By Neil Riddell
The abundance of itinerant song titles and lyrical references in her back catalogue are a sure sign that motion – both literal and figurative – is a vital theme in the life of American singer-songwriter Esther Rose.
Having spent a decade in the fertile musical surrounds of New Orleans, recent times have seen her undergoing what might best be termed positive upheaval: a six-month stint living with her sister during Covid-19 lockdown, before falling in love led her to relocate to New Mexico.
While many artists making records in her musical milieu – including several New West Records labelmates – have descended on trendy East Nashville, she is content to “live in the desert and write songs and send them around – it helps to be a little bit removed from the music industry and have my life”.
Trading Louisiana life for a fresh start in Santa Fe has been quite an adjustment for Rose, though she had “already started to develop a community from visiting here”, she tells Secret Meeting over an early spring Zoom call.
She eventually made the move after spontaneously asking a coffee shop if they were looking for a part-time barista (they were).
“It’s important for me to live where I feel most compelled to write,” she explains. “I don’t feel ambiguous pressure to live in [large] cities. I’ve done some of my best writing in New Mexico, period, I think.”
Her new LP, Safe to Run, more than backs up that assertion. In common with its predecessor, 2021’s terrific How Many Times, this collection is the work of an artist who has hit her stride as an increasingly assured writer and singer.
Rose’s vocal delivery has evolved quite splendidly and she veers between a soft, gentle country twang and a doughtily robust – but always melodic – channeller of modern life’s anxieties.
While the country music influences she cut her teeth on remain to the fore from opener Stay onwards, more than ever before she indulges an adroit knack for crafting McCartney-esque earworm pop hooks as Safe to Run unfurls.
“I just love a catchy chorus – I can’t not do one!” she laughs. “It’s not intentional, it’s just how I write!”
Indeed, within a couple of listens you might find any number of these songs have climbed inside your head without knocking. But what sets Rose apart from many contemporaries is that, while the songs are accessible, the melodies, structures and instrumentation are seldom predictable.
She is quick to credit producer Ross Farbe, who also co-produced How Many Times, and who she turned to simply because he “knows how to work with me and my songs”.
New Orleans group Silver Synthetic provide backing on some tracks, while others feature the Taos rhythm section of Lonnie Leary on drums and Meredith Stoner on bass.
There are notably fewer fiddle parts on this record, though longstanding collaborator Lyle Werner does lend his expert bow to St. Francis Waltz and ominous-sounding album standout Spider.
A malfunctioning tape machine inadvertently resulted in this being the first LP Rose has made digitally. While remaining a staunch believer in “the magic of the live take”, she has come to view the tape failing as a “blessing in disguise” enabling her to “switch things up… there’s way more interesting overdubs”.
Farbe coloured the songs with understated synths and atmospheric textures, a fitting sonic palette for a record flitting between personal reflections and more universal concerns.
And from the gorgeous, keening country strum of Chet Baker, reflecting on capers in her early twenties, to Dream Girl – a 2020s heir to Jenny Lewis’ noughties single Carpetbaggers – Safe to Run is a truly accomplished 42-minute listen.
While fulfilling her vow not to write an outright heartbreak song this time around, Rose finds plenty of space to demonstrate her nous as one of finest chroniclers of romantic complexity out there.
Never more so than on the aforementioned Spider, which has the narrator telling a partner: “What is love without a little stress? / I’ve got two minds about you, I confess / Get undressed.”
While happily embracing high desert life in New Mexico, Rose speaks effusively of her enduring fondness for New Orleans.
The city plays host to a luxuriant creative scene where she met and befriended touchstone influences such as Sam Dhoores of The Deslondes and Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, who crops up on the centerpiece title track.
“It was really hard to leave. It still feels hard to be away. I think the musical community and the relationships I’ve built there are everlasting for my life. They continue to be the people I go to to collaborate with, to tour with…”
She describes the scene she was part of in the years preceding Covid-19 as “really fruitful for all of our lives”. A flavour of that scene is handily captured in two volumes of Mashed Potato Records releases by Duff Thompson across 2017 and 2018.
“It was a really prolific time for recording, for hanging out, for campfire songs, and I’m sure it’s still happening in New Orleans,” she beams. “I think we just kind of created a zeitgeist moment. Foundationally it was a really great time to be in the city.”
Rose has admired the work of Segarra, a true progressive torchbearer of contemporary Americana, for over a decade and has spoken of having “full body goosebumps” while recording their harmonies in the studio.
When they sent Rose the finished version of Hurray For the Riff Raff’s most recent LP Life on Earth “I could just hear so many of the same themes, it was kind of synchronistic” with the material she was working on.
The gorgeous, reflective title track (“What if I left the city behind / Just dreaming in the trees / Untie my mind”) seemed the ideal number to have Segarra guest on.
“It was really special to get to sing with them, on this song in particular because this is the song that means the most to me,” Rose says. “With climate grief and a lot of the issues that I feel like we really relate on – and we both relate to, as runners, that Covid was [a time] when there was nowhere ‘safe to run’, and processing that…”
And, in common with Life on Earth (a triumphant record that strives for joy in the face of impending apocalypse), Safe to Run wears its nuanced political meanings smartly.
The title is perhaps as apposite a metaphor as you could choose to communicate the fears plaguing citizens of twenty-first century USA – there are no hiding places from climate catastrophe or rampant consumerism and the social ills they spawn.
While Rose would “love to figure out how to have more activism in my life” at some point, for now her work is a “completely different mode of being”.
“How can you not reflect the times, is what Nina Simone says,” she reflects. “But I’m not an activist, I’m not a scientist. What I’m trying to do is process these big feelings. Right now I’m just translating all of this information through a sensory field.”
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