I think some of the best lyrics are the ones that I think oo this is gonna hurt- but you can’t think that way when you’re writing, you just gotta say what you gotta say
Browsing through Essie Holt’s discography made me realise I had heard quite a bit of her music on the radio and in playlists, and I was looking forward to discovering more about the person behind this indie-pop sonic landscape
I met up with Jess at Manchester Press in the CBD, where we sat at chatted about Pinterest boards, baseball bats, and lyric percussion
At what point did it feel like music was actually becoming your career?
I think when I stopped working full time, which was probably about two years ago- when I started mentally allocating time to do music. At the time I was doing heaps of writing sessions, and starting to find the sound I was going for, and little things started to work which gave me more confidence to actually do it
So ‘Underwater’ was the first Essie Holt song?
Yeah that one came out in 2017- I actually just watched the video for it yesterday and I thought it was so crazy that it was two years ago because it feels like a whole new project now
I was gonna say how interesting it is that your hair kind of represents the change in sound!
It’s crazy- I mean I loved my long brown hair, but I guess cutting the hair was sort of a movement in myself. Like the music was changing and I’m changing, it felt like a little symbolic thing
What made you feel like that change was happening or needed to happen?
I think my hair was kind of like a security blanket when it was long? Cutting it changed that- you gotta kind of find your own confidence. That was the same with the whole music process too- I feel really sure of the sound now
Yeah, so was it the sound that was the main change, or do you feel like the content changed too?
I think it was just about being a bit bolder in my decisions and not really caring about too many opinions- like this feels good for me now so I’m just gonna roll with it! Previously I was a bit more like- I’d send my demos to everyone and get all this feedback and take on everyone’s notes, and now it’s just me and Stef my producer making all the calls. It feels a lot better, more genuine
Less disheartening probably as well
Yeah it is! It’s like ‘it’s fine you can hear it when it comes out and if you don’t like it I’m fine with that! If you do then great!’
That’s great, everyone’s got an opinion, or a vision for you that isn’t your vision, and all their advice is leading you down this road that you don’t even want to be down
I think people are scared as well, particularly industry people, like if it doesn’t sound like something else that’s going well at the moment, then they’re a little bit scared of those bold decisions? But I look back at my favourite records of the last couple years, and it’s all stuff that when you first hear it it’s almost uncomfortable- it’s like really stark or weird. I think people need to change the game to progress
Me too, I’d say some of my favourite musicians I didn’t even like their music when I first heard them, but you sit with it and understand it
It can be confronting the first time you listen. I remember hearing Billie Eilish for the first time and I didn’t really get it, but the more I sat with it I thought this is changing the game completely. It’s important
It’s kind of nerve-wracking because you need to balance this desire to be yourself, but also create something people will like and appreciate, and have it convey accurately what you actually want
I feel very insular with my music at the moment, I want to make it for me- it’s therapy, and I hope other people can connect to it and connect to my feelings
It’s two different games isn’t it? Making music for the masses and making it for yourself
Yeah for sure, I think some of the best lyrics are the ones that I think oo this is gonna hurt- but you can’t think that way when you’re writing, you just gotta say what you gotta say
Sometimes you can write stuff that’s a bit too on the nose, but changing it doesn’t feel like an option- it’s just how it’s supposed to be and how it’s supposed to be sung
I used to always hide behind metaphors, and I think I’m getting better at being more literal- very black and white. One of my favourite songwriters is Megan Washington and to quote her- you either make the universal personal, or the personal universal. Sometimes stuff is so specific, and you feel like you’re the only person who felt that way. It’s so cool when a songwriter can convey that
How nice is it when you hear a specific lyrics and you think hey this is me!
Yeah like I literally thought I was the only person on the earth who felt that way
I don’t think you can create that effect that if you hide behind metaphors or vagueness because you’re too scared to be honest, it’s kind of empowering to be straight forward
Yeah otherwise you’re just kind of skimming the surface
How have you found navigating the industry?
