Self Esteem: “I don’t think ‘cool’ exists anymore, and I think when it does, it’s actually very uncool.”
Rebecca Taylor as Self Esteem is like no one else. As a moniker, it stands for the confidence young women can feel too ashamed to embrace, and the music that radiates from it transforms those insecurities into something bold and wild and fun, writes Edie McQueen.
She’s done with apologies – and whilst this doesn’t mean her vulnerabilities have vanished, it’s impressive to see someone so in control of them. “I’m quite selfish,” she declares over a Zoom call. “I’m doing this because it makes me feel better, and the fact that it helps other people is really great. I think we’re all so obsessively people-pleasing, and giving, and doing things we don’t want to do. It makes the world a bit clunkier, and it makes communication really difficult. If we pleased ourselves a bit more and prioritised pleasure… I think it makes everyone happier and interact better and treat people better.”
This luxurious sense of self-indulgence gilds her 2019 debut album, the sensationally named Compliments Please. It’s unapologetically the kind of music that she wants to make: a collection of radiant, poetic pop songs to live your life to. “Even from high school I’d be going to cool indie gigs, but going home and listening to Destiny’s Child and Rihanna, all that kind of stuff,” she explains. This divide between what is seen as cool and what you really find pleasure in seems to have fuelled much of her career – the difference between what you tell a stranger at a party you listen to, and what’s playing on your headphones. As Self Esteem, she sheds the guilty aspect of the guilty pleasure, revelling instead in decadent, airy pop.
And after years of Doc-wearing, denim jacketed indie kids hiding less palatable aspects of their music taste, pop music is finally having its moment in the sun, crossing social groups in the way it was always meant to. With Olivia Rodrigo’s record shattering debut, Lorde’s vibrantly anticipated return, and Taylor Swift’s unapologetic ownership over her early records and their much-lauded re-recordings, female pop stars are shining in self-created light.
“I don’t think ‘cool’ exists anymore,” Taylor suggests. “And I think when it does, it’s actually very uncool. I still know people – mostly men – that are doing this strung-out rocker guy thing still. And I’m just like, it’s not very original! The most original music we’ve made is pop music. And pop is such a broad term. The internet opened everything up a little bit more, and I feel like we are seeing women get empowered in real time. The pop music that I liked 10 years ago, now those women are making songs that are more powerful and much more full of self-love, and much less about what a guy thinks about you. It’s amazing. I love it.”
Self Esteem doesn’t necessarily sound like anything else out there at the moment. This nebulous nature of pop music, a blend of other influences, and her history as one half of the indie-folk duo Slow Club have all come together to inform her style and sound. “Perfume Genius is like my absolute favourite artist of all time, and basically everything Kanye has ever done sonically, I just want to rip off all the time! Then my wiring is very Beach Boys, Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Dusty Springfield… You know, all your kind of normal references that you could see that I had in Slow Club, just mixed with the shit that I find really fun. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to make music that’s dramatic and cinematic and big and hits you. There’s never any subtlety with me.”
But now when I play a Self Esteem show, I feel very at home and supported. It feels like a community of people that I am part of, rather than performing to.
While in many ways Sheffield’s buzzing music scene encapsulates this broad spectrum of influences, there’s one genre that tends to dominate the city’s billboards – indie. “It’s such an impressive roster of not only successful music, but really genuinely good music that’s come from Sheffield. I’ve had the question my whole life – does this genre rub off on you? And I guess the genre of music never has, you know, I’m not making Arctic Monkeys sort of music.
“But I remember that excitement about those Arctic Monkeys shows in the early days. I was just too young to be going, but it was just like sort of fucking folklore. Legend. I think that definitely inspired me, that there is this thing you have to really try to see and you’re so fucking lucky if you got to see it at that time. Just how exciting things can be. Or how fully realized a piece of art can make people feel.
“I think also the city itself is sort of my happy place. Venues have always been great – I mean, I’ve had some shitty bands and we played venues with PAs and a ticket cut off the doors sale. It was a great place to learn how to be a good musician. It’s not like playing a London show where you’re nervous as fuck and you’ll get laughed off the stage if you’re not cool. I think Sheffield is a really nurturing city in general. So I think that definitely helped me sort of become who I am.”
Taylor has been a staple of the Sheffield music scene in various guises over the years, and her most notable act before Self Esteem was Slow Club. Breaking free of the mid-level indie mould was not without its controversies, having been called ego-centric in the process of carving out a solo career and facing a shift in fanbase.
“It was 10 years of devoting my life to Slow Club. But there was always this other part of me that I wanted to explore, that I definitely couldn’t have explored creatively in the band. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to do that. But I felt this duty, or like I shouldn’t, or I couldn’t, or ‘sorry do you mind if’ – classic woman shit. Then it just became too much for me, I just had to. So I started making art and poetry under the name Self Esteem, and had an outlet. And then inevitably, the music came. A natural pause for Slow Club was coming anyway, so it was all quite natural.
