It's been a while since we've heard from London's finest, Estelle, but she's back with her first album in four years — and the wait was well worth it.
Now over a decade in the game, and on her fifth record, entitled Lovers Rock, the veteran singer-songwriter is focusing on her reggae roots, using the backdrop of the enduring romance of her parents (who reunited after 20 years apart) to relate stories concerning matters of the heart.
Since first warming stateside audience's hearts with the infinitely charming, international Kanye West-produced hit "American Boy," Estelle has consistently colored outside the lines with R&B that defies easy genre classification with tunes both sultry and heartfelt. But no matter what styles Estelle plays within, best believe, she's always coming from her soul.
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Lovers Rock is no different, but the songs as a whole sound easier than ever before (case in point: smooth single "Better," the sonic equivalent of an cool island breeze on a sexy summer's day). Estelle is now in a place of profound self-respect and the ability to look back on the connections she's made over the years with an infectious warmth and happiness.
PAPER caught up with the R&B queen to chat about everything from her family and empowering women to command respect, to the importance of uplifting other artists and collaborators. Read on, and stream Estelle's latest videos and her Lovers Rock album, below.
The new album sounds really easy and light, but was it as easy to make as it sounds?
I'm lucky that every record I've made has kind of been that. I really hate forcing records or thinking too hard about making one. Every single record that I've had that's been really successful has come from places where it just falls out of my mouth. "American Boy" is a great example of this — it was my first Top 10 record, and it just kept going from there, you know what I mean? So, Lovers Rock kind of hits the same sweet spot.
It's refreshing to hear that you just go with the flow.
Right. At this point, it's like my fifth album, I have a rotation and a way of working that is really easy and for me, it's like if we do it this way, you're going to get the best out of me and go. It makes it a little simpler for the producers. I was working on the last album True Romance, when I hit my stride in the recording process and made this one. My guys can help me produce any genre. I was already in this writing space of making African music, soul music and doing it really well.
I can really hear that. There's also the song "Don't Wanna," which kind of has an '80s vibe mixed in.
I grew up on Billy Ocean and those kinds of artists, and bands like UB40. For me, it was like I had to touch back to what sounded like a cross between those artists in the '80s who inspired me. I wanted it to sound like a romance score from your favorite '80s movie.
So "lovers rock" is a style of reggae music that's all about love and romance. Tell me about the conscious choice to name this album after the genre.
It's really the story of my mom and my dad, they are kind of a product of the lovers rock era. Growing up in the '80s, it was the era of music that kind of gave birth to me. I was born in 1980 and lovers rock started in 1985. There are a lot of family moments that are attributed to this. My dad was a songwriter and was in a band that played it and I'd listen to my parent's reggae records all the time. That was all apart of my childhood, and as such, was the genre I was born into. There were a few different names I wanted to name it, like the area where I grew up in because I felt like that was kind of the pinpoint of the story and where my mom and dad met. I thought about the fact that it was bigger, and how the music in some ways moved their lives along.
So the album is a tribute to your parents, then?
Absolutely is. Their story is not common, but it's common. They met and nine months later they had me. They had two other girls, my sisters, and then they broke up. My mom got re-married and had five other children and had my older brother at the time too. My sister had bumped into my dad at some point in the middle of the street, he and my sister look exactly alike so it was like this guy just walked up to me and he looks exactly like me, I think he could be our dad. They reconnected and she re-introduced him to my mom and they have been together ever since. They were so in love and it was like they were ones for each other kind of thing. Time had gone by and other children were born, one got married, the other one never did and they finally got it together 5 years ago.
What song on the album do you most closely associated with your parents, if any?
"Love Like Ours." The main point of the album is that song, and ironically, it was one of the last records I recorded. The thing was there were so many opinions and factors of life keeping my parents apart, and as people, we're often very loyal to our families in a lot of different scenarios, almost to a fault. It's human; that's what you're taught. For them, a lot of that drama kept them apart. It was almost like War of the Roses, like Montagues and the Capulets or whatever; literally like Romeo and Juliet — it's crazy. In the grand scheme, it's quite a terrible thing to do to someone for 20 years, but the fact that they forgot all of that when they saw each other and said "we can still do this" 20 years after the fact, and they're so happy and are so lovely together. I am just happy to have both of my parents be in my life still.
That's so inspiring and rare that it works out that way. What song on the album do you think you associate most with yourself and how you have been feeling?
