Taylor made: an interview with pop force Self Esteem

Ahead of her Bristol show at The Fleece, singer, musician, writer and forensic examiner of millennial muliebrity Self Esteem talks mutual bluffing, music industry misogyny and putting the punk into pop. Brace (and embrace) yourself.

Words by Amanda Nicholls, photography by Olivia Richardson

If there’s one person who’s glad barbecue season is over, it might well be Rebecca Lucy Taylor. On paper, she’s a fan; it’s really the social mores she has trouble with. “Buffets as well: I like the essence of what they are – loads of food on a table – just not the aspect of everyone seeing what you’re doing.”

If I went to your barbecue, I’d feel uncomfortable and not be sure what to say anyway, goes one droll lyric, delivered deadpan in hypnotic South Yorkshire sprechstimme, on the spring single I Do This All The Time. Taylor’s candid, introspective, wry and unapologetic words about 21st-century ennui and social anxiety – When I’m buried in the ground I won’t be able to make your birthday drinks but I will still feel guilty – aim to address how difficult it is to be human, specifically a single woman in their thirties. Along with their stripped-back soundscape, emotive strings and a guitar cameo from the mysterious Mairead – a former bandmate whom Taylor supposes, in the song, that men want her to be more like – they make up the USP of Taylor’s ode to her twenties and have made fans of Jo Whiley, Dolly Alderton and droves more.

Affable and articulate, thoughtful and perceptive, witty and down to earth, Taylor exudes in conversation the same warmth and kindness as her musical note to self – Be very careful out there/ Stop trying to have so many friends/ Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have/ Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun. It has attracted so many positive comparisons to 1997’s spoken word advisory Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) that Taylor, in trademark tongue-in-cheek fashion, imagines passing mourners will still bend down to whisper ‘it’s like a Baz Luhrmann for women’ in her ear when she’s out cold in a casket.

Despite Taylor’s aim to create a discography she was proud of rather than a breakthrough moment as such, the song turned heads and a spotlight was suddenly fixed on its all-singing, all-dancing birth mother – like a lone truth-slinger striding into the small-town saloon of sparkly pop star social media.

Indeed, Self Esteem evolved from an Instagram account that Taylor used as an outlet for rerouting her real character (a more powerful persona with a penchant for eating pizza in her pants) while she was mostly faking – “because I wanted boys to like me” – the role of sweet indie girl in Sheffield duo Slow Club. It’s a recurring theme in the title track of new album Prioritise Pleasure, out this month – So many of them clearly liked the idea of me in theory/ I shrunk, moved and changed and, still, you felt the same. Her stage name reflects the confidence she began to reclaim and cultivate while breaking free of this mild, man-made mould, embracing her pop/electro/R&B leanings and rejecting the notion of a strong, vocal woman being ‘too much’.

“The thing about the barbecue is I like to eat loads and it’s this big event where everyone sees what you’re eating which is why I don’t like it. If I could go to a private barbecue where you just leave me alone with a plate of food and then I come back into the room and hang out, I could do that.”

Oh yeah, we’re still chewing over the barbecue back here. It’s a chicken bone of contention. Incidentally, if Rebecca Lucy Taylor does decide to descend on your cook-out next summer, be sure to keep it saucy – she’s “a big condiment head” so it’s all about the mustard, ketchup and gherkins. Since her cautionary confessional came out, though, she reckons people just don’t invite her to these things anymore. “It’s fine by me,” she smiles. “It means I don’t have to be so horrified by saying; sorry, no.”

She’s got some pretty decent excuses to make use of; the diary’s been pretty busy between recording and mixing the album around lockdowns, live sessions for Steve Lamacq, a Jools Holland appearance, playing the Rolling Stone UK launch party and rehearsing for her tour, kicking off in Bristol on 1 November.

I’d move to Bristol. It’s like Sheffield; there’s enough going on, it’s not too massive and it’s art and music focused.

“That’s the biggie,” she says. “I can’t wait. Bristol is one of my favourite places to play, genuinely I love it. One of my best friends in the world lives there – James Hankins – so it means I get to see James but also I just love the city. If I needed to move somewhere I’d move to Bristol. It’s like Sheffield; there’s enough going on, it’s not too massive and it’s pretty art and music focused. I wish a job took me to Bristol, I’d happily live there.”

