Words by Tommy Johnson
Even though the sun is starting to break from the clouds to begin a new day, Esther Edquist is up and ready. It’s hard to believe such a thing when its six in the morning in Melbourne, the city which Edquist calls home. During the initial stage of our conversation, I discovered that she’s shortly about to head to work at a local bookstore. Much like what we have experienced here in the States, most Australia had commenced opening up businesses and allowing those who live in the country to start piecing together some normalcy. [Writers Note: The interview conducted with Esther Edquist was done before the most recent restrictions and curfews.]
Edquist has recently dropped the debut full-length under her moniker Sweet Whirl titled How Much Works via Chapter Music. Each of the ten songs were carefully crafted to match Edquist’s vision to perfection.
Lyrically, How Much Works provides a deeply introspective viewpoint that is timeless and elegant. Edquist advances a slow-moving narrative with arresting vocals that fits in her dramatic instrumentals. Tracks such as “Patterns of Nature” and “Something I Do” are effortlessly dreamy, which feels like a nod to her time being one half of the pop-drenched duo Superstar. The album’s opener “Sweetness” and the follow up “Weirdo” are more of the poppier tracks that allow Edquist to branch out and have some looseness to the proceedings.
OffShelf: As a musician, has it been tough sitting around, especially after releasing the album? I’m assuming that you have wanted to play these new songs live.
Esther Edquist: Yeah… I had booked a scheduled festival for late March, and I was rehearsing a couple of times a week with this band that I’ve got. Then it got postponed. I think I was kind of anxious at the start because I knew it would get postponed. I was like, there’s no way…this shit is escalating. I was also like, am I going to spend like hundreds of dollars on rehearsal space for the next couple of weeks? Are you just going to call it now because I know it was going to get canceled. Since then, it was kind of like a holiday I’ve never had in a sense. I couldn’t do any shows. I just had to like the enforced holiday; it was good because I haven’t had one.
OS: Was there any hesitation in releasing the album during this time?
EE: No, I think it’s going to be fine, mostly because of the kind of music I make is always going to be something that involves deep listening. I don’t know. I think it would be something that would actually be welcomed during lockdown.
There has been a good response to the music because people definitely have more time, and they did need with that sort of communication you can get through some writing. I think when you’re a bit lost or when you’re confused about stuff, I know I tend to songs when I need some reason to keep going.
OS: Do you prefer performing live more than the recording, or is it the other way?
EE: I think I probably prefer performing, to be honest. Recording is really the stress of having to get the take. I always think that every performance is, you know, is new, not just a hammering it out. I really like that time is precious. Time is knowing that you’re engaged with the audience; I am curating your next twenty minutes.
OS: During this time, have you been finding yourself writing a lot?
EE: No, not at all. I started a side project with two mates: Ben Montero and Zack from Tropic Island. We had really fun jams right up until lockdown. It was like composing songs with people and, you know, jamming with no real pressure. So much of my process is about sitting with the problem until I can articulate it into the song and I can’t do that without being out and seeing people.
It’s funny… I can write written stuff, but I can’t write music. Nothing seems to work and I try, but it’s just not I don’t know where to go a bit.
OS: I have read that you somewhat have a mechanical mindset towards crafting music when you are working on material. You dig deep till you find the perfect spot. I’m guessing that is also contributing to the difficulty of writing during this time.
EE: At the start of lockdown, it was so stressful anyway. That’s enough where I could add the extra stress of a sort of the very self-involved space where, you know, you go to work on your stuff. Now it’s easing up, but it’s also just that thing of trying to work out what’s needed, I guess in the world right now. I haven’t quite worked that out yet, so I’m writing stuff and I’m like, what do people need? What do I need?
OS: How much of the world’s Western part impacted you or those who live in Australia, musically?
EE: My dad grew up in America with his Australian parents until he was 21. Even though he wasn’t fully Americanized, he was still a very sort of British Australian. I came into the world he passed on to me this love of alternative American cultural life.
I was a fan of Hunter S Thompson, The Rolling Stones, Jackson Brown-I mean, a huge Jackson Brown fan. I think I kind of put it down to the fact that he had grown up in like the sixties, seventies in America when music was important and so big. He was engaged with it. I mean, I used to read Rolling Stone stuff when it was a newspaper. So I think that’s what I picked up from him was music was super important.
