Views From The Studio With… Ester Dean: ‘Writing Songs Is Like Having Sex’
Ester Dean spills secrets from the booth in the first installment of a semi-monthly series on songwriters and producers called “Views From The Studio”
At the inquisitive age of nine, Ester Dean’s first recording session came in the form of a Just For Me perm box. Equipped with a mild set of hair-straightening chemicals, the kit also included a tape with instructions on how to apply the processed ingredients. To a precocious Dean, the tape wasn’t a how-to guide. She slapped her vocals over the audio on the cassette by holding down the play and record buttons on her tape recorder, laying down the composition for her first song.
Fast forward seven years later to where Dean performed one of the tracks she created titled “Gypsy Lady Tell My Future.” With lyrics like “Roll your crystal ball and tell me what dark stranger is coming to my door/Is he going to be the type of man that I’m going to be loving more?,” Dean still vows to perform the melody whenever she gets the chance.
For now, the singer-songwriter has come a long way from haircare and high school talent shows. The Oklahoma native’s lyrical prowess remains in high demand, especially when penning songs for A-list artists, like Beyonce and Katy Perry.
Here, we phoned the “Drop It Low” singer as she highlights the most intense moments of her career, distinguishing herself as a singer and a songwriter, and setting her sights on Hollywood.
VIBE: Before writing a track, do you have any rituals?
Ester Dean: I always have an electric heater behind my feet, but I like to be comfortable so that I can be vulnerable. That’s the whole point. [People] wonder why so many producers as artists are on the heavier side (laughs). It’s because you’re sitting there trying to get comfortable enough to let it all out. Writing a song is like breaking up with somebody everyday because you got to be emotional even if it’s a happy song or a party song. A writer or a producer has to be an emotional person so that when it’s time to lay down something, they’re spilling it out. I’m that type of girl who will tell you all of my business on the song.
VIBE: Have you ever hit writer’s block?
I had writer’s block for the last two years (laughs). I’ve been working in music since I was 13. I have never not been in the studio from a kid to now and I literally got to the point where I wrote a lot, said a lot, wrote for big artists and was like, ‘Okay what about Ester?’ What does Ester want because Ester has been doing the same thing for a lot of years.
Two years ago, I literally was like I want to do something new. It’s easy for me to go in the studio and record to beats that don’t sound inspiring. Writer’s block is you have a story to tell, still have lots of words in your head and lots of stories in your heart, but you’re just like who and what am I doing it for? Because you got the check and you’re on the biggest artists’ [songs] so who are you doing it for, which led me to do it for myself. I’m inspired now and I don’t have writer’s block anymore because I’m giving songs to myself as well as other people. It’s a new baby. I’m inspired by self and I’ve never been inspired by self. I’ve been inspired by working with Beyonce, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Usher. That was a high so now I’m like, ‘Oh shit, I did a song for Ester!’
VIBE: Describe your most intense writing session with another artist.
I’ve always had intense sessions, but first of all Ms. Beyonce is the nicest thing. We laugh, joke and play with each other and it’s amazing. She’s like my secret best friend but she doesn’t really know. I love her to bits. Her and Jay Z are just fun people to be around because you get to be yourself. For some reason, you’re like, ‘How am I able to be myself and not be tense around two people that are huge?’ I get to talk to her about my hair and my boyfriend problems. She coached me through getting a boyfriend and seeing what I wanted, but it’s so intense working with her because she’s like the last Mohican. She’s serious about her craft. She does not want just another hit song. She’s looking for something that says ‘Beyonce.’ She gives you these crazy beats and you’re like, ‘Whoa where am I going with it?’ But in her head, she already knows because she already got the dance moves, sees the vision and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to deliver this great woman something that’s never been done?’ And even if it’s been done, it’s been twisted in such a way that they’re like, ‘That’s new shit.’ Every time I go in there with Beyonce, it’s intense in my own spirit. She keeps it relaxed but I’m trying to figure out how am I going to get a number one on Beyonce because that’s the goal. The goal is Beyonce’s number one, and Ester Dean’s number one. That’s two things I got to get before life is over. And then I’ll go be a teacher or something.