She’s basically used Bristol as a blueprint for the tour – billed as a half-time-at-the-Super-Bowl sort of experience and designed as much for The Fleece as it is for a festival. “It’s funny because, rehearsing for the show, we said; okay, this works on festival stages, but remember The Fleece has got that big f**king pole in the middle of the stage. We need to do a show that can be on huge stages and stages like The Fleece, so it became a sort of emblem. I wanted to play those venues that I’ve played my whole career but make it a show, because I don’t see why you couldn’t.”

Regardless of her burgeoning success she’s happy to stick with the old faithfuls. “People think ‘oh you’re rich and famous now’ – I am neither of those things. It’s gone up a bit, sure; I’m selling venues out – lovely. I’m happy for it to remain at this level. I want to make the work, but the work with more budget. That’s all I want to achieve.”

It must be a little scarier to hold a mirror up to self and society – to put out and perform such personal stuff – now there are more people watching her do it? “I try not to think about it… I tell anyone I ever date: don’t read into anything I post or say. This will always come first. So [with Prioritise Pleasure] I wasn’t worried, I was kind of exhilarated by it, being that honest.” She was able to make this album, she says, precisely because she wasn’t successful. “I was undercover and because everyone kept telling me everyday that I’m underrated, and the label was telling me the numbers aren’t good, there was something in that which subconsciously had me be very ‘f*ck it’ in the way I work.

“When I get a negative thing happen, personally, about my songs, I’m always really shocked because I think; ‘I don’t go to your work and look into what you’re doing’. I guess I do need to learn to reflect a bit more before I say things but for me, this is my job. I’m not craving fame at all but I do have to be honest in terms of the fact that the more people that see [my work], which is what I’ve always wanted, the more sh*t I might get. But I’m working on the basis that no-one’s evil – everyone’s a product of what’s happened to them and they need to do what they do to make themselves feel better.

“We’ll see what happens – maybe I will edit now, maybe I’ll be frightened… So far I’m not,” she laughs. “I’m in the middle of figuring it out. Online I’ve certainly noticed a shift – a lot more people than before are now looking at what I’m doing and just that maths increases the chances of negativity. But I’m lucky; the people who DM me saying; ‘this song has helped me feel this and do this’ are better than a five-star review in The Guardian for me. It helps me realise why I’m doing this because half the time I wonder why.”

Taylor never realised the lead single would hit home for so many. “This has all been a mega shock. I knew when I wrote I Do This All The Time that I was personally really happy with it and it was saying exactly what I needed it to say. I’m 34 and single and I’m so sick of feeling like that’s a failure. I’m angry about that. I’m not happily married, but I’d be bored sh*tless; it’s that simple.”

I’m 34 and single and I’m sick of feeling like that’s a failure. I’m not happily married, but I’d be bored sh*tless; it’s that simple

She’s been astonished by what has happened since. “Yes it’s fun that I’ve had a song go well but I’ve always felt very ‘outside’ and weird or like there’s something wrong with me, and the amount of people that feel like I do in the song has made me appreciate… Oh God, I’m going to cry… I just don’t feel like a crazy weirdo anymore and it’s beautiful. It made me think: f**king hell, we’re all bluffing each other. We’re causing more pain by doing that.

“I’ve found just being vulnerable has changed my life – my greatest joy is to say: I feel like this, do you? And they do. And I’m like; okay cool, I’m not alone then. There’s no better feeling than not feeling alone and I’ve felt like that for 34 years.”

It made me think: we’re all bluffing each other. We’re causing more pain by doing that

A complete flirt, “absolutely obsessed with getting off with people”, Taylor readily describes herself as a typical conflict-fearing Libra with a preference for putting others’ happiness first due to “such a pathological fear that you might not be happy with me that I’ll sacrifice everything to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

To an extent, conflict seems to seek her out. “My mum, my dad, my brother, my old bandmate, my ex-girlfriend, my ex-boyfriend, my producer: all Pisces,” she says. “Every single person who comes into my life and has a big impact is Pisces.” On the second album, she finally asked her producer what star sign they were and the answer came to her in farcically distorted slow-mo.

“Obviously all those people are people I love and they’ve been amazing parts of my life but they’ve been very difficult parts of my life as well.” Discord comes to light in song, funnelled once again into the likes of the upfront and direct How Can I Help You which sees Taylor pounding away at Kanye-inspired drums, pouring with sweat while fiercely calling out misogyny and taking control of the fear she once harboured of being seen through an objectifying male lens while playing the instrument.

