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Get to Know: Esther Rose

 A woman in a grey tank top stands in the corner of a room with tiled walls, both arms spread wide against the tile.

Radio Milwaukee’s stations introduce you to new artists every day. This is your chance to learn a little more about them beyond what you hear on our playlists. Consider it a meet-and-greet, CliffsNotes and elevator pitch all rolled into one.

Santa Fe transplant by way of New Orleans, Esther Rose sings popped-up modern folk-country loaded with wry takes on the parts of life you want to brush under the rug. You may have heard 88Nine playing lead single “Chet Baker,” a song about what Rose calls the “willful recklessness” of her 20s in Ann Arbor, Mich.

These days, Rose looks back to a time when she was always on the move, trying to sort things out — then sorts out those moments in song.

Recently signed to New West Records, her newest album, Safe To Run, features plenty of stellar yarns and equally stellar contributions from Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, Cameron Snyder of the Deslondes and New Orleans-based band, Silver Synthetic.

Rose booked a lengthy string of summer tour dates for her newest record and drops by Milwaukee’s Cactus Club this Friday with New Orleans pals, The Deslondes, in tow. Before coming to town, she took the time to chat with 88Nine about growing up in Michigan, her biggest inspiration and her process for (and some of the fun guests on) Safe To Run, which you can grab right now on her Bandcamp page.

 A woman stands with both hands clasped behind her head while looking at the camera.

What was on the home turntable or radio in your house growing up?

We were a tape-cassette household. My favorite was a burned tape of The Beatles — side A was The White Album, and side B was Revolver. I flipped that tape a million times. My dad would listen to gospel and Motown radio stations, so I heard a lot of local groups, plus soul standards like Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers and Anita Baker. On the school bus, I heard ’90s country like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Fly by The Chicks.

What was the first instrument you picked up? And what was the first instrument (voice included) that felt like "you"?

Singing has always been there. My two sisters and I learned how to sing three-part harmonies to please our parents. We would perform at various religious functions. Learning how to harmonize as a child had a profound impact on my life and my connection to music.

Who is your inspiration, musician or otherwise?

Bonnie Raitt. Whenever I'm feeling bummed out about where I’m at in my career or start playing the comparison game, I look to Bonnie. From what I’ve read, she was releasing great albums year after year, but she had her breakthrough when she was in her 40s on Luck of the Draw. I love how she defies what we might expect of female musicians. She seems like a good person. I love you, Bonnie.

What were your early years in Michigan like? Does Michigan still feel like home to you?

I had the typical outsider childhood — I had a bully and occasionally ate my lunch in the restroom. I liked to be outside in the trees. I had a couple of false starts and then launched from Michigan for good when I was 23 and haven’t returned much.

I think I’m a happier person in warmer, sunnier climates. I’m not sure how much of it was Michigan or just being a weirdo art kid in a small town, but I needed to set myself free. But if you bump into me in the grocery store (or party store) I will “ope, sorry” you. The Midwestern runs deep.

How'd you get hooked up with your newest label home, New West Records?

They’ve been following my career since I released my debut album, This Time Last Night — probably because that record would not have been made without members of The Deslondes, from playing in the band to co-producing. It’s very full circle to now be labelmates with those guys, at long last!

Your new album, Safe To Run, was mainly written after a big move from New Orleans to Santa Fe. What brought you from one place to the other? How did (and do) both places influence this new record, lyrically and sonically?

I’ve been fantasizing about living in New Mexico for many years and finally made the leap. I’m grateful to have had a soft landing. As a songwriter, I am witnessing my community, be it the natural elements or human aspects. As an artist, I try to reflect the times. And I am deeply inspired by the beauty of the land and of the people in both New Orleans and New Mexico.

Do you feel you had to wait a while until it was "safe to run" recently? Are you happiest when you're in motion?

I wrote that song in October 2020. Deep quarantine, the West was on fire, it was an election year — I was riddled with anxiety. My heart was also cracking open to new love. It was complex. Usually, when things are effed up, I run. I’m not much for freezing. But I’ve been learning about that and resisting the urge to fly.

The complete line in the song is: “You know there’s no place safe to run.” It’s about accepting that there is no greener pasture, no sanctuary. So why not stick around and see what’s there?

Who are some of your notable collaborators on this new record? How do you decide to collaborate with other musicians: Is it more organic or do you have things planned out more?

I thought of Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff) for the title track because they have one of my favorite voices in the world. It was a dream come true to collaborate on this. I like to work with people that I know or have been around. I’m really sensitive in the studio (and in life), and I try to surround myself with other sensitive, kind people. Similarly with Silver Synthetic, they are such a great group of guys to work with. I care more about good eye contact rather than clout.

With many years as a musician under your belt, what processes have you learned to gravitate toward that work best for your creative flow?

I still love my slow, quiet mornings. Please never call me or come over before noon. I am not sleeping; I’m sitting at my desk with my guitar in my lap, looking at the light and shadows on the trees through my window, trying to stop the onslaught of time, and listening for songs.

We're currently playing "Chet Baker.” What's the mood of this particular song? I understand that it dives deep into your more "reckless" years and was an unexpected story for you to write.

I started playing guitar and writing songs when I was 28, so people sometimes ask me what I was doing with my life until then. My best friend Julia Sanders says I was “gathering art supplies.” This song is about one night when I was 23 and metaphorically went on a shopping spree at Michaels'.

What's your favorite non-music thing to do when you have free time? Have any cool or unusual hobbies?

Rock climbing occasionally with my boyfriend. Going to Barre classes. Dancing all night at raves. Learning how to DJ.

Favorite non-you artist right now and why?

Dean Johnson because he writes the best songs, period.

What can fans expect at your upcoming show at Milwaukee's Cactus Club?

No expectations. Just a chance to share 45 minutes of our lives together!

88Nine Music Director | Radio Milwaukee