When you’re growing up it’s easy to imagine all you might become — one day fancying yourself an astronaut, the next a corporate boss, the next a horse veterinarian. Sometimes you even imagine all this at once and then the rest of your life is trying to figure out how to realize that bizarre menagerie in the “real” world. This tends to be the artist’s journey, questing to express art in a world tangled up in money and fame.
Growing up in Boulder, folk singer/songwriter/burgeoning rock star Esme Patterson has made the process of self-expression her life’s work. I say “work” because the process is the part she’s had to figure out, and it hasn’t been easy. Over the years though, she’s developed an intricate and unique rhythm to manage the business of her music.
On the day we met in Table Mesa, her old neighborhood haunt, she was wearing a faded army jacket with pockets full of song lyrics, scribbled on little scraps of paper. She has learned to capture lines of poetry whenever they come, which is usually when she’s out in the world, doing her thing.
“I can’t sit down to write,” she says. “Writing songs is just part of living for me, making stuff up and singing out loud. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t making up songs. Anyone who’s really been around me is no longer charmed by how I have to sing little songs about everything I’m doing. Like if I’m making toast I’m singing, ‘I’m making some toast.’”
Her ditty may be offered in jest but the tonal undulations of her impromptu song are thrilling — soft, crisp and striking a balance between depth and levity. Patterson may have to work at making a living out of her folksy and musical life on the road, but that voice… well, that’s special, and that’s a part of who she’s always been.
I’ve known Patterson for a long time and as we are sitting across the table from one another at Snarfs, two full-grown women, I’m flooded by memories of us playing and singing and dancing as kids.
At Mesa Elementary we performed in the handbell choir together — I was clunking around two mid-scale bells while she managed to make four high notes sound like they were singing. In middle school we acted in plays, Patterson playing the lead in corny productions like Gone with the Breeze while I sauntered alongside her as an awkward and wacky sidekick. Eventually, she landed a spot she’d long coveted in Fairview’s jazz choir, Excalibur, and from then on Patterson was known by everyone as the siren among us.
We laugh at the memories of those younger versions of ourselves, and we cringe at all the gunk that lies between the lines. Growing up as Esme Patterson wasn’t always easy and just as I can remember her thriving, I can remember her crying. Listen to any of the songs on her three solo albums and that tenderness is still there.
Back then I imagine it must have been scary, feeling the world that way, but as an adult she’s come to cherish her vulnerability as a part of her creative process. Rarely in our long conversation does she look me in the eye, and at first I take it for shyness only to realize it’s because when she does, she can’t help but reveal the depths of what’s inside her. She’s had to learn how to protect herself.
“It’s been a hard winter,” she says. “Lately it’s been hard to go on stage and be myself; I just didn’t have enough to give. I needed to escape to another reality. So I started wearing these neon wigs and robes and it all added up to something like a psychedelic freakout that provided a place for me to hide while I was on stage. A little bit of fantasy can provide an escape, and sometimes that’s just what I need.”
With a pocket full of songs, Patterson has been prolific since going solo in 2012, putting out three albums in just five years. Today, though, she’s thinking about the next one, the one she says feels like the first “real” album she’s ever made. It’s not that she hasn’t been happy with her previous work, just that, somehow, the albums didn’t feel like hers. It’s like she was still following borrowed processes rather than her own — like she was still trying to figure out how to be the musician she’d always wanted to be, now that she’s all grown up.
Her new album is a work in progress and still very much under wraps, but if her last album, We Were Wild, is any indication of what is to come, we can expect music that breaks open, just like she has. Having emerged from a hard winter and sporting a wig on her head, she’s learned how to transform the rawness of despair into something of a cathartic experience for both her and the audience. And it’s worth noting that her more recent music doesn’t sound like the sentimental folk you might be used to hearing from Patterson — it sounds an awful lot like rock ‘n’ roll.
“The things that have come though those painful moments have a way of blowing my mind,” she says. “Those moments when you are vulnerable and broken open somehow, we become open to receiving something that we might otherwise eschew. That’s the real shit. That’s the cool shit.”
On the Bill: Esme Patterson. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 30, Underground Music Showcase Main Stage, 363 S. Broadway, Denver.