Queen Esther Interview (February 2005)
By Ronnie

It's been a long time since I've had a disc that totally blew me away. Especially with the number of discs we get here at EAR CANDY. (Because our review policy is to "review everything we get...but...tell it like it is", we get a lot!) My ears truly perked up when I heard the first track on Queen Esther's TALKIN' FISHBOWL BLUES. At first I thought it might be a fluke because I can't tell you how many CD's have a strong opening track, only to find out that the rest of the CD was lame. But then to my joy I found a whole CD of great songs!

Queen Esther's sound combines blues, rock, gospel and country - in a style that has been dubbed "Black Americana". I was impressed by the wide variety of styles within Queen Esther's songwriting (and vocal ability) - from gritty, Rolling Stones-style rock to soaring gospel-tinged tunes. But she doesn't sound "retro" in a Lenny Kravitz kind of way (Lenny always seems like he's trying too hard to sound authentic) - her music sounds fresh and exciting.

I recently interviewed Queen Esther and was surprised to find many parallels in our musical influences. While she is refreshingly candid and straight forward, her determination is evident. We talked about where she's been...and most importantly, where she's going!

E.C.: I really love your mix of Rolling Stones-type rock, with R&B, blues, gospel and even country. Your vocals and songwriting seems to strike quite a balance between the grittiness of rock and roll and smooth-as-silk gospel. How did your style come about?

Queen Esther: I’m a child of the 70’s. Back then, everything was on the radio all at once—and on TV as well, on shows like The Midnight Special (with Wolfman Jack) and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. I could see bands like Ambrosia and Pilot right next to Blue Oyster Cult and Jethro Tull. There was lots of blues-rock everywhere. I loved the Eagles and the Allman Brothers and Journey and Bad Company and Steely Dan and Cheap Trick with equal abandon. (I especially remember Hall & Oates “Sara Smile”, Johnny “Guitar“ Watson “A Real Mother For Ya”, the Allman Brothers “Whipping Post”, Cheap Trick “Live at the Budokan/I Want You To Want Me” and Todd Rundgren “Hello, It’s Me” from this moment in time. Mother’s Finest, The Dixie Dregs and the Atlanta Rhythm Section would come later.)

And then there were my uncles, who listened to everything from Mandrill to P-Funk to the Average White Band. There was always music and singing in church, which was sometimes quite rural and always very traditional—remember, I grew up with my great-grandparents and grandparents as well as my parents. In church, there was everything from traditional obscure country gospel songs to James Cleveland and Andre Crouch. There was a performing arts high school that I attended in Atlanta—lots of voice lessons and choral singing. I had a small role in our production of Bernstein’s MASS with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra when I was, like, 15 or so. I also have a brother that’s an accomplished bassist and composer. His name is Ramon Pooser and he’s out of Atlanta now. When we were kids, he listened to stuff like Yes and Stanley Clarke and Ron Carter and Weather Report and so on. (The Clarke album “School Days” stands out from around this time, as does Jaco Pastorius’s songs “Teen Town” and “John and Mary” and the Ron Carter album “Peg Leg”.) So I absorbed all of that, too.

I honestly loved it all. I was shy as a child and kind of a loner, so there was no one to tell me that what I was listening to wasn’t cool or not worthwhile or whatever. Everything went into “the matrix” as it were, and when it was time to make music, all of it informed the things that I created.

Another thing: I honestly can’t ever remember NOT singing. I was born with correct placement and a strong ear, and I grew up singing in church, so singing was effortless with me—which is probably why I took it for granted for as long as I did.

E.C.: There are so many artists that have to “find” their sound. Was it something that just came natural to you?

Queen Esther: My sound was already there, waiting for me--once I decided to accept myself. Finding my sound was me deciding to do what I wanted to do, not what anyone else thought was a better idea than what I had.

Basically, I came to a place creatively where I decided to be true to myself/my essence, the music that I loved and the songs that I heard in my head, no matter what. I think that every artist comes to this fork in the road eventually, whether you’re a muralist or a violinist. You have to decide if you’re going to do your thing or not. I always thought that there was no way that God would give me all of my talents, my dreams and my vision for what I want to do—and have me do nothing with any of it. That just didn’t make any sense to me.