I have a team around me which is nice, I’ve been able to let go of a lot of that. It can be really overwhelming when you’re managing yourself and being the artist. It can be stressful to balance being assertive and showing you know your stuff and then also being the artist – I think some people think the artist doesn’t know what they’re doing in a business sense which is stupid
When did that moment happen where you felt like it wasn’t your responsibility?
Last year in November, and by that stage I was ready to let it go. I think it’s really important for artists to do that stuff for themselves in the early days. You need to learn how the industry works because it’s not just the art unfortunately, you gotta make mistakes and learn.
Tell me about ‘Last One’, you were saying you have a body of work ready so did this song get written a while ago?
No actually, ‘Give Me The Night’ was written in Feb and came out a few months after, and ‘Last One’ was written in April? Pretty recent. It’s really fun to sort of write it and just put it out
Yeah and not sitting on it for a year or two
Yeah and I get bored of songs so quickly too, I wanted this new EP to be what I’m feeling right now
So what’s the heart behind the song ‘Last One’?
So it’s about a relationship- like a lot of my music. About two years ago I went through a bit of a break in my relationship and I was in this horrible headspace of partying a lot. It’s sort of a realisation song where you can live in this fantasy world but it doesn’t last- it’s very fleeting, It’s about the people who are always gonna be in your life, and needing to make sure they know that because they’re important to you
Yeah and sometimes when you’re with someone and they become your whole world and then you lose them, you forget there are important people in your life who are still around and matter to you
That’s it yeah, and I make a lot of new friends doing music from going to gigs and meeting people, I feel like sometimes I give new friends more time than my old friends who have been super supportive
To me ‘Last One’ is a really chill song, almost like a piano ballad in a way, when you take away all the percussion and production it basically sounds like a piano ballad
I think the production elements of ‘Last One’ and ‘Give Me The Night’ are really different to your older stuff, do you feel like it’s the sound you were going from the beginning?
I don’t think I ever knew what it needed to sound like until I actually found it. When I hear the music now, it so makes sense in terms of the artists I grew up listening to. It makes sense to me. It’s cool because a lot of the time I’m just writing to a beat now, which has changed the whole thing- it means my melodies don’t need to be as fixed. I used to have my melodies with a chord progression in mind, and my lyrics would be last, whereas now there’s so much more of a focus on the lyric writing because I’m just writing to a beat- it’s more about the lyrics
Yeah and how the lyrics themselves sound as a percussive element
You know Arty Boy?
Flight Facilities and Emma Louise? Such a great song
In the verses I don’t really know what she’s saying
Dah dah coca cola dah dah
Yeah exactly! And the consonants fall so well on the beat, it sounds like bongos
Yeah! Like all the k k sounds, I love that in writing and a lot of the time I’ll retrofit words to make that sound, I love doing that so much
I think we forget how many elements there are to making a song interesting and expressive
The whole sensory side is so cool
I think rap is really in tune with that, it’s all about a good sensitivity to alliteration and consonants and the sound of words
I’m really getting into rap at the moment, kind of from a study perspective for my own writing
Rap as well can be so complex under the surface, it’s nice when you can almost reward your audience if they’re willing to dig deep into your music
It’s what makes people coming back to it too, there’s all this substance
Do you feel like you try to cross mediums with your music, like with photography?
I never used to, but since ‘Give Me The Night’ I’ve been working with a new photographer, g.g.mcg, and she’s incredible. We literally sit down and- I have like Pinterest boards for all of my songs which is kind of the visual side of the music for me, so for ‘Last One’ I really wanted a dinner party vibe, and I found this picture of a white background so that’s how we got there- and we painted fruit and stuff for the picture
Pinterest is great for that because when you’re a musician it’s hard to have a refined vision for the artwork of the song, and it can help communicate your ideas to the photographer or designer in their language
Yeah exactly, and I would normally take that board to my photographer and we would sit down and just write all these ideas down and come up with a concept, and she’s great because we actually work together on a concept and it feels really special for the song, rather than just a nice photo in the street or something- we get to create a whole world for that song
It’s good that you have someone to discuss that with who understands your vision and what direction you want to go down. You want it to align with what you actually want, not just ‘this is what sells this is what you’re gonna do’
It’s so important, and people see an image before they see the song half the time
I want to talk about ‘Distant Places’, I really like that song!
