“I always was more of a pop enthusiast” – Rebecca Lucy Taylor on Self Esteem
After over a decade of life inside the indie-folk sphere with Slow Club, Rebecca Lucy Taylor has achieved a long-held ambition in creating an album loaded with bombastic pop bangers, raising a flippant two fingers to modern day expectations of sex, relationships and self-consciousness in the process.
Let’s go back to when the Self Esteem project first came to you. Did you have a good idea of what you wanted it to be from the start, or did it morph over time?
For a long time everything I couldn’t do in Slow Club was turning into a little overspill car park for my ideas. Being in a UK indie band over that time period, the music industry changed so much. I felt like someone who saw what would make sense to an audience, but there were these indie scene rules that you had to play by. And besides, things were bubbling along nicely enough.
But I began thinking to myself: I’m never going to get into bigger venues, I’m never going to be a bigger deal and my ambition is never going to be matched in reality. So what would I enjoy doing more in these smaller venues and spaces? And I always was more of a pop enthusiast and wanted to dance and make art; I love costume and just all that shit you don’t get to do in an indie band.
At first it was more like how do I soothe myself a bit. Then it has morphed, in a way, and I know it’s a bit meh to say “I was going to do it myself anyway and it’s nice if anyone else likes it” – but that is sort of what’s happened. It’s a pause in my normal life to do something that I’ve always had an inkling would work, and it sort of has, which is great.
Towards the end of the Slow Club era, were you kind of putting things to one side – song ideas, inspirations, etc?
Yeah, you can hear it in the Slow Club albums. I sort of fought a lot more for what I wanted in the early days, then I kind of got in my lane for album three and four – I knew what I was doing there by then and what worked. It used to be enough for me until I eventually felt really frustrated, so I had to do something. But still, Self Esteem was never something that I thought I’d do full-time.
But I’m really proud at how hard I’ve worked at it. I’m mental because of it. I mean, my life is literally work. I’m not married or anything – all of those things I’m like, “Oh shit, forgot to do that.” But yeah, I’ve worked really hard and now I’m really proud of my art and my output. That feels good.
Something which runs through all of that output is a push towards honesty and a sense of realism. Nothing’s airbrushed. How important is that to you?
It’s the reason I’m doing this. I think it’s so important to show the reality of being human and addressing the way in which we’re fed either this cool, downplayed image or this aesthetically and sonically flawless image. It’s coincided with me getting older and going through things in my life that have made me think: ‘You know what? I can’t be fucking bothered anymore. This is me and it’s tough shit if you don’t want it.’
So in a sense, and without sounding too wanky, you’ve found out more about yourself through this project? It sounds like Self Esteem has been a bit of vehicle for you to throw off some shackles.
Yes, but I also credit my laziness in a way. I think a lot of women need to let their laziness in and just go “Oh, it’s fine.” You don’t have to play by the rules of femininity or live up to society’s expectations. I know I sit here in a lucky position as a musician telling people to do whatever they want; but stopping trying to fit in has certainly changed my life. The name is funny because I thought of it ten years ago, when it wasn’t about being empowered and I lived my daily life worrying about who liked me and how I looked. It was horrible constant stress about everything to do with myself. The name was always just there because I thought it was a funny name for a band, but it’s sort of become a bit self-fulfilling.
Are there enough musicians in the pop world talking about sex, relationships and mental health in a relatable, no-holds-barred way?
Probably not. I’ve not set out to do this because I saw a gap in the market, but I do love pop music and I did see how a lot of popstars – especially British popstars – are so skinny and perfect and gorgeous. A lot don’t say anything, but then the one’s that do, like Lily Allen, are constantly dragged through the mud for saying anything that isn’t polite or kind.
It’s coincided with me getting older and going through things in my life that have made me think: ‘You know what? I can’t be fucking bothered anymore. This is me and it’s tough shit if you don’t want it.’
She’s probably the only popstar I could probably imagine wearing a ‘Squirt Isn’t Pee’ top.
Yeah, but I wonder if she’d have a team telling her not to. But for me, it wasn’t like anyone in Slow Club made me play a role, or it wasn’t like something was pushed upon me, but the role I was playing in the cool indie music world meant I couldn’t really say or do anything for fear of fucking up the way we were perceived. It’s very exhausting keeping everything in.
I can imagine, especially for such a long time.
Years and years, and Slow Club was going for well over over ten years.
What are the other lessons have you taken from that experience into this project?
Don’t have too many instruments in your live setup. Also, the day in, day out reality of touring is dog shit; I’d go back in time and say no to a lot of stuff. Another big one is about putting yourself first. I didn’t do that for a long time because I thought that if you want to make it, you’ve got to go along with it and do as everyone says. Whereas, actually, that’s not true: your art is important and your welfare is important. I would say yes to things even if mentally I felt that I couldn’t get out of bed, and in the end the band didn’t hit the heady heights that I thought working that hard work would get it to anyway.
Was there a specific ‘sod it’ moment or was it more a slow accumulation of feelings leading up to the decision?
