Graham Reid | | 3 min read
The album bristled with seductive ideas: the glitch'n'stutter beats of Vietnam came with a slippery backdrop which recalled the experimental pop of early Brian Eno; there was the bleep-pop ping of On Another's Life/Under Water Whale Knowledge; the staccato Gun Kid which joined the dots between Sisters Underground's In the Neighbourhood in the 80s through an anxious ballad voice into a brutal 21st century reality . . .
And the 12-song album ended with Guilty which began as acoustic guitar ballad speaking of need and dependency in a relationship before morphing into catchy beat-driven pop.
These were sonic arrangements full of nuance with Estère's voice – coy, soulful, yearning or aggressive, and always assured – weaving throughout and acting as the frontline glue.
Estère Dalton – a global traveller before Covid performing in Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Britain, Europe and South Korea among other places – is serious in message and medium, and something of a cultural anthropologist exploring ideas beyond standard pop beats, melodies and lyrics.
Grandmother on that album was about the Cameroon woman whose name she carried.
My Design, On Others' Lives established a new threshold above her self-titled debut album of 2015 by this self-described “sound nerd” and “Empress of Electric Blue Witch-Hop”.
For that first collection she explored sparse arrangements for vocals, samples and loops and, although slightly inhibited by available technological options, songs like Culture Clash had a powerful resonance.
“The concept of culture clash has always fascinated me,” she told NZ Musician magazine in 2013 when studying anthropology and philosophy at Victoria University, as well as sonic arts at the NZ School of Music.
“I’m a culture clash baby. My mum is from New Zealand but my dad is originally from Cameroon and moved over to France when he was young. I’ve visited him and family over there a few times.”
Smart, articulate and undeniably gifted as producer and songwriter/singer along the broad R&B/hip-hop soul axis, Estère is almost criminally under-acknowledged by the mainstream audience in her homeland.
That could change with her new album Archetypes which opens with the seductively dreamy Into the Belly of Capricorn, includes a double whammy with the brittle, addictive guitar-tickling soul-funk of Animal Pleasure and Climate in Your Skull at the midpoint, offers the mysterious minimalism and imagery of Night Crow and closes with Won't Shy Away which bookends the dreamscape quality throughout.
Estère covers considerable musical territory here in economic, pop-length songs but simultaneously invites the listener into her current interests.
Although it isn't necessary to have a copy of Man and His Symbols on hand to explore the lyrical layers here, Estère has drawn on Carl Jung's ideas of inherited archetypes, recurring dream imagery and the collective unconscious with an oblique surtext of relationships.
That might seem ambitious within what is broadly pop culture, but it puts Estère in the lineage of Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Grimes and others who extend pop tropes into intelligent, adult territory.
Recorded in the UK with Stew Jackson (Massive Attack) and at her Wellington studio with her artillery of electronic instruments, Archetypes comfortably embraces folk, funk, R&B, mature twists on 80s electro-pop (Nemesis) and the ballad form (Mad About Your Sea a piano ballad at heart) to create something adeptly sidestepping familiar tropes.
Archetypes places Estère at a tipping point into the wider consciousness and also invites that new audience to explore her impressive back-catalogue.
Recently asked, “Where to from here?” she replied: “I think I’ll continue exactly as is -- following my creative instinct wherever it may lead.”
Estère's Archetypes is currently available on digital platforms with CD and vinyl releases to follow soon.
Estère is interviewed at Elsewhere here.