Self Esteem on “Prioritise Pleasure” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, February 27th, 2024  

Self Esteem on “Prioritise Pleasure”

Defiant and Euphoric

Nov 03, 2021 Photography by Olivia Richardson Web Exclusive
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After spending the best part of a decade as one half of the creative nucleus of critically acclaimed UK band Slow Club, singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rebecca Lucy Taylor had to get out. For the sake of her sanity and driven by the urge to follow her own creative instincts as she explains, “I needed to do my own thing without constantly getting a big fat ‘no’ off people.” And so her subversive pop project Self Esteem was born with Taylor stating it was her ambition to use the veneer of pop music as a “Trojan horse” to write about issues close to her heart.

Her 2019-released debut album, Compliments Please, laid out her ambitious template, but with her just-released second album, the game-changing Prioritise Pleasure, Taylor has delivered an astonishing piece of work. It’s an album that is driven by bruising honesty, defiance, and Taylor’s trademark dark self-deprecating humor. It’s also an album that feels very much like an exhilarating reclamation of the self.

“I think I’ve found a way to be defiant and euphoric in response to trauma. And to be honest,” Taylor laughs, “at the moment I’m not really interested in subtlety. Who knows, maybe in the future I’ll make this gorgeous acoustic record that you can play at dinner parties but right now I want to be as loud and abrasive and angry as possible.”

The reaction to her work in the last year has been nothing short of incredible, with Prioritise Pleasure currently the second best reviewed album of the year according to Metacritic (where it has a 92 rating). “I’ve never experienced anything like it in my career,” enthuses Taylor. “I’ve never been this busy either!”

Prioritise Pleasure was written before the pandemic, but COVID related delays ensued, which the sometimes impulsive Taylor found initially frustrating. “As a solo artist I always know what I want to do,” she says. “Then I go through the process of listening to other people telling me what I should try, and then I’ll come back and do what I originally envisaged. So just before the pandemic, I was halfway through that process of saying, ‘Alright guys, I’ll go to L.A. if you want, and I’ll work with these songwriters and see what happens but I’m telling you now I won’t want to use any of it and I’ll just come back and use what I’ve already done.’”

When the pandemic did hit Taylor returned to her parent’s house to work on the demos. However, she found that this enforced change of pace actually worked in her favor. “I mean, don’t get me wrong I was frightened and frustrated,” she admits, “and I can be quite trigger happy when making decisions, but with no tangible deadlines in place being patient actually worked for me. In fact I’d love to work like that for the rest of my career. We’ll see, but I’d put good money on me going back to my old ways.”

The album’s opening track, “I’m Fine,” sets the tone and was partly inspired by Taylor’s experience of collaborating with the National Youth Theatre, who were working on a project based around the issues of consent. “I make this joke all the time,” Taylor explains, “you could take any of my songs and you’ll find they are all about at least one of a specific set of subjects which are usually around trauma, consent, sexuality, and expectations of womanhood. I’m not sure why, but for me it’s hugely important to me to be as vulnerable and real as possible which doesn’t always fit into the pop arena. You either have to be the big boss bitch, you know, ‘I don’t need you to pay my bills’ or the Jolene who pleads ‘please don’t take my man’ type of woman. And I’m a combination of both at any given time! So working with the National Youth Theatre on consent, and the ‘grey areas,’ was a real light bulb moment for me. We are already in the #Metoo era and personally, I was dealing with something that happened to me which I refused to let floor me, or live my life any differently whilst also thinking maybe I should. That’s where I was at.

“So the album is about expectations, I’ve been very unhappy in the past because I’ve felt I haven’t lived up to expectations put on me by society, or in relationships or via my work. From birth, I was told if you’re not careful you’ll be kidnapped and murdered. So keep yourself small don’t draw attention to yourself. I mean it’s wild but I even felt uncomfortable walking down the street in an outfit that looked good. And these attitudes have been so heavily normalized. And then the penny dropped—that I’m getting to live half a life, I’m not living life as fully as men. I don’t have the answer, but this album addresses the feelings this prompted and it’s me saying, ‘Hang on a minute—NO! This isn’t fair.’”

Throughout Prioritise Pleasure Taylor subverts the glossy Disneyfied pop version of what love should be. For example, she employs the pop trope of spelling something positive out in a song’s chorus. In Taylor’s case, it’s “M.O.O.D.Y.” on “Moody,” which she says is her reclaiming the right to be a “moody cow.”

“It is bonkers,” she laughs, “and the video featured this hetro normative death march of a relationship. It shows the reality of when you meet somebody and initially you feel all these amazing things and then suddenly it’s on a knife-edge and all the endearing habits suddenly become really annoying. And then it all becomes a bit tragic.”

The lead single from the album, the incredible “I Do This All The Time,” replete with Taylor’s deadpan world-weary spoken monologue juxtaposed against a soaring gospel choir for the chorus, felt like a huge breakthrough moment and saw her appear on renowned UK music show Later… with Jools Holland.

“That was such a such a relief,” laughs Taylor, “in the sense that I no longer have to be annoyed about not being invited on to Jools Holland.”

When people suggest to Taylor that “I Do This All The Time” is “like Baz Luhrmann for women,” Taylor rolls her eyes and laughs. “I know! Like I didn’t notice! I’d always wanted to do a spoken-word piece a kind of ‘Wear Sunscreen’ for modern times. In fact I’d suggested it in the past and was scoffed at.”

