak and dissolve, relationships to burn out. Time enough for an It Girl to become a footnote. “Oh sure, Esthero. The fiery young thing with the US deal and the trip-hop album, right? What ever happened to…”
But it seems a waste of time to talk about those seven years, and where Esthero went after the dissolution of both her record company (Sony subsidiary The Work Group) and her partnership with Doc, bringer of the beats to her 1998 debut, Breath From Another. The Toronto-based hip-hop siren would probably just shrug it off, say she’s been hiding out at home watching CSI.
It’s easier to just pull up a list of her recent recording credits: guest vocals and collaborations with Black Eyed Peas, Goodie Mob, Nelly Furtado, Ian Pooley, DJ Krush, Blue Man Group and on and on. Better still to ask about what’s new. Because her own album, Wikked L’il Grrrls (Reprise/Warner), is finally complete, and it’s totally now. The disc’s not out until April, but since she’s playing her first full headlining live show in five years at eye’s CMW showcase (following a brief guest set at a Quadrosonic party last October), she’s starting to talk about it.
After polishing off noodle soup and banana tempura at an upscale Japanese resto, she jumps on the topic of Wikked L’il Grrrls’ lead track, “We R In Need of a Musical Revolution” (out now on the five-song EP of the same name), and how when she first heard the music by James Robertson (one of Wikked’s contributing co-writers), it reminded her of Tears for Fears’ “Shout,” and she wanted to pen equally charged lyrics. And how the line “Everywhere I go I see Ashanti in the video / I want something more!” came to her in the tub. And that she didn’t outright name R. Kelly in the lyrics (singing instead “Tell me why a grown man can rape a little girl and we still hear his shit on the radio?”) because it didn’t quite rhyme, and even an accused statutory rapist is innocent until proven guilty.
“When I wrote that song I got really scared and thought there are going to be a lot of people that won’t like me very much,” she says. “I called a couple of people to bounce it off. I called Prince Paul. He thought it was great. I called Mos Def and said, ‘I think I’ve lost it’ and he told me I was on the right path. All my friends were supporting me, but I still expected a backlash. The reason it hasn’t happened is probably because I don’t have any substantial amount of fame for people to care what I’m saying.”
She may not be world famous — yet — but that doesn’t mean she’s not a star. An exceptionally talented singer, Esthero’s voice radiates a seductive quality ready for mass adoration. Plus, she’s downright cute. Yet Toronto doesn’t exactly treat her like a treasure. Last fall, her single “O.G. Bitch” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Club chart, but you’d never know it by the way she’s greeted at our own nightclubs.
“I get no special treatment here,” she laughs. “In LA, I can get into any premiere. I’ll go to one of those clubs they write about in the tabloids and I’ll get paparazzi. Not here. I go to meet someone at a Toronto club and they’re like, ‘Who are you?’ The upside is that I don’t have people going through my garbage. The bonus of being Canadian is we’re all equal. I appreciate it. And the creativity is here, which is why I stay. Once you’re doing well as a musician, you don’t live anywhere anyway.”
Despite the lack of glamour and financial opportunities here (“You can win MuchMusic awards and Juno awards up the hoo-ha and still live in Regent Park in a shitty apartment with no cash,” she moans), she calls Toronto her heart and her home.
Living in the Annex, she still managed to fill Wikked L’il Grrrls with world class talent, much of it from right here: Jelleestone, Jully Black, Spookey Ruben and Jemeni are listed alongside Andre 3000, Cee-Lo Green and Sean Lennon. They complement Esthero’s own dexterity as she shifts from pop, hip-hop and R&B numbers in the guise of bad-ass sex kitten, tortured torch song balladeer and perky pop princess. The slick but off-kilter mix will be challenge to market, for sure. Do we file it near Beyoncé or Björk?
“I grew up listening to My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain — selling out was not an option,” she says. “In hip-hop, it’s all about self-promotion and endorsement. I’m caught in between two worlds. I think you need to have some integrity, but I need to make money.”
She could have both if someone is smart enough to push the killer title track, a show-stoppin’, hip-hop/swing crossover with multiple rhythm jazz vocals that Esthero says is “straight-up Andrew Sisters shit” (and will make good use of the 10-piece live band she’s assembled). Esthero calls the track a love letter to her “pirate sisters.” Aye, pirates. Seems a loose collective of her friends and fellow artists have adopted pirate personas: Rainbow Buffalo Cornbread Woman. Yo Ho and a Bottle of Yum. Esthero’s full pirate name is L’il Dukes Up Tha Peachcup Pink Pirate Esthero Faerie, half of which is tattooed on her arm.
“My first pirate name was Esthero, which I named myself,” she says. “It’s amazing that I was this young girl that adopted my own moniker and found empowerment in that.”