As Self Esteem, Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s first solo effort was a much-acclaimed critical success. Her follow up – ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ – is quite probably one of the albums of the year.
Words: Martyn Young.Photos: Olivia Richardson.
Back in 2017, when Rebecca Lucy Taylor was formulating how to translate her Self Esteem art project into a fully-fledged solo career, her aims were relatively simple. “I just want to make a Rihanna record,” she told us in one of her first interviews. Five years later, Self Esteem has outgrown those modest aims to become something all-encompassing and vital, establishing Rebecca as a new pop icon. “That was the springboard, but now I’ve become me,” she says today as she readies the release of her second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’. “I just go in with no agenda and create,” she says. The work she has created is a masterpiece, and Self Esteem has developed from an intriguing side hustle to a life-changing, world-building sensory experience with Rebecca’s unflinching honesty and emotion front and centre.
The album is Rebecca’s grand statement and the perfect encapsulation of what Self Esteem is about, both as a musical project and a way of life. A way of traversing through turmoil and trauma and coming out the other side. Uniquely the period leading up to the album release is one of calmness and equanimity for Rebecca, content in the knowledge that she has created something special. “I just feel very, very ready,” she says excitedly. “I’m kind of overwhelmed at the response to the singles so far. Playing live has also gone up a level. All of it is just bigger and better and what I really wanted for myself. I feel like a bowling ball rolling down the hill and not taking it in yet, but I guess this is what it’s like if things go well. “I’m just excited for people to hear the full piece of work because it isn’t just singles. It’s a chunky body which makes sense when you play it all together.”
‘Prioritise Pleasure’ marks a change in the journey for Self Esteem. Her debut album ‘Compliments Please’ was born from anger and a desire to escape. A desire to escape what she once was in her previous band, Slow Club, and a desire to escape what people expected from her. “I was so desperate to get out of the situation that I was in, and so much of it was tied up in how unwell my mental health was,” she explains. The difference this time around is that she’s no longer consciously reacting against something specific. “I think I wanted to get out so badly and wanted to make pop music that was interesting, and that would fly and do all these ideas that I had for years, but now on this record, I don’t have that. I haven’t felt that mad pressure to prove anything this time, and I’m just happily making exactly what I want.”
“Madonna throughout the 90s is all I care about aesthetically”Rebecca Lucy Taylor
“I’m kind of making music like a straight man now,” she laughs. “They just get to make the music that they want to make. They don’t have to compromise; they just get to make it. I’m in the position now where that’s me and the fact that people are liking it at the same time that I’m becoming more peaceful, calmer and relaxed in what I’m doing and understanding my process and who I am in the world, those two things together has been fucking great.”
The thread that runs through all of Self Esteem’s work is the force of Rebecca’s personality. There are no boundaries, no filters and nothing is held back. On ‘Prioritise Pleasure’, this is ramped up even further. “I will always say shit with my music, and it will always come so deeply from me and my feelings. I’m a fucking emotional person who feels like they do every day in a hardcore way,” she says. “The change is now I’m accepting of that in myself, and I’m not embarrassed about it, and it’s taken some pressure off. Before, I was so angry. I’m still angry, but I think it’s more nuanced and interesting rather than pushing back against stuff.”
Rebecca is supremely switched on about just what it is that makes pop music special. That lifts the professional and the mundane into something soaring and transcendent. She’s a student of the pop icons of the past who realised pop could be a lot more than just some nice songs. “Madonna throughout the 90s is all I care about aesthetically,” she exclaims. She also recognises the importance of giving each album its own distinct personality. “When I first started Self Esteem, I did describe it like the way Bowie had eras, and that was something I really liked and something I just could never get going in Slow Club. That just wouldn’t wash,” she says. “As somebody who likes to compartmentalise time and projects, it always worked for me. I don’t owe people consistency. I’ve found as a woman in music, you can’t chop and change because they need it to make sense so much. No one buys music, so they need your face to make sense on a page. I’ve always hated that. The idea of an era has really helped me to be myself.”
So, what is this Self Esteem era then? “This era is the no fucks left to give era,” laughs Rebecca. “I’m just fine being myself and saying what I need to and working through what I need to work through. I’m never going to be like, I’m the fucking queen all of you bow down to me. Your options as a woman in pop are you’re the queen, and everyone’s your servants, or you are the heartbroken girl that just wants a man. I’m a woman, and there are other things as well. This era is full of vulnerability, grey area exploration, and I think for me, that’s just being human. I never want to be like, ok, I’m fine now.”
The album itself was created both before, during and after the height of the pandemic. A period that saw Rebecca combining working on the record with what became a snowballing public duty to provide daily Instagram workouts during lockdown to her loyal following of “steamers”. It’s a creative period that she looks back on fondly despite the turmoil of everything that was going on in the outside world. “I was very frightened about how easy it was,” she says. “It was a calmer way to make a record in a way. I sat with the songs for much longer than usual before actually doing anything to them.”