A bit of both. The third Slow Club album we were on the tele a bit, doing photoshoots and all the stuff I really love. But I could tell that no one else really loved it. I started to think that my time was slipping away a bit and I needed to fully express myself soon or things were going to get worse in terms of how I felt about myself, my life, and my work. I’d tasted a bit of what I like to do, but with the fourth album we pulled far away from that and didn’t go down the route I felt could have made us bigger; that was the moment I thought it was time to have a try at something else, so when I’m an 80-year-old woman looking back I could say I’d given it a go.
How have you found the experience so far?
Really great because it’s gone a lot better than I actually expected, with loads of opportunities that I didn’t dream of, so that’s a bonus.
Bit of a vague one. What frustrates you the most about modern day society?
I maybe need to more eloquent before I talk about it in interviews, but I don’t like the way everyone is made to feel they have to find a happy ending. The idea that life is all well and good, but when are you going to get married and have babies? That’s the happy ever after, everything becoming fine in the end, and that’s you becoming an adult. That’s how I feel sometimes, even though I bang on so much about how I probably won’t do that!
You still haven’t managed to completely shake that?
It still hits me! Even if I meet someone new, and things are going well I’ll start thinking about maybe I will get married and have children, then I’m like, ‘NO!’ I think it’s because it’s so drummed into us, and I think, with me, because I’ve been so up and down all my life, that it would prove some kind of I’m alrightness. But I do think that making this and doing Self Esteem is far more of an accomplishment for me. Anyway, that’s my problem with society today. Also Brexit.
The project effectively started as an Instagram account, but would we be happier as a society without social media?
Definitely. It is the bane of my life. That’s why I try to keep my side of it as fun and stupid as possible. I remember growing up not having phones or instant photos, not knowing what everyone was doing or others knowing what you were doing all the time. It’s just weird, isn’t it? Like, the other week when I released my video, I was out doing press all day and I just couldn’t get off my phone. I got home quite early, like 5pm, and had all night to do something good for me but laid in bed checking notifications. I saw the likes and retweets starting to trail off and it made me feel like shit, which then negated all the hard work that went into the video – all based on other people’s opinions online.
I suppose there’s a bit of a play on that sort of scenario in the album title?
Yeah, I thought Compliments Please was funny because of the mixup between doing something like this for compliments, but also if a man says to me in the street “You’re gorgeous”, I’d probably be like, “Fuck off.” [Laughs]
How was it making an album by yourself for the first time?
Different, and a different type of difficult, where you’re not trying to get your idea constantly over to someone else but also being a bit more uncertain about your decisions because it’s just you. Sonically, there were a group of sounds I wanted to use and once I managed to articulate that to the producer things fell into place a lot easier.
Tell us a bit about the group of sounds you decided on.
Mostly just the big-sounding pop stuff I always loved like Rhianna, Katy Perry, Destiny’s Child. Also Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an inspiration of mine on the second Slow Club album and something that I still think is a masterpiece: it’s so heavy but sweet and beautiful, which is what I wanted.
We’ve heard those big pop sounds on some of the single releases so far, but there are a few tracks which might surprise people with deep basslines and almost Jamie XX-style loops. ‘Hobbies’, for example, feels like it could have been taken straight from In Colour.
That’s actually my favourite part of the album. Because I write plays and scripts, I’ve always got these scraps of dialogue that I haven’t made into songs, so I got my friend Alexandra to read some stuff on a voice note and then chopped and screwed the beat from the song ‘Favourite Problem’ and it worked really nicely.
I also really liked ‘In Time’. It feels like a good marker for a Self Esteem track: a quintessential break-up song with a postmodern twist.
That’s it, that’s what I do. I think ‘In Time’ is my second favourite track on the album and ‘Favourite Problem’ is up there too. ‘In Time’ was actually a last-minute addition; we had a beat, it sounded sick, but we didn’t know if it was too far down the poppy-pop route. Anyway, we carried on working on it and eventually we decided it was definitely a Self Esteem song – the euphoria of that track really gets me going.
And ‘Rollout’ feels like one of the main Self Esteem anthems.
Yeah, we open the shows with that track, obviously it was the first single too, and it’s one of the first songs which helped me to find the Self Esteem sound. I was in a relationship while writing most of the album and the joke was I managed to write songs without being in turmoil for a change; but then we broke up and I wrote some of the best songs like ‘Rollout’, ‘In Time’ and ‘I’m Shy’ straight after. It was like: “Shit. I guess I am doomed.”
So if you did meet someone and happily settle down, would the next record still be a Self Esteem record?
It would because I think even if you do that, it doesn’t change your sense of self. I have seen it before when people basically just become their partner’s partner, or their ambition goes, but I would never let that happen.
You’ve spoken about not getting to where you wanted to be with previous projects. Ideally, where would you like this to be in five years’ time?
I would love to be a big deal and on the tele. Maybe get invited to the UK Glamour Awards. I basically just want that kind of UK pop shit but on a good level… I’d like to get on This Morning. I’m semi-joking here, but I think I’d like to be in a position where I ask myself why I’m doing this less, and instead it’s more like: “This is exactly why I’m doing this.” Also, I should probably learn how to drive.
Compliments Please is out now