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  • By Alan Richard


Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Queen Esther in the woods of Harlem. (Photo by Aidan Grant)

I’ve never met an artist quite like Queen Esther, and I bet you haven’t either. The, vocalist, musician, songwriter, producer, solo performer/performance artist , playwright, and essayist is a Southern expat and savant of honky-tonk country, jazz, swing, showtunes and rock ‘n roll, and can sing Billie Holiday, Stephen Sondheim, or George f-ing Jones at the drop of a hat.

Sequestered with her partner Douglas Gillock in their Harlem apartment during the pandemic she created Rona, her daring new EP. Queen Esther sings of starry skies and fallen souls, the heartache of loss, and confronts the madness in American politics with an avant garde-jazz take on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody that I interpret differently every time I hear it.

The performances are so good, so eclectic — and they are a preview of what could be an American roots music masterwork on the horizon.

SoulCountry is honored to present this Q&A with Queen Esther herself about her new EP and some of the life events that informed the songs on Rona. Check out our in-depth profile of Queen Esther from 2022 for more on this incredible artist.

How did Rona come together?

I wrote the original songs during the pandemic when everything shut down in New York City and everyone had to shelter in place. MPB gave me a Martin ukulele for my birthday years ago and I hardly touched it. When the pandemic hit and I had absolutely nothing else to do, I picked it up. I learned a few chords online, I took lessons every week on Zoom from Christopher Davis-Shannon at the Philly Folksong Society. And every once in a while, Walt (Emmy award winning trombonist and arranger/composer J. Walter Hawkes, who plays soprano and tenor ukulele on the album) would show me how to play something when I got stuck.

Before I knew it, I had enough songs for an album. Recording and releasing it was the obvious next step because at this point, I want to do more with my songs than just play them for my friends or sing them to myself. The weird thing is, I had all this time on my hands. That was beautiful, and very very strange. Because that hardly ever happens in New York City. So much time is spent surviving this place that there’s hardly any left to make art. Once I could make a living without a day job, time became a precious commodity. And if its one thing I had a lot of during the pandemic, it was time. Flowing from one day to the next, uninterrupted. Except for the occasional freak out about Lysol or toilet paper or yeast. Or George Floyd protests all over the world. Or a riot to take over the government. Or the funerals we couldn’t have. Or the loved ones we kept losing.

Creatively, all this time made every day feel like a miracle from on high. I had so many ideas. Every day, I was writing like crazy. In a way, I felt unstoppable. I knew that moment wouldn’t last forever. So I got busy.

Wait. Maybe I should start at the beginning.

The first day of lockdown in New York City in March of 2020 was my last day at Gettysburg National Military Park. I had an artist residency there for about a month – I lived alone in a house that was built in the 1850s, right in the middle of the battlefield – writing songs that would eventually become Blackbirding and working on a one person show that has the same name. It took 6 hours to get through the line at the grocery store. It felt like the whole world shut down just as soon as I dragged my vittles home and closed the door. Because basically, it did.

Everyone left the city. All the people with summer homes, all the people who really lived someplace else, all the trustafarians who went home to live with their parents, all of the ones who could afford to sell their apartments and move upstate or to the suburbs in Connecticut or New Jersey or wherever they could have a backyard. Places like, I don’t know. Schenectady. Scarsdale. Syracuse. After they left, my New York City became a really beautiful place. Empty and desolate and strange and wondrous. I went for long walks in the woods in Harlem because it reminded me of my parent’s backyard in Atlanta. I would wander along the Hudson River and there would be a few people here and there. Doing tai chi. Walking their dogs. Having a dinner picnic with flashlights in the evenings. Every once in a while, someone would go by on a bike. And that was basically it.

Not only did I have time to make art – my neighborhood became the perfect retreat.

During the run of The Hang, my brother Emmett passed away abruptly. The album ends with the sound of his voice – not mine. And he’s not the only one I lost. I can hardly talk about any of it. Making the album was definitely my way of processing my grief. (More on The Hang below.)

What did each song mean to you while you were isolated?