To Taylor’s mind, there’s one thing that would solve all her issues with the music industry: money. “It sounds really unartistic to say I wish I had more cash but the improvement going out from that would change everything. We don’t make a single penny, really, from record sales anymore. That means when you tour you have to have a tour manager that drives, who does the merch, so you’ve got burn-out across the board. It’s unregulated, so that’s where all your sexual abuse happens because you think: I’ve got to keep my mouth shut because this guy’s got to get me there. Mental health protection – all of it – would be improved if, at the source, music was a commodity that people bought, or streams paid better. But it’s certainly my lot; it’s what I’ve chosen to do with my life, it’s all I am and I’ve worked hard to try and make it better for everyone on the road.

“I do all these podcasts and they say: ‘sexual abuse in the music industry: how can we solve it?!’ Somebody needs to find a way for there to be more money available when you tour so you can pay three people to do the three jobs, and you can screen, and if someone’s inappropriate you can sack them. There’s this rock and roll yeah-man-let’s-do-whatever kind of nature to the industry and that is where all that sh*t happens.”

Not content with simply writing a new album, and a book that’s coming out afterwards – all her iPhone notes in chronological order – she’s written a play and a musical. “The musical is an immersive thing; you’re in the studio with me overnight! I think the play will be on first – I’m obsessed with crime dramas and murder podcasts and it’s ultimately about my exhaustion by being a woman who’s frightened that someone’s going to come and kill me, the ways I distract myself from that fear, the behaviours I’ve had, and the way I was sexualised really early.”

[The play] is ultimately about my exhaustion by being a woman who’s frightened that someone’s going to come and kill me

Having put in well over a decade as a touring musician, mostly with Slow Club – whoever it was that said it takes 10 years to become an overnight success was almost on the money here – Taylor has been on a pilgrimage to pop. “My parents played me a lot of Carpenters, Beach Boys, pretty sonically amazing stuff,” she recalls. “My dad was in a band when he met my mum and he loves prog… But now and again there’d be something I loved like Peter Gabriel. Also I was obsessed with Freddie Mercury as a kid and the Self Esteem logo is based on his signature.”

The first records she played all the time? Fugees’ The Score and Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill – every day, all day. “I’d listen to those on repeat from around the age of 10 which is too early for some of the content… Then I had my Spice Girls era, and Alisha’s Attic I was a huge fan of. After my indie years I got back to my true self; all I do is listen to Kanye West (because I’m separating art from artist) and Perfume Genius; that’s it.”

In the shower, though, she’ll likely be singing Kate Bush and Björk. A career like theirs is what she wants for her own trajectory – “tons of records, tons of eras, going down the road for myself and not trying to write a hit, you know” – but if we’re talking dream gigs, Taylor’s would, hands down, be supporting Sydney’s Alex Cameron, known for adopting the persona of a failed entertainer. There’s a lot of love for Little Mix and Christine and the Queens too – acts who put on a real show.

There’s no doubt in her mind that, with more room for the vibrantly avant-garde, the pop scene has become more alt than alt; more diverse and less formulaic than the indie world. “I think people thought it was a bit of a shocking statement when I said that Little Mix are more punk than punk bands – I didn’t realise that was news. Pop production over the last eight years has been way more experimental and exciting than what ‘real musicians’ are doing – since Countdown by Beyonce. I remember thinking; this is absolutely nuts and so exciting, and I can’t wait to put it on repeat.”

When I said that Little Mix are more punk than punk bands – I didn’t realise that was news

She’s dying to collaborate with one “absolutely groundbreaking” British singer-songwriter and producer. “MNEK has found a way to create sound that means you could have every bit of vintage synth and guitar gear that money could buy and it wouldn’t be as interesting,” Taylor enthuses. “But also it’s a taste thing; personally I’m excited by heavy, thick, deep sounds, then high, beautiful strings and brass. The middle bit has never been something I’m that into. So my statements come with the caveat that it’s my taste.”

And some flavour it serves. Always writing, Taylor already knows what she wants to say next, but somewhere in among creating the next record she’s got to squeeze in little old America; although the English seaside will do for now. “I just want to create all the time,” she says. “And go on a holiday. I just need to decide: this week is a holiday. Even if I go to Cleethorpes. Don’t text me.”

Prioritise Pleasure is out on 22 October. Self Esteem plays The Fleece on 1 November and Trinity Centre on 4 March. Visit selfesteem.love or follow Rebecca Lucy Taylor on Instagram @selfesteemselfesteem and Twitter @selfesteem__