As Democratic politicians sat polishing “I’m With Her” endorsements, I set up for a phone call with a musician interested in making strides with a sound undefined by gender. “I’m a musician who happens to be a woman,” Esmé Patterson told me as we talked before her upcoming show at Great Scott in Allston. Patterson wove between topography’s influence on soundscapes, material and metaphorical masks, independence, and introspection. And she left room to share the pride and process which accompany her most recent record release, We Were Wild.

Patterson’s sound and story have floated through the news feeds of the likes of Rolling Stone and NPR. Her recent album offers a soulful grit carried by healing head-tones and a bushel of confident roars. And her brand-new “No River” video showcases the pinnacle of Patterson: fierce delicacy.

Our communications began with a flurry of female hello’s:

Samantha: Hello?

Esmé Patterson: Hello?

SF: Hello…

EP: Hello!

SF: Hello!

Patterson’s polite and comfortable nature were immediately evidenced by her tone; she seemed at home in her own voice. We began our conversation with a discussion of home.

SF: Let’s begin with where your music grows. Have you seen the impact of your changing homes and environments reflected in your sound over the years? I know that your newest release was produced in Portland, which was something new.

EP: Absolutely, I feel like geography really affects people. Often I find myself writing about what’s around me. I used to live in Colorado, where it’s sunny, full of mountains, dry, and hard to grow things. The people are outgoing, external, and carefree. The music that I was making in Colorado reflected that cheerfulness and extroversion.

SF: Did you feel a major shift when you moved to Oregon?

EP: There was a definite shift of geography, a difference of flora and fauna, and a change in the landscapes. In my own self I saw the difference, and then I saw the difference in the music that I was writing, and the poetry as well.

SF: What one variable would you pinpoint as the change-maker?

EP: To me it can be distilled down to the amount of sunlight. In Colorado, you’ve got 300 days of sun a year, and in Portland it’s very overcast for around 9 months of the year. The overcast in Portland forces people toward introspection. The outside is not as welcoming, and the rain makes you draw inwards, so when I moved there I began to look inwardly.

SF: How was that reflected in your discography?

EP: My music there was more reflective and internal. Musically, I began an internal journey to the center of my heart.

We Were Wild is an audible documentation of that journey.

SF:  Let’s jump to environment in a social context. How did your previous collaborative experiences compare to We Were Wild’s solo nature? I know you’ve worked with Nathaniel Rateliff, and I just discovered that the female vocalist on Shakey Graves’ Dearly Departed is you–

EP: (Politely interjecting) Well, I wasn’t just the female vocalist, I wrote the song with them!

SF:  Oh wow, I didn’t know that.

EP: No one knows that.

SF: Golly, why’s that?

EP: It’s easy though, being a woman… People are quick to dismiss any capability that you may have and say “oh she’s wearing a dress and singing.” I’ve never been a male musician, so I don’t really know, but I do feel it’s incredibly hard to be respected as a female musician, and people always point out the fact that you’re a female. And I don’t think that happens to male songwriters. People say I’m a feminist because I write songs about being a woman. But really that’s just what I happen to write songs about because…

SF: You are a woman.

EP: Exactly. I am a woman! And writing about it doesn’t make it feminist writing. Being a woman is difficult in this business but we’ve got to make the art that we believe in, and continue to move forward.

SF:  Amen.

EP: To answer to your question though, maybe needless to say, I got pretty turned off from collaboration for a while. I felt devalued because of Shakey Graves; I wrote the song with them! I felt disrespected as a female vocalist, not as vocalist. And generally used, to be very blunt. So, I got excited about working on my own music. Now I focus on the music that I hear and am excited about, and that’s been really rewarding. That’s really exciting for me.

SF: Definitely exciting! Let’s focus on that exciting piece then: you and your personal sound. If you had to describe yourself and your music’s sound without using traditional genre labels, how would you describe it?

EP: Oh, I love that! I really struggle with the typical genre labels, so I find it easier to answer this question. My music is mainly focused on bringing more love into the world. I write the music that I want to hear and I write music that comes from deep inside of my heart. I’m primarily trying to help, just trying to help. I want to help people understand themselves better, or give them a tool to help them forget for a second, or just have a blissful three minutes, or make a song that could be a companion or a friend to someone in a moment, and write songs that are just true and real. The purpose of my music is to help people, to give them some tools to work with.

SF: Has music helped you in your life?

EP: Oh yes. It’s unequaled, the biggest tool in my life. Music is a really powerful thing.

