Start showing off: in conversation with Self Esteem

A long talk with Rebecca Taylor about bringing the Super Bowl halftime show to your local 500-capacity venue

Two months into the press cycle for her superb second album as Self Esteem, and Rebecca Taylor is having a lovely time. “I love all this shit,” she beams, sitting in bed at home in Margate. “I’ve always liked doing photo shoots, videos, and interviews: all the things you’re meant to actively hate as an indie musician. So being able to openly enjoy it now is really, really fun.”

To say leaving Slow Club has given the 34-year-old musician a new lease of life is the understatement of the century. Since the indie-folk duo disbanded in 2017, Taylor has been absolutely thriving in her new role as Rotherham’s answer to Madonna. And with her forthcoming record she’s taken things up another gear entirely, as signalled by artwork which depicts her in a particularly defiant stance wearing a leotard, cowboy hat and leather chaps. 

Recorded, like her 2019 debut Compliments Please, with The Very Best’s Johan Carlberg, new record Prioritise Pleasure cements Taylor’s status as a feminist-pop firebrand, hell-bent on tearing down the patriarchy one giant chorus at a time. Lead track ‘I Do This All The Time’ is already one of the standout singles of 2021. Billed as Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen’ for millennials, the dramatic monologue-cum-motivational anthem is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, wise and wonderful, much like the rest of the album.

Taylor proves every bit as insightful and entertaining as an interviewee today, speaking candidly about trolls, patriarchal pressures and how her mental health journey helped inform Prioritise Pleasure.

Gemma Samways: Firstly, can I say how much I love the visual campaign for this new album. Do you have a creative director?

Rebecca Taylor: No, it’s just me. I’m always like, well, maybe I should have a creative director, but it always ends up being uncomfortable and then I just say what I want anyway. I have a choreographer that I work with, and I do love collaboration, but if it’s for Self Esteem I’ve realised I can’t relinquish control. It’s just gotta come from my head.

GS: You’ve been getting some very interesting/creepy responses to the visuals via Twitter. Is that standard for a Self Esteem record, or is this more pronounced than usual?

RT: Oh, this has been way different. I’ve been shocked. I don’t think that photo on my album cover is that provocative? The thing is if you’re going to take a picture of me – and there’s budget for hair and make-up and styling – what I’m always going to want to do is make something that’s like a fucking Madonna photoshoot. I’m cosplaying being a pop star; that’s literally what Self Esteem is. It’s pop music, but I’m saying all the shit that probably doesn’t get said in pop music. It’s a Trojan horse thing: with Self Esteem you’re gonna get a horrendous amount of feminism under this layer of sexy, hot popstar or whatever. It’s not that groundbreaking I don’t think, but like some people can’t deal with it. So when I get like a troll-y fucking tweet from a guy saying how revolting I am for looking like this, it’s like, urgh.

GS: It’s mad how social media emboldens these trolls to think everyone else is interested in their opinions.

RT: I think maybe people forget that there’s a person with brains and feelings attached to these images. Because when people have been mean, I’ve been replying and going, “Look, I just make this for myself and I’m not harming you; think before you tweet.” And some people have gone, “Oh sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Saying that, I’ve got some really freaky blokes now who are, like, really, really obsessed with tearing me down. And there’s no point in talking to them because they just want to hate women; it’s just pure incel vibes. I don’t mind the creeps that are nice though. (Laughs) 

GS: Am I right in thinking the album cover isn’t Photoshopped?

RT: I mean, that’s my other point. We are bombarded with that Kardashian shape – and no shade to them because it looks unbelievable, but you can’t naturally be that wide without the lumps and bumps that come with it. I grew up in the ’90s, when Kate Moss was the body shape to aspire to, so I love that the Kardashians have done loads for people with arses. But I still think it’s irresponsible to not be honest about how you’ve achieved that shape.

We did that shoot, the photos came back and there was a normal amount of retouching, but I was like no, I can’t bear this. I mean, I looked fucking awesome but it wasn’t true. So yeah, [with the album cover] you’re seeing an image where the lighting has been enhanced, but I refuse to alter my entire body shape, just because there’s enough misleading shit online. I don’t know, I think it’s important to be honest.

