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How Estelle decided she was ready to write 'Lovers Rock'

We’ve been playing Estelle's new song “Sweetly” on 88Nine. But you might also recognize her sweet voice from about 10 years ago in her song, "American Boy," featuring Kanye West. She's done a lot since then.

Estelle is a Grammy-award winning singer and songwriter. She’s collaborated with John Legend, Robin Thicke, De La Soul, Janelle Monáe and a million others. Oh, she also owns her own record label and does acting on the side.

Over a phone interview, I talked to Estelle about her newest album, “Lovers Rock,” the personal stories it contains—from her parents' love story to her breakup style—and how she decided she was finally ready for this genre.

In listening to "Lovers Rock," I feel like it is an album that you had to decide to make.


Why did you want to make lovers rock?

I think it was kind about time for me .

Ever since I put "Come Over" out on "Shine," the resounding request was like, “Can you do a whole reggae album?” I was like, “Umm yeah at some point, like give me a second.”

You know to me, you say reggae album I automatically go to lovers rock. I automatically go to roots music or dance hall, but I’m not really a DJ, so I go to the singing side of it. It was more like okay it’s about time to do it now and it was a perfect time. I felt grown enough to do it if you know what I mean.

I felt like I could do it justice and it would be believable and not just some young girl trying to sing love songs that she had no resonance with. So I think it was about time.

What did you do in the writing of the album to get into the feel of it?

I always take everything from my personal experiences. So as I started to write, I started to realize I was kind of repeating myself. So the songs and the subjects I was writing about, I kind of ending up feeling like they were the same subjects on "Shine." I was like, “Well girl you’ve been writing the same thing for 10 years It’s 10 years later, what have you done? Where have you grown? What’s going on?”

So I started personally doing some work and like really get into knowing myself. Every single record is really personal to me. Every single song I’ve written, every single song I’ve sung, I have to resonate with it in such a way because I have to sing it over and over again. I am the kind of artist that never stops singing. I will never stop.

So people always want me to sing "Conqueror" and "Thank You" and "American Boy" and I’m like “Okay I have to get back into the space in my brain and where I was.” So every song is super personal and I need to be able to access it.

Every single song I’ve written, every single song I’ve sung, I have to resonate with it in such a way because I have to sing it over and over again. I am the kind of artist that never stops singing. I will never stop.

To me, it was just like okay I want to be able to do this in a truthful way, so where am I at right now as a person? I realized where I wanted to be, so I had to do a lot of personal shaking up to get the right intention and the right direction. Once I had all the ideas down, I just started to evolve. One of my team members—the songwriters who I wrote with—noticed and said, “It started to sound like the story of your mom and dad.” I was like, “Really? 

They say you do what you see and that kind of evolved it even more. I was like, “Maybe I am. Maybe I have been replaying their story and I don’t really need to, but let me get this story out. You know, let me rip the wound off, rip the Band-Aid off and put it all in the air and see what happens."

So what is the story of your mom and dad?

It’s the story of how they met and how they weren’t together for a very long time, but got back together like 20 years later. They met, had me and my sisters, they broke up or were kind of broken apart, just cultural stuff and family stuff, and then they got back together when my dad bumped into my sister in the middle of the street almost 20 years later.

She reconnected them and they’ve been together ever since. That happened when I was like 23. My mom had been married before that for almost 20 years. She was like at the end of that period and was like, “I don’t even like this man, what am I doing?” and my dad magically walked back into her life. They broke up when I was three, got back together when I was 23 and they got married when I was 33.

He missed a big chunk, like all the emotional parts in your life. How did you feel about that?

Well, me and my dad have a good relationship right now. I never really knew how to even take him. When I was younger I was like, “That’s my dad, sure.” 

When we met him again I was of the energy like, “Okay that’s him, that’s nice.” But as I’ve grown and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve hit different areas and different points of my life—and even making this album—where we needed to talk . Like,“What the hell, remind me again why you guys broke up? Why do I have sisters and brothers? It was a lot of questions, so many questions. But it’s opened me up empathically and also tightened me up as a woman.

Is there a trait when he came back into your life that you realized is a thing that you do that you saw in him?

Yeah, well there is music. That’s one thing him and I have in common. He played music and he did all the instruments and really played the back and really knew how to do everything in the band—write songs, play drums, guitar, keys and direct how it was all going to go. It was the void of ego and he was very much in the back of his band, so I understood this kind of genetic thing that went along with why I would play in the background and why I am super humble.

In the cut, I don’t really feel the need to jump up and down about how well I sing or how well my music does. There’s confidence there, but there are some things like that tucked in.

On a father to daughter scale, I think there is a certain thing no matter when you meet your father. If he’s about something or if he is a really good dad at the core and he can teach you something, there is a certain security that comes along that.

Not to discount what woman do or what my mom did at all. There were some questions that I couldn’t get the answers to from her, you know? I was kind of coming to the answer that it was taking too long to get there but then I just asked my dad and he told me . The way he responded kind of had me like. “I ain't got to figure this out anymore, cool.” There were some things that kind of set me down. It gave me the OK. Like I called my dad about relationship stuff and he’d be like, “Well there’s two options here because this is how men are.” And I’m like, "Okay well these are my options now." And you know, true to life, that's exactly what the options were.