I got out of the way and let the songs come out of me and be whatever they wanted to be. I think each song was confirmation that I’m getting better at getting out of the way. Because I think getting out of the way of that spark of creativity and letting The Spirit move is extremely important. And thankfully, the songs are getting better, too. I wrote When I See You Again first. It’s such a sweet conversation – until you realize the person that’s talking is alone. Where Is Home? was in response to watching everyone leave the city in droves. I started writing Oh My Stars in Gettysburg and by the time I finished it in Harlem, I realized there was this big overlap between Civil War soldiers dying alone on the battlefield and COVID patients dying alone in their hospital beds. That’s when I thought, maybe this could be my pandemic album. And the songs kept coming.

The last song on the album isn’t a song at all. It’s a voicemail from my brother Emmett, wishing me a happy birthday. But it’s more than that. We got into heated arguments that usually ended with me, laying into him pretty hard with some truth that he didn’t necessarily want to hear. So of course after he left this world, I felt guilty. Then I found his voicemail on my phone by accident. He’s telling me that he loves me over and over. And trust me, that’s a little weird. I mean, Emmett was a lot of things. He was not an I love you kind of a guy. So when I heard that message, it was like he was talking to me from the other side. Now all I can think is, thank God he left it for me.

I very nearly erased it from my phone accidentally. Now that it's on the album, I can listen to it whenever I want.

I think you have to have someone in your life that’s willing to tell you the truth, especially when you don’t want to hear it, and drench that truth in so much love and care, so it doesn’t crush them. Because there’s a right way to tell someone the truth and not turn it into a weapon, and bludgeon them with it. The truth will do that all by itself. Because, really, the truth hurts. Why add to that pain?

I’m glad I could be that person for him and stand by him when he really needed someone. I love him so much. I was his sister, for real, to do that for him. And I still am.

What do these recordings say to you now?

The entire album is like a prism. If you hold it up to the light of a thorough listen, it consistently shows you different sides of the same pandemic moments. Those moments haven’t wavered. There’s still love and loneliness and longing and all kinds of wishes that you can’t bring yourself to say out loud. The pandemic intensified them but they’re still there, right beneath the surface. And there’s still so much loss. Hundreds of people die from COVID every day. As quiet as its kept, the pandemic hasn’t ended.

Aside from making this album, what else did you work on during the pandemic?

I was in and out of workshops off and on for something like two years for The Hang, Matt Ray and Taylor Mac’s 2022 Obie award winning jazz opera about the death of Socrates. In January 2022, the production had a three month sold out run at HERE Arts Center. People trudged through the frozen tundra all masked up and vaccinated to have that experience. That was beautiful, to be in a room with an audience that was just as fully committed to seeing the show as we were committed to performing it.

While all that was happening, I got accepted to a playlab at New Perspectives Theater Company and my one act play That’s What Happened was in their festival. Then I joined American Theater Group’s PlayLab and developed a full-length play called The Tears of a Megyn. Now I’m in the WP Theater’s PlayLAB. It’s a two year residency that will culminate in an off Broadway run for this play in the spring of 2024. I just got accepted to a writing residency with The Orchard Project this summer for my one person show Blackbirding. And I’m working on an idea for a book.

I didn’t start writing plays during the pandemic. When I came to New York City and couldn’t find any work as an actor, I wrote and performed one person shows. I wrote, developed and performed in a musical called The Billie Holiday Project that had a performance residency at The Apollo Theater. It’s still the fastest selling ticket they’ve ever had in their black box theater. While I was doing this I got accepted to NYU as a librettist. I didn’t go because I didn't want to be a debt slave for the rest of my life. The tuition was so astronomical, it kind of freaked me out.

Good things happened musically, too. I wrote, produced and self-released my Black Americana album Gild The Black Lily in 2021 and got an avalanche of critical acclaim. I wrote and produced my alt-Americana album Blackbirding, thanks to a 2022 grant from the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music and Theater. I had official showcases with 2021 Americanafest and 2022 Folk Alliance International, and I performed with The Black Opry. I’m one of four Americans chosen for the 2022 Global Music Match and one of 25 American artists chosen for the 2023 - 2024 Western Arts Alliance. For me as a creative that makes art, the pandemic was one great grand leap forward after another, over and over again.

The latest good news is that we’ve recorded a cast album for The Hang. I can’t say when it will be released but I’m so happy and relieved that all of that gorgeous music will be out in the world soon. Taylor Mac is something else and together, they’re tremendous. Matt Ray (pianist, composer and music director/conductor for The Hang) is brilliant, though. He really is.