OS: How excited was your father to see you perform in front of a live audience for the first time? He had to be stoked.
EE: He was always super encouraging about that. I think more to the point is since the album has been out, he’s made two YouTube videos. The songs don’t have any movie clips [laughs].
OS: How about your mother? Is she into music as much as you and your father?
EE: She’s more of a classical music kind of person. She loved piano when she was young; she had like a piano or grandma or whatever. We also went to a lot of classical music performances.
OS: You ended up studying classical music at University but decided to move on from it. What was it that stopped from going forward?
EE: I did classical music through high school and school piano voice. The anecdote I gave is that I found that, you know, I was doing, I was, you know, doing all my levels of piano or whatever. Then people would be like, Oh, play me something when you’re out and it was so confronting. You learn the elements of jazz composition in like year three composition and it’s so far removed from what jazzy is. So I had this thing where I freeze up in front of a piano because I didn’t know how just to improvise.
I also found performance becoming more and more stressful. I found myself more and more like hating my voice. Not being able to sing, like if my body was sort of turning on itself because of all the intellectualism. All these ideas that you use to try and get you to sing in certain ways-it was very stressful for someone like me that thinks too much. So I got out of that and started getting into my DIY thing and just played. like, since I could barely play, you know, and just barely singing as well. I hid in the DIY scene until I felt comfortable with working my way up again.
OS: I have found your debut album to be stunning. How long did it take you to put everything together?
EE: I can’t remember, but I think Casey [Hartnett] and I got out of work may be like every week, like every Friday or something, for a total of six sessions to get most of the music down, I guess. Then we went back and did “Patterns of Nature” over two days and did it again later; we did “Sweetness” over two days. It was very concentrated; we worked ten hours a day.
It still was nice because we had enough time – even if we weren’t recording – to see things that we hadn’t maybe a month prior to reflect and then regroup. That was really essential because I often feel pressured to get things done, and then I hate them so it was nice to be able to be like, okay, this is totally behind schedule…when we get it done, we get it done.
OS: Was there any musical influence you found to seep in when writing How Much Works?
EE: I’m a huge Jim O’Rourke fan, production-wise; I loved what he did with Wilco and his solo stuff. So I had this idea that of doing what was done with Wilco’s album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s just an idea where you have a session and then mixes in bits from like previous takes. There are these peaks, but then there’s also the sort of quiet songs and stuff like that. So I think structurally, I was keeping Wilco in mind.
OS: There is a sense of tranquility within most of the tracks. They don’t go too high or too low. What else was inspirational?
EE: I also think that Yo La Tengo was inspirational. There’s a few tracks where I said to the sound engineer, ‘Oh my God, this is fully Yo La Tengo! This is so Yo La Tengo!’ They are a band that not quite very well-known but was very successful in the indie scene. I grew up listening to them and I remember how simple some of their stuff was. It was so freeing, and I would say to myself how certain songs totally could have been written by Yo La Tengo.
OS: When you recorded the album, did you find your previous experiences with projects such as Superstar and Scott & Charlene’s Wedding falling into the work?
EE: Oh yeah, for sure, everything leads up to everything. I’m still learning from past recordings. I think I was very aware of time. I didn’t want to do anything but stay in the zone, so I got rid of anything that would be counterproductive like drinking alcohol, eating certain foods, etc. Some people said that I could do some of that, but I said Nah, I want to record it my way.
OS: I discovered that you went out of your way to impress the folks at your record label Chapter before releasing How Much Works. Can you talk about that more?
EE: I started writing stuff by myself, and I sent them the song. They’re like, awesome. Can’t wait to hear what else you’ve got. And I was like, what else? I had this really like nineties version thought when I was like, no, you just write one song, and then you get like twenty grand right now.
OS: Of course. That’s how it should work! [laughs]
EE: That’s not how it works. I’m friends with the people in Chapter. I just knew that they only did stuff that they really believed in them, like really savvy. And they’re also just like super like intelligent guys. They’re also just like got, you know, good politics, good cultural knowledge, all this sort of stuff. I just knew that they thought it was good, then I’d be like on the right side. I just trusted them. I totally trusted their judgment.