Self Esteem: ‘What is art if you’re not being honest?’

“I really like extremes,” beams Rebecca Lucy Taylor, sitting down for a Zoom chat about her second album under the nom de plume Self Esteem.

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self Esteem. Picture: Olivia Richardson

If the Rotherham-born singer-songwriter’s 2019 solo debut Confidence Please was noted for its ambition, packing busy melodies and plenty of lyrical punch, its successor, Prioritise Pleasure, sees Taylor going for broke.

“I knew I wanted to take Confidence Please and turn every element up to 11,” she says, explaining the use here of an orchestra, brass, “huge band” and choir in a quest to “sonically make a statement, rather it being like backround music”.

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“I like to make music that you have to stop and listen to...although I think background music is probably more popular. I’d make more money if it was dinner party-friendly.”

Back before the pandemic, Taylor, who also works as a writer for stage and screen, developed a short play with members of the National Youth Theatre. The project, she says, was “really illuminating” – some of their discussion about everyday sexism even made its way into her new album’s opening track, I’m Fine.

“I do a lot of theatre and art things that end up inspiring my music,” she says. “The main theme of this record is it’s so miserable being a woman and being frightened every day. Working with these women (at the NYT) who are a lot younger than me, I thought, ‘Maybe it’s changed for them’ and it hasn’t. It was both distressing to realise and also empowering to go, ‘Right, what I’m doing is important and is hopefully going to help change things somewhere along the line’.”

Prioritise Pleasure’s unapologetic approach reflects Taylor’s willingness to call out misogyny wherever she sees it. “I think I’m exhausted,” she says. “I’m actually 34 now, so you do actually get a level of self-acceptance that helps. I’m never making music to try and stress anybody out, but I am trying to be totally honest.

“I think I’m honest about my flaws in it. I hurt people and people hurt me and it just goes round and round, and because we’re all so stuck never talking about it, we communicate so terribly – me included.

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self Esteem. Picture: Olivia Richardson

“In the last few years since starting Self Esteem I’ve had a regular therapist who’s managed to make some actual headway with me finally. Then the pandemic came. You only get one chance to be alive and I’m really sick of spending it saying sorry, trying to make sure you’re not mugging me and also being what I think people want from me. I’m a really good actress, I’m also a Libra so I’m obsessed with being liked so it’s just been a long slog and I’m done in, and what is art if you’re not being honest? There’s no point in it. There’s enough music, we don’t need someone else saying nothing again.”

Taylor’s interest in “shabby flaws and things that aren’t shiny in other people” makes her vision compelling. “If someone had only said to me ten years ago, ‘Accept who you were but don’t have expectations of anybody else or yourself and just go into every day as positively as you can and see what happens’,” she says. “I suffered so badly with my mental health through my 20s in a way I didn’t deserve.

“On Instagram and things like that ‘Live, love, laugh’ messaging is fine, but it also it still seems like you’ve got to be perfect, you’ve got to be the right side of doing it well, and nobody admits the bad bits. I think that’s why someone like me ends up feeling very alienated, like I’m really weird, I feel all these things and no-one else seems to.

“The song I Do This All The Time I did not think I would go like it did, but everyone’s like, ‘Thank you so much for saying that’. So OK, cool, we’re all bluffing each other if you feel like it, your Instagram has made me feel like s***. Let’s all just stop bluffing and be real and communicate and not have shame about yourself all the time. I think if you did that things might improve.”

To its creator’s surprise, the video for I Do This All The Time struck a chord with many when it was released in April. “The image of me hugging myself I thought, ‘it’s a bit on the nose this’, but it was too late with what was happening,” she laughs. “I made three videos in one day (at the Almeida theatre in London), and that was the one I thought least about and just sort of did, but how many times have you heard that in history? There’s something about just communicating what that song is about clearly and the way people responded. It’s my favourite thing in my whole career those few weeks when that came out. It was so cleansing for me.”

Another video, for the album’s title track, channels the spirit of Madonna on her Blonde Ambition tour, on which she once said she “realised she could push people’s buttons” and be as “provocative” as she wanted. Taylor says her aim is slightly different. “I’m not trying to push buttons,” she says. “I think it’s still pretty radical to be a woman saying what I’m saying.

“Madonna changed everything because she wasn’t sorry and she was being real and it was a very glossy, amazing show package. People still talk s*** about her all the time, it’s just because she’s a woman – and that really empowered me and inspired me because I have all these ideas and these desires of things to make or say and most of them were shelved in my life because I thought I would get stick for it.

“I’m not saying anything that amazingly radical or new, I’m just a woman doing it who’s not skinny and not 22, and I get a kick out of that, I guess.

“I’m not trying to push buttons but I do think the more you see, it’s normalising it. I’m going to do a dancing, singing tour in daft outfits at the age I should probably be having a baby and that sort of life. I’ve chosen not to do that for now and annoyingly that’s still pretty radical, apparently. How many men do that?”

Taylor, who was once one half of the Sheffield duo Slow Club, still harbours a desire to move back to South Yorkshire from the South East at some point – but not quite yet.

“I actually feel like I live there,” she says. “I live between Margate, London and Sheffield at the moment. I was able to make a lot of music there, my family’s there, it’s my favourite place in the world.

“I actually never lived properly in Sheffield. My dream is to buy a lovely house, fill it with all my stuff that I’ve made, tour twice a year and spend the rest of it just painting and writing in my lovely S11 three-bedroom home and garden. It’s not yet, I’ll just have to keep the hustle for a little bit longer. I need to be near London because I need to go and take the opportunities, but the pandemic has changed even that.

“I do want 15 cats and a water feature in South Yorkshire – that is the idea.”

Prioritise Pleasure is out on Friday October 22. Self Esteem plays at Belgrave Hall, Leeds on November 11 and The Leadmill, Sheffield on November 12.