GS: Last time you spoke to Loud And Quiet, you semi-joked that your top three ambitions were to attend the Glamour Awards, to have a tube poster, and to appear on Later… with Jools Holland. You just achieved the latter; did it live up to expectations?

RT: Yeah, thank fuck for that: we did it! Obviously it wasn’t [filmed] in the studio, but I got to spend all day shooting a song I’m so proud of, with people I feel so loved and supported by, and I fucking loved it. And I do have that weight off my shoulders now. Not that you need to go on that bloody show to have succeeded, but it’s just always been a bit of a thorn in my side. 

GS: It’s really nice to see an artist actually admit what a thrill it is to be on TV. People play it cool a lot, don’t they? Why do you think that is?

RT: I think in indie music, it’s actively encouraged to look like you’re not bothered, which is something I struggle with in life, as you can imagine. And the TV side of it, the photos, even videos… It’s like, part of why I’m making music in the first place is to enjoy all the different ways I can communicate the music. They’re all opportunities to make art, you know? Whereas I think cool people want to act like they just want to put the record out there and play the shows and that be it. But my favourite bit is being like, “Is there any budget for me to show you something new?” I’m too tired and old to be cool anymore, as you can see.

GS: I don’t want to use the word breakthrough because it feels patronising, but ‘I Do This All The Time’ does feel like a big moment for you. Why do you think that song has resonated with so many people?

RT: I know, I can’t believe it. Maybe the timing has helped, because I think it’s never been more refreshing for someone to be really vulnerable and real. But musically, I don’t know. I’ve been surprised. I think it’s been helpful in the same way it’s helpful for me when I see Lizzo’s self-love angle on everything; like, that’s fucking beautiful to me, that. 

GS: I like the fact it’s a perspective that you don’t often hear in music: a woman in her 30s being brutally honest. And also the fact that it feels like a long-standing list of peeves, that you’ve been working up to sharing. 

RT: Well, even back in Slow Club, I’ve always wanted to do a spoken word song that feels like a meditation or something. But I was up north, my nan was dying, I was dating this guy and having a fucking shit laugh, and I hadn’t written any songs for ages; it was this miserable swathe of time. So I went into this studio in Sheffield just to experiment, and I ended up building the backing track up, and just reading out my iPhone notes in a row. Like, I couldn’t be arsed to think of a song. I wanted to say all these things and I was like, “What if I don’t have to sing it or make it rhyme?” And that’s what happened. That vocal is the only time I’ve ever done it. 

GS: The line, “All you need to do is fit in that little dress of yours,” is an actual comment you received, right?

RT: Yeah. That entire verse is all things people have said to me, which some people don’t understand straight away. But yeah, that was a tour manager I had in Slow Club. We were sorting out what we needed for a big gig, and he said, “All you need to do is fit in that little dress of yours.”

GS: Did you sack him straight after?

RT: No, that was the thing! If I had said to the guys [in Slow Club], “He makes me feel like this – can we get rid of him?” I don’t know what would have happened. I’m never bashing anybody else in Slow Club, ever: it was all on me. I was so used to that sort of shit, I just swallowed it. Though that guy was particularly cunty. But yeah, I’m grateful now because that actually was the turning point. I was like: I’m out. Because I need to be able to say I don’t want to work with this person, and not worry it’s a ballache for everybody else but me.

GS: You cover a lot of painful stuff in ‘I Do This All The Time’, but the line that absolutely winded me was, “Stop showing off.” Do you think it’s a British thing to be mortified at the idea of being seen as a show-off?

RT: I think it’s a British, female, in-our-age bracket thing. Although I might be generalising that. But I still feel it. Like, this idea that you think something of yourself is a killer. I mean, my mum and dad are fucking amazing, but they did tell me to stop to showing off all the time. And now I’m 34 and I make a living out of showing off. But I don’t like being the centre of attention socially. 

I think it all feeds into that thing that society sees confidence and self-assurance in women as unbecoming and extremely threatening. And, I mean, it probably is off-putting to be like, “I’m the fucking tits: look at me.” But in the last couple of years I had this radical idea that maybe all my depression is coming from how much I talk to myself like I’m a piece of shit. (Laughs) So as an experiment I’ve tried to stop talking about myself like I’m a piece of shit, and it’s changed my life. 