The idea of Self Esteem being a welcoming world for like-minded people who resonate with themes Rebecca is singing about is even more important on this album. “I want it to be about more than just music. I want it to be a full-scale experience,” she proclaims. “That’s what I’m into as an artist. Cut me and open my skin and look inside. That just feels right to me. I think people go, oh, you’re so open, how does that feel? Well, I’d feel more uncomfortable not being open.”
That openness manifests itself in a profoundly emotional, witty and immensely powerful album that details what it’s like to be a woman in modern society and does it in a hugely resonant way. It’s a culmination of a series of events that led Rebecca to say, no, I’m not gonna let this happen anymore. “A few shitty things have happened to me,” she explains about the last few years. “Since the last album, I had a major relationship breakdown, and I went into this world of oblivion for a bit. I saw how much of everybody else I put before myself. Obviously, therapy helped, and I guess the inspiration for the album is I’m very tired of being a woman in a world who is treated as an object, or my work is compared to what I look like, or my safety is always an issue. I’m so tired of not being able to just do what I fucking want.” This album is the sound of Rebecca taking control in her own singular way. “It’s self-love, and that’s an icky thing to say sometimes and feels a bit daft, but I think it’s me in my own way having eat, pray, love time,” she laughs before emphasising the emotional core of the record. “Stop talking to myself like shit. Stop putting everyone’s pleasure before mine. Stop living half your life waiting for the next bit to come and just try to be present. That’s what it’s about. It’s also a big fuck you. I’m learning now the further I am from my twenties, I can’t believe the things that were said to me and how I behaved. We’re all just passing on trauma. My life’s mission is to heal from it.”
“This era is the no fucks left to give era”Rebecca Lucy Taylor
The album title can be construed in different ways, and ultimately the pleasure you want to prioritise is whatever makes you happy. “It’s funny because people are like, well, it means sexy pleasure, and I’m like yeah, but mostly for me, prioritising my pleasure means I go home when I want to from the party,” she laughs. “Not going to the barbecues that I fucking don’t want to go to. Not drinking an extra drink if someone wants me to stay out. That is my pleasure prioritising. It’s not the sexy answer that people hope for, but it’s the truth. I’ve realised over the pandemic that I’m a fucking introvert, but I’ve been living my life as this party-starting centre of attention woman that I’m actually not. Learning that really helped.”
The album is a real tour de force of playful future pop, heavy-hitting alt-pop, like on the raging drum-led primal scream of ‘How Can I Help You’, and the most expansive and ambitious music of her career, as exemplified on the stunning lead single ‘I Do This All The Time’. It also contains the best bangers of her career. Far better than just simply making a Rihanna record. Take the most recent single ‘Moody’, for example. There are few other people on the planet making pop music quite like this right now. You can file Self Esteem right up there with other modern pop icons like Charli and Billie. “I wanted to reclaim the spoken word chorus,” explains Rebecca about the key hook that will not leave your head. “That one was really funny. It’s the daftest thing I’ve done, but I love it.”
“I’m really proud of some of the lyrics,” she adds. “I love that there’s a lyric about casual sex and whether or not I’ll bother if I’m not busy,” she laughs. The album is full of “did she just say…?” lines like that, but it also deals with very stark and harrowing themes that illustrate the issues facing women in our society today, particularly on the opening track, ‘I’m Fine’. “I did a summer school with some 18-21-year-old women where we made some theatre and had all these conversations about consent and things like that. I hoped for them it would be different, but we were having the same conversations that I’ve had my whole life – having to keep our keys between our fingers when we’re walking home, trying to not draw attention to ourselves. That’s where the quote comes in, ‘I’m Fine’. I recorded a lot of conversations with the girls and thought I was going to use more than I did, but I ended up just keeping it to that bit, and it was really powerful.”
Having been in the industry as a working musician for 15 years now, Rebecca knows how difficult it is and how many injustices prevail. “There’s so much to be done, and I still find myself saying sorry all the time,” she says. “If I think about it for a second, I don’t need to, whereas before, I was so fucking scared that I was being annoying or being a problem.” Change is slow, but there is slight hope for the future. “I think how as women we feel fucking scared every day is now in the zeitgeist, and people are listening and learning.”
Aside from the music on the record, another of the key themes is the continued blossoming of Self Esteem as a visual icon. Equally as important as the music is the artwork, the general imagery and the striking performance featuring intricately choreographed dance routines. Self Esteem is all about doing things differently. “My idea was I’ve played thousands of gigs, especially in the UK, in the same sized venues my whole career. I knew full well that’s what Self Esteem would be doing,” explains Rebecca. “We’d be going to the same venues and playing the same festivals in the same slots. My idea of doing a show like this is, A) I’ll enjoy it more, and B) it will fucking make you stop and listen and look. No one’s putting the time and effort in, and it’s always pissed me off that in other bands, you’d just plug in and play. I want to work hard. I want to be really tired at the end of the day, and I want to live my dream. My dream was to be a great big pop star with dance moves. When I think of myself as a little girl, that’s all I ever did. I was making up dances and bullying little girls into doing it with me.”
