It’s hard to imagine a place where people are more devoted to music than New Orleans, mainly because there isn’t one. Even so, a number of musicians who call the Crescent City home find more recognition outside its city limits. A case in point is Esther Rose.
The singer-songwriter spent the better part of September touring nationally as a support act for Nick Lowe, but continues to maintain a low-profile in her own city. Meanwhile, her recently released sophomore album, You Made It This Far, has been getting rave reviews in the national music press. Paste Magazine called it “nothing short of a triumph,” while Pitchfork likened her songs to the experience of “reading faded and worn entries from our own beloved diaries.”
Rose relocated to New Orleans from her native Michigan in 2010 and has since become part of a semi-underground Americana scene centered around Mashed Potato Records, an independent label and recording studio in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. It was there, over the course of four days, that Rose and her band—lap-steel player Matt Bell, fiddler Lyle Werner, bassist Dan Cutler and drummer Cameron Snyder—recorded the album’s ten songs on a vintage Ampex reel-to reel.
“There are these little imperfections and inconsistencies that I just love,” says Rose of the limitations that go hand-in-hand with two-track recording. “Like there’s this really cool moment in the first 30 seconds of ‘Always Changing’ where I’m just playing solo acoustic and you can hear a faint thunderclap—which in reality was a massive thunderclap—right when we were in the middle of the take. And none of us stopped, so it’s in there. And when we recorded ‘You Made It This Far,’ there’s the sound of Dan’s keys jingling, which happens to land right on the word ‘switch.’ For me, those are like little treasures that you would never come up with on your own.”
As with her 2017 debut This Time Last Night, Esther Rose’s new album has an emotional resonance that harkens back to her earliest musical heroes: the slight catch in her voice that’s reminiscent of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams; the introspective intimacy that, like Joni Mitchell’s, falls on the sweeter side of bittersweet.
The album is also impressive from a lyrical standpoint. The poignant title track, written during a visit to L.A., includes images of people “pushing around their heart in a goddamn grocery cart,” while “Don’t Blame It on the Moon” is a stripped-down acoustic ode to closing-time heartache. “Why does flying feel like falling down,” she sings, “you can’t tell the sky from the ground.”
While most singer-songwriters have spent a good portion of their lives navigating fretboards, Rose didn’t start playing guitar until she was 27. Prior to that, her instrument of choice was a washboard.
“I don’t do the washboard chores anymore,” says the musician, who recently turned 32. “That was really just a gateway for me to learn how to play music in bands. I didn’t play guitar at the time, but I’ve always been a songwriter, so I would write songs using my voice and melody. And when I learned to play guitar to accompany myself, it was just total freedom. I don’t ever jam out on the washboard now, but I do have one prominently displayed at home. They’re beautiful and I love them.”
While Esther Rose’s name rarely appears in live music listings or on chalkboards in club windows, she’s not entirely absent from hometown stages. You just need to know where to look.
“I play fairly often at the Dragon’s Den, which is my favorite venue, during their All-Star Covered Dish Country Jamboree,” says Rose. “It’s a weekly Tuesday-night gathering of songwriters and Americana-type bands that Joy Patterson and Matt Bell have been hosting for years and years. That’s kind of been my home base for forming a band and sharing my songs. There’s a really supportive community of songwriters that show up to listen to each other in this safe, welcoming environment. A lot of the musicians who play there are from traditional jazz bands, and this is their outlet for expressing their love for country music.”
As for fans outside that small circle of kindred spirits, Esther Rose can only guess at what draws them to her music.
“When somebody spins my music on Spotify, I hope that they can feel some release from the complications in life. With songwriting, I tend to take something that’s been bothering me—or something that I’m just in love with—and I analyze it in a way that feels really good. And by the time I’ve written the song, I truly feel better about everything. So I hope that’s something that other people can experience. Because that’s what music is all about to me. I don’t know why other people make music, but that’s why I do it.”