I really like it too
Did you find it interesting to collaborate with LANKS or have you done that sort of thing before?
It was the first time I’d written a song that was- well I cried in the studio when writing it. Will’s a really good friend of mine and we had worked together a little bit, and that particular day we were actually working on a different song- which I haven’t released. I dunno but all day there was like this underlying sadness from something that was going on in my life, and we got to the end of finishing that first song and he was like ‘okay I feel like you need to talk to me what’s up’, and he just started playing chords on the piano and straight away the song came in literally about 20 minutes- which is the fastest writing experience I’ve ever had with someone. Originally the demo was just my vocal across the whole thing but I just felt like it was really important to have his voice on it because it was more of the conversation that I wanted to be said- I also wanted an excuse to have LANKS on my track because I’m such a huge fan of his!
How important is it to be aware of your own feelings! It’s so hard to write a happy song when you’re feeling miserable
I’m getting better at just being a bit more open when I get into a session, even with myself. I’m always writing for my own projects, which I find easier, but sometimes when I was doing a lot of sessions- like shaking someone’s hand, having a coffee with them and then sitting in a room for 12 hours- it takes soo much energy to bring that out of you. I’m really liking working really closely with my producer at the moment, we’re very much on the same page and he knows my movements well, and he knows when to push certain things. It’s weird because now that I’m in the writing phase I’m like a sponge and I just feel so emotional about everything. When I’m not in the writing phase and I’m doing shows and stuff I feel like I’m less susceptible to those things
Do you find you write more when you’re feeling the emotions in that moment, or afterwards when you’ve let them settle a bit?
I normally let them sit I think, yeah. I think perspective is a big thing for me, and hindsight as well. In saying that, I’m always writing lyrics down about how I’m feeling, and then I’ll draw on them later when I’m actually in a position to have clarity and write about them
It’s hard to look at a blank canvas and told to paint
It’s hard to write a song when you’re actually that sad, like I can still do it but I wonder if its gonna say what I actually want it to say, or is it just gonna be super emotional about the whole thing
Yeah, hindsight is a really great filter for what’s important to say and what isn’t. It’s good to use those super emotional moments to jot down keywords or phrases to look back at later
I think it’s really important to capture it, and then you can make sense of it later
Have there been many songs or ideas that you’ve come back to a year or two later?
I don’t really come back to stuff, I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. Occasionally- like on a plane or something- I’ll go through old voice memos and see what ideas were there, but I generally like to start from scratch when I’m writing, and I have a pretty clear idea if it’s something I’m gonna use or not. I’m such a big believer in the top line- if it doesn’t work on a guitar or piano then it’s probably not a song for me. Production brings so much to a song, but do I like the song if it didn’t have all this stuff around it, do I still connect with it?
The acoustic version has gotta be good too!
Yeah, and Distant places is a song I’m very proud of, and it feels like it’s part of this world as well- it’s an important song because it opened up me coming back to piano. It was more about the voice, and it wasn’t me hiding behind production which is what a lot of my previous releases kind of felt like
Who would you say inspires you musically or generally?
So many people! In terms of who inspired me to get into music, definitely people like Missy Higgins and Megan Washington, Clare Bowditch, Courtney Barnett, strong females with a lot of things to say that extended outside of their music. That was definitely a huge thing for me. On a more day to day level, I’m really inspired by new people I’m meeting, my new friend Caitlin who’s project name is HANDSOME, I went to one of her shows the other week- it feels like this whole movement, she’s really supportive of the queer community and it feels very inclusive and she’s so present at her shows. It was really powerful to watch her and the messages in her songs, and it feels like there’s this whole community around it
It’s great when you can connect with people who do things differently enough to you that you can draw from them and their creativity
Yeah, and she was explaining to me the idea of writing music for other people, which is cool- I don’t think I’m quite over myself yet enough to write for other people! But I really appreciate seeing that perspective
Do you still use pen and paper for writing, or have you entered more of a digital age?
I think I’m lazier with pen and paper because I’m less likely to edit, I do edit but it looks really messy really fast. A word doc is so clean and if an idea is gone, then it’s gone which I think is important as well. Commit to getting rid of things and get rid of it!
