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The Songs That Changed My Life: Esther Rose

April 19, 2023 2:07 pm GMT
Last Edited April 20, 2023 10:11 am GMT

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“Fire surrounds me from here to there and the water’s rising everywhere,” sings Esther Rose in ‘Safe to Run’, the title track to her fourth full-length album, before concluding that “Angels surround everyone.”

Rose recently left her home and musical community in New Orleans for New Mexico, having, as she put it, traded hurricanes for wildfires.

“I’m an anxious writer. I’ll write when I need to figure something out, process something or just move energy around,” Rose reflected from her new Santa Fe address while preparing for the release of Safe to Run (New West Records). “So the pandemic was an incredibly fruitful writing time, as this album's writing period has been about two years.”

Finding grace, those surrounding angels, amid chaos and uncertainty are a subtext to the 11 new songs that comprise the album, which captures both the fraught zeitgeist of the pandemic years as well as Rose’s newfound grounding in New Mexico. The songs are as universal as they are personal, addressing climate change and social constructs as much as personal history. They also unveil an expanded musical palette for Rose. Working again with producer Ross Farbe (who co-produced 2021’s lauded How Many Times), Rose built upon her folk-country foundation, incorporating pop elements, synth drones and layered vocals alongside the twang.

Such a sonic soundscape makes even more sense once Rose revealed her most-loved songs and shared her process. Her selection and the concerns of her latest material trace her trajectory from her music-loving youth in Michigan and the creatively formative years she spent in New Orleans - which saw her release a series of albums to increasing acclaim - to her current residence and work in New Mexico.

“Ross and I weren’t exactly sure how we wanted this album to sound, but we knew we wanted to try new things,” Rose noted about Safe to Run, which was recorded in New Orleans and Placitas, NM. “I remember a particularly glorious morning when Ross was tracking the pedal steel for ‘Stay’. We turned a glass nursery into a reverb chamber by sending instruments into it through a speaker.”

Synthesis of Rose’s past experience and pivotal influences inform much of the album. “When I was writing ‘Chet Baker’ I was revisiting my younger days,” Rose recounted. “Production-wise, we were definitely conscious of Elliott Smith’s recordings. And in a lot of the songs, I’m talking to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Amelia’, answering that song.”

It follows that when asked which songs changed her life, the Mitchell gem topped her list. Here’s her experience of ‘Amelia’ as well as six other top selections.

Joni Mitchell - Amelia

I'm a devotee of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. That was the album that got me hooked on her. I stuck with that album for years and years, but the song that changed my life would be ‘Amelia’ from Hejira. I started listening to it when I was driving from Utah to New Mexico on a solo trip and I just got absorbed. I listened to it on repeat for the entire drive.

The circular chord progression is unresolved forever and ever and she’s questioning her existence — “I slept on strange pillows of my wanderlust” — talking to her friend about it. That song sent me into New Mexico on this kind of final arrival. I had always visited and that was the time I decided to stay amid a lot of coincidence and luck. ‘Amelia’ has been a touchstone for my new album. I even reference it in the title song, when I'm talking to my best friend: “Julia/it was a false alarm.”

Chet Baker - The Thrill is Gone

When I was growing up in Michigan, Chet Baker was overwhelmingly the soundtrack of my life. I wasn’t writing songs then, but I was renting CDs from a public library (back when you could do that) and really gravitated toward the jazz section.

The first time I heard ‘The Thrill is Gone’ I felt like my DNA changed. The voice — you can’t tell if he’s male or female — the melancholy. Now it’s come to my attention that people don’t know who Chet Baker is! When I play my song ‘Chet Baker,’ people ask if I’m talking about the rapper or something. Now I feel like I need to do some kind of PSA about Chet Baker.

Dean Johnson - Acting School

'Acting School' only just came out, but I’ve had this secret listening link since 2018. When Dean recorded his album that’s about to be released (on Mama Bird Recording (May 5), I was living in a house in New Orleans that was partly converted into a recording studio in the front. I was in the back when Dean was recording his album in the front room.

I was breaking up with my boyfriend for, like, the fourth time, and we'd be breaking up and crying and listening through the door to these amazing heartbreak songs. This song in particular allows me to feel the humor in a break-up and also the hopelessness and the rage. I listened to it continuously for two years. He sets the bar really high for truth-telling. When I write a song, I secretly hope Dean will like it!

Elliott Smith - Rose Parade

I loved Elliott Smith before I was writing. I needed him to keep me company cause he’s the greatest company for a loner. He’s your friend. Listening now, the song ‘Rose Parade’ rises to the top. It's one of his more upbeat pop songs, about a parade. When you listen to his delivery you feel the pain of existence, but if you read the words, it’s not that heavy. He can pull off all this dualism and emotional depth in a song about being in a parade. I also love it because it's like his Mardi Gras song. I was a huge marching band dork, I was a drum major, so I love that he was studying his parade.

Bonnie Raitt - Luck of the Draw

Another song that I have to repeat every few years is ‘Luck of the Draw’ by Bonnie Raitt. There’s just something happening in the chorus that is so deep. Those harmonies and the chord progression really hit me. Plus I love Bonnie’s story. She gives me hope for what I’m doing, and for what a beautiful career can look like.

Hank Williams - Settin the Woods on Fire

Hank was huge for me because when I realized he was only using three chords and he had written all these amazing songs, I was like," Give me a guitar, I’m ready!” He was my gateway, guitar-playing inspiration. He made me feel like it was possible to write - and to write well - and it wasn’t this mysterious thing where you had to be an amazing shredder on the guitar to write. He breaks it down. And ‘Settin the Woods on Fire’ is such a banger!”

Sheryl Crow - My Favorite Mistake

I heard all that 90s music on the school bus and it's just programmed into my brain. Now when I listen to music that really affects me or I put a song on repeat, I know it activates the songwriter's mind and I’m trying to absorb something. As an adult, hearing this song come up, I had to play it 50 times in a row, and then I had to cover it with my band. I love a minor pop song with a huge chorus. Learning that song, internalizing that song, has helped me grow as a songwriter. It's just perfect.

Safe to Run is out via New West Records on Friday 21 April. Read our full review here.

Written by Deborah Crooks
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