GS: Was that a consequence of therapy?

RT: Yeah. I’ve had therapists on and off for years, and it’s so fucking expensive but it’s also saved my life. And after Compliments Please came out, I finally got [a therapist] that I made a bit of headway with, and who I’m still with now. I think leaving Slow Club – and getting out of feeling very trapped and creatively stifled – made me a lot happier in loads of ways, but still the fundamental reasons I was even in that situation were down to myself. And for the last couple of years with this album – and the pandemic even – I’ve just been curious about trying to think differently. I mean, I’ve spent 34 years torturing myself with myself, so I still have to force it. But I’m on a journey.

GS: Even in terms of the titles, there’s a palpable shift in mood between Compliments Please and Prioritise Pleasure: you’re now making assertions rather than simply seeking validation. As much as I hate the word, it feels genuinely empowering?

RT: Yeah, it is the word for it though. I’m empowering myself and if it empowers you too, then that’s the MO of Self Esteem.

GS: The phrase “steady stand” is becoming a recurring motif in your work. Is it fair to call it the motto of Self Esteem?

RT: Yeah, I would say so. It’s just that feeling when the tide’s coming in, and you dig your toes in the sand to steady yourself. The water is just gonna keep coming in and out, and it might get harder or easier, but you’ve just got to wait it out. Because I think that we’ve been fed this idea that you’ll meet the guy, get the ring on your finger, get the house, get a baby and it’ll all be fine; like these things complete you or solve you. My whole life I’ve been like, “When I’ve lost more weight I’ll feel happier.” Whereas it’s not the case: the goalposts will always move. With my mental health journey, I’ve learned you’ve just got to dig your toes in the sand and wait. Because the negative will always be there but the positive is just as plentiful. 

GS: Can you tell me about the musical world of Prioritise Pleasure? You can hear the influence of ‘Black Skinhead’ on ‘How Can I Help You’: were there any other reference points? 

RT: Yeah, Johan [Hugo] and I both love Kanye, and all the more melodic, wonky hip-hop stuff like Outkast. And then also I’m always coming from a pretty classic rock place – Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Kate Bush. And also Max Richter. And I loved [Lady Gaga’s] Chromatica. But I’m never shy about telling people [my influences]. Like, I’ll play something I’ve heard and then we just do our interpretation of it. I don’t know why people are trying to act like they’re not just ripping things off every day: that’s literally what production is! But yeah, I just wanted it all to sound massive. Or tiny. I don’t want you to be able to play the album at your dinner party. 

GS: One of the highlights of the album for me is the spoken-word outro of ‘I’m Fine’, where a woman discusses howling like a dog to scare away predatory groups of men. That’s from a workshop you did with the National Youth Theatre, right?

RT: Yeah, I keep doing these theatre things: I’m developing a musical at one place and I’ve written a play for another place. So a director friend was doing this summer school thing for 18 to 21 year olds, where you spend four weeks in a rehearsal room and you devise a piece of theatre, and she asked me to lead it as a writer. Our group was all female/female-identifying, from different places from all over the world, and they just blew my mind. 

RT: I think I’d thought, “Oh kids today won’t have it like we had it,” but their insecurities and stresses are exactly the same. And now and again they would share this fucking amazing, wise gold, like the fact that if we’re seen as hysterical, men will leave us alone, but if we are just ourselves, we’re fair game. It’s just endlessly fucking heartbreaking. But I also love the idea that we’re just a big pack of dogs.

GS: Totally: as depressing as it is that a woman feels she has to do that, I’m also in awe of how ingenious it is.

RT: Yeah! At shows I want us to all just howl.

GS: Last time I saw you live you were wearing a dress made out of Boots Advantage Cards. What’s the plan for the Prioritise Pleasure tour? Will there be fun outfits?

RT: I’m graduating to handheld mics, so there’s me and three backing singers that dance. It’s me trying to do Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour but, you know, at the Bristol Fleece and the Hare and Hounds. Bringing the Super Bowl halftime show to the 500-cap venues around the UK was always the dream. I’m not sure about outfits yet, but yeah, basically my tour is about being really fucking entertaining. And being really good. We’re all really on it: it’s exciting.