Interview #755: Estelle
Born and raised in London, Estelle started her music career in 2002 as a rapper first, singer second. Since then, we've followed her success, watching the two switch places as rapping took a back seat and her huge track American Boy ft Kanye West swept the globe in 2008.
Having interviewed Estelle each time she's released a new album, it was refreshing to sit down with her in 2012 and find the same grounded and positive musician we first met in 2004. There's no doubt success has changed her, though not in the way you might expect. With the release of All Of Me, her third and most personal record to date, Estelle is more honest, inspired and hard working than she's ever been before...
"I Like Music because.... it enables me to get my feelings out and it’s borderline therapy for me. Music makes me feel." Estelle
ILM: How are you?
Estelle: I'm exhausted! I'm good though, I'm happy man. The album is out, it's like giving birth to a baby! It's coming, it's coming, it's coming...OH, it's here! You know, it's that kinda effect right now. I'm happy though, now it means I have to work on the next one.
ILM: What's your schedule like at the moment?
Estelle: No sleep! I WORK.
ILM: Well, I can't tell. You look wonderful...
Estelle: They dress me, they put make-up on me, they do my hair!
ILM: All Of Me is a very personal album title, the record itself covers some intimate feelings. Is this your most personal album to date?
Estelle: Absolutely. Both in the approach I took to record it and in the stuff I talked about. I'm not that girl where my business is in the papers and on the blogs. I don't do that shit, you know? I try and keep it real private, but on this one I was like, 'Oh no. I'm just gunna let it out. Fuck it. Why not?' We're all human, we're all grown. I learnt a lot from being vulnerable. That was the approach with this album.
ILM: The track The Life includes the line 'I'm-a say whatever I like, that's me.' How difficult is it to be truly honest in a song?
Estelle: Oh easy! When I do my live shows I say literally, what the fuck I like. And people dig it! And then it twigged. I was like 'I'm not gunna be so thinky-thinky about the words in the songs. I'm still gunna use traditional song-writing but I'm not gunna think so damn hard about this shit. When I talk, I'm gunna just pop shit.' People seem to relate the most then, so I went with that approach.
ILM: You're closely connected to John Legend - you met him at the start of your career, released on his label and have continued to work with him musically on All Of Me. What is it about your relationship with John that works?
Estelle: It's like you find your musical soul mate. Like Marvin to Tammy. Penn and Teller! There's always that person that gets you, understands you and it's not hard. With John it's never hard. Never hard. So easy. He's definitely a guy! We're both Capricorns so it's like, we both think the same way. If I walk into a session or I'm writing a song, he'll know the part that I'm gunna get stuck on or wince on, before I start to wince on it. We're all about making the song better, it's not about ego. That's an important thing when you're recording music because it's not about you at that point. When you're trying to make the song incredible it's about making the song right, because people will hear it and it's going to effect their lives. That's what you want. So you have to make sure everything is right.
ILM: The songs on All Of Me are broken up with short recordings of your friends having a conversation about life, love, fame, work. How did that come about?
Estelle: I just had this crazy crew of people round me and I was like 'Yo! You lot wanna come in and talk about shit and I'll record it?' I had all these men and women in the room. One was an Iraq army vet, who was my assistant. Another was from a small town in Georgia and had left the navy to become a rapper. The other was a school drama teacher in Brooklyn. She got married in her mid-twenties, then got a messy divorce and she's only 33. You know? Another was an ex-label employee who just became a friend. She was so jaded about love and life and not knowing what she wanted to do with her shit, it became something that was stunting her entire life at the time. Then the other lady made sunglasses. She made glasses for Gaga and Rihanna.
ILM: Some really interesting things are said in those clips, if we had more time we could probably talk about them all. But...if you had to pick one moment that still affects you everytime you hear it played back, what would it be?
Estelle: Um...I think it was the one where my girl was talking bout relationships from an artist's point of view, you know "they all wanna know everything, the first time you get in it, and then they get bored." I was like GIRL! This is MY LIFE! Let me talk about it! Another was like 'Yo, these muthafuckers are just so bored because I am who I am. They know who I am. For two minutes they're all in it, then they're like fuck it. It's boring now. I'm sick of hearing about your success.' But then, my homegirl says 'To me, it's boring. As a teacher, it's boring. I used to love to date DJs, but after a while it's more about the mundane rotation of your lives. I see how hard you work and I couldn't stand to do that day in day out. ....' You know, with relationships, I always think 'Oh, you just jealous!' I never thought it could just get boring...a job is a job.
ILM: And regardless of what you do, whether it's in the spotlight or not, you should have a relationship outside of work.
Estelle: Yeah. And we all do. We're all homies. They don't bug me for tickets. They come out and support me where they can. They buy their own tickets and then they're my cheerleading section at the back! They're my friends. You know? So it was just good. I wanted people to hear that. I wanted to have that conversation about life and love that nobody's having. A real one.
ILM: Talking about reflections and new realisations, how have you changed since you first started making music?
Estelle: Ahhhhh! Oh, I'm not so black and white anymore. Partly because I don't need to be, partly because, ohhhhh, it's a lot of work. When things have to be your way or the highway, and 90% of the time in this business they have to be, it gets really, really hard, really quick. You're consistantly awake, you never sleep. You always have to make decisions, because no one else can. It's pushed me to a point where I'm like 'Ok, look.' I'm more open, I give people some work to do and I'm cool with it. I'm alright about not always being in control, not always making decisions. That's been the main music industry lesson; that people do their jobs. Let 'em do it! You, know?