I definitely am grateful to even have that, to not make even any more mistakes or to keep repeating the same cycles, you know? He’s such a supporter.

Him being musically inclined, has he been involved in any of your albums?

He’s more my A&R in chief . At the end, he’s like, “I like that one, that one is nice. This one is too old school.” He’s that guy. It’s funny the songs I think he would like the most are the ones he’s like, “Uhh that’s old school, you can do better than that.”

It’s very cool to even have that as an option. A lot of people don’t, you know?

Yeah. So, we’ve been playing "Sweetly" a lot. Can you tell me what it's specifically is about?

"Sweetlyis the kind of anti-crazy breakup anthem. I’ve had "Thank You" before, I’ve had other records like cussing dudes out, like a finger in your face and what not. Then I realized the way I do actually break up with people is a lot calmer than that .

You know, I feel like all my other records are like the inside of my brain before it happens. Then when I actually do it, the rationale takes over and I’m like, “Yeah, no this is good. We’re not suited. We shouldn’t do this anymore. We are wasting each others' time.”

The super rational takes over. I’m very much calm. Because I when I break up with people it’s never like, "I just want to punish you." It’s more like, "I think I’ve done the math here and I think I've probably made a mistake being with you. I’m going to take this L. It’s not even you. I want to do better and I don’t want to hold you up."

But exes have misread that like, "She’s just trying to punish me!" And I’m like, "No, no, no, I really mean it."

You know, because they are used to how women scream and cry and throw things and the whole "I never want to see you again!" And I’m just not that girl. I mean sometimes I'd rather not see you again, but I'd just rather not break things.

Right, I love that, I completely understand how that is.

So you started your own record label?

Yes I did—Established 1980. I always thought I’ve been on the independent streak. My whole life I always treated my career like I was an independent artist because I feel like nothing is for certain in this industry and no one is going to truly 100 percent "get you" other than yourself and your team. So to the end, I’ve learned so much. I figured at this point, I should probably do this on my own with my artists.

Those who actually love and do the music but actually do understand the business and really want to get it done, we want to help them.

Luckily enough, because I have a legacy and because I have a catalog I don’t have to do it with a label and I don’t have to do it with a super major company backing me. You just do your strategic partnerships and put good music out, music that is aligned with your brand or music that is aligned with pushing what you want to see in the world and that is what we’re doing.

Established 1980 is about pushing artists who are doing the work themselves already. You know, they just need that extra hand. Because that's literally all I ever needed my whole life is that extra hand. I don’t ever want to feel like I am caging an artist. I don’t want them to feel like, "I can’t move. I can’t do nothing. I can’t put records out. I’m just stuck." I know what that feeling is and I refuse to do it to anybody else.

I just want artists and people who believe in themselves. And it’s not just about the saying. It’s not just about the Instagram life. It’s not just about all of that. Those who actually love and do the music but actually do understand the business and really want to get it done, we want to help them.

So to that end we have our first ever artists, Nick & Navi. They're a girl duo group. They are from Jamaica via Chicago and LA. They are brilliant. I can’t wait for people to see them. They are beautiful, they make great music, their voices are distinctive and they are self-starters. I don’t have to chase them into the studio to go record records because we might just need records. They do that and they write and they sing and they enjoy this. I am excited.

That’s great. I was talking to my friend the other day. He’s on a record label and he was like “Yeah I’m with this record label because when you release an album there’s a laundry list of things that need to get done.” So it sounds like you’re just helping the artist that you’re with and not trying to change them.

Absolutely. And this is the thing, all of my team have come from such a storied label background. We are very deep in the game. We see how the industry changes but there is definitely like a checklist and the artist has to be willing to want to do the work once it’s set up and that’s half the battle. I want artists who want to do this.

Right on. So what’s next for Estelle? What are you working on now? What are you excited about?

We are getting ready to go on the road. We are doing a tour for "Lovers Rock." I’m doing them smaller. I want people to come into my world. I want them to feel like they're in my living room when I was growing up with parents and my family. So like a family party, so I literally won’t be on stage half the time. I’ll be in the crowd singing.

I want people to feel that vibe. I want people to imagine they were sitting in my living room and kicking it with us and these were the songs that are playing. So it's going to go from African music to soul. There are the hits of course, the records that they know from me, but I want it to feel like that.

So we are doing these series of tours called The Estelle Experience. It kicks off February 6 in New York and we are going to make our way around the country from there. I’m excited.

That's amazing. Do you have any acting coming up?

Well I just finished a co-starring role in a film. I am not sure I can say the name yet, but I think it comes out mid to the end of the year. But yeah, I’m still on "Steven Universe," which is a cartoon in on. I play a character called Garnet. So yeah there will be more films, there will be more shows on TV, it’s going to be great, I’m excited.

Estelle, what aren’t you doing?

Sleeping .
Continued: Hear Estelle as my guest on 5 Songs We Can't Stop Listening To.

"Lovers Rock" by Estelle is available now.