Esmé Patterson is always evolving. She is the founder and longtime frontwoman of Denver-based folk and indie-pop band Paper Bird and the creative behind Woman to Woman, an album that gives voice to some of music’s most famous fictional female muses. Her recently released third solo album We Were Wild marks her first full-length project since her departure from Paper Bird and move to Portland. Once again, she has transformed—this time plunging into unfamiliar sonic territory. “Feel Right” is We Were Wild’s first single, and we’re delighted to premiere its infectiously fun, electrifying music video for you today:
I had the chance to chat with Esmé about the video, expressing joy in the face of pain, and the aspirational, inspirational freakiness of David Bowie and Prince.
VICTORIA CHIU: Hi, Esmé! I loved listening to “Feel Right,” which explores themes and feelings of dissonance between two extremes of a spectrum. What sparked the need to explore that sense for you?
ESMÉ PATTERSON: When I wrote “Feel Right” I was going through a difficult personal time in my life, and there were tons of very painful, objectively immoral things happening in the world, too. Actually, the same sorts of things I wrote “Feel Right” in response to that were on my mind a year ago are still happening today. At the time, I was thinking about police brutality and all the racist, horrible stuff happening, and it got me meditating about when we feel pain, when we feel injustice, when something feels completely wrong. When we sense that, how do we react to that realization, and how do we move forward with the pain we’re feeling? I think that when we recognize and tune into how a feeling is clearly wrong, we’re able to understand at that point how far away “right” is, and how we can move in that direction. Right can’t exist without wrong; they’re opposites, and sometimes you have to feel the depth of how wrong something feels before you figure out that something needs to change, that you can transform your pain into another form and heal yourself, keep progressing.
I really liked the setting of the music video. Where was it shot?
In the arts district of Los Angeles! The director, Isaac Ravishankara, is one of my oldest, dearest friends, and he was a big part of that. This was the third video we made together—one video for each solo record I’ve made!—and it’s always so fun and rewarding when we collaborate. He went to borrow a camera from some friends [in L.A.], and we walked around the block where their warehouse was, in the industrial arts district. We ran around about a six-block radius filming, and it was really awesome.
Did you get a lot of funny looks from people when you filmed the scene in the mall?
Oh, yeah! We were thinking, “We’ve gotta do this in one take, or else we’re going to get kicked out!” Isaac was a little more paranoid about that than I was—probably because I think he figured we were doing something we were not supposed to be doing—but that’s kinda our thing. We did one of the last two videos we made in the Seattle Aquarium, and we did not get permission to do that; the other we did at the Denver Zoo, where we also did not get permission [Laughs]. We tend to just walk around and shoot videos when we don’t really have outright clearance, but it’s been working out for us.
The aesthetic of the video and the tune of the song are super bright, happy, and energetic, whereas the actual lyrics are meditative and philosophical. Was that difference in mood between those elements also meant to relate to the theme of dissonance?
It’s really awesome that you saw that! That juxtaposition is definitely something I tend to do a lot in my work. I love having fun with it a lot both as a person and in my songwriting, especially. As you said, I like making multiple layers of my work available to people. If people want to just view the video as a fun shoot where I’m smiling and dancing and having fun, they can see that. But if they look closer—as you did, which is really cool—they can see that there’s that contrast: The feeling of dancing, of having fun, is almost in spite of the dissonance and pain in the song’s lyrics. [The dancing] is an expression of the choice we have to come through the pain we feel and project joy instead—I think one of the best tools for change and transformation that we have is joy. Often when I’m in a dark place I’ll put on some music and dance—try to reconnect to my body, what makes me feel good, and what gives me the strength to move forward and do the hard stuff that comes my way. That’s one of the great things music can do for people: help them transform the feelings they’re having into useful tools.
“Feel Right” is part of your latest album, We Were Wild, which has very intriguing cover art. Why did you choose to leave the identity of the person holding the chain ambiguous?