ILM: All Of Me is a very positive record. Where do you take your positivity from?
Estelle: Um....I think I inspire myself in the sense that everything people say I shouldn't do or couldn't do, I've done it. You know? I don't believe in the word no. I believe in the phrase 'find a way round it!' I believe in 'seize the day'. I believe in 'tomorrow's not promised'. These things aren't just sayings to me. I really, really live SO erratically! Every single moment and everything I'm doing counts. The fact that my feet hurt the hell out of me right now, means that maybe I might not make it to the next event! I have to think about everything, everything needs some super planning. And when I do get moments of pure nothing-but-me, I choose to use them to be optimistic and happy instead of being pissed off, because there's about five million things that could piss me off. That DO piss me off! Every day! Every single day. Every single minute, you know? But when I get those moments, these pockets where I can go in to the studio and create something, I want to create something happy.
ILM: When you were working on All Of Me, was there a particular moment in the studio that re-confirmed why you do this? Where you felt that inspiration, where you thought 'this is why I make music'?
Estelle: Yeah. I got in and I started recording Thank You. And I didn't write that. I started singing it and um... [long pause] ...the guys in the studio started crying. And I was crying. Then everyone in the room was just...crying. I was like 'what in the planets is happening?' You know....
ILM: Has that ever happened before?
Estelle: No. Never. Never, ever. It was just a different level of...a different level of vulnerability for me that I am just not used to. I was not used to. Now I've cried on national TV twice! Oh. It's crazy. It was just a level I wasn't used to that presented itself. And I didn't run away from it. I was proud of myself, like 'Oh SHIT! Look at you crying in the studio...' You know? I don't do that stuff. Normally I'm very like 'take it down for three minutes, re-convene. How's this gunna work when it comes out? Re-configure this shit.' This time round I was like fuck the re-configure, I'm just gunna go and sing. I feel this right now. Can I go and do it? Can I go and do it right now? So I went straight in. One of the sound engineers came up to me and he had just broken up with his girl. This is a song directed to the man. But for a guy to cry? Off the back? He said 'I don't cry. But I'm like, balling. Cos shit just hurts, you know? Shit was painful. She cheated on me. Shit was painful.' And I said 'I know. I know what that shit feels like. Shit just hurts.' Then I was like, right. I'm doing the right thing. I'm touching human beings, I'm touching hearts, you know? And there's some shit I went through, so I get it. I understand.
ILM: Will that experience in the studio change the way you work on your music in the future?
Estelle: Ab-so-fricking-lutely. Absolutely. I've been recording songs like that ever since then. Since. Just period. From then onwards. That was it. This next album is going to be a lot more about love in a good way. Realistic too. Realistic love. There's a song I have called All That Matters and it's just talking about the moment you know you've met somebody that is everything and it doesn't matter, it's just beautiful, it's just that perfect moment, you know? You sit thinking about it and you twig and you're like 'Oh fuck! That was when I realised that he or she was it.' That moment, you know? That's when I realised that's all that matters. Whatever happens, you're all that matters. And that's how I felt at the moment I was writing that song.
ILM: I don't think those feelings come around that often...
Estelle: No, no. I mean, there's this.....guy. He's cute. He's really, really good looking! And we had this incredible connection. I was like 'Oh fuck!' I really had an epiphany. I was like 'Oh god, oh god, oh god! I'm scared!' I'm definitely scared about it. He's amazing and there's definitely complications and stuff...I'm definitely so fucking nervous and scared to even remotely go down that road again...but ah, we'll see! As long as it is what it is, it'll come back around. It'll happen, it'll do what it needs to do. That's all that matters.
ILM: It's inspiring to hear you talk about your new found confidence with music, to really express how you feel in a song, with no restraint.
Estelle: Oh, I think that's the way you should make music. I don't know of any artist that I admire who has walked into a studio and said 'I'm gunna think of something to sing and sing it...' That's bullshit. We don't like that. No one does that. No one likes that. No one likes that for the long haul. Jonie Mitchell, Billy Joe, all these guys. I KNOW they were inspired by something, somebody, somewhere, somehow. Because you couldn't sing songs like Always A Lady To Me and not be inspired by somebody. You can't do songs, like frickin' Moving Out, and not be inspired by your childhood or growing up, you know what I'm saying? It comes from somewhere.
ILM: How would you describe that feeling? When you're creating or singing a song that truly connects with you...
Estelle: I mean, it starts pulling at your spirit. When you feel a certain way and a song wants to come out, it starts pulling at your spirit. It finds its way out. That's like this song All That Matters. I literally sat down with the guy that produced it, he started playing keys and I'm like [sings]'If I could pick a single moment, to tell you when I fell right into the blue.......'] I start singing it, he's still playing and I'm like 'keep playing! Keep playing! It's coming, it's coming!' you know? I had that first line in my head and it just kept falling out from there, you know. I can't explain it....
ILM: It just channels through?
Estelle: Yeah, I mean, I don't know. I sit on twitter a lot as a way to get myself out the way. To let God come and do what he has to do... And yeah, it is like channeling, whatever. I sit on twitter just to NOT think. And all of a sudden, this little thing just creeps in your head, this little voice says something to you and you're like 'Wait wait wait! Keep playing! It's ALL coming out!' And it just comes out. It's the weirdest thing. People look at me like 'but you were on twitter the entire fucking time?!' I'm like, I know! That''s what happens...
ILM: You need to keep that part of your mind occupied?
Estelle: Yeah, so this just isn't thinking. Your right brain isn't thinking. It isn't doing too much. You just let it flow, you know? Just let it be natural.