The 'empress of electric blue witch-hop' tells Kiran Dass about switching from academia to making a 'colourful racket'
She's opened for music and fashion legend Grace Jones and performed at an underground amphitheatre in Swaziland, a building under a geyser in the Austrian Alps and a mud-drenched Glastonbury.
A vibrant and multi-talented force to be reckoned with, Estere is known as the "empress of electric blue witch-hop." With a background in anthropology, she gave up her day job tutoring at Massey University in 2018 to concentrate on her music career.
And ahead of the release of her third album, Archetypes, she has joined forces with award-winning theatre director Sara Brodie, lighting designer Jo Kilgour and audio-visual artist Kaysha Bowler to stage an epic and specially curated live music event, Into the Belly of Capricorn, shaped around the songs from Archetypes. It's her way of introducing some of the work from the new album, due out later this year, at the NZ Festival of the Arts in Wellington and the Auckland Arts Festival.
"The show started as an ember of an idea," says Estere who, when we speak, is just back in Wellington, where she's based, after spending Christmas in Germany and New Year's Eve on Waiheke Island.
"I was talking to a friend who works on the arts festival circuit and realised how festivals work. They bring visions and stories to life. A lot of my work is centred around narrative, so having an idea of the themes I wanted to explore and how that could be enhanced by theatre, I was really excited by that prospect."
A vivacious spectacle, which brings together folk and electronica, Estere says Into the Belly of Capricorn explores ideas of the collective unconscious and archetypes and draws from mythology, Shakespeare and the Roman poet Ovid.
"We trawled through a lot of books and some of the ideas in these texts really resonated with the ideas we wanted to explore. Ovid is ancient poetry but still aligns with our modern-day experience as humans."
The human experience is of particular interest to Estere. After initially studying psychology, she moved to anthropology and philosophy at Wellington's Victoria University and completed her masters at Massey University. Anthropology appealed to her strong, inquiring interest in observing other people.
"As a kid I used to stare at my friends. I remember thinking things like, 'She writes so differently, look at how she writes,' or just how different people are with each other. I'm interested in social groups and societies. I feel like inherently, as social animals, we are fascinated by each other. I studied cultural anthropology which is the study of different places and cultures.
"I learned a lot doing anthropology, about the different ways in which the world can be contextualised. I think academia is not for everyone and I totally get that but everyone is always doing this [learning] in their own way anyway. Academia just gives you the language and structure. I just liked it," she says.
WIth her layered and rhythm-driven energising style of scrunched-up soul, jazz, hip-hop and beats, Estere's music is a colourful racket, incorporating a spacey kind of atmospheric aural sculpture using loops and samples, which provide a solid base for her slinky, velvet-toned vocals. Interested in storytelling, her songs are largely narrative-driven pieces. And she's inventive with sound - for her song Vietnam she captured field recordings of swaying bamboo trees.
As a teenager, Estere won Best Female Musician at the Smokefree Rockquest in 2009 and says she has gravitated to music for as long as she can remember.
"When I was young I always felt an impulse to sing, perform and play the drums. It gave me a sense of purpose before I even knew what that term meant," she says. "I think it feels like a deeply primal way to communicate human experience. It feels necessary to me, to be either on the receiving or giving end of music."
So how does this translate in a live context? Estere says there's always room for experimentation and improvisation that can be done by body movement or voice, though most of her music has been dependent on technology.
"For me, what's most important is to follow my heart and instinct."
Estere happily balanced making music alongside tutoring anthropology at Massey but gave up teaching when her tour schedule became increasingly demanding. She says she enjoyed living life as a musician and going back to reading the texts students were studying and being able to discuss the ideas with them. But she has no regrets about leaving academia.
"Music is definitely my priority."
With Estere's own rich background, her interest in cultural anthropology makes sense. Her father moved to France from Africa's Cameroon when he was a teenager. He met Estere's New Zealand mother when he travelled here from New Caledonia. Her father and much of her family now live in France.
"I think it's kind of been brought to my attention how much people's cultures can impact their lives and how they interact with the world. I'm very much a New Zealander because I grew up here but I am also culturally a little bit fluid."
