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Interview: Ester Dean – Singer and Songwriter

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Ester Dean is the mastermind behind some of 2009’s memorable R&B songs: “The One” (Mary J. Blige), “Never Ever” (Ciara), “Make Me Over” (Keyshia Cole), and “Make Love” (Keri Hilson). And as she transitioned into becoming a performer in her own right, her debut video, “Drop It Low,” generated over one million views on YouTube. The energetic, care-free party track features an introduction from Lebron James, due to its inclusion on the More Than a Game soundtrack, as well as cameos from Chris Brown, Keri Hilson. SouljaBoy Tell 'Em, Nelly and a host of other artists.

As the protégé of super-producer Polow da Don, expectations are running high for Ester Dean, whose debut album is set for release in 2010 under the Zone 4 imprint. During a promotional radio tour for More Than a Game, Ester Dean managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on Mary J. Blige, “Stronger,” and her humble beginnings in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

According to your bio, you were born in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Yes, in the country! [laughing]

Since you're a country girl at heart, is there a saying or philosophy from your neck of the woods that has helped you navigate the glitz and glamour of the music industry?

Well, I follow a lot of things. My mama, she could talk your ear off and tell you everything that you need to know. She always told me, “Never go backwards. Only go forward.” And then my dad helped me a lot because I refused to ever go in reverse, so anything that I do has to be better. I have to get greater. My body won't allow me to go backwards.

In the early years, you were influenced by your mother’s blues music and her church singing. Is there a particular moment that inspired you to pursue music?

Oh, my whole family can sing. When I was growing up, I said I was going to be a chef. And my cousin was like, “No you aren't. You're going to sing.” And I'm like, “No, I'm not. I'm going to be a chef. And that's it.” And they're like, “No, you're going to sing.” And I said, “Okay, well I'll sing and get the money and set-up a restaurant.” My mom, she used to do gospel plays. And we used to go on the road with her and perform in the choir, so I grew up watching her star in these gospel plays. And it just showed, like, “Oh my God, I want to do this or do something like this.” I noticed how I started to get jealous when they used to pick other little girls to sing certain parts. And I'd be like, “Well, I can sing that better.” Or we'd be in their studio and I'm like, “I want to sing in a studio.” When I was really young, that childhood jealousy and seeing what I really wanted – I used to sing into anything I could hear myself back on. That's what I'd do. Even if it was karaoke, I just wanted to be heard, you know? I believe my mom wanted me to be a star and an artist. I think it trickles down. Sometimes it takes them to want it for you to do it.

At some point during your childhood, you relocated to Omaha, Nebraska.

Yeah, I went to high school there.

What was the reason for the move?

My mom was going to marry this guy. She was in love, you know. She thought he was an amazing guy, and I think she just wanted us to leave Oklahoma and see something different. I was too young to say no.

Basically… [laughing]

I was like, “Oh, for real? Is that how we're going to do it?” [laughing]

Well, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because once you settled in Omaha, your bio mentioned that you would travel around town singing and free styling with various rappers. I’d like to focus on one quote, in particular, where you said that “[you’d] sing a hook and [your] pay would be the opportunity to record [your] own song.” What did this experience teach you about delayed gratification?

Well, I loved the fact that I got to learn in the studio. You have to learn how to look down those lights and listen to hear yourself back. I feel comfortable on the mic and I didn't want more money. I didn't really know what to buy, really. I was just like, “Okay.” I didn't know how to get myself another studio. You can ask your mom to go get you some clothes, and that's what you're going to do with the money. But how do I get the studio? And the studio, it cost so much that I was like, “Okay, I'll take that,” and be able to get the experience in it — that was worth everything because I'm very comfortable in a studio. I'm super comfortable.

At what point did you realize that you had a knack for songwriting?

