Alive in Music

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Queen Esther has strived in her music from the time she lived in Austin, Texas and attended the University of Texas. While there she grew in the local music scene in Austin as “a member of Ro-Tel and the Hot Tomatoes, a regional favorite specializing in girl group music that began as a gag in the infamous local comedy/theater troupe Esther’s Follies.” But it was the artful guitarist “Big Al” Gilhausen who introduced her to the legendary blues guitar icon Hubert Sumlin. Because of his influence, Queen Esther lost herself in the blues and found her way back to her country gospel roots. This, along with a childhood of free-form radio on the airwaves, augmented by a steady diet of Hee-Haw, The Lawrence Welk Show and Soul Train – and the overwhelming presence of the rural sanctified black church, filled with sacred steel – solidified her Black Americana sound,” according to her Web site. Currently, Queen Esther is working on a new album and doing some touring in the year.

G.M. Burns: I have been listening to your music and singing and your voice impresses me. What kind of practicing and training do you do to sound so good?
Queen Esther: Some people that sing pride themselves on the fact that they’ve never taken a voice lesson. And that’s fine. The thing is, everybody isn’t Barbra Streisand. I didn’t know if I was Babs, or not so I figured I’d err on the side of caution.

Training started in church at a very early age. Church is where I developed my ear and learned how to sing in a group – in harmony and as a soloist – and received my first voice lessons formally. Church is also where I sang in front of a roomful of people for the very first time. That’s where I understood that music is a spiritual conduit. Eventually, I went to a performing arts high school, refined my vocal technique and studied opera and classical music. By the time I turned 18, I’d been singing in various configurations for well over 10 years.

Practice means that I vocalize every day to make sure that I have a clear tone. I take voice lessons to make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be. I’m usually learning new songs – whether it’s something I’m writing or a standard that I’m figuring out – and I’m usually blazing away in any given direction sonically because of the things that make me curious.

G.M. Burns: When you are singing a phrase and it is developing what is going through your head in these freer, improvisational moments? Are you thinking really hard about your vocals or do you just let go?
Queen Esther: In those freer moments, I’m not thinking anything. In the best-case scenario, I’m not there at all.

G.M. Burns: Who do you like to listen to, what are the qualities you like in music?
Queen Esther: I listen to everything I can get my ears on. Usually, it starts with a song that I’ll hear in passing. I’ll read an article about it, have a conversation with someone about it, or I’ll read a biography that explains it in some way. Then I’ll go listen to several versions of it and obsess over it for awhile. I will do this with several songs at once. Or albums. Or musicians. Or a prolific songwriter’s body of work. And on and on I go, down several rabbit holes at once, bouncing back and forth, getting lost in all kinds of music.

I tend to like music that takes me someplace else, something that’s mood inducing and that tells a story from beginning to end. I think it’s important to know the sonic history of America so I’m constantly doing my homework – reading books, watching documentaries and asking questions.

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G.M. Burns: Do you have future projects coming up. How do you decide what project you are going to do?
Queen Esther: I have two albums that I’m releasing in 2020 – Things Are Looking Up (Billie Holiday’s lost classics and original songs) and Gild The Black Lily(mostly original Black Americana).

There’s no straightforward regimented way that writing songs happens for me. I’m not waking up and putting the kettle on and sitting down at a piano all day and playing until something comes out of me, like Jackson Browne in the 70s in Topanga Canyon or whatever. Sometimes I can hear the whole song and I’m just a transcriber. And then there are those times when it happens in bits and pieces and I’m stitching it together as it comes to me. Or the lyrics fall out of my hands like I’m writing someone a letter. I find ways to bounce everything around until something sticks to the wall. I’m not so sure I’d be a songwriter if I didn’t have all these songs in me. Maybe I’d just sit around singing everyone else’s stuff.

G.M. Burns: You will be touring this year in the spring and summer such as at Joe’ Pub in New York City. But what do you enjoy about touring or is it a tad hard now?
Queen Esther: Developing an audience is crucial, which is why touring can have such an important place in any artist’s career. Once you’re established, touring can be a great source of income that isn’t necessarily attached to a record label. Or maybe it is, depending on the deal you sign. Nowadays, there’s a lot of ways to develop your audience and get your sound out there if you’re unsigned, like licensing to film and television or letting your single blow up on Tik Tok, the way Lil’ Nas X did with Old Town Road. He didn’t tour all over the world. He strategized with visuals and let his song catch fire globally. I love that.

I’ll definitely be playing out near and far to promote my new music wherever I can. At this point in my creative life, though, it’s starting to feel like I have so much more to say than touring will allow. In the past year or so, I’ve done a TED Talk about the erasure of African-Americans in country and bluegrass. I’ve accepted a month-long artist residency at Gettysburg National Military Park in 2020, to write and develop Blackbirding, a one person show about the 19thcentury practice and how it’s never really ended. I’ll be working on new songs while I’m there, too. As an actor, I’m really thrilled about all the on-camera work I’m getting. And I’m freelance writing and working on a book proposal.

by G.M. Burns