Photo: James Anthony
Exclusive: Estelle On Her Reggae Return, ‘Lovers Rock,’ John Legend & More
It's been 10 years since magnetic singer/songwriter Estelle shared her curiosity for American cities and an American lover alongside Kanye West in the video for her breakout single "American Boy." The smash hit, released on her album Shine while under John Legend's HomeSchool label, earned her two GRAMMY nominations and one win for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 51st GRAMMY Awards.
Since then, Estelle has parted ways with Legend's label, launched her own with Sony BMG and even began voicing a cartoon character. Now the U.K. singer is back with a new single, "Better," and all her musical and life experiences have opened the door to something new. Her fifth album, the reggae-infused Lovers Rock, will be released on Sep. 7. and has her pausing on her love story, to shed light on her parents' romance.
We caught up with Estelle at our headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., to talk about the influences behind her new album, her songwriting process this time around and how she has grown as an artist.
On Lovers Rock, your fifth album, you explore reggae. What inspired you to make an entire album inspired by this genre?
My albums kind of just happen more than I kind of purpose them. I essentially started recording this album when I was in the middle of recording my last one. Everyone kind of mentioned and just kept saying, "Man, like I love that reggae rap. Whenever you do reggae, it's so good. It feels so warm. It feels so regular, like it's just so natural." I'm like, "Well, that's because it is." I grew up in a super church, if it wasn't church, it was reggae music and it was African music and it was a soca kind of household, and this just kind of felt natural. It was like, "Well, girl, this is where everything comes from, this is where all your bass lines come from, this is where all your drum patterns come from, just go on and make the whole album," and my whole team were like, "Yeah, you should probably do that."
The inspiration for Lovers Rock came as we started getting into it, I was in a period of heavy self-reflection, trying to figure out why I couldn't quite get this "American Boy" scenario popping; Single. It just kind of put me in a space of self-reflection, because "American Boy," then I had "Thank You," and then "Conqueror," kind of like "American Boy" found a dude, "Thank You," dumped him, "Conqueror," I'm crazy and back up, people, you know what I mean? It's three albums' worth, and so to me it was kind of like, "Okay, what am I doing wrong?" I started realizing I was singing some of the same subjects over and over, and I started to ask myself where was it coming from.
One of my team was like, "You know, you always talk about your mom and your dad and their love story, why don't you focus just on that?" I was like, "Huh, this does sound like what they went through, you know." The more I started doing it, I had to talk to my mom and dad more, and I realized that I was absolutely repeating a pattern that I'd seen with my mom. To me, it was just about finding another way on a personal level, because she was like, "You're not me," and that just blew my brain, that had me like [explosion sound], you know? I still love their love story, and I still love what they are and who they've become, and they hold out for each other. This album kind of celebrates that, the idea that you are going to be with who you are going to be with, doesn't matter who's in the way, doesn't matter what's in the way, it's going to figure its way out and you're going to get there.
Yeah, but Lovers Rock to me in particular, lovers rock is a genre that existed in the 80s in, I want to say, its purest form. It's a mix of dancehall reggae, or real reggae music from Jamaica, and R&B, or soul music in the U.K. …My friend's always like, "Yo, you're so obsessed with reggae," and I'm like, "Who isn't? I don't understand who doesn't like reggae music, what's wrong with you people?", but that's kind of my guiding force. To me, I wanted to, I called it Lovers Rock because of that.
What was your songwriting process like for this album?
This was hard, to write the songs and get the sentiment out, in truth. It took a few tries on some records, I worked with some really dope writers too, people I trusted, because like I said, this is my parents' story, so I can't just give this to anybody, I can't even talk about my personal life, and you know I'm very protective. A lot of people don't know that I'm from a family of nine, and just our internet and our stories, because I keep them so protected and away from the business and the industry in general, it's just how I am. For me to sit down and speak to somebody and be like, "Yeah, so my mom went through this, don't judge me, just help me write a song about it," you know it was a lot, so I picked specific people.
Other than that, it would just be lines [that] would float into my brain, and I would write them down, and that's literally it … There is this song called "Queen", and I keep walking into rooms and I'm on my own label and I do my own thing, and I'm super independent, and I'm very opinionated about my career, and a lot of the reactions were, "Who do you think you are? What do you think you're doing? You're not who you think you are, you're a woman," essentially. My response to it was kind of like, "[scoff] I know who I am ... you think you are?"
Your last album was 2015's True Romance. How do you feel like you've grown as an artist since then?
I think with every album, it gets more and more acutely clear for me. It just keeps whittling down to the point. You pay attention to what's going on in the scene, and then you have to find a way to stand out. My true north has always been paying attention to myself, so this one I'm just pointing further, getting closer to my true north, I want to say. Yeah, and I'm less apologetic, I don't care anymore, per se, to fit into any boxes or to do things based on what people expect from me from 12 years ago, from 20 years ago when I started, when I had my first releases. There's a lot more I could care less about an opinion about me, more than I just care that you like the art.
You've worked with amazing artists and songwriters throughout your career. Is there one that has really taught you something new?
Yeah. The longest period, I want to say, or the most intense period of working with other artists was when I was assigned to John Legend and Kanye, and I worked with them in the studio. Well I worked with John in the studio for years, a good few years before we actually came out. It was just an interesting experience in, what's the word, an interesting experience in poetry, making it sound sexy, being clear about your intentions when you're in there, and trying new things, being open. I was very like, "No, this is what I want to do, [rambles]," you know and I got like that, but he would come in with a side of like, "All right, listen to this record and listen to that, and I feel like your voice sounds really good in this key, try everything in that key." I'd be like, "Huh, I never thought about what key my voice sounded great in before," I'd never thought about things like that. It was a crash course in how to just be awesome at your art, you've got to do this for three, four years, and then go. That was my most intense schooling,
You are the voice of Garnet on Cartoon Network's "Stephen Universe." Is being a cartoon character as fun as it sounds?
Oh my goodness, it's been such a fun ride, like I don't even know where we blew up out of. I remember getting a call about it, and them telling me that there was this cartoon, "It's new, I don't know if it's going to make any money, but do you want to go for it?", and I was like, "Send me the script." One thing I knew from music is like you never really judge it based on the money, judge it based on the art, and you judge it based on how good it looks and feels and reads to you. I was like, "Oh, she's the older sister, essentially? I can relate, I think I could do this." My character, Garnet, is essentially the older sister of all of the gems, or she's essentially the mother of the gems, one of the mothers of the gems, and they take care of this little boy, Stephen.
To me it was just like, "This is a no brainer, I can do this." I went in and I just read, they were like, "Yeah, we just want her to be deeply sarcastic," I was like, "I can do that, that's not hard, not hard at all," "But we also want her to be caring, but deadpan, and your accent and your voice and the deepness in your voice lends to that." It was something I was always a little insecure about, because I'm little but I have a deep voice, kind of a husky voice. It was just nice to have a place where it felt, everyone was like, "No, it's perfect, this is great, go even deeper." I was like, "Oh," you know but it's been a ride, the fans are freaking amazing.