When I See You Again is a honky-tonk, country-rock heartbreaker. For the uninitiated, will you say why country, the blues, soul, gospel and more are of great interest to you? How do you explain this interest to other Black artists and New York theater friends who don't get it at first?

Those folkways that enslaved Africans infused into every aspect of American culture as they built this country and as they established this economy, those ancient music traditions are the essence of the blues, and the blues are the sonic DNA of all American popular music. I am a Southerner that’s two generations removed from my enslaved African ancestors. Both of my parents are from South Carolina’s Lowcountry. I embody the dissonance and the twang that the bluing of the note is made of. It's not anything that does or doesn’t interest me. It’s who I am.

We Southerners, we know our own. And that’s enough. I don’t believe that everyone is supposed to get who I am or like what I do. I’m not a Twinkie.

SoulCountry had the honor of helping premiere your rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody when you released the single last year, I believe. Why did you decide to cover this classic? Your jazz arrangement makes more sense than the daring song selection (which you handle beautifully). Why set the song's video to footage of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol?

When the January 6th insurrection attempt happened and I watched the rioting in real time, all I could hear in my head over and over again was that song. That first line – Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? – really stuck with me. The song seemed to explain the riots in a nutshell. Well. The last four years, actually. When I turned the volume down and played the entire song, something clicked.

Every version seemed to imitate the original, so I turned it upside down and came up with a jazz arrangement that’s only one voice and one guitar. Totally unexpected. I had plenty of time to experiment and try things and make mistakes and take risks with everything that I was doing. I ran out of yeast and got bored and gained weight and freaked out like everyone else. Trust me, if you listen to this song very carefully, you can hear me freaking out.

Any listener familiar with the original is expecting all this layering and operatic orchestration gobs of vocals and what they hear is just a vocal and a guitar, so in a way, what Jeff (guitarist Jeff McLaughlin) and I are doing is a high wire act. When the song you know, the song you’re emotionally attached to, comes at you in a way that you don’t recognize, its as if you’re hearing it for the first time. And if the arrangement holds up, you hear things in the song you thought you knew that you have never heard before. And maybe you get to know me.

What is it with you and classic rock 'n roll, having also covered songs by the Steve Miller Band, the Eagles and others?

Those classic rock songs are an excellent template to try something new. They have withstood the test of time. They have lived on freeform FM radio for decades. They’re a part of the cultural sonic landscape and that makes them more than just songs. They are touchstones. They are a memory that comes alive when you hear them. They are iconic. A lot of people are emotionally attached to those songs. And if people are emotionally attached to your music, they are yours for life.

I know, I know. Everyone doesn’t love Bread or Queen or Steve Miller or The Eagles or Pure Prairie League but even when its sonic wallpaper, listeners still know enough of the song to hear it and get curious about the artist that recorded it.

Oh My Stars sounds like an American standard. I believe this one is from your artist's residency at Gettysburg. The loneliness and somehow the beauty that the narrator finds makes me think of a clear, cold night—and, well, the human experience. Can you talk a little about this song and share a bit about your upcoming project? Why do the memories and spirits from that battlefield and conflict interest you enough to spend time there and write and sing about them?

I wrote the beginnings of Oh My Stars at Gettysburg and refined it when I returned to the city. My residency was all media, so I decided to work on a song cycle and a solo show. I walked all over the battlefield, I did a lot of research, I took pictures and video, and wrote songs wherever the spirit moved me. These songs turned into the alt-Americana album Blackbirding (an album planned for spring 2024). Oh My Stars is about soldiers who are left to die alone on the battlefield, specifically The Wheatfield. I imagined that all they could do was look up at the sky and know that the ones who loved them were underneath that same sky and somehow feel a connectedness. And in that soldier’s delirium, in their long last moments, someone that loves them comes to them before they leave this world, and makes them feel less alone as they go to the other side.

In the initial weeks of the lockdown, the mayor kept referring to the pandemic as war and that we were a part of a battle that was raging and on and on he went with all this war talk. The song morphed into a requiem for COVID patients who are left to die alone, with their hospital room as a kind of battlefield. Because so many who died weren’t vaccinated. So now there’s two distinctly different versions. I’m really happy with both of them.

