Interview: Oddisee & Estere — Making Purple And See Through Music

Red Bull is a brand that have supported the arts, music and sports for many years now. One project as part of this its Red Bull Prodigy program; which saw international artist Oddisee paired up with Wellington based singer/producer/beatmaker Estere at Auckland’s Red Bull studio last month. The Prodigy concept is to pair a mentor with a student for 10 days and provide them with what they need to produce some goods. Whether what they need be equipment, fresh fruit & veges, an espresso machine or a sound engineer, the Red Bull Studio got you says Mellow Music artists Oddisee. Here from New York but originally from Washington he says studios have everything you need, “And if they don’t, you make a couple calls and they’ll get it in — there’s not a lot of studios that have that possibility.”  He chuckles. When I speak to Oddisee and Estere via Skpye it is day four of their time together in the lab; they’ve already got material intended for the public to hear and Oddisee explains there is to be be a discussion over how material will be released, but certainly the public will get to hear it. The Studio Manager in charge of the studio where Estere and Oddisee were working was also the one who decided the two artists, unknown to each other initially, would be paired up for Prodigy. He says, “Estere was a carefully selected youth artist who has been making a great stamp on the international music scene through her recent touring of Japan and DenmarkOften artists can be at a lack of resources or time, and thus the Red Bull Studio Prodigy sets aside 10 days of focused sessions to bring ideas to flight. The feeling of sitting in the control room listening to the process of these tracks with Estere’s smile stretching ear to ear was invaluable”. And Oddisee needs little introduction on this blog. Check out the review we did HERE as when he was in New Zealand for Red Bull Prodigy, he did two shows at Rakinos in Auckland and San Francisco Bath House in Wellington with his latest album Tangible Dream.

HH: How has the week been working together?

E: Me personally [I’ve been learning] about production, song writing and sampling — just being quite productive, which is something that is…new to me (smiles). I normally take ages to do anything so it’s been a great experience being in this situation here.

O: Definitely, it’s been interesting to work with one another. One thing that we have in common — a lot of things that we have discovered we have in common is that we were relatively unknown to each other prior to being in the studio together and it was the good guys at Red Bull who knew to partner us up and just having an intuition to know that we would work well together. It’s been a surprise just discovering how similar we are, even though musically we were somewhat unknown to each other. Both of us are writers, both of us are producers so we’ve been able to collaborate with each other in numerous ways in a short amount of time.

HH: So it was pre-designed by someone at Red Bull, is that how it went or?

O: So it seems, you know, she got a call and I got a call and we looked each other up quickly after realizing we’d be together and it works. You know, whoever’s pulling strings pulled the right ones [laughs].

HH: Estere, what’s it like learning from someone like Amir on a one on one basis?

E: Yeah, it’s the first time that I’ve ever done anything like it in terms of production. It’s really beneficial seeing how someone who is a really….

O: I know a lot of stuff. [laughs]

E: Yeah thank you, who is a full on professional and does it full-time and is really amazing at it, like seeing how they work and the discipline involved.

O: And you never know what you know until you have to teach it to someone — that’s been a really good learning experience. I actually was a student for Red Bull Music Academy in Melbourne and to find myself back down under as a teacher, it’s kind of been like a full circle thing for me. So a lot of the things that I learned as a student through Red Bull, I get to teach someone else — which has been really cool in itself.

Photo Credit: Nicky Birch
Photo Credit: Nicky Birch

HH: Estere, what have you taken from it?

E: This is our fourth day, we’ve got another five days in the studio. So, things like Amir just mentioned Pro Tools, he uses that DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) system to make a lot of his music. His work ethic is really inspiring and because I work with an MPC and it’s normally quite a slow and long grueling process when I make a beat — it takes me ages —  just seeing how you can kind of come up with an idea and just accept it for what it is then utilize that to generate more; because the more you have the more options you have, I think that’s something we’ve been kind of doing these last few days; we’ve already written a track together collaboratively.

O: One thing I want her to leave with for sure is just trust in herself. You know I really want her to be able to trust herself and her creativity. There’s so many people who could have gotten a call to come and be a part of this but she got it so that in itself means she’s doing something right, and she should trust that and move forward with it. I’m a fan, I’m a new fan and I want her to be a fan too.

“I recorded most of Tangible Dream in Berlin. I spent my summer there and I just started to realize the life that I have is romanticised by a lot of my peers and my fans and they don’t know how achievable it is and how realistic.” — Oddisee on latest album Tangible Dream 

HH: That self-belief thing, is that an obstacle for you?

E: Yeah, definitely. I often wonder what’s going on but at the same time I have a feeling a lot of the time when I make music that I’m doing something that feels right in terms of me being happy with what I have made. If I am happy with a track, then I am happy with a track and it’s because I’ve got an idea in my head that I want to be executed. I suppose it’s just really amazing to be reassured of that and it’s something that takes a while to get used to.

HH: And how did music start for you, were you singing when you were younger or playing an instrument?