For me, the farther away from the South I went, the more Southern my sound became—until I realized that I always had my Southern sound. It’s just that I didn’t really hear it and truly appreciate it until I was in a very Northern place.

E.C.: You wrote most of the songs on your CD (and a few were collaborations). How do your write – on guitar or piano? What about words and music, does one usually precede the other?

Queen Esther: I write on guitar and piano and my voice.

For me, there’s no one way to write a song. They come at me from every direction, however God sends them. A song I wrote recently that’ll be on the next CD came to me when I was running errands. I had nothing on me to write it down, so I sang it to myself until I got home!

Generally, the words precede the music. Lyrics are extremely important to me. I love songs that tell stories. Sometimes if someone tells me a story about something that happens to them, I turn it into a song. I love a good story.

I get ideas from everything: some tragic situation on the news; some horrible breakup a friend went through; my own crummy love life. I’ll write some words, some phrases. I’m always writing bits and pieces of poems and lyrics and whatever. I keep putting them down and picking them up. Sometimes there’s music in my head that goes along with these fragments and sometimes there isn’t. The more I mess with them, though, the more they grow. The next thing I know, I have a song, fully formed, that I’m playing/singing into a cassette tape recorder.

Usually the lyrics and the music come at the same time. I get a phrase stuck in my head and it’s a sing-songy thing, like the hook to a song that you can’t stop singing even though it may be a song that you don’t like. It literally won’t leave me alone. Actually, it was like that for the song “Leave Me Alone” and “Love”.

Some songs come to me fully formed. What I mean is, I would hear the song in my head and simply write down the lyrics and sing it into a tape recorder, then transcribe it later. “Taster’s Choice” happened this way, in a hotel room in Nuremburg while I was on tour with James “Blood” Ulmer. I talked to the guy that the song is about before I left NYC and I guess that little chat shook something loose. The song came out as me telling him the story of he and I, which kind of echoed our last conversation. It was like that for the song “Help Me” as well. Different guy, though. I am singing the song from his perspective, as a prayer. He is pleading to God for his life, really. At the time when I wrote it, I was more than a little worried about him.

And some songs are collaborative efforts with the band, like “The Way of the World”. That song came together in a rehearsal room one day, when we were all having a quiet moment.

You never know where the song is going to find you, or how. It’s all about being open to inspiration and letting it come when it comes, as God sends it.

E.C.: On your CD, you are only credited with vocals – but the back photo of the CD has you playing guitar. Is the guitar your main instrument?

Queen Esther: Yes, it is. I have a Baby Taylor that I use almost exclusively to practice and write songs. It travels very well, by the way. I’m completely in love with it. (And its signed by Junior Brown!)

E.C.: Is the reason that you performed vocals only on your CD, because you consider yourself a vocalist only?

Queen Esther: I’m a vocalist, a songwriter, a lyricist and a musician. When it’s time to make a CD, I write the songs and I get the musicians to play the way I want them to, so I can sing. I simply want the music to be the best that it can be—and that doesn’t always mean that I should be the one to play it. Frankly, it just didn’t make sense for me to play guitar with Marvyn Sewell in the band. He is such a wonderful guitarist, very sensitive and accommodating, and blues based. He really encompasses so much of my southern aesthetic that I find it hard to imagine going into the studio without him.

The next CD will (hopefully) feature Boo Reiners (Demolition String Band), James “Blood” Ulmer and Jef Lee Johnson on guitar as well.

And as far as playing out is concerned—I think that playing guitar and singing/performing are both full time jobs. When I sing/perform, I want to give a full show and I don’t want my guitar playing to take away from that or to be a distraction. I’d rather have a guitarist along so I can be free to do what I do. It’s the Howling Wolf theorem, really. He was a fine guitarist and he could have played guitar in his band and fronted it like Muddy Waters did but with Hubert Sumlin, that music became a force to be reckoned with, and in performance, the Wolf’s shows are the stuff of legend. Lots of other dynamic singers/performers are songwriters who play guitar very well but who put it down when it’s time to front the band. People like Al Green and Iggy Pop. So I’m in good company.