Have you had many instances of liking lyrics too much to let them go but you know they don’t really fit?
I’ve had a few lyrics lately that I’ve been challenged on in a session, like the co-writers want to change a few things but I’ve been like ‘nup it’s saying exactly what I need it to say and it can’t change!’ It’s taken me a while to fight people on ideas, but I think I’m just so clear on what I want to say at the moment
So you’ve found it’s good to fight people on it?
Definitely, it’s healthy! I’m always open to different perspectives or workshopping things, but sometimes it just comes out exactly how I want it to be, and maybe I just need to explain a bit better where it’s coming from and what it means to me
I think I’ve found that sometimes I can be a bit lazy with my writing, and I know what I’m saying doesn’t really make sense, and when someone challenges me I’m kind of like ‘yeah you’re right this isn’t really saying anything’
Yeah and sometimes you’re so in it and it does make sense to you, but you need to refine it so it makes sense to a wider audience
So ‘Give Me The Night’, this song is great! Real Broods vibes, very sparkly. The ‘up’ ‘down’ vocal part is really cool, was that your idea?
Yeah it was! I always write a pretty traditional pre-chorus but I wanted to get away from that and do something different. I wanted to keep the verse really stark and not use too much reverb and then open it up in the chorus
The pre-chorus was really important in bridging the two sections- the dryer sound and the more reverby sound. It needed that middle ground
Yeah, it reminded me of Maggie Rogers’ song ‘Give A Little’, I think your song really bounces well, and blends the acoustic world and the electronic well quite naturally. I think the photos and branding for that song feels really cohesive too
The artwork was funny because it was originally a lot further out- we ended up cropping the shot in, but I actually have a baseball bat in the photo! The whole concept is like slightly unhinged, so it was a baseball bat in a chandelier store, but now it’s sunglasses in a chandelier store!
With this song and also ‘Last One’ I think the visuals really speak to how the song sounds
Yeah and you know what you’re in for! For ‘Last One’ I found this cool shirt and I was like okay so everything needs to work around this shirt now too! We went with a white background- the colour of the shirt was actually really hard to pair other colours with
It’s so regal, especially with the white background, it really stands out as a focus
Yeah and if you look at it closely then you notice all the stuff- hopefully people do that! There’s a cheeseboard and wine and marshmallows and stuff- I was really upset because we had to paint them but I wanted to eat them, I did get to eat the cheese though!
Do you have a favourite lyric you’ve written?
Yeah on one of my upcoming tracks on the EP- I grew up in the eastern suburbs and a lot of my friends from school never really left the eastern suburbs and have kind of stayed in their little bubble. One of the lyrics I wrote was
“Closed yourself off in the suburbs
Saved up to buy that house
But I like it best when I’m free
And I’m best when I do the things that scare me
And mix with people I’ve never met
Turn off the TV I’d rather be away from home”
That’s the whole first verse and it’s quite literal but I dunno it’s really relevant to me at the moment
I really like that, it reminds me of that Lorde song ‘A World Alone’ and her lyric
“All my fake friends and all of their noise
Complain about work
They’re studying business, I study the floor”
And that sentiment of feeling out of place in the normal progression of life the people around you might be doing
Yeah like do you take the comfortable, not really challenging suburban life or do you take the harder route, which for me is being creative and doing music. It does mean though I won’t be buying a house anytime soon! But yeah I really like that lyric
It’s so important to get to that place with your music, like if you don’t like them then who will?
I’m actually obsessed with some songs I’ve written!
That’s great! And I think that a lot of people don’t understand that but when you’re creating music and you are soo proud of yourself, then you want to keep consuming it and having that feeling
Yeah, and it’s what I want to listen to which is really weird? Sometimes I’ve left the studio and liked the songs, but with these songs, I don’t even really want to listen to anything else at the moment! Wow that’s really sad
No it’s great! And if you like them this much then other people will too, and if they don’t then who cares! You can just listen to them, you can rack up those streams!
Exactly, I can just stream my own stuff!
You can find Essie Holt on her socials below