Esther Rose Finds Her Balance

The singer/songwriter talks about falling in love with New Mexico, her growing frustration with live shows and her fourth LP Safe to Run

Music Features Esther Rose
Esther Rose Finds Her Balance

There’s a lot of depth to any sort of artist—whether it be in music, theater, tattoos, literature, cinema, painting. They can all serve as an identity or a distinct form of self-expression, a vessel for questions: What ways can they explain a concept that fascinates them? How can they relay a moment in time for others to experience as well? The best aspect of songwriting and world-building is that there are no rules; no single perfect way to create; no secret formula to it other than a love for making it. Esther Rose started making her own music in her early 20s.“I would still write songs in my head, and then I would get some dude to show me what the chords were,” she says. “When I realized what the chords were, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s only three of them and they go like this. This is what Hank Williams has been doing, and he’s considered [to be] one of the greatest songwriters of all time.’ After that, I knew that I could do this.”

Rose’s songs are simple—“Chet Baker” switches between two chords before tumbling into a catchy melody—but only in the sense that she isn’t playing complex chords. Instead, she opts for composing basic arrangements in a way that goes against music theory. “I haven’t actually studied music and I don’t want to, because I like how it feels when I discover a chord progression,” she says. “You don’t need to have music theory to make a melody.” For Rose, a melody is a gateway to voicing whatever you want with total freedom. “You get some chords, and then you can do anything you fucking want with your voice and your writing. Sometimes I’ll be halfway through a song and I’ll be like, ‘This is boring. I want to make this fun for myself,’ and the song will completely change,” she adds.

Rose originally found her place in the New Orleans music scene after moving from Michigan, and her first three records—This Time Last Night, You Made It This Far and How Many Times—all showcase her vibrant, captivating voice and honest lyrics. She now resides in New Mexico, which has left a huge impact on her newest album Safe to Run. “I started coming out here [to New Mexico] with my band in 2016. New Mexico is the closest, most beautiful place to go where there’s no mosquitoes,” Rose laughs. Her band would make plans every summer to explore different parts of the dry, temperate land she resides on, camping and detoxing from social media and making the desert landscape a sacred place. Rose, especially, would use the seclusion to get back in touch with herself. “It’s like a dream come true to live in this environment under these huge, huge skies with the most delightful smelling wood—like everyone’s burning their own fireplace,” she adds.

Traveling influences Rose’s writing because it’s a sensory experience for her. She finds creating on the road to be natural, often influenced by listening to Joni Mitchell for hours on end. “I’m a devotee of Joni, but my way of moving through her teachings is to start with an album and stick with that album for a few years until I’ve really kind of extracted everything in it,” she says. Her biggest source of inspiration for Safe to Run was Mitchell’s Hejira, an essential ’70s singer/songwriter album that was written during a period of Mitchell’s frequent travel in the late ’70s and experiences during that time—similar to Rose’s adventures before making Safe to Run.

Compared to her other records, Safe to Run follows Rose’s distinct style of making country music coupled with self-constraints. Songs like “Handyman” from You Made It This Far feature a swing-like rhythm conjured from Lyle Werner’s beautiful fiddle and Matt Bell’s lap steel. “Without You” from How Many Times is emblematic of Rose’s vocal dips and unique phrasing. In the past, she worked closely with an analog tape machine. This time around, she and her team had to make a switch after finding difficulties with their gear. “Honestly, it was really freeing to not be working with tape because you have to rewind it and work around a finite amount of tape,” she said. “I loved those constraints in the past, because I feel like it made all the musicians rise to the occasion. This time, I felt like I was ready to experiment.” The sound itself has a clarity that’s different from the bit of graininess of her former projects, with hints of influence from ’70s folk and blues.

Long-time collaborator Ross Farbe took on the producer role for Safe to Run, adding synths and various textures to exemplify the tracklist’s deeper sound. The album still has her trademark live sound, this time paired with multi-tracking and overdubs. Rose dives into themes of environment, spiritual displacement and sexism in the music industry. One of her favorite lyrics she wrote for the record is found on “Dream Girl”: “It took a long time to figure out what I was trying to say, but the couplet—‘A pair of eyes / A narrow view / He was lucky to be in the room’—took lots of tweaking to get it right,” Rose explains. “When it finally came together, I could picture some dude who thinks that he invented the ‘talented woman’ and made her an amazing songwriter. It happens so many times in the industry.”

“Chet Baker” lingers on the image of a dive bar, and the title track connects personal feelings towards the world with the looming grief and dread of climate disaster; nods of Elliot Smith are heard in the vocals of “Stay,” and there’s a glittering pop sheen alive on “Insecure.” Although songs like “Spider” were dialed in from the get-go, ”Dream Girl” went through several transformations after its initial inception and continues to change.

Heading into the release of Safe to Run, Rose has been thinking about the expectations of playing shows, and what stresses they put on musicians just trying to make it to them. “It is part of touring, dealing with all this danger. As soon as I see the [dashboard] light up, I’m just like, ‘Oh God,’” Rose says. For her, traveling with a supportive group of people that can problem-solve is crucial. Everyone in her band steps up, chips in and is there for one another. “Whenever you’re at a show and see that band that you paid a ticket to see on stage, it is a fucking miracle,” she adds.

The live sound that Rose mastered on Safe to Run is a product of her exploring the new place she calls home and the love that comes with it. Traveling, finding yourself and making peace with new environments are huge themes on the album, and touring emphasizes those experiences. The recent trend of crowds talking during sets has been on Rose’s mind, too. Although she knows that not everyone participates, she can’t help but feel disheartened seeing the people who do. “If I’m at a show and I’m talking with a good friend while the artist starts talking about their song, I would feel rude speaking at the same time this other person is talking to me. It’s sort of like, ‘How good of a listener are you?’” Rose questions. The act of experiencing music has transformed since the conception of social media, and people often heckle artists in an attempt to go viral. Audiences are experiencing music through their phone screens and through distracting conversations with the people around them. In turn, they are removing themselves from the artist, not the other way around.

For Rose, she takes the stage and sees actual faces in the crowd. She’s always been a songwriter who taps into the human condition, examining how we tick through love, curiosity and doubt. There’s a refreshing, free-spirited nature in the work. “I feel like the principle of my writing relies on the element of being in the world where anything can happen at any moment,” she says, hoping that audiences can find a similar takeaway when listening.

Here, more than anywhere else, Rose translates her own experiences and freezes them in time through vulnerable storytelling and a distinct sonic layout. Everything is arranged meticulously, with a clear emphasis on each side of the album tapping into different emotional states. It’s what makes this entry in her catalog her most-ambitious, resonant and fearless one yet. “Leading up to ‘Safe to Run’ and into ‘St. Francis Waltz,’ there’s a lot of pain and it just shatters. Then, for the second half of the album, it’s joy and love coming from that knowledge of everything breaking,” she adds. After four albums and long hours spent on the road with a band she trusts, Safe to Run is the cathartic destination where Esther Rose watches everything fall into place.

Watch Esther Rose perform at the 2023 Paste Party in Austin:

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