“There were some people that really didn’t and don’t like it. People who supported Slow Club on radio or in press have just completely ignored this. But it’s not personal, it’s just taste, and I knew that I would sort of lose some fans. I also knew I would gain people I didn’t have access to before. I love Slow Club; I love what we did. But now when I play a Self Esteem show, I feel very at home and supported. It feels like a community of people that I am part of, rather than performing to.
“Everything in life is a fucking journey that I’m slowly understanding. I think when you’re in a band, you’re only gonna get like 50% of your ideas out there. And the compromise makes the result not very direct. With Self Esteem it’s so direct, and that it’s just a bit more fun for me.” And so Self Esteem was born was a bang with the release of ‘Your Wife’ in 2017.
Two years later she was ready to release her first full-length solo offering – a dramatic, spangled record standing tall at sixteen tracks long. Doubts were swept aside as she swept across the nation, eclectic and electric live shows receiving stunned and thrilled audiences alike.
From storming the stage in a dress made up of Boots advantage cards to impeccable choreography, her idiosyncratic art-pop brushed off those too stubborn to be swayed by the colourful tornado of Self Esteem. Now for the notoriously difficult second album. “I really loved Compliments Please.” Taylor grins. “I felt 100% happy with it, which is not something I’ve ever experienced before. So I looked at it, and I thought, what do I want to do? And I just thought bigger and better and bolder, but the same sort of principle.
The next record is like a sister record, or a sort of answer. The first record, I’m quite frustrated. I’m asking a lot of questions and trying to figure out what I’m doing and why, and who I am, and all that kind of thing. The second album is a similar sort of the same old shit, but personally I’m a lot more confident.
“I’ve settled into who I am. I love myself a fuck ton more than I did. The therapy’s really kicked in, and I think you can hear that. ‘I do this all the time’ is confident and empowered – but it’s also still questioning. Is my thinking weird? Am I different? Am I alone? I think I will always personally feel like that. I will always be asking questions. But I think it’s got a little bit more self-assurance and a little bit more self-esteem.”
It was an odd time to find solid ground, as the world slipped sideways in early 2020 while the coronavirus pandemic hit. Nonetheless, that was the background that saw this personal development, and the formation of the sophomore album. And conversely, it worked.
“My process definitely got slowed down. I sort of wrote the songs, demoed them…” Taylor pauses. “Then there was the first wave, so I spent the whole of that with the demos. When it when it lifted a little bit, I went and tracked it, then spent the whole second wave with the tracks – but unmixed versions.
“Production-wise, there was quite a lot still to be done. I came to Sheffield for both lockdowns and was just walking around the block, listening to my songs, knowing what I wanted to do with them, but there was no way to do it until restrictions lifted. It was a frustrating but thorough way to work. When I got back into the studio to mix it, it was actually a really coherent, smart way to make an album! But it was forced upon me, because I’m very impatient. I don’t take my time; I’m really trigger happy usually. It was kind of cool to be forced into contemplation. As reluctant as I am to say, I think it’s all the better for it, so yeah, so I’m ready to go.”
Finally, live shows are back on the cards. For a project that started as a personal art project, the aesthetic, performance aspect of Self Esteem carries a lot of importance, and it seems like the upcoming tour, scheduled for Autumn 2021, won’t be one to miss. If the pandemic forced introspection and careful thought about her songs, it did the same for her performance.
“I’ve got this enormous new idea for a live show.” She announces. “Currently, I’ve no idea if it’s gonna work or not. I’m just starting the process.
“If it does work, there’s gonna be like, blonde ambition. I think in general, just being in a room together dancing and singing will feel unbelievable. But also in terms of Self Esteem and what I’m trying to do, I really hope to take it all up level. I want to be tired out. I’ve been in bands since I was seventeen, just chugging beers and going into the pub afterwards, and I don’t want that anymore. I want real fucking razor-focus-Lady-Gaga. I’m bringing an arena standard show to the small venues.”
And there you have it. With the buzz of the imminent return of live music, put this in your calendars. Galvanising and glorious, Rebecca Taylor is ready to shake the languor and insecurities of lockdown life from the world. And that doesn’t mean that a little uncertainty and self-questioning is always a bad thing.
“I want to entertain, but I also want people to feel fucking seen and heard because I think it’s really a lonely, long, weird life, if you don’t conform to what society puts on us, certainly on women. At the very least, I want to entertain you. But at the very best I want to make people feel empowered and comfortable in themselves. Because I think I felt like a fucking weirdo alien freak for too long. And I shouldn’t have.”
Self Esteem headlines Get Together Festival on 8th September, then returns to Sheffield 12th November for a show at The Leadmill.