Live Review: Self Esteem
Print Music Editor Harry Hawkins reviews Self Esteem’s gig at the Exeter Phoenix.
Since her 2019 debut record, Rebecca Taylor has made her intentions very clear: to create bombastic and anthemic music that also highlights systemic troubles, personal turmoil and how to live and thrive in spite of this. As the new record Prioritise Pleasure put on display, a lot of work goes into making this kind of pop music with bite that is Self-Esteem’s signature sound, especially with the incredible layers of vocal harmony. I was curious to see in how such powerful songs would translate to a stage.
The opening band Human Interest didn’t give any exact pointers as to how the event would go down, but, my god, if you’re from IndieSoc or enjoy any form of intriguing guitar music from the last 30 years, you should put them on rotation. Even as a tight 3-piece, the band navigated through the entire history of rock – from some Mannish Boy-style blues to the chillness of an XX track and all the way in between. The chemistry between them was palpable, with the lead singer and guitarist able to effortlessly ride on top of the driving rhythm section. It’s nice to see a confident support band who can wow you even on first impression, and their last song which dissolved into a psychedelic jam showed yet another colour of their iridescent palate.
it is so heart-warming to see how much affection she has for her band and backing singers, and a long-time fan of Self Esteem was shouted out multiple times in-between songs.
For the main act, Rebecca took stage looking like a CEO in a red suit and immediately set off with the intro of the latest Self Esteem record, ‘I’m Fine’ – a statement of living life after a traumatic experience, which Rebecca has also said is ‘for anyone who feels like they have to live their life because of the way society is’. The closing sample of women describing ways of keeping safe and deterring men who approach them rings especially true in the current spate of events not just nationally with #KillTheBill but also with spiking incidents in the last few month. There is a reason the stage has a bass drum emblazoned with “KEEP LYRICS UNCOMFORTABLE” – this should be the riding sentiment (and perhaps also the explainer to why Self Esteem’s top-of-the-range anthemic pop is harder to hear on the radio than it should be).
The realism in lyricism has clearly resonated with a great deal of Rebecca’s audience – seeing the devastating sprechgesang of ‘I Do This All The Time’, which deals in the anxiety of going to a barbeque of a an ex but also delves into issues about expectations placed on where your life should be going. The harrowing truth of the song is tempered with reassurance, and it’s frankly astounding to see an artist able to communicate with their audience in such a stark way, displaying a true confidence you won’t find in many other artists.
the applauses and cheer between songs was as loud as their tub-thumping choruses.
This confidence provides a kind of superstar energy to the band despite the obviously not-arena-sized Phoenix venue – it’s like a grenade in a paper bag. In her strongest stances there are many of the trappings of Yeezus style synth stabs and tom drum rolls, fat and rubbery funk bass – with ‘How Can I Help You’ being one of the most stamping and powerful moments.
The fusion of the whole band was cemented on the superbly catchy alphabet chorus of ‘Moody’, with its indie disco rhythm. Rebecca is clearly someone who not only lives and breathes through her work but has an intense gratitude for being at the position she is – it is so heart-warming to see how much affection she has for her band and backing singers, and a long-time fan of Self Esteem was shouted out multiple times in-between songs.
In addition to the 3-part harmony delivered by Rebecca and her singers, the audience was full of fans who could recite songs and verses verbatim, and the applauses and cheer between songs was as loud as their tub-thumping choruses. Yet in the encore (which was basically announced before the ‘last’ song by Rebecca), the 3 singers stepped down into the crowd and sang the stripped back acoustic “John Elton” to a silent and stunned crowd. I can assuredly say the result was nothing short of spectacular.