This article originally appeared in BRICKS #10, The Family Issue, which you can buy from our online store here.
What does good pop music sound like in 2021? I’m sure it’s a question many artists will have pondered in the past year, perhaps from their luxurious mansions, or on a fag break during a busy shift at a beat-down pub, or maybe in a bubble bath just before bed. It’s a question I’ve thought a lot about too, albeit from my sofa and in my slippers, where absolutely no one is expecting the answer to come from. As musicians emerged from their varying states of isolated living (while I continued critiquing from my comfort), we caught our first glimpses of a response – some tackling the complexities of the strained past two years with a pop-punk revival, though severely missing the stern admonishments of the government’s pandemic mishandlings in the true spirit of its punk predecessors; others with a delicate, introspective intimacy, much fading away due to its dejected solipsism; some using the escapist nostalgia of disco or folklore to ignore this year altogether.
For Rebecca Taylor, better known as artist Self Esteem, there was only one way to respond to the strangeness and anxieties of life in the grey area of pandemic recovery – with complete honesty. Having spent the majority of her 20s lending her impressive vocals to indie two-piece Slow Club, Taylor re-emerged under the experimental-pop guise of Self Esteem, complete with vast gospel choruses, thrashing drum solos and truth-telling lyrics rich in her self-effacing sense of humour. She’s not scared of the dramatic – in fact, she revels in it – and in the years since first embarking as a soloist, her unapologetic attitude has only continued to flourish.
This can be best heard on her new album’s first single, the emboldening ‘I Do This All The Time’, which was released in April to immediate praise. She was inspired to reimagine Baz Luhrmann’s spoken-word anthem ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’, explaining it had been on a vague list of future goals for years (the list currently includes releasing a “2022 version” of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirty’, recording a reality series of her bandmates on tour and producing a one-woman show). “I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs in the world,” she says, “so I started playing around with the idea and thinking about what it would sound like if I wrote it. In the band, I was so unhappy and uninspired, so to have this opportunity now to be myself has been amazing, but sometimes it’s been quite demanding and that can make you jaded. I wanted to reconnect with the music I used to love and remind myself of what I loved about it.”
I’m glad I could articulate that, like how fucking dare you take my right to be a sexual woman in the world away from me?
Taylor had been working on the upcoming album since the release of her solo debut Compliments Please in 2019, and was in LA gearing up for a set at the South by Southwest festival when COVID-19 struck. Back in her family home for lockdown, she admits the enforced rumination period altered her production process: “I’d go on long walks listening to my demos, figuring out why I wanted them to sound a certain way and which bits I wanted to change. Not being able to make quick changes meant I was taking the time to consider each decision a lot more and I think that’s why I feel so confident now. There are no question marks on it for me.”
On Compliments Please, she flexed her newfound freedom as a solo artist, penning assertive anthem ‘The Best’ and expressing a fresh confidence in her sexuality on ‘Girl Crush’. But it’s her latest album, Prioritise Pleasure, that sees Self Esteem embody her alias to new success. The first track, ‘I’m Fine’, is a biting comeback against misogynistic culture, featuring a conversation Taylor recorded years before with a member of the National Youth Theatreabout protecting themselves from male violence. At one point, the driver explains one tactic for frightening potential attackers; by barking at them. Her final words – “There’s nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged,” – ring eerily true amidst the high-profile cases of violence against women such as Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa this year. It is the first of many poignant and goose-bump-inducing moments across the album, and Taylor says it’s the track that she’s most proud of: “I was just glad I could articulate that, like how fucking dare you take my right to be a sexual woman in the world away from me?”
At our photoshoot today in Brixton, Taylor is adorned with ostrich feathers, opulent jewels, and a litter of stuffed animal dogs. Between shots, she uploads a BTS to her infamous Instagram account, which is where she first developed her moniker and pop persona as Self Esteem. Since 2017, the account has amassed a small army of loyal devotees following as she documents the triumphs of her exceptional year – ‘I Do This All The Time’s first radio play shared via live stream, a summer filled with reemerging festival sets, and just last week, her win as Best Music Act at the Attitude Awards.
“I remember getting a Twitter account when I was in Slow Club and no one else had social media… it was seen as a lame thing we shouldn’t do. I always enjoyed the outlet to express myself because in the band my vision had to be combined with everyone else’s and watered down, and I didn’t realise how important it was to be able to fully express my ideas until I had Self Esteem as an outlet.”
