Name: Queen Esther
Age: I never tell my age. My grandmother told me when I was 10 years old that I should stop doing that. "If a woman will tell you that", she said, "then she’ll tell you anything."
Occupation: Unemployed Superstar
Born: Atlanta, Georgia
Raised The Low Country of Charleston, South Carolina
Upbringing matters. Hugely so. I'm the only girl out of six boys and I'm the middle kid. Not surprisingly, I was a massive tomboy. My mother taught me to read when I was three. By the time I hit kindergarden, I was reading things that hamstrung kids that were more than twice my age. I sing, I write songs, I'm a solo performer, I do a lot of Off-Broadway, I blog ( old , new, this rock 'n roll blackgrrl's high life: a cautionary tale ) my brains out, and yes, i'm an insomniac. I went to a performing arts high school in Atlanta, college in Austin, and I got a degree in screenwriting from the New School. I'm a Dazzling Urbanite now but I know that no matter what happens, I'll always be an
I'll be headlining Makor.every thursday in June. Also, feel free to visit my website or Yahoo Group.
Aren't overachieving middle children real houhas?
You grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. And now you’re in New York making your career as a vocalist, actor and writer. What brought you here?
You have to understand the myth that is New York. It’s like the Emerald City. I can remember wanting to live in New York when I was very very little. I can remember watching old Saturday Night Lives with John Belushi and seeing the beginning and seeing little pieces of New York and thinking “I want to live there. I want that energy.” Watching things from the Harlem Renaissance and thinking “I want to be a part of that.”
It’s hard though because it’s so much worse when you’re imagining how horrible it can be. When you’re living in a little town and all you have to go by is Scorsese movies and the rude people you meet that come through and all the stories you hear about how expensive it is and how everything smells like urine – you can intimidate yourself out of even coming for an extended visit.
But you came here. How did you get past that intimidation factor?
I put the fear of not fulfilling my destiny, of carrying regret around for my whole life before the fear of living in New York. I didn’t want to have to say “What if.” I didn’t want to have to live with the idea that I could have done something wonderful if I’d just gone to New York.
When did you come to New York?
I came to New York from Austin, Texas in the early 90’s. After college.
And you came to be a superstar?
I think I already am a superstar! The question is whether or not everyone else is going to find out about it. I’d like to, you know, I’d like to take my little arrow and shoot it into the air and I want it to go as far as it possibly can. If I hit something, hooray, but if I don’t, hey, at least I came to New York and I tried.
What are the qualities you see in yourself that make you a Superstar?
I’m really just my own unique self, and that’s enough. And the fact that no one else knows it doesn’t make it any less true. And that’s why, in their own way, everyone really is a star.
You know, nowadays it’s so weird, anyone that’s interesting looking -- not even that sometimes -- they’re a star. It’s so easy to be famous these days. I thinks its media saturation. The reality shows and the whole nine yards… Angelique, out in Los Angeles, she had that Camarro and put herself up on those billboards. She probably looks like one salty dog! I mean no one’s seen her. It’s all hype. She had the money to market herself.
But it’s really not about being on TV or the attention that you get. It’s an energy that you carry. And that’s something that you’re born with. Stars are born, not made, assuming they’re not manufactured. It’s kind of like being a leader. Beyond that, getting people to know is just a matter of branding and advertising.
You know my name means star. Esther. It means a bright star.
So, are you saying your parents somehow knew from the beginning that you were supposed to be a star?
I don’t think they were like, Hey! Star! It’s not like that. There were four boys before me and then finally a girl came along and I think my father was just elated. It was just that moment, in that chance, to have a daughter. I was asked for.
But I do think that God made me who I am. He’s given me what he’s given me. The unique ability to sound the way that I do when I sing. He’s also given me the vision that I have for this music. To not do anything with it, I think -- to throw that away -- would be a sin.
Did you feel in some way, in some manner, that you were blessed even as a child?
I think that I’ve always felt different. I think that I’ve always had a different perspective on the world. There are a lot of things that I can see and understand and that I do that other people didn’t necessarily. Or that certainly other children didn’t. I don’t think I knew why…
You say it would be a sin to not share your talent with others. What does the act of performance mean to you?
You know, what I think is that people are vessels. And especially when you perform, it’s a very spiritual thing. And what you believe – whatever that is -- is what you’re filled with, and when you’re performing you’re just letting it out of you. It’s literally just shining through you. If you’re open, if you’re a conduit, it’s going to affect other people if they’re open and if they’re really listening.
Now some people when they perform it’s all ego and it’s all about loving them or they’re listening to the sound of their own voice… and it’s very self-absorbed and self-centered. But I’ve always thought, ever since I was a little kid, that this is a very special thing to be able to do anything that’s creative and have people be able to take it in; and so I felt this responsibility to be as open to this spiritual impetus as I possibly could.
Because after a certain point, when you know what you’re doing, when you know your lines, when you know the song, something else takes over. No one really knows what this something else is. Stanislavski had a name for it, “Blacking Out”. When you’re no longer there and this something else takes over. I think he calls it “Inspiration.”
Would you compare it to religious ecstasy, like when people go to the Sistine Chapel and literally black out?
I don’t know what other people believe, but I know that what I want is to get as much of me out of the way and as much of God in the way as I possibly can.
You blessed your food before you began eating just now. Would we be wrong to make a jump and assume that you had a religious upbringing. Could you tell us about the effect that had on you?