I didn't know. When I was in Atlanta I was writing for myself as an artist. Everybody used to be like, “Who wrote these songs?” And I'd go, “Oh, I wrote the song. But anyway, get out of here.” And he'd be like, “Oh, okay. But do you know you can write?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, and I sing.” But I blew it off, because folk used to say my voice was raspy and, “Oh, she's too heavy,” or whatever. And when I decided not to be an artist anymore, the writing came full-face when I met Tricky [Stewart] and The-Dream. He came to me, and he said, “You want to be a writer?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah.” He was being paid. I didn't know they got paid like that. Then I was writing. That was like a little job. I was like, “Oh, cool! You get a little check for this thing.” And then I met with Polow [da Don] and I think fireworks shot. It was like something special where we got into role where I felt comfortable as a writer, and singing your heart out, and he asked me to be an artist. And I went, “Oh, no!” I got put down so much when I wanted to be an artist before that I was like, “I'm not going to allow that to happen to me again.” And then my mama was like, “No, I want you like you are. I want you exactly like you are.” And I was like, “Well, dang. Okay.”

You were often told that your “voice was too raspy” and your “body too healthy.” As a role model for young women across the country, what kind of lessons do you want to teach them?

I want to teach them that whatever you want to do, these people didn't put you here. You know what I'm saying? They didn't put you on this earth. They didn't give you your kid. They didn't give you who you are. So don't let nobody dictate who you are and it's going to feel real. It's going to hurt you a lot when people say stuff about you. It's going to make you feel like you can't do it. But I want everybody to know — because I'm not here just for girls — I've been seeing a lot of people being told they can't do something. Like when I look at American Idol, I'm like, “How dare you talk to those people like that?” Sometimes that's the only thing that's keeping people from doing stuff they should. So I just want people to be really proud to know no matter what it is about you that somebody tells you is wrong, everything about you is right. Absolutely everything about you is right. I'm telling you, they be pissing me off. They piss me off. I just want people to know that dreams do come true. I'm proof. If you want to you can live your dreams. Wait for your dreams to come true because they will. I want people to understand that you have a girl from Oklahoma that was broke and not the popular girl, at all. Through hard work and believing in myself when nobody believed in me – you just gotta fight through it and use your talent to get your soul straight. It gets you further than you can even imagine.

In pursuit of your dream, you eventually moved to Atlanta. Since you were living in Nebraska, what made you overlook New York or L.A. or some place like that?


I looked at all three. First of all, I was still like, “Well, I'm all by myself.” I didn't know anybody. But Atlanta was as country to me as Nebraska or Oklahoma. I went down there and they were so warm and I felt safe there. I decided to go there first because I was like, “Oh, my God! I'm not going down here, not knowing nobody.” I'm a friendly girl. I always want to say hi to somebody. And I was like, “I've got to watch myself and I've got to make sure. I'll keep my eye open.” But in New York, I didn't feel like I could. In L.A. – it seemed so big. It seemed super duper big.

The trip to Atlanta took you eighteen hours by car. Is there a particular song on your “road trip” that kept you energized and motivated?

There wasn’t no song, boy! I was nervous! [laughing] I was nervous because, you know, coming through Tennessee—or someplace like that—they got these big hills and metal shields on these thin, tiny streets to keep you from going off the cliff. And I was just like, “What is this mess?” But I never turn back, never go backwards. I was so scared. It was raining. It was dark and I couldn't see, but I was like, “You can't go back.”

When Polow was asked to comment on your artistry, he noted that “[you’re] all raw emotion” and “willing to take risks.” How have these two elements made shaped your career?

He was so right. I always lead in. One of my things is called: jumping off the bridge. Live and jump off the bridge and do something where you don't know how you're going to land. Because if you just stand up there being scared, you're never going to know what you miss out on. Because when it comes with a risk, it comes with a reward. And people are so scared. They're so scared. A lot of people I know, they went, “Oh, you know, I've got to stay in this town because I come here, my family's here, everybody's here.” Well, wait a minute. Are you telling me that there's a whole world out there, and you was only supposed to be here? Don't be too scared to see what else life has for you. Because you'll be mad. Oh my God, you'll be terribly upset. You get old and you're like, “Oh, man!” And then the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s kick in! And that ain’t cute! [laughing]

As the protégé of super-producer Polow da Don, who recently received BMI's “Producer of the Year” for 2009, what is the best advice that he has given you?