Esmé explained to me her music’s metaphor:

EP: It’s like when you’re on an airplane, when they give you the safety talk… You have to put your own mask on first, before you help anyone else, even children. I have to be able to breathe first, and then I can help other people, and then we can all breathe and experience the music together. That’s what music making is to me.

SF: The opening line of your press release reads “Sometimes you have to turn your brain off and let your body sing.” That seems to be a common thread in your music’s message. You said your songs are incarnations of the ways your heart has helped your mind. How has music helped your heart, and in turn, your mind, over the years?

EP: Oh what cool connections! It’s all connected really. You see, this is a difficult job to do, of course it’s not like driving a gravel truck, but you’re never home, you’re always traveling, navigating new cities, trying to make it all work, sleeping on floors, getting parking tickets, eating gas station food… It’s craziness all the time.

In your heart you have to believe in yourself and hold onto your vision, which is also difficult to do for people who are not megalomaniacs. Those moments when I get to connect with a crowd and connect on stage and sing from my heart, are the times when everything feels right. I live for those moments.

SF: Do you think your audiences can feel those moments too?

EP: Yes. People always say “You looked like you were having so much fun!,” and I think to myself: How does everyone not look like that? Connection is what I live for; that’s the best part of my day every day.

SF: It’s wonderful that music feeds that connection.

EP: Yes! It connects every part of my spirit, and my mind and my body. I’m connected to everyone in the room as well; we’re all having an experience together, one of transcendence and healing and trying to move forward as a group. And that’s just the best thing in the world.

SF: It sounds quite exquisite really.

EP: (Laughing) Yes, at times, but I also didn’t focus on the parts that are really difficult. This business is not for the faint of heart.

SF: Well, from your music and words, I would say you’re a strong woman.

EP: (Laughing again) That, or maybe I’m just crazy enough not know when to quit.

SF: I’ve heard you equate the more produced sound of your recent records with fantasy. Do you attempt to embody that fantastical nature when you’re performing, even though you can’t perfect or produce it live? Or do you separate the fantasy and the raw, much like you did on your albums?

EP: Oooh, interesting. Well, I was talking to a dear friend, Joe Sampson, in Denver, and we probably had a lot to drink, but we got to talking about how it’s important for all musicians to create a persona. You have to protect yourself a little bit, and you have  to step into even a slightly different persona, when you step onstage because it is a different version of yourself.

SF: How did you craft your own persona?

EP: See I’m not good at acting, so my mask is very similar to who I am. Some people’s personas are very different from themselves, but my mask is very similar to who I am offstage.

SF: How would you describe that offstage self?

EP: For the most part I am a quiet internal person who likes to read books and swim in rivers and hang out with cute cats. I’m not like a center-of-attention kind of person. I’m a little uncomfortable in those situations. So I had to build a persona in order to step on stage and say “dig me, check me out!”

SF: Ahh, so it’s a performance tactic as well as a safety mechanism?

EP: For sure. But again, the persona that I use is very similar to who I am…just a little bit bigger and more talkative. Let’s call her, “Esme+”

SF: I see! So not anything less, or anything totally different,  just a little bit more.

EP: Yes! It’s important to acknowledge that it’s just part of this job.

SF: Why is it so important? From what does the mask protect you?

EP: It protects you from the persona itself! People can become who they are onstage, which is dangerous. I’ve seen that up close, not to name any names, but when people believe that they are their stage persona they’re not usually a person that you want to hang out with in real life anymore.  So I think it’s important to intentionally step on stage. But the most important part comes when you step off stage; you have to take the mast off and be yourself again.

SF: Is that a hard thing to do?

EP: It takes work, as any important thing does. But it can be done; it’s a practice, a daily observance.

SF: Do you practice music everyday?

EP: No, but I play music everyday. Not a day goes by when I’m not playing for people or working on something new. I should practice. Maybe I will if I have time… Time, such a precious commodity.

SF: Oh yes?

EP: The last minute is where I exist! The nick of time is where I’ve built my home.

SF: Wow, how timely; we’ve just reached our last interview minute. Is there anything else you want to communicate or conclude with?

EP: Just that I’m really proud of this new record. I’m excited to play, and give the record to people, and play it for people. I worked really hard on it.

We’ll be eager to witness the oxygen masks and the fantasy, the grit and the heart, and Esme+ in person the next time she pays Boston a visit. Until then, we’ll explore the new healing soundscapes off Patterson’s latest release, We Were Wild

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