The music of Estere is indescribable, hard to define, and like her hero Grace Jones, she is fearless.
“Growing up a gun kid, child of the trigger, bullets get smaller as I get bigger,” a clever, stunningly beautiful and thoughtful artist known as Estère raps the lyrics with a unique flow in a fascinating song called Gun Kid.
“It’s quite strange,” says the New Zealand native over Skype one Autumn afternoon. “The beat production is pretty much purely made out of different types of guns being fired and different types of shots.”
Estère Dalton speaks so gently and warmly that it is easy to forget the powerful voice on the experimental track on her brand new album – a two part project, each the length of an EP - My Design, On Other’s Lives. The comma cuts the title in two to delineate the first half of the album released last year from the second, out this Friday.
“[Gun Kid is] quite experimental in its structure… It took me quite a while to structure the song…. I could just see it but I didn’t have any reference checks of how I could put it together.”
It is difficult to define the sound of Estère. She is a producer, a singer and a songwriter. Her voice is soulful, but Dalton is not a soul singer, nor is she a soul artist. She creates electronic music, but her music does not fit neatly into the category of electronica.
It makes sense, then, that Dalton has just finished touring with Grace Jones.
“The Grace Jones show was really amazing because it was just eye opening to see someone who was so fearlessly themselves. No matter who you are or when you found out about Grace Jones, when you see her do her performance, she is unbridled energy and…. art. She is art. Ha.”
Dalton was born on Waiheke Island and raised in Wellington, with a few stints in France and Germany. While her mother is from New Zealand, her father was born in Cameroon, Africa.
When she was four years old, Dalton heard Maori hip hop and roots group Moana and the Moahunters sing, “You’re my beautiful black pearl.”
“I was like, that’s so nice – they’re singing about me…. It was cool because that was a song that I thought related to me.”
Dalton also was influenced by New Zealand singer/songwriters Bic Runga - who now wants to work with Dalton after hearing My Design - Anika Moa and early Brooke Fraser, as well as the funky seven piece Fat Freddy’s Drop. “I cranked Cays Cray when I was sixteen.”
It is a combination of all of these family and musical factors that have created the unique artist Estère is today.
When she first started writing, Soundcloud was Dalton's chosen platform to broadcast her musings and sonics to the people. Now, as she is growing in confidence Dalton is branching out into engineering.
“I think it's really only been recently that I’ve felt confident... I’m still not a mixing engineer. I’ve [studied lots of] producers and engineers over the last couple of years and I think that is making its way into my production now.
“I’m familiar with the language [of] production in that sense – on a computer - when it comes to the physicalities of recording, like [positioning] a drum kit or an amp. I just play around with it…. I’ve still got a lot to learn.”
The time Dalton has put into understanding more about audio and production techniques is paying off. The aforementioned Gun Kid is an example of her implementation of that knowledge. So too is last year’s single Control Freak.
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“I literally put every sample through quite a lengthy process. I triggered the EQ and then put it through a pre-amp, and then put it into [music software program] Logic. Then I went into the studio and mixed with an engineer. We…. thought that something about Control Freak was a little '80s Michael Jackson', so we used that as a reference for the actual mix. The beat is quite military and quite quick, and when I was writing it, I decided to follow through with that feeling so the bassline and the kick drum and the snares are all quite heavy hitting compressed sounds.”
Dalton's thoughtfulness and intelligence in her artistry is testament to her commitment to hard work, discipline and a love of learning.
“Anthropology is what I did my degree in. And if I wasn’t pursuing a career in music, I’d be pursuing further study in anthropology, I think. It’s just one of the things I’m really, really interested about in the world – I should [clarify and] say cultural anthropology. Looking at groups and learning about them, recognising patterns in different societies – how they are different and how they are similar.”
Dalton is a tutor in Anthropology at The School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at the Victoria University of Wellington.
“I’m a bit of a nerd. I feel sorry for my students. I get this weird light in my eyes and I harp on about it.”
So how does anthropology work with being a musician?
“It helps me as a musician immensely. Not only because it gives me a certain perspective, it ignites my curiosity in the world and in the lives of others around me. But it also makes travelling and touring and meeting people really fascinating to me.
“Anthropology has given me a vessel of understanding, and a way for me to process some of the things I see.”
Undoubtedly, her affection for people and culture is affecting her art, which is why it is so difficult to define Estère or package her music into a box.
Like Grace Jones, she is doing her own thing.
“I feel like it’s so easy to be restrained by what other people are doing, by doubts of how people are going to react to it – that’s what is so incredible about her. She clearly pushes through those boundaries… She pushes through all that and does something that is unique and entirely her own and…. she's fearless.”
On Other's Lives is out Friday. Her single Nomads is out now and has been added to Music Love's Storyteller playlist