E: Music started out for me when I was young, like I loved to sing — I suppose all children love to sing it just depends whether they keep at it when the world kind of deals to them. But I started drumming when I was 11 and I stopped when I was 13. I always really loved drumming and that was a lot of why making beats really appealed to me — I love rhythm.

O: You can hear that in a lot of our collaborations, like really interesting drum sequences that she comes up with for an arrangement, you can totally hear that in her music.

HH: Have you learnt anything from her at all?

O: Totally. A different jargon to describe music and just thinking outside of the box. We were searching for sounds to sample and when I was asking her to describe what it is that she was looking for. I was using words like do you want some up temp or down tempo? What kind of drums do you want ? And she says, ‘I want something purple and see through’. And that was how we started off our relationship, purple and see through. [I thought] Okay, I can think like that. [Smiles]

HH: Estere, where did the inspiration come from to call your MPC Lola?

E: Spending that much time with anything — a machine or whatever, you kind of personalise things. It’s like how people feel really attached to cars and stuff; even though it’s a material object it’s still something that you hold as important; especially because I’m making music with Lola, I just started thinking of her as an existing…

O: Part of your creative process.

E: Yeah and she was quite a big part of it… Also being up on stage alone, like it’s quite lonely and you don’t have any other energy to feed off.  So I think of Lola being there with me, it kind of makes it see more like a shared experience.

HH: When you’re performing alone and it does feel lonely, what else do you do to overcome that?

E: I just imagine that I’m back in my bedroom and I tell the audience that normally we’re hanging out in my bedroom so this is quite a different scenario for us. So yeah, I just kind of always take that with me, just to like, ground myself.

HH: And will the public get to hear the tracks you guys are making?

O: Totally. We recently discovered that we have several options on how we can release the records that we’ve cut while we’re here, and I guess she and I will talk and everybody involved here will have a conversation about what the best way to let the world hear the music that we’ve been working on down here should be.

HH: And what’s the environment like in the Red Bull studios?

O: They’ve got an espresso machine, it’s amazing [cracks up] and fresh vegetables and a room where you can see the sky as you eat; it’s a great place to work and I haven’t even started talking about the studio yet. It’s a great recording environment, great acoustics; our engineer Dan has just become like a close friend you know he’s kind of the invisible un-sung hero. He’s with us every step of the way, he’s just great.

HH: And this is your third or fourth time in New Zealand?

O: Good question, I think it’s my fourth or fifth.

HH: Compared to other studios you’ve worked in around the world, could you kind of rate the one you’re working in now?

O: That’s actually an easy one for me, I actually don’t work in a lot of studios. You know I come up in that generation with bedroom producers who have mobile studios and produce on the road so facilities like this are just such a joy for me to be in and the few times that I have actually been in really good studios in recent years, funny enough it’s always been a Red Bull studio; whether it was the one built in Melbourne; or when I was in London, New York, Cologne — I think I’ve been to something that was involved [with Red Bull] there. It’s a great experience and it’s like being a kid in a toy store, they always have everything you could think of and if they don’t you make a couple calls and they’ll get it in — there’s not a lot of studios that have that possibility [chuckles].

Photo Credit: Nicky Birch

HH: With your latest album Tangible Dream, what was the inspiration or head space you were in when putting it together?

O: I recorded most of Tangible Dream in Berlin. I spent my summer there and I just started to realize the life that I have is romanticised by a lot of my peers and my fans and they don’t know how achievable it is and how realistic. I think part of the blame lies with Hip Hop artists themselves who really embellish what it is that they are, what they do, or what it takes to get things in life. So I kind of set out to make a record to really break down all of those superstitions and pre-conceived notions about what it is to be successful and how success is something that’s relative. It’s not something that is a scale that everybody falls on, it’s relative to each person and it kind of hit me when I realized that. You know, I live in a decent part of town in New York and I eat out like four times a week, I get to travel the world and go to nice museums and meet amazing people. I kind of make up my own schedule; but according to the rest of the Hip Hop world in order to do that I’m supposed to be some multi-millionaire spending most of my time in the VIP lounge and I’m really against that concept and idea. You know a lot of my friends will come up to me and say, ‘Oh man I saw you were in Paris, I wish I could do that’, and I say well, ‘If you go in winter it’s a little cold but you can get a ticket from JFK for $350, round trip and the amount of money you spend on drinks and cigarettes and other substances in a month could fund your entire trip. You could stay in a place like Airbnb’. [And they’re like] Really?! You can do that?…. [He says] ‘Yeah, its realistic, it’s actually feasible, you can do that’. But we’re taught that you need a private jet and you need security and all these things to go somewhere or you’re not really doing it. So I really just wanted to break that down.

HH: Is that sort of the concept behind the single ‘Yeezus Was a Mortal Man’ specifically?