When she was 16 years old, Estere went to Germany for a year as an exchange student. It was the first time she'd ever been overseas and, while there, her musical horizons expanded with the help of her host mother.
"She loved music and had really eclectic tastes. She was a house mother and listened to music in the kitchen. She wasn't a DJ but I call her a DJ. She made these incredible mix CDs and was always on the hunt for new music."
It was her host mother who took Estere to her first Erykah Badu concert - a defining moment for Estere, who had no way of knowing then that she would go on to support Badu at her 2014 show in Auckland.
Estere also opened for the luminary Grace Jones when she played in Queenstown in 2018. And yes, she did get to meet Jones - at 2am after the show when her makeup and costume had been removed.
"I went into her dressing room and she was really lovely and kind. I met her crew as well and they're all like family. Her son is in her band, too... She asked me about my music and gave me her email address," says Estere.
So has she ever emailed Jones?
"No, I'd have to get the wording right," she laughs.
Estere's second album 2018's My Design, On Others' Lives brought together her two previous EPs, My Design Part 1 and On Others' Lives. The narrative-based pieces explore social observations informed by her strong interest and background in cultural anthropology. She's played shows across the world from small villages in France to Barcelona; Belgium, Denmark, Italy and South Korea have been tour spots and in 2016, Estere went to Africa for the first time visiting Swaziland, Mozambique and Durban. When I ask her about her most memorable venue or location, she struggles to think then suddenly gets excited.
"Oh! One place I played that was really amazing was a building under a kind of waterfall in the Austrian Alps. It looked like something out of that movie, you know, by Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, known for its peachy pink and muted yellow colour palette.) And the hotel I stayed in looked exactly like that hotel, it was super-steep, on the mountainside."
How did these obscure shows come about? she says there's always someone somewhere putting on interesting events. "That's the crazy thing. This one was a promoter from Slovakia. There was also a duo who came over from Russia to play some electronica."
Estere, who was one of the first New Zealand acts to tour Africa, also played the legendary Glastonbury Festival in England, being one of the very few New Zealand acts to ever do so.
"That was amazing. It was actually the second wettest year they'd ever had. It was crazy. Everything was drenched in mud - all the gear and all of the people. You'd just be walking and your gumboot would be left behind, stuck in the mud. That's what really stuck with me," she laughs.
With a hands-on DIY approach to her music-making, Estere used to record a lot of her beats and sounds in her bedroom and says studying a sonic arts paper at Victoria University helped her refine her existing producing skills.
"Last year I did a masters degree. I was interested in producing but was overwhelmed by what I'd seen. Things like huge mixing boards. I thought, 'Where do I start?' Doing the paper opened the door to using an MPC [Music Production Centre] looping station. I learned Pro Tools and using quite big mixing desks, which I'd never done before."
Down the line, Estere is thoughtful when she answers a question, measured and articulate. She has been involved in and steered every aspect of her music processes.
"Every part has its joys and tribulations. Performing has a kind of energy that I really love but it's so different to the everyday life experience. I think I get energised from doing all parts."
With all the study she's undertaken and her inquisitive nature, it's clear that Estere relishes broadening her knowledge. One of the biggest leaps in 2019 was choosing to collaborate, rather than having complete control. She worked with producer Stew Jackson, who has produced with Bristol trip-hop outfit Massive Attack, and reckons Jackson's work resonates with her own approach.
"Last year was a year of learning for me and it was really enlightening. Collaborating was part of that learning process. But yes, it was challenging because sometimes I'd have an idea or instinct but they would also have an instinct, so it would be about finding that middle point, learning to be objective about what serves the song best. That was exciting for me."
What can festival-goers expect from the multi-disciplinary spectacle of Into the Belly of Capricorn? She says they'll be taken into an exciting realm created through music, storytelling, dance and visuals.
"My goal is just to make something immersive and thought-provoking."
Into the Belly of Capricorn is at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts, TSB Auditorium, Saturday, March 14 and Auckland Arts Festival, Spiegeltent, Thursday, March 19.