A 2017 documentary, Our Most Brilliant Friends, captures the painful deterioration of Slow Club on what would become their final tour of the UK, and Taylor’s unhappiness during the tour is heartbreakingly evident. After a decade of relentless van packing, travelling far from home, sleeping in shit hotels, missing friends, and compromising her creative vision, she could no longer avoid or downplay her misery. While the monotonies of a touring artist have changed little, her past life is a far cry from the set-up she now surrounds herself with, opting for a close-knit entourage of backup vocalists and dancers. On stage, this has created new avenues in choreography and styling to see Self Esteem take hold within. Offstage, and perhaps more importantly, it has given Taylor what she previously missed – a group of supportive friends with her for the ride, and a vital way to remain grounded when the demands of a tour become overwhelming.
I was finally able to realise that it’s up to me to give myself back what I deserve.
“I had some trauma with somebody and navigating that and the eventual fallout from that was very difficult,” she says of her growth. “So many women have experienced it in some way or another, but the way I was processing it – or wasn’t – wasn’t working, I was keeping it inside and it was making me very angry. I was angry because I had to be silent about it and I realised I was never going to get the karma I wanted from it. But what I was finally able to realise is that it’s up to me to give myself back what I deserve. No one is going to do it for you, and learning that shrinking yourself doesn’t protect you has been really powerful. I’m proud of saying now that I won’t give in, and I won’t stop being free.”
As Self Esteem, Taylor is living proof that we can all grow from what we’ve experienced and the power of embracing your whole self. There’s no one better than Taylor to offer some sage words of advice to our readers, so we posed your burning questions, dating faux-pas and post-lockdown life problems to the artist – you’re welcome.
Help – I always say “I’m fine” when people ask me how I am, even when I feel like shit. How can I be more honest without sounding miserable all the time?
My whole life I never wanted to get in trouble – I think it started in school with being well behaved and then I carried that into my 20s and 30s – and I never wanted to disrupt what everyone else wanted. Once you get brave enough and can cope with the idea that someone else thinks you’re miserable, you’re free. My advice is to reclaim the word ‘miserable’ and ‘no’. Life gets a lot easier when you ask for what you need, but that’s only possible if you can build an armour against how uncomfortable it is to say no. And you’ll be a better person if you put yourself first, you’ll be a better colleague or partner or friend. If we prioritise ourselves and we’re the best versions of ourselves, we’ll be better for everyone else.
I’ve started getting nervous around a new female coworker. She’s really funny and I think she’s gorgeous, and I look forward to seeing her at work. How do you know if it’s just a ‘girl’ crush or something more?
For me, I’ve never struggled with the fact that I fancy everyone. I call so many people my partner, not in a polyamorous way, but I’m in love with lots of people and I fancy lots of people, and I have these partnerships – some of whom I have sex with, and a lot of them I don’t – and just enjoy human beings and exploring those interactions.
Also, the terminology of straight, gay, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife… they’re all made up by a religion that many of us don’t follow anymore. So just communicate, and don’t freak out. If it’s a crush on someone who’s a girl, I guess you can call it a girl crush, but I would just call it a crush. Life gets a lot more exciting when you let yourself fancy whoever you want.
I’ve spent the whole pandemic complaining about being single and stuck indoors, but now that the world has opened up, I keep cancelling on plans to go out, but I feel guilty for staying in. How do I get back out there and leave the house?
I’m doing so much press at the moment and they always ask ‘what does prioritising pleasure mean to you?’ and they think I’m going to talk about my dildo, but it means not forcing yourself out when you don’t want to. It means not going to that BBQ or that christening of someone’s kid who you don’t know and won’t care about who was there or not, and relieving yourself of the guilt of not going. That’s how I prioritise my pleasure, by doing the things that actually make me feel good, and that means I’m going to leave the party early even if my mates are begging me to stay for another one. So, I’m afraid my advice is to stay in.
About six months ago, my husband was on a work Zoom call, and for a laugh I thought it would be funny to flash him, forgetting there was a gigantic mirror behind him and I flashed all of his coworkers, who I’m now seeing for the first time since next week. How do I style this one out?
Legend! That’s fucking cool. You style it out by just laughing about it – life gets a whole lot easier when you stop being embarrassed by things that can be funny. I think it’s legendary behaviour and I’m sure it was the best day at work for all of your husband’s coworkers. Or a “you’re welcome” would suffice.