"So Easy." I wrote that with Luke James years ago and Jerry Wonda turned it around six years later with this incredibly fresh production. But that was me as a woman just wishing, going to the core of my father and thinking about all of that; thinking of the men I've had in my life. I started saying to myself, "man, when [a good man] comes along, I just hope it's like this." I just can't deal with this stuff, I'm tired. I'm just tired. So, essentially, on some level, this is what it's been for the past year, I just want it — romance, life, connecting to my dad — to be easy, even if it isn't. I want most of all to be easy with myself and how I deal with all these things.
"Queen" is great in how it examines what men's roles would be in a matriarchal society that upheld and respected women. I'd love to know where that came from for you.
Men are often raised to just disrespect everything and everyone. It's almost overwhelming but then you have to sit down and be like, "Nope, I refuse it," then it starts inside your brain. For me, I was at the stage where I was letting everyone else do everything, I was letting everything be taken control of for me, and at some point, I was like no, I'm not used to being this kind of woman; I refuse to dumb it down; I refuse to be a fool and dictated to. I refuse to be moved around as if I don't have a voice, opinion, or a clue. There's a lyric in the song: "She's a queen, she's used to wearing crown/ I'm going to lead and cannot back down/ If you are a king, then a king should respect it." For me, I got so sick of hearing and seeing women who I know are very powerful feel like they had to give in to men's demands on them, I'd be like: you're forgetting who the fuck you are, and you are forgetting what you were born to be. Like, my message to women is always to lift their heads up, and to not let their crowns slip. It comes from saying it inside to myself every day, and I've felt disempowered, but no more. Never again. In fact, we forget that we are kings and queens a lot. We look at our phones every morning and we are told we ain't shit. I used to wear purple all the time, the color of royalty. I stopped wearing it after a while and forgot. This song helped me remember. I'm serious about the way I carry myself and that's what I want people to get. Carry yourself in the way that someone would respect, because you are great. No apologies.
"My message to women is always to lift their heads up, and to not let their crowns slip. It comes from saying it inside to myself every day, and I've felt disempowered, but no more. Never again."
How did you get Chronixx on the track?
I just love his whole energy and vibe, and knew he'd match what I was saying. He walked in and he understood the message immediately. You always run the risk when you are working with male artists that you will get a very male point of view, but he came in and supported the crap out of it. So dope.
What about the other collaborators? I noticed that there are quite a few male features, was that intentional?
Yeah, it was intentional. There are a couple women on there, but back in the day, lovers rock was primarily male and female duets — that's part of the music. I am a fan of everyone on the record, just an FYI. I have been following their careers for years. I love Nick and Navi; they're self-starters and have been doing music for a long time and are just dope. You don't have to tell them what to do. In that way, they remind me of myself. They get the record done, do their shows and they're fun. Kranium is another who makes real Jamaican reggae music on a global scale. He's singing it passionately and living his life. Luke James? He's the best, I have so many good wishes for him, his voice is something else. His energy and his spirit are so dope too. I have to include HoodCelebrityy because I just love her. She's such a blast. Alicai Harley I'm here for, too. I keep an eye on the girls at home in London, too, that I feel are going to be big. I am trying to do my part to help push them and support wherever I can. Because God knows, the reason I'm here is because 10 years ago or even 20 years over my whole career, these young girls have been supporting me and lifting me up, and before they became fans, they heard my music. So I always want to be mindful of that and give back what's been given to me.
On Instagram, you often post inspirational quotes. What made you start incorporating that into your platform?
I was just like, "well there's enough trash going on in the world already, what can I do to make it better?" What's the thing that makes me most happy, what would I want to read? I try not to be too righteous with it, and I try to keep it relative to what I am dealing with at that moment. It could just be about feeling good or taking control. It was that or post someone getting beat up on the ground, or someone getting shot down or being outraged on the ground. I can't promote wickedness. I refuse, otherwise I'm outraged at every single turn. I cannot be apart of that or push that energy. There are people that do that really well and I support them and what they're doing. My job is helping you get over it or find another way to deal with what's happening. I learned this from my early fans who told me that they found ways of getting out of toxic relationships because they listened to my records on repeat or noticed that I'd sound free when I was singing. I was 23 hearing that, and for me, it kind of painted my brain. There's a purpose in my music, and it's to help people better themselves and reflect on their lives and make changes as needed.
Photography: James Anthony