At three years old, Estelle’s parents went their separate ways. When the “American Boy” singer turned 23, her parents rekindled their relationship. Once she hit 33, they got married. Now at 38, Estelle is ready to put her parents’ love lost, yet love found storyline at the center of her new project, Lovers Rock (VP Records/Est. 1980).
The West London native says it took her three or “close to four” years to finetune and be more than satisfied with writing this chapter in her musical journey. She stressed that the album was not a “concerted effort,” but something that came naturally to her as she was in the studio day in and day out. With the green light from her team—all of whom noticed Estelle’s new musical direction—she began to piece together her parents’ melodic memoir based on their relationship and even found the process therapeutic. Looking to prominent artists like Dennis Brown, Bob Marley and The Wailers, and Fela Kuti, Estelle noticed that not only did the sounds of her childhood help guide her throughout this album, but the lyrics served as an outpour of locked away thoughts and unnoticeable realizations. “I started reading like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m really talking about things I’ve been through but relating it to my parents.’ I realized I was repeating some things,” she says within our 35-minute conversation. “I had to work my way out through those songs and write a different ending.”
Prior to sticking to the concept of the album, the Grammy winner also had to work her way through getting answers from her father’s separation from her mother. Questions like “Where the hell were you for 20-something years? What did you think was going on?” rapidly flowed out of Estelle’s mouth. But her father responded in a way she didn’t expect; he remained steadfast in answering the hard inquiries that loomed over his daughter’s head. “He showed up and he wasn’t embarrassed, he didn’t punk out on hard questions and was respectful when he was answering them with respect for my mother in a way I’ve never seen a man have respect for my mum,” she admits. “And he didn’t have to do it.”
These revelations and the most personal parts of Estelle’s life carry out through the course of her layered 13-track soundscape. “Love Like Ours,” which boasts a hip-swaying bass line, fully captures the scope of her parents’ bond. Her parents initially separated because of their families’ doubtfulness. “No, we don’t like this, we can’t see nothing good,” was just one sentiment the units spewed. She adds her parents refrained from tackling their goals and dreams together due to outside influences. Another song that speaks to that experience is “Sweetly.” Estelle says it was the hardest track to write given that it depicts the break-up period of a relationship.
“How do I write that, how do I describe how that goes down bearing in mind all of his efforts and bearing in mind all of her efforts?” she says. “How do I write this into a song without making them feel crazy, without it sounding wild, just saying you hurt me and I’m going to kill you, or I wish everything bad on you? Sometimes it’s not that, sometimes it’s a complete dissolution of the relationship and that’s what essentially happened. They didn’t get to break up properly and be like, ‘I don’t see it anymore.’ ” From that perspective, Estelle had to figure out how to translate decades of ups and downs from her parents’ relationship into a 45-minute album.
To reflect that journey, the Steven Universe actor hosted a listening party at New York City’s swanky Gold Bar on Thursday evening (Sep. 6). Burrowed within the Bowery section of the Big Apple, eager fans lined the gold-skulled walls to hear the musician speak on her 20-year prowess as an artist, which was commemorated by a congratulatory voicemail from her parents. Before the bashment occurred, which promoted a mix of new school vibes like Ding Dong’s “Lehbeh Lehbeh” to Destra’s 2015 soca hit “Lucy,” Estelle gushed about her musical baby and thanked everyone in attendance for their support throughout her career.
“We’re so delighted about the launch of this new album,” her mother said. Her father added how Estelle captured life experiences over “crisp, flowing” rhythms.
Although the concept record has a niche tale, Estelle also inserted her own experiences of love and the good and bad it entails. “I used to repeat the idea of needing it to be a whole mess of a relationship before it got to be good. I don’t believe that anymore, I don’t want that anymore,” Estelle says. “I realized that’s living in a state of turmoil on purpose. I refuse to do that because I love myself. I realized that I was living in one version of love versus what true love can actually be and it doesn’t have to be tied to pain just to get to that point.”
A Newfound Connection To Heritage And Femininity
With roots in both Senegal and Grenada, the backdrop to Lovers Rock partly serves as a lifelong musical exploration of her parents’ homelands. Estelle previously explored music indigenous to the West Indies such as her Shine (2008) cuts “Come Over” with Sean Paul and “Magnificent” with Kardinal Offishall, and “She Will Love” from 2015’s True Romance.