E.C.: What is your lineup for live performances? Is it a full group like the CD, or a more stripped-down version?

Queen Esther: Depends on the gig. Ideally, it’s a full band—bass, drums, rhythm and lead guitar—but that’s not always an option when it’s a “pay to play” situation or when I have to travel. When I’m acoustic, I sometimes bring both of my guitarists—Jack Sprat (who also produced the CD) and Marvyn Sewell—because I like the way they play off of each other. Whether I’m plugged in or not, the music doesn’t lose its intensity and neither do I.

E.C.: How did you name come about and was ‘Queen Esther’ your birth name?

Queen Esther: It’s my great-grandmother’s name. I was named after her and my grandmother, who’s name is Lucille. I figured people would be really undone if I called myself after BB King’s guitar, even if it is my middle name. Believe it or not, to my way of thinking, Queen Esther seemed to be a milder alternative. I dropped my last name because of my brother Ramon. By the time I got to NYC, he had already established himself as a player with musicians like Ronald Shannon Jackson and Walter Bishop, Jr. One day I got tired of being his little sister everywhere I went, so I just sliced my last name off. I’m glad I did it. It forced me to stand on my own and not ride his coattails.

Speaking of names: I actually named my label EL Recordings after my grandparents—the E is for Emmett and the L is for Lucille.

E.C.: Your sound has been dubbed “Black Americana”. Is that an accurate description to you? And if so, what does it mean to you? To me, your sound seems like the amalgamation of a ‘sound’ that combines old blues, gospel and pre-rock sounds. Or do you simply represent a child of the ‘70s growing up in the South?

Queen Esther: A part of me is that Southern child of the 70’s. After I grew up, though, I went to college in Austin, Texas. That’s where all of what I heard began to refine itself. I listened to a lot of Muddy Waters, a lot of Howling Wolf and also a lot of obscure local legends who would play in neighborhood bars in Clarksville, like Grey Ghost. There was a show in Austin on KUT called Twine Time that took me to school every week. I met Hubert Sumlin and sat in with him all the time, especially when he came to NYC. And there were lots of bands around, of all kinds. All of a sudden, the blues was everywhere all over again, just like when I was little. And I took it all in. Even the cowpunk/killbilly stuff. (I still have a Hickoids album called “We’re In It For The Corn”.)

The fact that I listened to the sounds that influenced The Rolling Stones could not be helped. All that country/blues to my ears sounded a lot like the gospel I would sing as a child in my great-grandparents’ church.

So for most of my college years, it was a very old blues, pre-rock, punk rock situation.

I think the country element came when I was little, listening to my Uncle Tyrone play lap steel all the time in our church. He still does as a reverend with his own congregation in Charleston, SC.

And then of course, there was Hee Haw every week. In retrospect, it was a goofy show but think about it—everybody was on it, from Conway Twitty to Johnny Cash. And Buck Owens and his Buckaroos were the house band! I mean, come on. You know? So the country & western seeds were planted there. From The Beverly Hillbillies I got into western swing and bluegrass because of Earl and Lester’s theme song and all of the incidental music they did and the guest spots that would happen on the show. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford poppin’ in as a long lost cousin and Slim Pickins showing up out of nowhere and what not. When I got to Texas, I figured out who Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were (which I think is just uncategorizable, great music), which led me to Junior Brown. I used to go see him play at the Continental Club on Congress Ave. every Thursday. And Earl and Lester led me to gobs of great bluegrass musicians, all of whom introduced me to the banjo, of course—which is an African instrument.

My sound is definitely an amalgamation of so many different kinds of music: gospel, blues-rock, hillbilly twang. I didn’t blend them deliberately. My life did that for me. And it’s the life that God gave me. He put me in the Deep South in the 70’s. He put me two generations removed from slavery. He surrounded me with all that music. He put blues in me. “Black Americana” is just a more soulful take on what alt-country has been doing. It’s been around for a long time and it’s way bigger than Charlie Pride. Think Ray Charles “Modern Sounds in Country Music” or Al Green singing John Denver’s classic “Country Roads”. But really, you should go further back than that.

Let me explain.