It was written at a particularly bleak and challenging time for Taylor. “I was up in Sheffield, my Nan was dying and I was in a shit relationship,” she reveals. “There was also a general malaise around my debut album in terms of had it done well or not. I was just feeling really low. There’s a studio in Sheffield, which I use and I feel really safe with the guy who owns it. I trust him and know he wouldn’t take the piss out of me so I went along, and I told him to bear with me and explained, ‘I’ve got this mad idea.’” And from that “mad idea” “I Do This All The Time” emerged.

Taylor explains it was pretty instinctive in terms of writing it. “As a song, it’s the most brain-to-sound thing I’ve ever done. And it taught me a lesson. In the past I’ve had songs that I’ve laboured over, I’ve done everything right in terms of pop theory yet ‘I Do This All the Time’ was so pure, a kind of ‘cut me and this is what comes out’ moment and that’s the song that becomes a huge hit!,” she laughs. “I really didn’t expect that to happen, but I’m so glad that it did and I’m really proud of it.”

Taylor’s use of social media is an always entertaining a mixture of humor, warmth, and honesty, but the higher the profile the more likely you are to attract the odd troll (are there any other type?) and Taylor has asked fans not to attack or engage with these people on her behalf. “I’m still undecided about social media really,” she reasons. “Previously I never had any negativity, but I guess you will experience it when your profile rises. I made the mistake of replying initially, trying to explain my point, and that’s when some people would dive in and try and help me out. But it became increasingly obvious there’s no point engaging with some people. I’m cultivating an attitude of feeling sorry for them, yes even those deeply misogynist piece-of-shit-arsehole-men. It’s not their fault that they are so unenlightened. It’s so sad that people feel compelled to be so cruel to anybody. So that’s why I don’t want people stepping in on my behalf. But I admit it’s difficult for me because often my first instinct is to respond with a ‘Fuck you.’ But yeah it can hurt, like one guy said I can’t sing, which kind of stuck in my head. But I don’t honestly think I’m being especially radical or political in what I say. Weirdly, the fact that me saying I’m a woman who probably won’t make your dinner or wash your pants or be quiet and demure is a huge issue for some people and they seem to find it so deeply offensive. But it’s not their fault ... and also fuck ‘em.”

When talking with Taylor who, very much like her music, is thoughtful, entertaining, witty, and refreshingly honest, you do get a sense of the contradiction within. Hugely passionate about her art, but also with an underlying anxiety that by displaying that passion she may be perceived as sounding slightly pretentious (she doesn’t). Which perhaps is a very northern British thing?

“Maybe it is,” she ponders. “I’m northern, everybody I was in a band with previously was northern and we do tend to take the piss. And you’ll have noticed I do take the piss out of myself too, but the thing is I don’t really want to. I mean I’d love to be as serious as Gaga!”

Before going solo Taylor revealed that as the only woman in her previous band she often felt her voice wasn’t heard and her ideas were often dismissed. I ask her if the thinking behind performing as a solo artist was essentially a way of ensuring she was “heard.” After all, without her creativity there would be no Self Esteem. “I’ve never really thought about it like that but you’re right,” she responds.“ I felt so stifled because I wasn’t able to create in the way I wanted to create. I felt like it caused almost like a tumor inside me. With Slow Club I could still do the work and perform with the band, but these feelings just kept growing and making me ill. I just had to do something for myself, work on something that was mine and where nobody else’s taste or fucking opinion was involved. Going solo was scary but it was the only way to be heard. My heart is still very heavy about the end of Slow Club but as soon as I was free it felt like this tumor had suddenly disappeared and my mental health dramatically improved. I mean I’m not saying I’m now totally fine at all, but as an artist, I have to be able to create or I will suffer mentally. But at the time I couldn’t discuss it, it felt almost trivial and ungrateful to bring it up. It was very tough and I do wonder if other people in bands notice this sort of thing happening. Where there’ll always be a person that’s comfortable with things as they are and there will be somebody who either wants to do more or wants to do less. And the person that’s comfortable will always win, which kind of scrambled my brain. My ideas weren’t wrong, but they were wrong for the rest of the band and I took that really fucking personally and it made me ill.”

Watching the documentary Our Most Brilliant Friends, an intimate and beautifully observed study of fractured relationships and the monotony of life on the road, all filmed during Slow Clubs final tour, Taylor’s sense of isolation and unhappiness was painfully apparent. But one imagines touring with Self Esteem is a much more liberating joyous experience.

“It’s fucking amazing but it’s still shit!” she laughs. “I mean I’m not saying ‘oh poor me I have to tour,’ but honestly, you’re still crammed into a little van, you hardly sleep, you often feel insane and have to get ready for the shows in shitty grotty places that aren’t designed for any women at all. But, the end result is I get to walk on stage and put this show on, and that is worth all of it. In fact I would suffer even more just for that, whereas in Slow Club I was suffering and the shows we were putting on wasn’t really something I wanted to do. At the time I felt like I was being difficult, or a bitch or ungrateful or I was just being shit. I put it all on myself but looking back it was obvious why I felt like that. I’ve been alive ages now and throughout it all I’ve often felt alone or weird or that there was something wrong with me. But when we played ‘I Do This All the Time’ at the Green Man festival and I could see all these people singing along and getting so much out of it, that absolved me of all those feelings and it just made me want to sob with relief.”

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