Gettysburg fascinates me for a lot of reasons. First of all, I’ve never heard anyone deconstruct the Battle of Gettysburg or the battlefield or the Civil War or the town of Gettysburg from a Black feminist perspective, so I was eager to see it up close. What struck me immediately is that the entire war could have ended right there, in that three day battle, if things had gone a certain way. The South thought they’d win because they’d been winning. But they’d never had a win above the Mason-Dixon line. General Lee thought they’d leave the South and venture into Yankee territory, take the win as usual, negotiate a peace settlement and end the war. Easy peasy. Instead, they crawled back across the Potomac with their tail between their legs. General Lee was no hero. He got a lot of soldiers killed, needlessly. And he wasn’t some kindly slave owner, either. That’s some Lost Cause pap. The African captives that he owned said that he was the worst man they ever saw. If General Meade had pursued General Lee and wiped them out, that would have ended the war. But he didn’t, so the war went on for another two years.

Here’s what they won’t tell you: Pickett’s Charge – the biggest defeat of the South – happened on a Black man’s property. His name was Abraham Bryan, he was a widower and a free Black man, and his farmstead was in the middle of the Union defensive position on Cemetery Ridge. That maneuver was a reckless, ill-advised, spontaneous, off the cuff thing to do. And they paid for it, dearly. The fighting went on for less than an hour and nearly 7,000 Confederates died.

Pickett’s Charge is where the hopes and dreams of the Confederacy died. On a Black man’s property. That’s when they realized that losing the war was a strong possibility. Oh, the irony! I used to ride my bike to Cemetery Ridge every other day with so much joy, just so I could be where that happened.

I believe you said in an earlier conversation that you wrote All That We Are for a special event in Chicago for President Obama’s foundation. This gorgeous, inspirational song is also on your truest country-roots album, Guild the Black Lily, with a tad more of a R&B-and-pop arrangement, if you can call it that. This more acoustic version seems sadder. Does this reflect the state of things in our country, and the losses you've felt during the pandemic and afterward?

I wrote this song because I think the revolution needs a soundtrack. I wanted this song to uplift you, give some hope, some encouragement. Obama’s event was the perfect opportunity to present it – and it got such a positive response, I had to record it. For this version, I thought it would be a good idea to strip down the song to its essentials, so it could speak for itself.

I don’t know if the song is sadder. Maybe I’m sadder.

Is My Grumpy One about a partner? The privileged? It seems like a light ditty at first but may be one of the weightiest lyrics on the record: "Another season basking in the sun, sitting on the shore, watching the world fade into a turning tide..."

I’m definitely saying a lot of heavy things in a lighthearted way. I don’t really want to get any more specific than that.

When you first told me about recording David Gates and Bread's Lost Without Your Love, I didn't get it. But your version reminded me of the song's nearly perfect melody. For me, its melodrama has the feel of Bette Midler's The Rose.

There was so much death from COVID in such a short amount of time. Over a million people died of COVID in this country. I know we had some sort of televised ceremony when Biden took office, but we haven’t really taken the time to openly acknowledge and examine all this, and grieve collectively. No one ever mentions the conservative talk radio personalities all over the country who were adamant about not wearing masks or getting vaccinations, and how they lost their lives for their lost cause. Because acknowledging how they died would mean owning up to so much more. And there’s a lot of people out there that aren’t ready to do that. And yet, how they died is a kind of testimony. Mark Bernier called himself Mr. Anti-Vaxx. Phil Valentine. Tod Tucker. Jimmy DeYoung Sr. Caleb Wallace was only 30 years old. Millions of people believed all their anti-vax conspiracy rhetoric. Every single one of them got COVID 19 and suddenly changed their minds about the importance of getting the vaccine. And then they died. On his deathbed, Florida’s own Dick Farrel said he wished he’d gotten vaccinated, and begged his friends to not make the same mistake he did. And now? No one ever mentions their names. I wonder if their millions of listeners remember them or their talk shows at all.

All of it was so exhausting and surreal. The morgues in all of the hospitals, the funeral homes, the city morgue – filled with dead bodies. There was nowhere else to put them so they used hundreds of refrigerated trucks to store dead bodies all over the city. If you lived anywhere near a hospital, that hum from the generators attached to the trucks was constant. So were the ambulance sirens.

Ultimately, this song helped me to grieve, just like the rest of the album. Maybe this music will help someone else grieve, too.

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