It ties back into the idea of having multiple layers and facets in my work. I like to make arresting but ambiguous things that allow people to dig for meaning and make the work their own. This image in particular has gotten a lot of different responses. A lot people have responded very negatively to it, or feel threatened by it, or immediately sexualize it, which can all be true interpretations of this image. But there’s a lot more to it as well. My favorite way to think about it came up when I was telling the album title to my 91-year-old grandmother. When she heard that it was called We Were Wild, she took a minute and eventually said, “Well, it really makes you ask the question: If we were wild, what are we now?” She totally nailed it. So the cover is a moment of recognition of our limitations and the bonds that hold us, all the ways that we feel trapped and domesticated—but at the same time, the moment we realize our limitations is the moment we become truly free. We all have that struggle and that power.
When I finished listening to the entirety of We Were Wild, I couldn’t stop feeling like it was the perfect constant companion album, and for summer especially: road trips, lounging in lakes, or taking a walk. It was surprising, because even when the songs didn’t sound outright happy I still felt content, free, and like I could get through any low points I encountered. Now that you’ve spoken about dealing with pain and tough times, it all seems to make sense.
That’s exactly the goal. The record is supposed to feel like a companion, like a friend to you, because the songs themselves were friends to me during the hard times I was going through. I felt like I was getting these messages from my heart while I was getting through it all, and I wanted to make an album that could help other people through the same feelings without sugarcoating or glossing over reality.
As a public figure and as an artist, I think it’s important to show other people the hardships of life that connect everybody and that everybody feels. It’s important not to airbrush everything and instead show life as it is. On this record, I definitely didn’t hide anything—it was like, “Everything’s a mess! Here it is!” I really appreciate it when other people do that, because we all go through shit. We all go through hard times, and I think sharing those experiences connects people more deeply to each other and makes us all stronger both personally and collectively.
We Were Wild differs from your last solo album, Woman to Woman…
[We Were Wild] is definitely more emotionally raw—it’s an autobiographical record, while Woman to Woman was a series of character studies in femininity, [it] was finished in three days, but all the band tracks were recorded in one day—just me and a few of my friends playing the songs live a few times, and we did every track included on the album on the third take, and that was infinitely more fun. This last record [We Were Wild] drove me insane! It was so hard. And I put a lot of pressure on myself, because it was the first album I was making after leaving the band I’d built in Colorado. I just went all in on this solo project! I spent almost a year writing the songs and recording demos, and then recording the actual record multiple times. I scrapped it twice and made it again. It was a painstaking, infuriating, maddening process, and I almost lost my mind doing it all. But once I finished it, I feel like I emerged from the mountaintop shouting, “Yeah, I did it! I made this record!” even though it was a way harder, much less fun process.
I took a writing class recently, and my professor told the class that something was at its best and most complete once we felt like we were so irritated with that it that we never wanted to work on it again, but that that point of total frustration was also a moment of divine relief. Did you feel that way when you finished your record?
I took an Uber from the studio on the last day of mixing to a restaurant, and I just started crying on my way there—I scared the shit out of the driver! He was like, “Oh god—are you OK?” But I was just so happy in that moment: The catharsis I felt was so intense when I realized that the record I’d worked so hard on and sacrificed so much for was finally complete. I couldn’t help but start weeping in that Uber! It was a very powerful moment for me.
You’ve talked about aiming to move into uncharted musical territory for yourself while making We Were Wild. You also moved to Portland before making the album. Are there any figures you draw inspiration and guidance from when you make big changes in life, or try new things?
Definitely—besides the many people in my personal life who are always moving forward as artists, there are two major figures who come to mind who I’ve thought about intensely this year since they both died: David Bowie and Prince. They were both artists who were so brave in being exactly who they were, and so willing to show the world that being who you are means you’re always changing and learning more and trying new things. Who we are changes with time, and those two artists, in particular always, seemed to me to stay very true to their visions, always willing to be as freaky as they wanted and allowing that freakiness to morph and alternately shock their listeners and themselves. It’s strange to have a stranger who you feel impacted your life in such a deep and important way pass away. After they died, I kept taking stock of what each of them meant to me as an artist, and their willingness to move into new, raw, and uncomfortable spaces is definitely something that I’ve tried to strive for in my own work.
Now that the pain and joy of the release of We Were Wild have settled, what’s next for you?
I’m just riding the wave right now. I’m going on tour again soon and I’m working on a bunch of new music, a bunch of exciting stuff, and going into some more new territory—trying to go further. I’m always trying to go further. ♦