Life gets a lot more exciting when you let yourself fancy whoever you want.
I think I’m blind to red flags, I recently went home with a guy who pushed an unsuspecting cyclist in a canal during our date. How do you spot red flags in the moment?
Well, I mean, it depends on what you’re into, isn’t it? I think now I’m at my most sure of myself, and with all the things we’re doing [as Self Esteem] and I’m banging on about it all the time I think I’ve started to attract more like-minded people and therefore there are fewer red flags around. My advice is to really get to know yourself and the things you really love about yourself. I find ‘just love yourself’ to be a really hard thing to say because it sounds very icky and live, laugh, love-ish, but it is true, and when you do that you will notice a shift in the people you attract and are attracted to, and then maybe you’ll find someone who won’t push people in canals.
Next week I’m going to a family wedding and I’m petrified of the catch-up small talk. What’s the best way to respond to a distant family member’s rude or ignorant questioning?
I hate that shit, I’ve gotten way worse at putting up with it as I’ve gotten older. It’s a toss-up, because if someone raises something that you feel strongly against but you know challenging it will cause more problems, then I think my advice is to pick your battles wisely. But my advice for small talk is just to ask them loads of questions and let them talk about themselves because that’s way less taxing than you having to think of family-friendly responses. And maybe watch some Strictly Come Dancing before you go, just as a backup.
I’ve been speaking to this guy for almost a year throughout the pandemic, it started as innocent flirting but became pretty intense as time went on. We met up two weeks ago and had a great date, but afterwards had some pretty awkward sex and now he’s ghosting me. Is he being rude or just embarrassed?
Eugh. I mean sex is awkward sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it again. I don’t think anyone’s first time sleeping together is mindblowing. Usually, you’ve not got enough intel. You need to formulate your findings and put them into practice.
I think ghosting can be useful but can also be awful. I’ll admit I’ve definitely done both plenty in the past, but I’m more upfront about my feelings now. Before, I remember thinking “maybe their phone has died” or “maybe they’re just busy” but I think facing the reality is always better – if he isn’t texting you back, forget him. Don’t lose yourself in the feeling that you’ve done something wrong or you’re not good enough, and ask yourself how much you actually like them or if you just want them to like you.
I have become obsessed with astrology and the birth charts of people I’m dating. If they’re an incompatible sign I get the ick. Is this a bad thing?
I’m a Libra with Pisces everything else which is why I’m the most sensitive person in the world, and I’m really into astrology, I definitely think there’s something in it. I’ve dated someone who was an incompatible sign before and everything about it, it said the sex will be good but everything else will be terrible, and I thought surely that wouldn’t be the case, and it absolutely was. So I think give people an opportunity to defy their star sign, but as a blueprint, stick to your most compatibles. I’m dating a Gemini at the minute and we’re not the most perfect match on paper but we’re alright, and we’re humans so we communicate and work through things if there are problems.
I’ve been dating this girl for the past couple of months and it’s been going well, however throughout the week she sends me memes or TikToks she thinks are hilarious that mostly I don’t find funny at all. Is this destined to fail?
You know, my best mate sends me TikToks all the time that I don’t find funny all the time, there’s something about TikTok that definitely plays into niche senses of humour. But this isn’t a deal-breaker – what I’m only just learning is that no one person is going to tick every box, or have the same opinion as you about everything. I used to put humour above everything, and my sense of humour has always been a bit weird, but the people I’ve dated that I did think were hilarious weren’t great in other ways.
I’ve spent the past year the least active I have ever been, drinking the most and have almost totally forgotten how to cook or look after myself. How do I get my shit together? I feel like I’m in my flop era.
My therapist once said to me – and I remember thinking, ‘why am I paying for this?’ – she said, “you just need some willpower.” And I thought that it wasn’t groundbreaking advice at all, but over time as it seeped in, I realised she was totally right. I think the idea that you naturally get your shit together as an adult is totally untrue. You have to motivate yourself, and her saying willpower to me honestly changed my life. It helped me realise when there’s a choice to be made that I could be making and I’m not. Take it in small steps, start with one thing and just see how consistently you can keep at it. And focus on the right goals – don’t worry about weight or a specific size or something, but on feeling optimum in yourself.
Every day is a gift, and so if you look at it like that, ask yourself, how do you make sure you’re living every day in the best way you can? You know what to do, so just be honest with yourself and start doing it.
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