Esmé Patterson is an artist on the move in transition, and so it was only fitting that we reached her driving along the never-ending New Jersey Turnpike to discuss her best album yet. Patterson is a master collaborator as her work with Paper Bird and Shakey Graves can attest, but on hew new album, “We Were Wild”, she opens up about her life in a way that she never has before as a solo artist. Whereas her last album “Woman To Woman” was comprised of deep interpretations of the women in the lyrics from classic artists, on “We Were Wild” Patterson turns the spotlight on herself to incredible results.
Northern Transmissions: How difficult was it to shift your songwriting from fictional expansions to the autobiographical?
Esmé Patterson: After writing the last album, which was basically a concept record, people kept asking me if I was going to write a “Woman To Woman Vol. 2” of more interpretations of songs, but I felt it was time for me to get back to writing about my experiences in life. The experience of writing “Woman To Woman” taught me to listen to music differently and I found myself doing much more deep reading in songs trying to get to the core of the meaning of the narrative, and I felt that kind of changed what I expected from my music. It was actually really difficult to start writing about my own life again after doing the deep study of those really famous iconic songs.
NT: Were all of the songs written after the “Woman To Woman” project?
EP: One of them was written before, but most of them were written last spring. It was right after a period where I had been very busy writing “Woman To Woman” and working with Shakey Graves, and it was just a long struggle of trying to find time to myself and my thoughts.
NT: The title of the album uses the past in “We Were Wild” rather than “We Are Wild”. What does the title mean to you and what changed so that we are no longer “wild”?
EP: My grandma is 91 years old and when I told her the name of the album, she said “well it makes you think, if we were wild, then what are we now?” I think it’s about the domestication of the human animal and how the human brain tries to control everything around us. We’ve domesticated absolutely everything, including ourselves. We forget that we’re animals and that we’re part of the natural world; we get caught up in this idea that we’re separate from nature. A lot of the work on this record turns back towards wildness, chaos, and our union with nature.
NT: You played for years with Paper Bird and collaborated recently with Shakey Graves, but you’re absolutely front and centre on this album. Are you more comfortable as a collaborator or alone in the spotlight?
EP: I think a lot of people are in this job because they love the spotlight and the attention, and I don’t judge that, everyone performs for their own reasons, but for me it might be the opposite. I like writing songs and playing songs, where it’s not about being the centre point, so maybe I like to work with friends to avoid being the centre of attention. I love writing the songs, but singing on stage alone is something I’m getting used to with each performance. This is a very interesting challenge, it’s difficult but exciting because I feel it’s time for me to step out and try it all on my own.
NT: Are there any songs or lyrics that you’re still not comfortable performing in a live environment?
EP: Haha oh definitely. There’s one song in particular on the new record, “Francine”, that is about two things at once and it’s very sexual. Performing it live is sometimes kind of awkward, like when my grandmother is there or my family and I’m just like, “okay, this song is about the thing that I’m not going to say out loud”.
NT: “We Were Wild” is sonically more expansive and sounds bigger than your previous releases. What influenced the more diverse sounds on the album?
EP: I would say that my sound was the biggest development I wanted to explore on this album, and my producer Adam Thompson played a big part in that. He added so much and expanded it in a way that gave new meanings to a lot of the songs. I was ready to make an album that was more layered and diverse, and Adam really brought that to the recording by introducing me to a new world that I’ve never really explored before. A lot of the songs started off quiet and simple, and he managed to completely transform them. I really can’t take much credit for the final sound you hear.
NT: In a press release I read that you wanted to “share these songs because maybe they can help others the way they helped me.” Are there any specific artists that you turn to in those tough moments?
EP: I definitely do. When things start not going the right way I listen to Joni Mitchell. I relate to her a lot, she’s so incredible. I find her musical journey relates a lot to what I’ve gone through. Her music has really helped me in times of need, and I really hope this album can do that for someone.
Interview by Stewart Wiseman