For her parents’ first trip together to her father’s home of Grenada in 2016, the “Conqueror” singer says she learned of her great-grandfather and his brother’s steel band stardom that crossed the Caribbean Sea. From then, a talent for instruments began to weave itself within Estelle’s family, leading to her passion for utilizing sounds from the African Diaspora. To make her parents smile from ear to ear, Estelle also performed at the country’s first Pure Grenada Music Festival two years ago, a moment that served as an out-of-body experience for the highly-decorated artist. “That was glorious to go and do that with them there and then have them come to the show as well and be super honored and be like ‘wow that’s our kid. Holy crap.’ I was up there having a good time, praying not to offend them with my wining. Meanwhile, they’re like ‘yes, do it all’ [Laughs] which is kind of cool.” Their experience in the Spice Isle might influence a documentary, Estelle notes, which will unpack conversations on her grandparents’ upbringing and hearing “the reality of what your parents are saying in a different way as an adult than you do as a kid.”
It’s fitting that Estelle decided to name her project not only after a genre of music that is instrumental to her current sound and an era that was the soundtrack to her parents’ then-budding romance but one that highlights tender love over bass lines native to reggae music. Lovers Rock rose to prominence as a subgenre of reggae in London during the 1970s. Boasting melodies derived from the Rocksteady discography (Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor), Estelle worked with famed producers like SupaDups, Jerry Wonda, Harmony Samuels and more.
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On the artist spectrum, those who carry on the sounds of their predecessors landed on the soundscape, one namely being Tarrus Riley. The Jamaican artist is featured on Estelle’s “Love Like Ours” melody, one of the singles that paved the way for the Londonite’s album. In addition to Riley, Estelle also contracted the voices of Kranium (“Don’t Wanna”), Konshens (“Really Want”), Chronixx (“Queen”), Luke James (“So Easy”), and Maleek Berry (“Meet Up”). While it was paramount for her to tap into different tones and ranges from these artists—she says the male voices on the album represent her father’s “physical and literal voice” — it was vital for her to also highlight women in dancehall and reggae music. HoodCelebrityy, who rose to stardom with the 2017 single “Walking Trophy,” and Chicago twins — by way of Jamaica — Nick & Navi whose single “Hot” is catching like wildfire on playlists, all find a space within Lovers Rock to showcase their skills and stand firm for women in a male-dominated field.
“These three women to me represent the young faces of dancehall music for young women and I love it,” she says. “It’s good to see and they’re all self-starters, number one. Two, they’ve been working, and three they’re from New York, the Midwest via Jamaica, Chicago, and then they’re from London. They’re from all different points of the chart but they all have their origins in Jamaica in reggae music in the West Indies.”
To continue in this sentiment, Lovers Rock also hosts two songs that serve as empowering references for women across the globe. “Ain’t Yo B***h” and “Queen” place Estelle in a position of reasserting her power in the face of anti-feminism. Produced by Kadis, and Jerren “J-KITS” Sprull and Chris Cornwell, respectfully, the singer-songwriter’s premise was to write statements she wished her mother would’ve utilized to defend herself against naysayers. “I know my mum wanted to but wasn’t strong enough or have the words back then to say or to do when people were talking to her crazy or trying to direct her life in a certain way,” she says. The aforementioned stress the fact that women (black women in particular) still rise above the toxicity that lurks around a corner (office), and attributed a quote by the late Aretha Franklin to amplify her song choices.
“Queen Aretha said it best: don’t you ever respond to a whistle or clap or the click of the fingers. You’re a woman, you’re a human, you’re not a dog and I’ve always walked with that sentiment like ‘who are you talking to?’ ” she says. “Or I’m going to redress your words and tell you how you should speak to me. And if you don’t and if you feel comfortable being disrespectful I’m never going to acknowledge you. From that point on, we do not acknowledge you and that’s my philosophy on life in general. To me, it was making sure those words were visceral, clear and they weren’t too wordy. They were very clear, like I’m not your b***h.”
The messages on Estelle’s “as told to” album are loud and clear, pinballing between happiness and sadness, resentment and reconciliation, and the loudest message of the bunch: to all the lovers out there, rock on.