Esmé Patterson Speaks for the Women of Your Favorite Pop Songs
The Denver songwriter re-imagines songs like "Eleanor Rigby," "Alison," and "Jolene" from the female perspective.
Stuck in a hotel room one winter evening, Denver songwriter Esmé Patterson was learning to play Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” on her guitar, and as she learned the lyrics, she began to feel annoyed. “Her age is always 22... Loves me like I want her to” Van Zandt sings about a young bar-room girl he likes to hook up with whenever he’s in town. “Long and lazy, blonde and free... And I can have her any time.”
After learning Van Zandt’s song, Patterson felt inspired to write a song from the perspective of “Loretta,” informing this patronizing patriarch that she will “keep my dancing shoes on long after you’re gone.” Patterson then realized that pop history is loaded with songs addressed to female protagonists, all of whom never got the chance to respond with a song of their own. Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” the Band’s “Evangeline,” Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No,” the Beatles' “Eleanor Rigby,” soon she found herself having written a whole collection of fan-fiction response songs, assembled in the album Woman to Woman, released this spring.
Since then, Patterson has been both championed by feminists and scorned by music geeks, who question her right to tamper with history. The characters brought to life in these songs run a dark gamut from morbid to merciless, with her Alison telling young Costello to “keep thoughts of me in my party dress out of your head… I’ll make love to whoever I want,” and responds to Jolene’s pleas to not take her man with “your man don’t mean a thing to me.”
We recently chatted with Esmé Patterson about her pop-fiction album, debating the sacrilege of song, the confines of concept art, and why she failed at responding to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.”
Noisey: When you began writing these songs, you were just coming off of promoting an album that was very personal and emotionally thick; was there an attraction to writing songs about fictional characters instead of people in your life?
Esmé Patterson: Yeah, it was a nice respite from writing those personal songs and write about someone else’s problems. But I also think that when you’re writing fiction—no matter if it’s music or literature—even if it has nothing to do with your own life, you show up as a character, or just some philosophy you subscribe to gets put in there.
It was an interesting game for me to see where I ended up in the songs; where my life and experiences would end up in whose stories. And sometimes it was surprising. Like with the song “Tumbleweed,” which was the response to the Townes Van Zandt song “Loretta.” In his song, she stays at home while he runs around on tour and he comes back to see her every once in a while.
In my song, she scolds the guy for expecting her to wait around for him. At that time, I was touring constantly, and was having the limited success with relationships that that lifestyle brings. So I realized later that in that song I was actually scolding myself for the rambling-man archetype that I was embodying at that time. Realizing that made me laugh.
Have you had a lot of other people project these kinds of things onto you with these songs?
There have typically been two responses from people about the album. Some people thank me for speaking in the perspective of women that had previously been one-dimensional, one sided, and adding a human-female element to them. I think those people could see themselves in the songs. Like in the case of the “Alison” response song: Everybody’s been in the situation where you meet up with an old lover and they’re kind of pissed at you for whatever you’ve done since [the breakup], which is really none of their business. That’s not even just a female thing; it’s a human thing.
I think people could relate to being on the other side of that song, and I thought that was really cool.
Though I imagine that given the historical nature of these songs you’re writing about, songs that are so universally beloved, that a lot of people feel a sense of ownership over them. For a lot of music geeks, “Alison” was a song they took comfort in after a breakup, and “Jolene” is like a Smiths song for insecure country girls.
Exactly, and that’s the second reaction a lot of people have had to the album. It was a lot of “who do you think you are?” These were the people who have idealized these songwriters and hold these songs as holy, they were offended that I would even touch them, or consider them up for discussion.
It’s a weird thing: On the one hand, being a music nerd myself, I can kind of understand where they’re coming from. But when it’s said out loud, it sounds ridiculous. This isn’t religion, it’s pop music. Nothing is "sacred."
Well, I always appreciate dissent in the conversation. It wouldn’t be an interesting discussion if everyone was just sitting around congratulating each other. I thought their arguments were interesting, but this was also an opportunity to express my opinion that art belongs to everyone. It’s our cultural heritage, and it should be challenged. We are all vulnerable to each other, and there should be a conversation about characters in art and what they mean to us. Works of art should always be taken down off the mantle and discussed.
It occurred to me when I first listened to the album that you yourself had written one of these songs years earlier. “Jessica,” from your first album, is a similar narrative to “Alison” or “Jolene,” addressing another woman unfavorably. So I guess it wouldn’t be hard for you to imagine what it would be like having another person take one of your story-songs in their own direction.
I would love that! It would be great. I highly advise someone to do that. And certainly when you take other people’s work to the chopping block you have to be ready to take have yours taken there too. I’d welcome that—it would be cool.
Are a lot of people framing this as a “feminist album?”
Yes, and I welcome that. It’s a noble word to be associated with. I took on this project mostly as a personal journey in songwriting, and didn’t have any big plans with where it could go. But I certainly identify as a feminist, and I’m happy to have the work that I do give strength to that cause.
I ask that because in the response song to “Jolene,” you have the line “men should be chasing you, never chase a man.” Which, when I first heard it, sounded like an antiquated, Mad Men-era piece of gender etiquette. That’s an interesting point. And that kind of goes back to this not attempting to be a feminist-centered piece of work—it’s more of an intellectual exercise in songwriting for me. It was about humanizing these characters, which didn’t necessarily put them on one side or the other of feminist morality.
In my mind, the character of Jolene is a beautiful woman and a strong woman, and she’s kind of teasing the Dolly Parton character, saying, “Oh quit chasing these men around, why don’t you let them chase you?” It wasn’t necessarily like she’s stating some dogma about how to behave, she’s just teasing her.
So when writing these songs, it wasn’t so much about the response to the original song as it was about creating characters responding to the songs?
Exactly. The goal of the project was to humanize these characters, and nobody’s perfect.
Do you ever fear that the concept of the album overshadows the songs, preventing people from being able to enjoy them on their own terms?
That was something that was really important to me when writing the album, I wanted the songs to stand up musically. If someone just heard it playing and knew nothing of the concept, they’d still be able to enjoy it.
Also, I was trying to create something that I would like to discover. Like if I heard a song on the radio I really enjoyed, and then did some research and learned this giant backstory behind it, and suddenly see the song in a new way. It’s an exciting thing to engage with.
Your first album was very elegantly produced with carefully selected layers of sound and thoughtful orchestrations. Yet this record has more of a raw, bar-room feel to it; like it was recorded next to a mechanical bull. Was that a conscious decision that ties into the album’s concept?
Yes. The goal of the album was to create these very flawed human characters, and so if the record was very clean and perfect it would feel dishonest. We recorded the songs live, and that felt right for these characters.
Did you write any response songs that weren’t included on the album?
Yes, actually. I wrote a response to the Fleetwood Mac song “Rhiannon.” In the song, she’s a cat in the darkness, and then she is the darkness, and I felt like there was this theme, a lot like the “Jolene” song, of this woman being held on a pedestal. In the song, Stevie Nicks is like, “Wouldn’t you love to love her,” and I got this feeling like it must be lonely being up on a pedestal.
The response I wrote to the “Rhiannon” song was about being wild and being lonely, but in the end, I didn’t put in on there because I didn’t think it was a good enough song. I loved that Fleetwood Mac song so much that I didn’t feel I could step up to it without producing something good enough.
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