Once upon a time in the South, when it was time to make music, everyone played simple stringed instruments like banjo and violin and later on, guitar. The black folks had their way of doing it and the white folks had their own style, too. At the core of it all was the blues. Lots of the musicians played each other’s gigs and shared music and songs freely, and taught each other things. Then one day, a record company man came along and wanted to sell the music. He decided that in order to do this, he had to market it. He called the music that the white people were doing country music and he sold that to white people. He called the music that the black folks were doing race music (which eventually became R&B). But at the core of it all, it was nothin’ but the blues.

I’m a throwback to another time and place musically, when music was soulful, inclusive and real. It’s a proto-blues/rock approach filtered through a 70’s freeform FM mentality. I want to go back to a time when it wasn’t “music that white people listen to” over here and “music that black people like” over there. It was a sound that everybody enjoyed. I don’t think that I’m an idealist because that’s the way it was when I was little and I’m not that old.

E.C.: One of the things that first attracted me to your CD was your “sound”…it sounded like a black female version of the Rolling Stones – which is ironic because THEY started out trying to recreate black blues at a time when white groups simple didn’t do that. So, you are in effect a pre-Rolling Stones version! How much of a Stones influence do you really have? Or is it simply because you both have the same influences? Would you ever take a job as an opening act for one of their tours?

Queen Esther: First of all, although I’m flattered by the comparisons that critics keep making—because, after all, they are the greatest rock and roll band ever—it was never my express intention to sound like The Rolling Stones. I’m dipping into the same bag of influences—early blues, country gospel, etc.— so I think that’s where our lines cross. It’s also a sound that isn’t prevalent on the radio nowadays, which makes me stand out like a sore thumb. It also makes people wonder why I won’t put my guitar down, get a weave and go sing R&B for a living (or disco, or whatever) when they see what I look like and hear my voice. Secondly—in a way, sounding like what they were aiming for can’t be helped because as a Southerner raised in a rural situation and in a traditional black church, “black blues” is who I am already.

I’d love to take a gig opening for The Rolling Stones. I think we’d get along like a house on fire.

E.C.: You also seem to be going ‘against the grain’ as it were, because you aren’t following the expected Beyonce-styled R&B. Is it important to you to be your own self musically?

Queen Esther: To me, doing this as an expression of my uniqueness is the whole point. What else can I be but who I am? I wouldn’t bother doing any of this if it meant being even remotely like anyone else. I mean, if you’re going to do what someone else is already doing, why bother.

E.C.: I’ve read that you started in Atlanta, worked in Austin and finally ended up in New York. Can you describe your musical journey and what inspired you to make the decisions that you’ve made so far?

Queen Esther: I always had a strong, powerful rangy voice, even as a little kid and I was surrounded by music—so of course, I wanted to be a classically trained theater actor. I didn’t think that I was pretty enough to do film or TV. I wanted to do theater and I wanted to live in Harlem, pretty much where I live now. I can remember reading about actors like Ira Aldridge and of course Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson and thinking, that’s what I want. I went to a performing arts high school in Atlanta and studied music and theater after regional and national success (Governor’s Honors in Drama/state of Georgia and Merit Awardee in a program called Arts Recognition and Talent Search, sponsored by the National Foundation for the Arts) I took a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin to study acting.

In Austin, I eventually began to explore the city as a performer and I began to sing a lot. I didn’t want to write songs or have my own band. I just wanted to perform, and singing presented more opportunities than acting did. I was in a group called Ro-Tel and the Hot Tomatoes that played everywhere—five piece band, three females fronting girl group stuff. It started as a gag at Esther’s Follies and mushroomed into this entity in the southwest. We had costumes, the whole nine yards. Very theatrical. Lots of beehives and big hair. There was a blonde (Linda Weatherbee), a brunette (Jeanne Baxter) and I was the redhead. We opened for Chuck Berry, we played the Governor’s Ball, we did Riverfest. We did private parties for H. Ross Perot and the Bass Brothers. I think that’s where I learned how to work an audience. I had to. When Texans start drinking, they’ll heckle you, throw beer bottles, whatever. The guitar player in the band--“Big Al” Gilhausen--is the one who introduced me to Hubert Sumlin one night, at Antone’s. He also bought me my first Howling Wolf music—it was a double album, a French import. (And yes, I still have it.)

