It’s March 2019, and E^ST has just finished another EP. The Central Coast-born artist – real name Melisa Bester – had spent a week writing six songs in her home base of Sydney with Jim Eliot (the songwriter and producer who had a hand to play in Ellie Goulding’s ‘Anything Could Happen’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘All The Lovers’).
Feeling pretty chuffed about her efforts, she decided to show the friend she was staying with what she thought would be her fifth EP. Her thought process at the time, Bester tells NME, was: “‘Yeah, so that’s pretty awesome that I just did another EP in a week! Yep, that’s like ready to go’.”
But her friend’s reaction changed the trajectory of her year.
“She was kind of quiet,” Bester recalls, “And she looked at me with, like, squinted eyes and she was like: ‘No, this is not an EP… I feel like I’m halfway through an album right now’.”
That marked the birth of ‘I’m Doing It’, the long-awaited debut album from E^ST that finally dropped last Friday. It wasn’t something the 21-year-old had planned to make, and it wasn’t something she imagined she’d be doing at this point. “I think I knew that it was time, but the idea of the debut album was so daunting to me, there’s a lot of pressure,” she says.
Part of that pressure came, perhaps, from the fact that E^ST has been a familiar face in the Australian music community for some time now. She introduced herself in 2014 with the debut EP ‘Old Age’, and she’s dropped three more since.
The older she got, the more adventurous her music as E^ST became. She progressed from the haunting and brooding soundscapes sprawled across her first two EPs, and began to experiment with different sounds: shimmering synths and subtle but sparkling Auto-Tune. The turning point came in 2017 in the form of ‘Life Goes On’. The song soars with its bright piano chords, but it isn’t exactly optimistic. Rather, it’s anchored in realism – an acceptance that it is what it is.
This marks the central theme of ‘I’m Doing It’, which proves to be the most dynamic and versatile body of work we’ve seen from E^ST yet. The muted strums of opener ‘Fit For Company’ waltz beautifully into the percussive fire of ‘Flight Path’, while the goofy, circus pop of ‘Maybe It’s Me’ contrasts starkly from the eerie 1975-style synths of ‘Found Somebody’. On the raw, acoustic ‘Turn’, E^ST begins to believe that things aren’t destined to be doomed, and she celebrates with the cathartic screams of ‘Walking Home In The Rain’.
Covering a lot of sonic ground on her debut album was “definitely a really difficult thing to navigate”, Bester acknowledges. When you’re trying to define your sound and artistry to the world in a debut album, doing a lot can easily become doing too much. But E^ST stuck to her guns: “I then realised a lot of my favourite albums of all time are super adventurous, they are really dynamic, they’re really colourful.”
She cites Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’, her voice lighting up when she says it. “He has so many different moments on that album, and I just came to realise that never made me think any less of him as an artist. In fact, it just added to my admiration. So, over time, I just embraced the fact that I love incorporating lots of different things into my writing and my music.”
“It might not be a case of every fan is gonna like every song I release,” Bester says. But E^ST’s fans are a varied bunch, anyway: Bester says she has fans as young as eight and as old as 60. “I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not having a target audience.”
“I accept that I’m feeling down, but I’m still able to have fun around it, and I’m still able to have moments where I’m not totally encompassed by it”
‘I’m Doing It’ takes you on a quest through Bester’s attempt at self-discovery. She learns to gradually accept the new reality of no longer being with the one she loved, and how to thrive within that. The album begins with Bester self-deprecating and feeling hopeless, and closes with her feeling wide-eyed and peaceful – if only for a moment.
The journey the record holds in store for listeners mirrors the process of its creation. After the week writing with Eliot in Sydney, Bester flew over to meet him in Wales, where they spent six more weeks in June writing. Within those few months, Bester learned to feel hope again.
“There was a moment where I did realise that the songs that I was writing, later on, were a lot more fun, and had more of a feeling of hope and resilience to them,” she says. “That was because I changed as a person… from when I started writing the album to that point.”
But things didn’t go from bleak to sunny for Bester at the drop of a hat.
“I think it was: ‘Wow, I feel really defeated and down in life, too. OK’,” Bester says of the eventual conclusion she came to. “I accept that I’m feeling down, but I’m still able to have fun around it, and I’m still able to have moments where I’m not totally encompassed by it.”
“It’s so hard as a creative to justify taking downtime”
Bester describes songwriting as a “very self-regulating thing” for her, but it’s also the one thing she isn’t doing during the pandemic – a decision she initially felt anxious about.
“It’s so hard as a creative to justify taking downtime,” she says, “Because you feel like, ‘I should be creating. I can create something right now so I should’.”
“And the thing is you can’t. You can’t always pump it out. Watch Netflix and cook a curry – it’ll be OK, you can create something later.”
But there’s still a certain serendipity in the timing of ‘I’m Doing It’: a record in which E^ST tells herself, ‘It is what it is, and I’m OK with that’. She took years to build herself up and finally felt ready to give all of herself – her freedom and her pain – to the world before it stopped spinning.
But that’s OK, because – coronavirus or no – E^ST is here, and she’s finally doing it.
E^ST’s ‘I’m Doing It’ is out now