It takes a village. And my village was the Low Country of South Carolina. I grew up in Atlanta but summers and a lot of my holidays were spent with my extended family -- grandparents cousins, uncles, aunts – that lived there. We all sang in the choir and played instruments… my uncle is a reverend now and my father was a minister… so I was learning all these things and not even realizing it because when you’re young you’re like a little sponge. Going to church almost every single day and being surrounded by the music that I was surrounded by, and performing… it informed who I am. I definitely have a southern aesthetic.
Well, that certainly helps to provide a context for your music which seems to defy easy classification. How would you describe your sound?
I call it “Black Americana” -- it’s a Rock & Roll prototype that incorporates country and a country aesthetic; and I’m bringing it into the now. It’s something new. Something different.
But it’s not really. Way back in the 60’s people like Al Green and Ray Charles were mixing soul and country. The idea of it was there but there wasn’t necessarily a huge follow through with it. And there certainly weren’t a whole lot of black women doing it. Aretha Franklin had a few moments. Big Mama Thornton…
Your most recent release, Talkin’ Fishbowl Blues… how did you get that made?
I went to Bug Music and they said "we need something to administer." I did a record with James “Blood” Ulmer where I wrote three songs which gave them something to administer. They gave me the deal and then I released the CD. But this was already done. I’ve been chipping away and developing the sound for a really long time. Working with James “Blood” Ulmer and working with Elliot Sharp and working with Hubert Sumlin.
How about a manager. Do you have one?
No. I’m flying by the seat of my pants.
That’s surprising. You have a pretty distinct and professional sound. Why do you think that is?
I think the reason why is that everyone wants everything cooked, already done. It’s like everything’s microwavable now. You don’t want anyone that’s sort of struggling along. You want them to be already developed. And if they’re developed there are probably already a lot of people vying for their attention. So it’s really sort of 0 or 75 miles an hour. There’s nothing in between.
So how about auditioning for American Idol? I mean if you want everyone to notice you, wouldn’t that be one way to make it happen?
No. That’s like when I go home everyone says why don’t you go audition for Showtime at the Apollo? And… actually I don’t think that they would take me. Because I’m very much an individual and I don’t really look like or sound like anyone else. Talkin’ Fishbowl Blues, for instance, it has some real country elements in it that I think are unexpected. People segregate their music so much and they don’t really know what to with something that doesn’t sound like something they’ve already heard.
But the bigger part of it has to do with manufacturing, crowd appeal and being a certain kind of sensationalistic when you sing. I mean, I guess I could reach into a bag of tricks and pull out some vocal gymnastics, but that’s not who I am. And if I used that to get over, that’s what they would expect of me.
Pigeonholed from the start…
Yeah. And it’s not that I couldn’t do that. But that’s not who I am. I think those kinds of shows; they want someone that they can manipulate, control… someone that they could market a lot easier than they could me. I have my own music, my own sound. And I’m not going to work this hard to develop it just so that someone else can write a song for me and have me hollering and screaming away on their terms.
The money’s in publishing. So it’s really all about songwriting. And if that’s true you really just need someone to come in and sing the song and do what they’re told. Frankly, that’s anybody. I can think of a lot of singers that could go into American Idol and sing. I know them personally. They can sing their faces off. But they’re out there working. They have their own ideas as well and they’re out there doing their own thing.
Does it ever irritate you when someone comes to New York as a complete talentless unknown and six months later they’re on the cover of People or Rolling Stone?
You know, they say that when you come to New York things either happen right away or there’s a delay. People come here and they either walk down the street, blow up and get famous, get a record deal or whatever, or they’ve got to wait five years.
When I came to New York, I was the 5-year period-type. But in that 5 year time period I did absolutely everything I possibly could to get my feet wet. I ended up almost drowning in the process, but looking back now I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I was doing performance art and working as a solo performer, doing Off-Broadway, working with trip hop bands and jazz bands… every kind of configuration you could think of. I was traveling back and forth to Europe with James “Blood” Ulmer. Rent, I got that on a cattle call. They saw people in 5 different cities and in Puerto Rico -- over 6000 people -- and I was one of 24 they cast in the show. I played just about every music gig, performed in every theater… Any place that would have me, anyone that would have me -- I’ve pretty much said yes to.
I’ve constantly taken every opportunity and walked through every door that I possibly could. And it raised the bar. Not only did it raise the bar, but also it forced me to develop my own ideas, to get my own voice, to have my own voice and to use it.
Sounds like fun. We should all be so lucky to drown like that…
It was hard also. After the first year or two most of my friends went back home -- it was a mass exodus. They couldn’t take the cold. They were broke. Everyone was mean… but I was living on the edge too and so I really had to keep my goals and priorities in front of me at all times. They may have been constantly changing, but at least I knew what they were. And if I needed to, I went out and I took a second or third job. There was a kind of fearlessness in all that. Things were happening so quickly and moving so fast that there was no time to sit back and be afraid
Do any of your friends ever think you’re nuts or egotistical for believing you can be a Superstar not just on the inside but also on the outside?
No. Because I think a lot of them think that too.
We can see why. It certainly sounds like you’re doing all the right things…
You know, Yogi Berra said “when you’ve done 90% of everything you need to do, you’re halfway there.” It’s always the last push. It’s always right when you’re at the end of your rope that you need to push harder than you’ve ever pushed before. Somebody’s gotta explain that one to me.
I always wanted to do a year or two in Europe but I never got around to it. It might happen after I’m famous, but it’ll be different.
Interview by Raphie Frank