Dirty Pop: Self Esteem's Rebecca Taylor on Compliments Please
We speak to Slow Club's Rebecca Taylor about how her new solo pop project Self Esteem is propelling her into pop star queendom
"The girl in that film, she’s like a stranger. I’m like 'Who’s that bored bitch? She’s miserable.'"
Rebecca Taylor is talking to us about her band Slow Club's documentary Our Most Brilliant Friends which screened as part of last year's BFI Doc'n Roll Film Festival. Tracing the duo's final tour together in stark black and white, it's an interesting dichotomy to the artist that sits here today. Nestled in the back of a cafe against a long mirrored wall that runs the length of the room, you can see the reflection of her blonde bob as she gesticulates with her hands, nails painted an acid green. Because now, of course, the musician cuts a different kind of shape to the one the indie elite might be used to seeing.
Days away from the release of her first solo record under the moniker Self Esteem, Taylor is visibly giddy. Refreshed and revitalised from her battle between indie darling and die-hard pop fan, she remarks: "This still feels so new, like a holiday from what I’ve known and I’m excited to get into the flow of it." What she's known, it turns out, is a lot tougher than we might've clocked from the lovable, lilting folk that Slow Club produced, particularly when it comes to her authenticity as an artist. "Pop was always a bit of a dirty word in the circles that I was in. There was this very weird time when I was lying about what I was listening to because I needed to keep up pretences that the band wanted to have so it’s just been years of that festering."
Unsurprisingly then, Compliments Please (a hopeful nod to the upcoming reviews, no doubt) has the pop production values of your average Brit topping chart star, showcasing that staggering vocal – something that Taylor admits was always really there. "I remember Slow Club did this Christmas EP and we did this cover of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and that’s the first time I let myself sing properly. People were all, 'Oh my god, you’ve got an amazing voice' and I was like 'I’ve always been sat on this, I just had to do the harmony to the boy vocal'," she remembers, shuffling her position in the brown leather booth.
Aside from the sizeable freedom for those vocal lines, and being as gloriously danceable as a Charlie XCX pop show, there's a subtle artistry within the record. Standout singles Wrestling and The Best are sidled up against clever audio interludes which act like mindful microcosms of raw and real feelings. Think Kate Tempest's narrative-rich records or a Mike Skinner concept album. Opener (Feelings) plants you firmly in Taylor's difficult decision to step out on her own while worrying about hurting someone else's feelings. But as fellow pop siren Beverley Knight knows only too well, no one wants to have that 'shoulda woulda coulda' feeling looming over them. "I remember that Lorde song came out and I remember being like 'For fuck’s sake, this was what I was on about'. You know, that slightly off-pop, but obviously it was all these rules that I made for myself really, but I am a chronic people pleaser so I had to do it."
This idea of people pleasing is a common strand on the record with recent single Rollout's killer chorus hook contemplating: 'Oh what I might have achieved / What I might have achieved / If I wasn't trying to please / If I wasn't trying to please'. But it turns out, it's not healthy holding onto all of these pretences like a Sisyphean slog, not to mention the added fear that someone else would get there first: "Making this album has helped me out mentally loads. I started to go to other people’s shows and get into new music in a way I never did because I was like 'What if someone does what I want to do?' It used to stress me out."
She need no longer worry though. Produced alongside The Very Best's Johan Karlberg, Compliments Please swoops between the gospel greatness of Steady I Stand and the whimsical strings of Girl Crush provided by fellow Northerner and former PINS performer, Sophie Galpin, something Taylor was thankful for after trying to process the new dynamics of writing solo in the studio: "It’s a lot easier and a happier experience than constantly trying to prove what you need, but lonely. I miss the band in different ways but sometimes in the studio I really miss that, being able to share how something magic feels," she reasons. But it’s not just in the studio where she’s flexing her newfound freedom.
Despite being the busiest she's been – a power bank is already set out beside her headphones and mobile phone – the songwriter's debut release seems to have opened some sort of creative floodgates (not to get too heavy into a Bros-style meandering analogy). But, much like the launch of Self Esteem, she's acting fast now as comparison syndrome is real: "I’m doing a musical. I’ve been developing it for so long, knowing full well that people like yourself will be so into it. It’s finally maybe going to happen and I’m like 'I told you'. Kele [Okereke from] Bloc Party just did the music for one which is semi-autobiographical. Everyone’s all 'Oh wow, what an amazing idea' and I’m like 'I had that idea ages ago but theatre takes forever'," she tells us, clearly itching to get going.
It feels like a fitting format to channel Taylor's warmth and wit and could be readily mopped up in the rise of women-led theatre productions, from the baked-from-the-heart charm of Waitress to the huge success of the Mean Girls musical on Broadway. Because after all, aren't we all chasing the highs and lows of our teen dramas? Taylor thinks so. "Those highs of drama and emotion that I used to get all the time when I was 16, I’m trying to do that with music whether that’s euphoria or making you cry."
But with the highs inevitably come the lows which she’s all too aware of in the runup to the debut release. "This feels so massive. I get so high off it all and then I cope very badly with all the lows. Even this morning, I was saying to myself, 'Just remember you’re hopefully going to do ten of these'. It’s no biggie, it’s no biggie, and then I heard myself saying to my management: 'On the day of release, can we get a limo that takes us from one thing to another?' Because I’m doing a bunch of in-stores, and I think to myself 'You making yourself have a limo on the day is also the problem'," she chuckles awkwardly, putting a hand through her hair.
Like the Big Day for so many, Compliments Please is a real celebration of self, identity and coming together against the odds. The frustrations Taylor has felt for years seem to have propelled her into the pop polymath that sits here today. Because it’s always good to take a look in the mirror, see what’s reflected back at you and whether that’s the right route to be heading down. As Taylor herself says, "I’d still like some sort of happy ending for myself but I’m also really trying to make sure that I allow myself that happy ending that might not look how I’m told it should."
Reincarnated and recharged, Self Esteem has landed, fully formed and in technicolour for 2019.