Self Esteem's second album "Prioritise Pleasure" is out on October 22ndCHUFF MEDIA

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, AKA musician Self Esteem, joins me in the midst of frantic album promotion, juggling back-to-back interviews and music video shooting. With her pile of unattended laundry growing, she tells me she doesn’t know how pop stars do it. Consistently, she delves into these unglamorous aspects of the music industry, providing uncensored takes throughout our interview. These takes though are never bolshy or unthoughtful. Instead, what I increasingly notice throughout our conversation is her remarkable capacity for self-analysis – constantly working through any hypocrisies in her character, tracking how past events have shaped her, and examining her relationships with other people. Such constant internal probing, to my mind, sounds rather exhausting, and I’d be happy to settle for ignorant bliss. But Rebecca’s philosophy as Self Esteem has always been to make lyrics uncomfortable and deeply honest, and I get the impression that such personal songwriting has led her to a self-awareness unmatched in other artists.

“I think I realised a while ago that my personal is political”

Indeed, sophomore album Prioritise Pleasure contains some of the most personal Self Esteem songs yet, but there is undoubtedly a political edge. Opening track “I’m Fine” includes this haunting discussion by a group of women Rebecca worked with for a National Theatre project: “if we are approached by a group of men, we will bark like dogs…there is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman who appears completely deranged.” I start off by asking her if such political statements are intentional, and if so, how does she balance the personal and political in her songwriting. “I guess it wasn’t intentional, I just write what I was feeling, what I need to say”, answers Rebecca. “I think I realised a while ago that my personal is political regardless, because I’m a woman who isn’t conforming to what we’re made to think we need to. I’m so angry and so exhausted by how much struggling I’ve had down to the fact of my gender.”

Self Esteem confronts anxieties and people-pleasing in single "I Do This All The Time"YOUTUBE/SELFESTEEM

I wonder aloud whether she expects and hopes that people relate to her songwriting. “I just hope that everyone gets from it what they need to. I always say this, I don’t know if it translates to interviews well, but I’m pretty fucking selfish. I do it for myself. Like I sit and go, what do I need to say every day, what’s gonna help me tour for the next 18 months – fucking prioritising myself”, she unabashedly confirms. “So, I make those songs for me and then when people relate to them – even better when they really help people – obviously that feels good, but it’s not my MO. I’m not set out to be this great healer, I am just doing what I need.”

“But the cool thing that’s happened this time around was that I always felt very alone and quite like what the fuck is wrong with me.” She recounts how then many listeners related to the anxieties of her lead single “I Do This All the Time”, and as such she didn’t feel “so like an alien freak all the time. And the gigs feel like that now too. And it is kind of like a weird loving that’s changed my life.” 

“I just basically engineered my life to be what it is I wanted it to be when I was 6 years old”

Having myself seen a Self Esteem live show, I can vouch for the fact that it provokes powerful responses. There is immaculate chorography and live harmonies that Rebecca performs alongside three other women. I ask about when she first decided to incorporate choreography. “My childhood was me making girls around the corner learn dance routines and then showing them to people. Dance has been such a big part of my life. Then I went to play guitar in an indie band, and it was like…” She makes an exasperated sound. “Every time there was a music video to be made, I was like, can we do choreography and obviously it was always no.” This indie band is Slow Club, a duo she was in from 2006 to 2017. The painful deterioration of the band is the focus of documentary Our Most Brilliant Friends and a fair proportion of our conversation together confirms her desire to distance herself from this project. “In my childhood,” she explains, “I’d play cricket and I did dance… so those two things really soothe me… I just basically engineered my life to be what it is I wanted it to be when I was 6 years old. But it’s funny how unifying it is, especially to girls, we’re all in our thirties going like, this is really fun and none of us are dancers.”

This polished choreography is balanced with the emotional intensity of her hard-hitting lyrics, and I ask whether she finds performing such personal songs live draining. “Umm yeah, I do. I mean it’s a weird mix because again I’m not comfortable not going there. Like, it’s more draining to pretend to give a shit about a backing vocal and phoning it in, than it is to just use the stage and say what I need to. But ask me that question at the end of November”, she notes, alluding to her upcoming UK tour. “I’m very into Marina Abramovic and stuff like that so it feels like some big performance piece, endurance, where I have to see what happens to me, if I go there every night. Stuff like that is pretty arousing to me.”