His philosophy, all the time, is get out of your own way. There's a lot of things you think you know. There's a lot of things you think you don't do. You've got to get out of your own way because you can stop yourself from getting a lot of things. It's so real. I'm still working on that. I'm like, “Okay, I'm getting in my way.” I'll be like, “I don't like that song.” “Okay. Why don't you like your song?” “I don't like the song.” “Okay, do you have a reason for that?” “Shouldn’t we give this song to someone that can really dance,” you know? And I had my own insecurities about doing that. And he was like, “Get out of your own way. It's a great song. Don't let your insecurity stop you from having a great song.” And he teaches you how to work. And I'm talking about work. He teaches you how to work like a dog. And it pays off. So he, to me, he's very successful. He's very successful, but he works harder than all the people that I know that's broke.

“Drop It Low” opened up a lot of eyes. In a matter of days, your video became a YouTube sensation. It went from a couple of hundred hits to several thousand hits overnight. A lot of people are really gravitating toward that song. What kind of dance song always makes you want to drop it low?

Oh, you know the song… [Sings: “Mmmm whatcha say, that you only meant well?” from Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say.”] Gosh, it gives me chills. I love that song! And… [Sings: “Let's play a love game, baby love game” from Lady GaGa’s “Love Game.”] Love that song, too! [laughing] But I can’t drop it like everyone else, because I drop it in a weird way. You know how the girls be booty-shaking? Like, I wish I could do that. I'm just not equipped to do all that! [laughing]

Well, that takes practice too! [laughing]

I’m telling you, boy. Those girls get down! But that's why they put them in the videos, so they can shake their booties! [laughing]

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to see More Than a Game. Your song, “Stronger,” [sung by Mary J. Blige,] was a perfect fit for the film. How did the song’s concept evolve?

Jimmy Iovine had us come to his house, and we got to watch the film. Sometimes girls don't get to see what the connection is with boys and basketball and sports. Like the brotherhood — I think it's got a lot of brotherhood in it. And I actually needed Polow to sit down with me and explain to me. And he was like, “They were strong. The other boys made him strong.” And then I was like, “Okay.” So I got Chris [Brown] in there and on my half of the contribution to the song, I just wrote about what makes me strong and thought about all of the people who have made me strong. In my mind, I was like, “Okay. So this is about having somebody to help you through these hard times and keep you strong.” So that's how the song came together.

Even though you’re a relatively new artist, you've had Mary J. Blige contribute her vocals to three of your songs: [“Stronger,” “The One,” from AT&T’s advertising campaign, and “Remember Me,” which was featured on TI’s Paper Trail]. How does it feel to be given that kind of stamp of approval so early on?

I love Mary J. Blige. You know how you meet somebody, and you're a fan of them and sometimes you don't want to meet them, because you don’t want to mess up anything? But I had to get over that. Even when they told me Mary was going to do the song, and I got to the chance to write with her on “The One,” I was like: “Wow, this is Mary J. Blige. Shut up!” This is an honor, man!

I see that you're currently based in L.A. What led you away from Atlanta?

I just left to be with Polow. When you find somebody and you have somebody who believes in you and care for you and will do anything for you, it's like you change you for them. Because they for you and they’re more for you than you are. So it's like, I put a chain on. I said: “Where you go, I go. Because I ain’t leaving here!” [laughing] For real! Because those type of people don't come around every day. You know? [laughing] He put his reputation on the line for me. So I’m down for whatever. I told him, “Whenever you’re ready to go to Atlanta, we're going to Atlanta. If you want to go to Tokyo, we're going to Tokyo.” I think I'll go wherever he goes. Because he's blood, man. When he's for somebody, he's for 'em. He fights tooth and nail!

For more information on Ester Dean, visit her official MySpace page.

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About Clayton Perry