A Renaissance Woman

Queen Esther, a Harlem-based vocalist, songwriter, musician, and producer sings with a heartfelt soul and resolutely holds music close to her heart. Her talks on the TED stage and from other interviews shares an interesting story to anyone who wants to hear Americana music. In this email interview Queen Esther talks about the spiritual power of music and her recent CD, Gild the Black Lily with Jupiter Index Web Magazine.

Jupiter Index: Which artists made you sit up and take notice as a youngster and then later on in life as an adult? How has music shaped you as an artist?

Queen Esther: When I was a youngster, I can remember sitting with my great-grandmother in church. It’s one of my earliest memories. We were in a small clapboard church in the countryside, out in the middle of nowhere, in Charleston, South Carolina. I would wear the best clothes I had, something crisp and disturbingly blindingly clean and uncomfortable, and as the service went along, eventually I would listen to a sound come out of her -- high, piercing, and so full of feeling and that indescribable something else that some people in the congregation would cry out involuntarily, a sound akin to a wounded animal or someone in pain. And then everyone in the room would answer whatever she sang. It was a roar, a minor sonic boom that shook the building, and me. There was no other music in those long moments. Just her voice and theirs. And mine, too, with me leaning against her lean, strong frame and singing with everyone else. Those were my earliest memories. She and everyone in that church -- including my great-grandfather and my grandparents -- were, and remain, my watermark.

There was a cacophony of songs that came along with all of this, from every direction. Television shows, radio. Whatever my cousin happened to like. This kind of thing. No one told me what to not listen to, so I listened to everything. The upshot of what music has poured into every other aspect of my creative life is this: I understand and respect the importance of technique. But if that’s all you’ve got, you’re missing the point.

You have a love of music, whether it’s singing a Nirvana song or a Sister Rosetta Tharp tune. Tell us how you first began to sing and how you were drawn to music?

When I was little, I can’t ever remember not hearing music somewhere above my head. Everyone was always singing all around me -- as they washed the dishes, as they drove around looking for a parking space, as they listened to the radio, as they worked in a field, planting things. No one ever told me to sing or not sing. I wasn’t drawn to music. It was always a part of me, like any other part of myself. Eventually, I opened my mouth and let whatever music that was inside of me sail out of me, like everyone else did.

To be fair, there was a lot of music fermenting in my head. Freeform FM radio with gobs of Donny Hathaway and Allman Brothers and Mountain and Al Green and Led Zepplin, my Uncle Tyrone’s album collection that was full of Parliament Funkadelic and Average White Band and Joe Tex and Ann Peebles, my brother Ramon the bassist and all his Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke, Return to Forever, Weather Report, harmelodic jazz and then there was church and all the spirituals and hymns and chants, Andre Crouch and the Disciples and The Hawkins Brothers and Love Alive and whoever was on Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw that week.

My Uncle Tyrone played lap steel in church. It was beautiful.

Even as a small child, I knew intuitively that music is spiritual; it is a spiritual conduit. And if you are spiritually dead, all the technique in the world will not help you to touch the heart and soul of another, and the music itself will not come to life.

I researched your past talks for this interview and enjoyed hearing you talk about the history and Black Americana music. What should people know about blues and country music?

Everyone should know three basic things. First, they should know that blues music is the foundation, the root, [and] the absolute bedrock of American popular music. Without blues music, none of it would exist as we know it. If who we are sonically were a physical body, blues music would be the DNA. Secondly, they should understand that the blue-ing of the note -- whether it’s Hank Williams or Jimmie Rogers bending it when they sang or Muddy Waters and Hubert Sumlin when they played -- is intrinsically West African in nature. And thirdly, they should know the Blackness that the blues is made of: field hollers, work songs, shouts, chants, arhoolies, African spirituals, and revivalist hymns -- and that all of it is forever entangled in the ongoing horror of the All-American chattel slavery that gave birth to it.

Talk about your recent release, Gild the Black Lily, and how you came to it?

I heard the songs in my head and transcribed them as best I could -- which is not nearly as easy or straightforward as it sounds. There were moments when I’d get out of bed in the middle of the night and stand in my kitchen in the dark with my cell phone, singing a tiny melody into it. There were days when I’d be on the subway with a bag of groceries in my lap, and I’d have to stop and dig through my purse for a pen and paper so I could write down a word or a phrase or a few lines. Sometimes I couldn’t stop writing.

I spent quite some time playing these songs with guitarists Jeff McLaughlin and Boo Reiners -- both of whom are from the South, interestingly enough -- and assembling one musical collective after another as the songs took shape. I figured out how to make the recording session happen. When the moment of truth came, I worked very hard to make the songs sound the same on the album as they do in my head.

Somewhere in there, I realized that I was creating a modern throwback country album filled with storytelling and twang that was soul music. At least, I was singing it like it was soul music. So basically, I’m a jazz singer and a musical theater nerd, raised in a traditional Southern Black sanctified church, singing original folk songs and traditional country blues tunes like its all soul music -- and making sure the band is playing them like they’re folky country songs. But who would believe any of that?

Maybe they’ll believe it when they hear it.

Which track on the record did you enjoy singing? And why?

I enjoyed singing all of it.

The tricky part was turning myself into whatever the song needed vocally to live on its own terms. I like becoming when I sing, and I like transitioning in between the songs as I am becoming, and I like what the songs turn into over time, when I don’t have to think about what it means to live inside of them.

I hope that answers your question.

Would you like to add anything else to what you have already said?

Nothing that I can think of at the moment. Thank you for your time.

by G.M. Burns