After I met Hubert, I sat in with him all the time. Even if he was in NYC, I’d show up and I’d sing. We eventually worked together via live projects with guitarist Elliot Sharp.

I left Austin because I felt like a big fish in the wrong small pond. I wanted to stop all the singing and go to NYC to be an actor. When I got up here, there was no work so I created my own—I became a solo performer and wrote my own one person shows, and I put together a band and started singing and performing all over again. At first they were straight up blues and old R&B covers (like Etta James’ “Tell Mama”) but then when I started to come up with ideas and write songs, I called the band Miss Mary Mack, joined the Black Rock Coalition and did showcases around the city at places like (the now defunct) Wetlands and the Fez.

At this point, I concentrated on writing songs and lyrics. Right about then, Elliot Sharp and I started an acoustic blues duo (Hoosegow) and released a CD on Homestead (Mighty). We were going to go to Europe but I got cast in the original cast of the first national tour of RENT, which was a really big deal—over 6,000 people auditioned for it in five states and they only needed 24 actors. So I took that gig, which got me into AEA and SAG and made me a professional working actor, gave me health insurance and eventually a pension.

When I got back, there wasn’t any work for me as an actor, so I threw myself into music again, this time with James “Blood” Ulmer. We went back and forth to Europe for quite a spell. This is when my songs began to have their own sound and I formed a band under my name. While the music was percolating, I did a lot of acting. I eventually wrote and performed another one person show (it’s called “Queen Esther: Unemployed Superstar”), I was featured in a Bravo documentary series called “The It Factor” and I had a lead role in George C. Wolfe’s “Harlem Song” at the legendary Apollo Theater. And I landed a part in the movie.

On the music side of things, I joined JC Hopkins’ Biggish Band and recorded a CD with them that’s about to be released this year called “Underneath the Brooklyn Moon”. I did a duet with James “Blood” Ulmer on the CD “No Escape From The Blues.” Produced by Vernon Reid (Living Colour), it earned a spot in Rolling Stone’s pick of The Best 50 CDs of 2003Blood included me on a CD of black folk music that he produced for Chesky called “Blues & Grass: The 52nd St. Blues Project” released in October, 2004. I was also invited to sing at the White House for the President and First Lady in honor of Black Music Month.

I recorded my debut CD and played it for a lot of people but no one was interested enough to do anything with it. One night, I went to see Alejandro Escovedo at Joe’s Pub. I remembered him from a band called The True Believers that was on the scene in Austin when I lived there. After the show, I introduced myself to him and gave him a five song EP. He remembered me from Ro-Tel. He called me the very next morning to tell me how much he genuinely liked it and to ask if he could play it for some people. This led to a publishing deal with Bug Music. That’s when I decided to release the CD myself. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Everything happens for a reason—and the bad stuff, in retrospect, isn’t really bad at all. It was while I was on the road with Blood and writing songs that I realized what I had and what I could accomplish with my ideas. That's when acting became my day job. If things had happened the way I wanted them to when I came to NYC—just acting, no singing unless I had to, in a musical, for example—I never would have become a musician or a songwriter. Or a solo performer/playwright.

It was the hand of God that brought me to this place in my life. It was not some grand design on my part. If God hadn’t brought me to the place where my situation forced all these things on me, I wouldn’t have grown into the artist that I am now. Circumstance kept shifting me away from what I wanted and pointing me towards music. Once I decided that I would have my own band, I had to write songs and lyrics. No one was doing it for me. I had to do it for myself. Circumstance forced me to become a businesswoman and start my own label and release my CD. I really didn’t want to do it but when I knew that the music was ready, I had no choice. My circumstances forced me to do it. I believed in the CD and I just couldn’t sit on it any longer.

E.C.: Have you made any plans for a follow-up CD yet? Any tours coming up?

Queen Esther: I’m sure that I’ll tour but I’m not sure when, exactly. It’s all up in the air right now. I’m concentrating on recording the next CD this spring. I’ve already written the songs. I am doing some promo dates here and there. And I’m always singing somewhere in Atlanta whenever I’m there. Check my website for details.