VIBE: You’ve been in the writing game since 2007 on Mya’s “Ridin” and even a few years before that. Which song can you say has been your most defining moment?
[Rihanna’s] “Rude Boy.” When I saw that video, I cried because I always wanted that notoriety. That was a real moment. I had different songs before then, but that was my first number one and that was the first time that I knew that [I did a good job]. I tried to walk out of the “Rude Boy” session and my friend, rest in peace Stephanie Moseley, was sitting there. I said, ‘I’m going to leave’ and she said, ‘No, you stay here. You make sure you write this song.’ I wanted to be loyal to the camp that I was with and I felt like I was being unloyal, writing. I asked Rihanna, ‘What do you call boys from where you’re from?’ And she said, ‘We call them rude boy.’ I watched people dance, saw what their bodies do and then I put the [natural rhythm]. That was a time when I was about to give up and it actually worked out.
VIBE: When do you feel the most pressure: when you’re writing for someone else or when you’re writing for yourself?
I only feel pressure when people are standing the hell over me, talking about, ‘Can you give me a hit?’ Can you give me some space? I don’t know how this stuff comes, it’s coming but I don’t know how it’s coming so give me a moment. Now, I don’t allow A&Rs and producers in the studio with me. I just take tracks, write songs and deliver them when I’m done because, again, it’s about being comfortable. And if I’m wildin’ out in the studio, thinking I might want to cry and be in my feelings in the booth [or] say something that I would be embarrassed about saying, I can’t do that with people watching me. It’s a very intimate time. Writing songs for me is like having sex; you don’t want people watching you. You want to be alone, the doors are closed, and this is between me and my engineer.
VIBE: Do you sometimes feel overlooked because you’re often behind-the-scenes? Also, do you feel songwriters don’t get the credit they deserve?
I think it’s basically knowing what aisle you’re in and what you’re set up for. If you want a different look, you have to do different work. [With] songwriting, you kind of get to lay back there, eat the fries, don’t work out, don’t do public appearances, don’t do any of the work that the artist has to do and they do a lot of work. You’re not getting overlooked, you’re just in a position that you put yourself in and if you want more looks, do more things.
VIBE: Has there been a time where you had to turn down the opportunity to work with someone?
I was going to go work with Alicia Keys because she was finishing up her last album and I hated that I had to do it but I loved what I turned it down for. I had to do a whole week of press for Pitch Perfect and it was something I couldn’t get out of because it’s Pitch Perfect, you know? And that’s part of “doing the Ester Dean thing.” I wanted to work with [Alicia] so bad. And one time I was supposed to work with Moby. I was so mad I missed that.
VIBE: Being behind-the-scenes, you see things unfold in front of you that make your success so genuine.
I like to see what happens. I co-wrote “Firework” with Katy Perry and I literally cried during that movie The Interview. It wasn’t about what they call a “sync,” when you get a song in a movie or somebody licenses it, it’s about somebody taking the words and letting people know, ‘Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind?’ That means, ‘Have you ever felt like you’re so much of nothing that you’re just in the world unnoticed and uncared for?’ People want to just figure out how to get out of a situation and the way that they put that song in [The Interview] brought me to tears because I said, ‘That’s what it was about.’
It’s just a song for the world. I didn’t set “Firework” up. I was there, and sometimes as a songwriter, you have to know how to be a part, get on the passenger’s side and ride. A lot of writers don’t want to ride, they want to drive and when you’re with an artist, you let them drive and be there to support and do your part as a 50% shareholder. But you make sure you know that this person knows what they want on their album. You can’t tell them what they want. It’s best if people write with the artist than anything.
VIBE: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years, I have other plans outside of music (laughs). I see myself with a nice little baby and a beautiful house with a garden and going to do red carpets, and in movies, music, books and TV. A multi-faceted person. I want to be able to say I’m using everything, I’m at my 100% potential. Just being a fearless person and going after everything that I want. I could be a chef in 10 years, I could be an interior decorator. I could be an architect. I love to be creative.