Almost everything about E^ST is unexpected. In a world where Gen Z art is becoming increasingly apocalyptic, drenched in greyscale and dripping with sarcasm, E^ST's debut album I'M DOING IT trades lower-case for all-caps, monochrome for zebra prints and Willy Wonka colours, and sarcasm for heart-on-sleeve sincerity.
E^ST (Melisa Bester) grew up homeschooled, but signed a publishing deal when she was thirteen, and spent the next few years writing for other artists. This wouldn't last long, though. Following an urge to write for herself, she crafted a beautiful, eclectic album that toes the ever-thinning line between bedroom-pop and polished production.
Bester very easily accomplished what most of us wish we could: took a broken heart and turned it into a dancing-in-the-dark debut worthy of the substantial praise it has received since she released it this past summer. I'M DOING IT is full of intimate, modern pop dotted with explosive choruses and infectious melodies. EARMILK spoke to the young pop star in-the-making about the record, lockdown, and breakups.
How have you been spending the pandemic? Have you spent much time reading or are you more of a TV person?
I definitely spent the first part of the pandemic binging TV (I watched Ozark twice), and then realised I wasn't reading as much as I'd like to, so I made a rule that I could only watch TV if I'm watching with someone else, and if I'm by myself and have some downtime I should pick up a book.
What kind of music would you have grown up listening to?
I listened to heaps of different things growing up! Lots of musical theatre (Barbra Streisand was a big name in my house) and blues (hi Eric Clapton), and then as I got older I started discovering music for myself... definitely went through an emo phase, an indie phase, a folk phase... and these days I just listen to whatever I like (which is a lot!).
Are your parents musical? What age did you start writing/playing?
Yeah my mum sang in choirs when she was a kid, and went on to become a drama teacher and put on musicals at schools, so I grew up in a very musical/creative environment. I was always singing, but didn't discover playing guitar and songwriting until I was around 11/12 years old.
I know you grew up pretty religious. Did that affect this album at all? Do you find that certain elements of the religious upbringing come through in your life in unexpected ways?
It doesn't really come up in my music at all... But still definitely comes up in life in small ways. I feel pretty detached from my upbringing, so I don't pay much attention to it!
Do you find you're able to write a love song about a perfectly happy relationship while you're in a crumbling one? What about vice versa?
I normally tend to write about the situation I'm in at the time, sometimes purely as a way to help myself process my feelings... but sometimes I try to intentionally write a little more detachedly so that I don't become dependent on my life situation to fuel my creativity. It's definitely a challenge for me though.
When you were recording the album, was it a struggle to hit the right balance between the more intricately produced tracks and the sparser ones? How did you come to those decisions?
Not really! I don't consider myself a very polished person in any aspect of my life, so it makes sense to me that my music wouldn't sound super slick... but I also have really expansive ideas that take my raw creativity and just make it bigger! And I'm also just a fan of really tuning into the song you're making, and figuring out what that individual song needs, and not trying too hard to make it make sense.
Because it's a breakup album, was the track order something you thought about seriously? It feels like it has a real narrative to it.
Honestly the track order came about because the songs were roughly written in that order. As time went on, I found that my attitudes and feelings were changing, so the tones in the music started changing too. It wasn't until I finished writing the album that I realised there was this overarching story to it... which made choosing the track order very easy!
Did you have a particular song on the album that was easiest for you to write? What about one that was most difficult?
I think the easiest song to write was "I'm Not Funny Anymore" because I knew I needed to write it... and that's why it was also the most difficult song to write.
I was talking to another young artist recently, and he said something that has stuck with me: that Gen Z hasn't really had the privilege of nihilism, because of the state of the planet – they have to care about everything, because they have to fix it. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on this, especially as a young singer-songwriter. Do you feel you've grown up with a responsibility to be socially conscious?
That's a really good point. I have definitely felt that responsibility for the last few years. For me part of growing up was learning that if you want it to get done, you have to do it yourself.
By extension, do you feel like it's necessary for you to be socially conscious and politically active as an artist? Do you think that art must necessarily stand for something, or can it simply exist for the sake of itself?
I personally try to use my platform to raise awareness/share information about things I care about, but I don't expect all artists to do that (although it can be a big help). I really admire politically driven art, but I don't think all art needs to be that. There are so many different moments in life where art can be appreciated and utilised, so there's space for so many different types of expression.
Albums or playlists?
Not long ago I would have said playlists, but this year has been the year of listening to full albums for me, so today I'll say albums!
Do you remember the first time you heard a song that stopped you in your tracks? What was it? Where were you?
I remember being about 14/15, and being in the car with some friends... we were driving through the city at like 2am, everything was lit up but there was no one really around, and Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap came on, and everyone was just really quiet listening to this song. I just remember being so blown away that a song actually sounded like that, and even though I didn't know what the lyrics were or meant, it felt so emotional to me. It's still one of my favourite songs to this day.
What have your favourite recent albums been?
I've been obsessed with folklore by Taylor Swift.. Have never really been a Swiftie until this album. Have also really loved Song For Our Daughter by Laura Marling.