O: Totally. Yeezus Was A Mortal Man was one of the last tracks I recorded. I actually ran into Kanye at a store in Paris called Colette and I was walking out of Colette and he was walking in. I realized by his attire a few days later that he had just come from doing his gig in Kazakhstan where a prince from Kazakhstan had paid him $3 million to do a show at a basic club where he wasn’t allowed to bring an entourage or any elaborate stage set up, where he just had to rap on a stage by himself and he had to grant permission to anyone to take photos with him whenever they pleased; you can see the photo in the Huffington Post, there are two girls doing selfies in front of him while he’s on stage and after hearing his record and how quote-on-quote revolutionary it was, and how he’s basically sticking a finger up to the corporate world, and how for $3 million he was basically reduced to just being a normal person — there’s a lot of references in his records, and a lot of records lately, where a lot of Hip Hop artists are seeing themselves as gods at this time; it’s a really popular phase of using religious iconography in Hip Hop right now; as a Muslim I’m also not to keen on that as well. So it was kind of a realization of: Kanye shops at Colette, I shop at Colette. I do shows when people pay me the right amount of money even though I don’t wanna do em’, so does Kanye. Kanye’s just like me, Kanye’s a normal guy. Kanye has a song called ‘I Am A God’ on his record, Kanye’s not God, he’s a mortal man [laughs] and then I just wrote the song.

HH: For a lot of the time do you have that internal voice that goes back and forth like that?

O: Totally, I mean the records not a diss-record at all. I’m a huge Kanye fan. I’d jump at the chance to work with him, but I know he’s a human being just like everybody else.

HH: And one other thing that I thought was funny because I know you’ve spent a bit of time in New Zealand —’Yeah, Nah’ is quite a New Zealand saying, did you know that when you made the track?

O: Is it, I did not know that. You guys say yeah, nah here? Cause we say that at home in DC. Instead of saying yes and no we say, ‘yeah, nah’.

“In terms of a song topic and environments where I like to write — I suppose just somewhere where I feel like I have space to explore.” — Estere on writing lyrics. 

HH: Okay so you travel a lot, compared to when you began writing music in Washington, is the inspiration to write still drawn from the same things or circumstances?

O: The inspiration’s still the same for me. I always write my rhymes outside. I like to produce in my house but I actually write all my rhymes outdoors. Whatever beat I made, I pop it in the headphones and I take a walk outside and I start writing wherever I’m at and just kind of be influenced by my environment . It’s been great to be outdoors in numerous cities and countries around the world but the process itself hasn’t changed. If I’m home for an extended period of time I just write outside in that one city that I’m in or if I’m on the road I just go outside wherever I’m at. So the process does the same what the environment does and definitely those influences find its way into my music.

Photo Credit: Nicky Birch

HH: And Estere for you, what inspires you to write a song?

E: Yeah, I like to write songs about specific situations, scenarios or like topics and themes; so if there’s something that I have thought about or that interests me in terms of a song topic and environments where I like to write — I suppose just somewhere where I feel like I have space to explore. I like to have quite specific themes that I write about and I often shy away from writing about my own feelings just because I don’t feel like I’ve felt enough. Especially because I am young [21].

HH: As a young woman writing music do you feel like you’re artist voice is still growing?

E: Definitely. I feel like a lot of the time young women almost — not pressurise — but they often write songs about love and yeah just as I said before, because the world is so diverse and dynamic you could write a song about anything really, you know? So I just like to keep my options open.

HH: Is that a personal decision or a strategic one because you are still putting songs out publicly as you are growing?

E: No, it’s not a strategic decision because if I felt comfortable writing about that kind of thing then I would. It’s just more, I feel like I need to grow more as a person before I can explore certain themes. It’s just what I do to stay true to my own feelings.

HH: Okay, what’s the best piece of advice your parents have ever given you?

E: Maybe my mum telling me that I should just follow my intuition, I think that’s a good piece of advice. She says that I’ve got good intuition so I said ‘thanks mum’.

O: My dad, he’s like my biggest role model and he used to always tell me this Islāmic quote from the Quran that really just stuck to me and I actually wrote that in a lyric on my newest record. The quote from the Quran is, ‘Live everyday as if it’s your last and plan everyday as if you’ll live for an eternity’. That’s how I do my best to live. I plan things that I probably wont be around to see but I move with the anxiousness – the inner urgency, as if this is the last day; putting out as much as possible, that’s something I definitely live by — living like it’s my last day but planning forever.

HH: Could that explain where your work ethic comes from?

O: Totally. My work ethic comes from a series of things – fear of normalcy is one of the biggest ones. I, myself, I can’t work around people in an office like I get real sleepy real quick, so yeah, fear of not being able to make music for a living. Time — I want as much of my own time as possible. For me, money buys time I just want as much time on earth as possible to do with what I want. So yeah, work ethic comes from me trying to buy as much time as possible and a good healthy fear of doing something else.

HH: And when did you fall in love with hip hop?

O: I liked it, but I fell in love with it when Midnight Marauders came out. Electric Relaxation by Tribe Called Quest is when I fell in love with it.

E: Think I fell in love with Hip Hop more through experiencing [it] in Wellington. I grew up with the Mahal family, like Olmecha Supreme and watching Imon do his thing — producing and stuff, that was kind of like the gateway for me.

Photographs courtesy of Nicky Birch. 

Thank you to Hadyn Middleton from Madcap Touring and Opal Mackinnon from Red Bull also.

**First track available here: 

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