The reaction to the new music she has released so far has seen ever more people engaging on an even deeper level. “It’s amazing,” she says excitedly. “As someone who felt fucking alone for their whole life and like I was a weirdo, the validation is insane.” There’s no sense of added fame or attention going to her head, though. “I feel more grounded than ever, in a way. I used to think I was more of a billy bollocks when I was in Slow Club. I am a chronic people-pleasing libra. Sometimes I took it to the level that I make the music to soothe me, but now I have the knowledge that it helps some people. I could die tomorrow chuffed with myself, and that’s all I can ask for, really. People help me. Those people who feel it too help me. When I was in my twenties, pretty much everybody I worked with, played with, came into contact with, went out with, acted like I was just too emotional. Like I was too much. Now I’m celebrated for being that, and it’s fucking cool.”
The artwork for the album featuring Rebecca in a striking leotard and cowboy hat combo is Self Esteem turned up to 11. “If you’re gonna put a camera in front of me, then I want to look as amazing as possible,” she says. “I think for the aesthetic for this, I wanted to just streamline it all. ‘Compliments Please’ was a lot about other people and other people’s perception of me wanting plenty. I always think of myself as like Henry VIII, eating and drinking and shagging everything I want, when I want it. Whereas now I’m learning how much to just rely on myself for what I need. I knew I wanted it to be just me and me celebrating myself.”
“Mostly for me, prioritising my pleasure means I go home when I want to from the party”Rebecca Lucy Taylor
“It’s powerful that I’m not really skinny,” she continues. “I think all pop stars are very slim, so I wanted to do what every other pop star does but with a not very slim body because I thought that was political as well. It’s never conscious, but if somebody says, ‘what do you want to look like?’, it’s black leotard, black cowboy hat, big curly hair and knee boots. That makes so much sense to me. I just enjoy camp, drag, playful fashion. A cosplaying pop star is what I’m doing now. Underneath it is a bit more meat and potatoes than with normal pop music and also has my agenda and what I’m trying to give to the world.” Also, there’s one other simple fact that emphasises Rebecca’s love for her visual creations, “I can’t deny that I just fucking love looking fit,” she laughs.
Now firmly established as a solo star and with tentative plans already underway to begin album number three, as well as writing a book, Rebecca’s thoughts turn to what her legacy might be. “I’ve figured out over the pandemic, my dad and I watched a lot of Peter Gabriel videos, which is what we did when I was little actually, and I realised I want a discography,” she says. “I want to make everything I want to make. My music career has always been, ‘this is fine for now, but I guess soon I’ll have to get a job and soon it will end’. Now, my idea is I don’t want to chase a hit or be famous, but I’d love to be an artist forever and never retire. I had a mortgage meeting, and he was like, when do you want to retire, and I honestly was like, I don’t want to. Retiring from what I see is my work is the last thing I want to do. I don’t want to be begging people to look at me forever, but I want to be able to pivot my art practice to whatever makes sense for me at the time. I also require a budget and a tiny bit of people to be involved, so as long as I can keep enough people interested to give me the means to make stuff, then I’ll go and go.”
Going with her on her journey are some loyal fans and a lot of new ones, too. “It’s gone up a level for sure. ‘I Do This All The Time’ hit a lot of people that I otherwise wouldn’t have caught. The airplay for that was so fucking great. The crowds have doubled. If you’re a Self Esteem fan, then you’re not lukewarm. If you get it, then you fucking get it, and you want it, and you want to lose yourself. They’re fucking emotional people too, and that’s why they understand it, and they want to have the same moment that I’m having.”
The moment is now for a woman who is no longer afraid to voice her opinion and to make a stand for what she wants to do on her own terms. All of this confidence, frustration and confusion that make up Self Esteem and this moment that we’re in is found in the opening track to the album ‘I’m Fine’. “It’s a euphoric way to process trauma,” says Rebecca. “It’s first at gigs, and it’s like what you’re about to see is a terrifying deranged woman who is tired of feeling like this. I’m trying to reclaim crazy. As women in the past, we’d be called crazy simply for having feelings or opinions. It is a recognition of that. Alright, I’m going to scare you then. People call me scary, but I’m not. I’m fucking lovely; I’m just not what they’re used to, so they give it a name of crazy or scary, but I’m just vocal.” Self Esteem is all about giving a voice to people and feelings that have been suppressed or out down. It’s about complete and total freedom of expression and emotion, and it’s about prioritising what’s important. As Rebecca concludes, “If the platform is there, let’s use it.”
Taken from the November 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Self Esteem’s album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is out 22nd October.