“It sounds crazy but I have lived for people my whole life”

One may expect arousal to be a key focal point of an album called Prioritise Pleasure, yet as Rebecca explains when I ask about her definition of pleasure, the focus is somewhat more mundane than that. “Pleasure to me is going home when you want to. So, in many ways, that for me has become a microcosm across the board about prioritising myself and my pleasure. So obviously there’s all the making sure I come during sex, like that’s never been an issue!”, she laughs, “But what is an issue for me is people pleasing and being sub to what people’s expectations of me are. And prioritising pleasure for me is saying, well I don’t feel up for coming to your barbeque, and not being terrified of saying it... It sounds crazy but I have lived for people my whole life, and that snowballs through all factors of my life. Like the worst things that have ever happened to me, you can trace them back to it being born out of me going, oh I better not be any trouble.”

The music video for "Prioritise Pleasure" showcases the introspective lyrics and powerful choreography that characterises Self EsteemYOUTUBE/ SELFESTEEM

Returning to the personal/political distinction, I ask Rebecca whether she sees prioritising pleasure as an implicitly feminist action, telling her that I feel it’s been difficult for feminism to envision a theory of pleasure, when so many discussions of desire go hand-in-hand with discussions of oppression. “Yeah, you’re right,” she replies, “so far there is a kind of, fuck men, you’ve done this to me, and I have oscillated in that bit for so long. It makes it worse for me to just get up and get out of bed each day sometimes. So, focusing it back on me, what can I do for me and how that is inherently feminist, is a start, I think. And it’s a small start and it’s applicable to everyone.” She adds: “And it’s more digestible, we have to trojan horse it, sadly. If you do anything else, they call you crazy.”

“Pop has been a useful word to get me out of being considered indie. I really hate being called indie”

Feeling as though I’d already asked Rebecca heavier questions than I would with any other artist, I decide to switch to the more abstract topic of genre, asking whether, given the range of sounds on her album, she feels it is important or easy to define herself by genre. “I don’t really. A friend of mine said it was art pop, and I was like there we go, because I don’t feel comfortable calling it purely pop. But I’m very inspired by hip hop, I’m very inspired by orchestral music. Film music was big for me. I’m pretty much consistently inspired by sugary, mainstream Gaga/Katy Perry shit. And then obviously Kate Bush. There’s so much going on. Pop has been a useful word to get me out of being considered indie. I really hate being called indie.” She is unambiguous on that point.

Self Esteem feels more in control than ever of her sound and imagePHOTO: OLIVIA RICHARDSON

“But I don’t really feel comfy anywhere. It’s a relic of music journalism isn’t it. But also, you can’t blame people for having to use words to describe stuff.” Reflecting on how fans have embraced her poppier transition, she later tells me: “The last time I remember really being into music and caring, buying the NME and things like that, was The Libertines. My fucking peers, we’re old – music has changed. I think I benefitted from the blurring of genres, and that pop isn’t dirty anymore.” I suggest that part of what’s so moving about her live performance is the recognition that, unrestrained from her past band, she is finally making the type of music she has always wanted to. “I did it for 10 years as well”, she interjects. “Like God, how many more songs about men that have wronged me, set to a guitar, do you need – like I don’t want any more so I don’t know who else would. There’s plenty of other people doing it!”


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Aware that I am reaching the end of my tight time slot with Rebecca, I decide to land my last question with the Varsity readers in my mind, asking if she has any advice for students wanting to enter the music industry. “Your idea is the best idea always”, she puts bluntly. “Like, I fucking hate this idea that compromise and collaboration is the only way to make something good. If you think it’s right, I believe it’s right.” She then delves into what has made the industry harder for her: “For me, I was like, why aren’t I as big as that person, or why doesn’t anyone listen to me like they do them. That’s what ruined my break. But I stopped doing it and everything went a lot better. So, yeah – no expectations, stick to your convictions and play lots of gigs. Be good live. Too many people are shit live.”

With an unrestrained laugh and her trademark honesty, Rebecca signs off. Part of me wants to be self-congratulatory for provoking such a deep and upfront chat, but I expect Rebecca is like this with all interviewers. Unfiltered – in her conversations, music, and live performances. It feels rare and incredibly exciting.

Prioritise Pleasure is out on October 22nd. You can find all tour dates here: