Self Esteem: “I want to use the palatable nature of pop to Trojan horse in my agenda”

Rebecca Lucy Taylor is sick of society’s unrealistic expectations of women and, with sensational second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’, refuses to take it lying down

“I want to show, really authentically, what I look like in bed,” Rebecca Lucy Taylor announces, a couple of days ahead of her first-ever NME cover shoot.

Chatting over Zoom from a nondescript rehearsal studio in London, Taylor has the vision clearly laid out in her mind already: she’ll be propped up in a nest of pink satin – with a Tesco meal deal (preference: tuna and sweetcorn sandwich with salt and vinegar crisps and a Mars bar – “a high thread-count meal deal”) within arm’s reach. The musician wants to take the aesthetic of Britney Spears’ iconic 1999 Rolling Stone cover, and give it a relatable, tongue-in-cheek Self Esteem twist. “The reality,” she says, “is that women don’t look like that in bed.”

While Britney cuddled up next to a stuffed toy of the Teletubbies’ Tinky Winky for that cover back in the late nineties, there’ll be a beaming Kermit the Frog tucked underneath Taylor’s arm on her NME cover.

NME Cover 2021 Self Esteem
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

“Kermit represents my dream partner,” she says, without a visible hint of irony. “In Year Six, people would be like, ‘I fancy Robert Smith’. I’d be like, ‘Err – I fancy Kermit!’ In hindsight that’s probably the origin of my bisexuality,” she adds, before roaring with laughter. “He’s just a hot babe. All my major relationships have had really long arms and legs and bodies, so I think I’m a Kermit fetishist. He’s the most reliable lover of my…” Taylor stops herself, before adding: “I don’t fuck my teddy. But I don’t know – if my love life carries on how it is, I might have to.”

Such honesty is typical of Self Esteem, the name of the solo project Taylor launched in 2017 after leaving the indie-pop duo Slow Club. Currently, the 34-year-old musician is gearing up to release her second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’, and has been playing for her largest crowds yet thanks to the runaway success of her poppy and powerful recent single ‘I Do This All The Time’, which is now in regular rotation on 6 Music. It will no doubt receive a rapturous response at the upcoming Green Man festival in Wales’ Brecon Beacons, where she’ll play before headliners Teenage Fanclub on the weekend’s second-biggest second stage.

NME Cover 2021 Self Esteem
Self Esteem on the cover of NME

“It’s a big slot for me,” she says, explaining that the plan is to air more songs from the upcoming album, along with plenty of choreo party spirit. “With the live show that we’re doing, there are dance routines like Pussycat Dolls… because they’re fun to play on.” She adds: “I enjoy playing into really shiny pop tropes. What I want to do is to use the palatable nature of pop to Trojan horse in my agenda. While you think you’re listening to something sexy or fizzy and poppy, it’s actually me trying to school you about consent.”

While some artists tend to mull over their message carefully before serving up a stream of manicured, media-ready mission statements in interviews, Taylor rarely censors what’s on her mind – aside from an incredibly rare clarification about the nature of her relationship with Kermit – and views openness as an important quality.

Taylor brings up the circumstances which led Madonna to publish her 1992 erotic book SEX – after having her nude photos published in the mid-’80s without her consent, she decided to take back control of the narrative. “She was like, ‘I will do it before you can’,” Taylor says. “I get such a lot from oversharing: then everyone’s got the facts, everyone’s got the context. I’m a Libra who’s terrified of conflict.”

“Little Mix are more punk than a punk band sounding like every other punk band”

In one such attempt to avoid conflict, Taylor laid out her reasons for bailing on her mate’s awkward barbecue on the spoken-word verse of ‘I Do This All The Time’: “If I went to your barbecue, I’d feel uncomfortable and not be sure what to say anyway”. Today she explains: “If I just be myself so openly and truly, it means you can’t send me a big text being angry that I didn’t come to your birthday – I put it in that song; you heard me! The nudes that could leak of me are unimaginable. But if I’m empowered by myself, and accepting myself for myself, then I’m free from the fear that I spent a lot of my 20s in.”

Does she have any wisdom to bestow upon a Virgo who similarly struggles with the etiquette of ducking out of awkward gatherings? “Don’t send those long paragraph texts’,” she advises, quoting another of her lyrics. “I mean, it’s OK,” she concedes, “but you should avoid them, if you can.”

‘I Do This All the Time’ is undoubtedly her best single to date – a rumination on everything from music industry sexism to the obligation to attend those dreaded birthday drinks. Atop a slinking groove and sleazing yowls of guitar, Taylor also skewers the stifling pressure to ‘have it all’ as a woman in her 30s through one of the sharpest lyrical couplets of the year. “Getting married isn’t the biggest day of your life,” she deadpans, before the clouds in her voice part to reveal warm, blazing sun. “All the days that you get to have are big.”

NME Cover 2021 Self Esteem
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Though Self Esteem’s 2019 debut album ‘Compliments Please’ won Taylor plenty of fans with its barbed take on pop music, ‘I Do This All The Time’ represents her breakthrough moment ahead of ‘Prioritise Pleasure’. Her June rendition of the song on Later… with Jools Holland was one of the most powerful television performances of this year; as the lights burst into technicolour, Taylor throws her head back and beams with pure, undiluted glee. Though she initially set out to build a discography rather than one huge moment, she’s grateful for the steam it has gathered all the same.

“Mostly, I’m excited that the song isn’t a poppy sure-fire breakthrough,” she points out. “I still love that song; I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever made in my whole career.”

Many of ‘I Do This All The Time’’s lyrics refer to Taylor’s own experiences – the voice creepily calling her a “sturdy girl” is based on a real-life tour manager, while many of the reassurances – “don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have / Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun” – answer to the pressures that Taylor still feels.

“Kermit the Frog represents my dream partner. He’s just a hot babe”

“I was born in the ’80s, in Rotherham,” she says. “There was no way I wasn’t going to grow up thinking this is all well and good, but when I’m married and I have my children then I’m sorted. I still have that wiring. I start dating someone, and I’m like, ‘is this it?’ I have to go, hang on, is this what?’” Gradually undoing that same wiring, she says, has led her to some positive realisations – around the idea of a chosen family, for example. “I have a family and they’re not just people I’m related to,” Taylor says. “Humanity and connection and love doesn’t just have to be sexual. It’s all hard work, isn’t it?”

The advice-dispensing, spoken-word track has won understandable comparisons to Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 single ‘Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen’, a spoken-word song that issues sage nuggets of wisdom over woozy, lounge music. The sheer volume of comparisons eventually led Taylor to tweet about hypothetical male mourners who might crowd around her open casket following her death in order to whisper: “It’s like a Baz Luhrmann for women”.

But, ironically, ‘Sunscreen…’ has always been for women, and was indeed written by a woman – the lyrics come from a 1997 column by Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich. After the text circulated in viral emails, the author Kurt Vonnegut borrowed her words for a commencement address that year, and even now the lyrics of ‘Sunscreen…’ are often misattributed to him. Luhrmann’s track is also narrated by a man.

“Would it have been massive if it was a woman saying it?” Taylor wonders of Luhrmann’s track. “That’s the issue we have here – all the fucking time! It’s a toss up between it existing at all, or if it can only exist through this male lens, go on then. Which is what a lot of my life has been – going, ‘Oh, OK – fine.”

NME Cover 2021 Self Esteem
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

When Taylor was a kid, you’d usually find her hanging out at the local cricket ground, blasting Alanis Morisette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ out of a walkman and honing her vicious bowl. “I was weirdly quite good,” she says. “There’s something extremely soothing about it.”

At 15, she stopped playing cricket “because they changed the ball from the lighter junior ball to the real cricket ball – and by that time, I’d started to care whether I was pretty or not. I was like, I don’t want that cork and leather thing hurtling at my face when I’m trying to get a boyfriend pen-pal at Interpol gigs!”

Rapidly, gigs became “the fundamental cornerstone of my personality as a teenager. I caught Brian Molko’s plectrum and wore it round my neck,” Taylor says. “When I think about what I was probably like about music, it’s the absolute antithesis of who I am now. I was probably such a snobby cow about it, while secretly listening to, like, Destiny’s Child. Being in an indie band as well, I never truly became myself. I still have that mentality of needing to retain this faux-cool. I think we all do. You’re just sort of bluffing, until you’re not. That stopping-bluffing-ness has been the most joyful experience of my life.”

The song ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is the best thing I’ve ever made in my whole career”

Taylor formed Slow Club in Sheffield in 2006 with fellow instrumentalist Charles Watson. After just over a decade together, the duo parted ways. Though she remains proud of the songs she and Watson wrote together – and is clear she doesn’t blame anybody for making her feel this way – Taylor began to feel suffocated by a sense of duty to the band. “The amount of songs I had that couldn’t go through the Slow Club lens – that then had to just disappear – was quite debilitating artistically,” she says.

Though Taylor doesn’t dwell on her sexuality (“my Wikipedia page says that I’m bisexual, and I’m like, ‘Wow – that’s news?”), going solo has proved freeing in certain ways. Looking back, she recognises the “inherent masculinity” and straightness of the indie scene Slow Club moved in.

“We had Amelie, Zooey Deschanel, and Bright Eyes… I mean, I fucking love Bright Eyes but there would always be the one pretty girl who would come and sing with them,” she despairs. “Now that whole aesthetic makes me ill and I just can’t bear it. Realising my sexuality wasn’t a massive deal, but it did make me feel odd about what I presented to an audience, and having to sing songs that couldn’t represent just my feelings was just very restrictive.”

NME Cover 2021 Self Esteem
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

She says that breaking away to do her own thing has been “the greatest joy”, adding: “Everything about that world was like, ‘Ooh – we just happen to be playing our songs quietly, don’t look at me, don’t make any sort of spectacle out of me; I’m just sort of accidentally talented. That’s something I never enjoyed about it. I want to put on a show – I want it to be too much!

“As a little girl this is what my life was like. I used to just write plays and do dances. I had this character called the Babylon Sorceress – she had this long purple dress with big sleeves and red hair. A very Florence [and The Machine] vibe actually. I told Florence about her. She was this misunderstood sorceress that was very cool, and I was very enamoured. All my female leads were very isolated and alone, and now look! My life was this Freddie Mercury fucking show. For a decade of my life, that was the worst thing about me. Now, to celebrate it is just hilarious.”

These days, channelling the singular spirit of the Babylon Sorceress, Self Esteem certainly puts on a show. As an artist she wilfully embraces the ridiculous, and also the ridiculously fun: when she’s not whirling around the stage dressed in a dress made out of Boots advantage cards, she’s paying homage to Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour by performing intricate choreo in a shoulder-padded suit and lacy lingerie.

“It would be uncomfortable for me to sing a generic song about nothing”

When we speak today, Taylor is taking a break from rehearsing the “dramatic entrance” segment of her Green Man show. “For the whole of this ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ era, the Blonde Ambition tour is the blueprint,” she explains, expanding on what she’ll be bringing to the stage. “There will never be anything more perfect to me than mixing lingerie with menswear, and what that represents and makes me feel like.” Pulling together an arena-level pop show fit for a mountainous Welsh festival has been tiring, but, she says: “It pays off. People love the gigs; they’re amazing, it’s an experience. I work hard now in a way I’ve always wanted to work. I’m knackered now at the end of a gig and it feels amazing”.

And, true to its title, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ as a whole is an album that champions putting yourself first – even if it makes certain people uncomfortable. “I’ve done years of therapy, done plenty of work on myself, and read every fucking book you can fucking read about it, and it comes back down to true self-acceptance and self-love,” Taylor says. “It’s the answer to everything, but it’s still something that you’re meant to not do. I go down this road a lot, and I get quite upset. But then I think, no – just keep in my little part of the world, my group, accepting myself, loving myself, and then make my little silly songs and do my little silly dances. And if someone can learn from that and pass it forward, at least I’m doing something?”

This same boldness is also evident in ‘Prioritise Pleasure’’s sound, which often springs up from a particular kind of steamy, slower-burning pop, and warps it – and for every chipper nu-disco bass-line, there’s a left-field touch of abrasiveness. “Sexting you at the mental health talk feels counter-productive,” Self Esteem belts out on ‘Moody’, her sheer honesty jarring with a snappy alphabet-chant chorus.

NME Cover 2021 Self Esteem
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

On the thumping title track, she reflects on the freedom she feels both as a solo artist and a woman as stuttering synths assemble into a gigantic grinding wall. “Prioritise pleasuring me, no need to wait for bended knee,” she demands, “I’m free.” Though she doesn’t view herself as a pop star, Taylor enjoys inhabiting that world anyway – and has little time for snobby attitudes towards pop music.

“If you listen to a Little Mix song, they’re fucking wild production wise,” she says. “They take risks on production that you would never hear a guitar band do – and that’s more punk to me than a punk band sounding like every other punk band. The scope that pop has sonically and aesthetically is just a much more vibrant place. All I want to do is inhabit the world where anything’s possible – I think a lot of weirdos, a lot of artistic people, are making music that falls under that [pop] bracket.”

In recent live performances, Self Esteem’s kick drum has been printed with another of her go-to slogans: ‘keep lyrics uncomfortable’. Though it’s not intended as a serious mantra, “it’s funny because it’s true,” Taylor says. “In art there’s nothing more exciting than that, to me. If I go to a gallery and it’s just a painting of a blue square, I find what I can from it, but I much prefer [Serbian performance artist] Marina Abramović telling me about some deep, dark terror.

“They’re not uncomfortable for me. It would be uncomfortable for me to sing a generic song about nothing. There’s people who make music which is just like, ‘La, la, la’, and they fit some words in it. Having nothing to say?” Taylor laughs. “Can’t imagine it.”

Self Esteem plays Green Man festival this weekend

CREDITS

Hair & makeup by Poppy France using Kjaer Weis, Nars cosmetics and John Freida
Styling by Thomas George Wulbem