|Esthero (Photo: Mark O'Neill, SUN)
You've got to hand it to Esthero -- when she comes back, she does it with a bang.
The Toronto singer, born Jenny Englishman, hadn't put out a record since her highly touted 1998 debut, Breath From Another, when she emerged last fall with two teasers in advance of its followup, Wikked Lil Grrrls (out June 28).
First there was the expletive-heavy club hit O.G. Bitch. Then came the notorious EP We R In Need Of A Musical Revolution, on which she sings, "I'm so sick and tired of the s--- on the radio and MTV," and "Tell me why a grown man can rape a little girl but we still hear his s--- on the radio." You could hardly plot a better way to get a semi-forgotten artist back into the spotlight.
"It's true," Esthero laughed during an interview recently. "I'm such a child that way. There's a side of me that screams, 'Pay attention to me!'"
People certainly will, particularly if the racy, naked video for the latter song, Wikked's first single, gets any airplay.
"I hope MuchMusic plays it and carries on the tradition of supporting artists and setting themselves apart from MTV," she said. "And I hope MTV is just vain enough to play anything with its name in it!"
Luckily for Esthero, Wikked Lil Grrrls has enough going for it to get noticed anyway. It's a big, 17-track album, recorded in L.A. and Toronto with help from a diverse group including Sean Lennon, Spooky Ruben, Cee-Lo Green, Jemini and Outkast's Andre 3000 (although his contributions didn't make the final mix because the labels couldn't come to terms). So maybe it needed all seven years to emerge.
"I can't force stuff," she said. "It didn't always come when I wanted it to, and I went through times when I didn't have anything to say. It felt like it took forever, but now it seems completely natural.
"In the beginning I had all sorts of plans, but lack of funds and time prevented them from happening. At one point I thought, 'This is a mess, but it's my second album and everyone expects it to suck.' But I realized that in this weird way it did have a theme -- of constant change. I'd managed to take pictures of parts of my life, and Musical Revolution was like a bow on top that makes sense of it all."
It does, if eclecticism is Esthero's own musical revolution. The album sprawls across hip-hop, jazz, pop, Latin and R&B, with incursions into big-band and even klezmer music.
"I wish there was a section in record stores that wasn't rap or hip-hop, but urban in the sense of a city of culture," she said. "I'd put it in jazz if I didn't think the jazz police would come after me. I guess I think of it as a pop record."
And as she moves among genres, Esthero takes on different personas to match.
"I get into character when I hear the music," she said. "I create this fantasy world and expound upon it to make a good story. In If Tha Mood I'm this ultravixen character -- not me, but a part of me. And I knew Wikked Lil Grrrls had to be sung very cheekily, very Andrews Sisters. I kept thinking about Cabaret and top hats and canes. For Gone I pretended I was an 80-year-old southern man who'd had a hard life, and for Musical Revolution I tried to become Bono, or the singer from Tears For Fears. I sang like a man in that '80s style. So it's about using those characters and making my own.
"People try so hard to be original, but I've realized that it's not our influences that make us unique, it's our combination of influences. Lots of people are influenced by U2 and Marvin Gaye, but not so many by U2 and Marvin Gaye and Patsy Cline and Brandy, you know?"
Esthero and her 11-piece band begin a tour this week that she hopes will bring her to Toronto in mid-August.