Mike Rimmer quizzed London-based singer/songwriter ESTHER ALEXANDER
It has to be said that my path seldom crosses with singer/songwriter Esther Alexander these days. Back in the day when she was Birmingham-based it always seemed more likely but now that she's firmly established in London, is busy on the live circuit and has recently had her second child, she's very busy indeed.
Her most recent album 'The Long Way Home' seems to be a creative high point and the summation of the kind of music Esther has always wanted to make. Her music is made for the mainstream but she's also comfortable doing gigs in churches here and there. "I'm still doing lots of Christian stuff," she explains. "In fact I'm doing a couple of gigs for some churches, but doing what I do in a kind of evening setting thing. I guess it's developed a lot over the last couple of years, particularly meeting with this guy Kipper, who is the Grammy Award winning producer for Sting, amongst many others. That was an amazing meeting, and I think we just really clicked, and I feel like I've found on this record a bit of a dream team, in terms of songwriting and the musicians. This has been the record I have been wanting to make for a very long time. So I'm absolutely delighted with 'The Long Way Home' and in many ways it has been a long way home."
It's been a long way to get here, and quite a journey over a number of years for Esther, so does she see 'The Long Way Home' as a destination or a beginning? "It's funny you should ask that," she responds, "because one of the tracks on the record is called 'The End Of The Land' and asks the question is this the end of the land or the beginning of the sea?' you know, is this where it ends or is this where it starts? I think the album is a destination that I've been wanting to get to, but also it's the stepping point or the sort of launching point I suppose for the next stage, whatever that looks like. We've got some exciting bits and pieces in the pipeline. It kind of feels like a conclusion and a beginning, if that's possible."
Has the journey been a frustrating one over the years? "Yes and no." She ponders and then responds, "I think it's been a very necessary journey. I think a lot of the time now in life we're very destination conscious and not very good at enjoying the journey. There have been incredibly frustrating times. I mean it's really the nature of music and arts and the music industry. You have these seasons where it feels like everything's kind of going and you have a great momentum, and then it feels like as fast as that came it's gone which can be incredibly frustrating. But I think if it has taught me anything it's that the journey is what it's about, and if you can enjoy the up moments of the journey and swallow the down ones then the journey itself is fantastic. I feel incredibly privileged to have met the people I've met and worked with the people I have, and those meetings and those opportunities would never have come about except for some frustration and huge amount of joy. So yes, it has definitely been a journey of both, really."
Perhaps this is a suitable moment to ask her about the title track of the album. "The Long Way Home" is on the surface quite an amusing song but underneath there's a serious message. But is it a confession from Esther? "Well," she hesitates, "I suppose in a funny way it is. I mean we wrote the music for this song first, and every time I listened to the chorus all I could think about was this line, 'the long way home', 'taking the long way home'. We started to talk about it; I wrote this song with Kipper my producer and David Clifton my superb guitarist. I started to talk about this idea with them, and just perhaps absolutely that we all do need to admit that we've made mistakes and say sorry. Out of this conversation came some stories of friends who'd done things like Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is 'I will make amends for the things I have done wrong.' We just felt that that was really powerful actually, and the whole power of forgiveness I suppose, and the power of saying I've cocked up, I've screwed up, and you know, I want to put things right, and the freedom that brings. Really in a sense whether you're religious, whether you're a Christian or not, people would say that when they go and put things right they would feel so much better. Obviously that is the heart of the Gospel which is really exciting. I think that this song, more than any song on this record, is really about apologising, putting things right and the freedom that comes through doing that."
The album contains a cover of the Sting song "Fragile". I wondered whether Esther liked the song or whether it was the influence of her producer Kipper, who has worked with Sting. She responds, "It was kind of both. I think it's a fantastic song and an extremely spiritual song. As we were making the record Kip suggested we should cover 'Fragile' because it really fits with the lyrics and what we're trying to say and so much of the rest of the record. I've personally always been very against doing covers, because I saw it as a bit of a distraction, and then it makes people make comparisons which may not necessarily be appropriate or useful. So I was really, really nervous about it and I think once it had come out of Kipper's mouth he was equally kind of 'oh I can't believe I've just made that suggestion', because obviously it's an extremely well known song, and we wanted to do it in a way that was original. So yes it was a bit of both of us really, but I'll blame Kipper."
One other surprising element to throw into the equation is that Esther managed to coax worship leader Tim Hughes out from behind his acoustic guitar and to sing a non-worship song. "I know," she laughs, "how cool is that? I felt that was quite an achievement." The last time the pair had sung together was at a wedding although prior to that they'd sung together at Spring Harvest in the dim and distant. Esther takes up the story, "We hadn't sung together for literally about 10 years, when we sang at this wedding. So we came to do this 'Fragile' song and Kipper said to me, 'You know, this would be a brilliant duet, it would be so cool if you could do a duet with the song, I think that would really work, do you know anybody who might be a good person to do it?' And I thought well, what male singers have I sung with recently, and to be honest Tim was the first one who came to mind, because we'd had so much fun singing at this wedding. Both of us had said at the end, you know, that was great, we should do it more often, etc, sort of things you usually say at these things. I just rang him up, and said, 'Tim I don't know if you'd be up for it,' and he was like yeah definitely, and he was a complete star and just came down to the studio. It was a very busy season for him in January, and he just came down to the studio for a couple of hours and nailed it. He was absolutely superb, Kipper was impressed with him as was I, but I knew he could do it. And there it was. It was brilliant. I'm so delighted with it, it's a great job."
There can be a bit of contention around Christians going off and doing mainstream stuff. People can get very precious about it. Spiritually how does Esther feel about what she is doing? "I think from a spiritual thing that I'm really doing what God's made me to do. I'm always reminded of that quote from Chariots Of Fire when Eric Liddell says, 'When I run, I feel God's pleasure', and for me when I sing I feel God's pleasure. Singing for me has taken lots of guises, and I still lead worship and still do lots of worship stuff, but actually I think for me what I just really love is singing songs over people that have roots in the Lord and you know, spiritual God stuff. Singing over them, and just kind of seeing what God does, because actually I'm always regularly amazed, at gigs people come up to me and say with tears in their eyes, I don't know what that was but what you just sung over me just made me cry. So often I end up having little chats with people about the Lord as a result of that. I just feel like we're called to be salt and light aren't we, and that's what I'm doing. I'm trying to do that in every part of my life."
My experience is that often artists in Esther's position can get quite snobby and feel somehow that it's better if they have non-Christians listening to them than if they have Christians listening to them. "To be honest," Esther responds, "I feel really privileged to sing to whoever wants to listen to me. I'm not actually that precious about who those people are. I think people do get a bit funny about it because I suppose the bottom line is there are many more people who unfortunately aren't Christians than people who are so I suppose from a purely numbers point of view I guess people do get a bit funny about it. But like I say the pleasure and the privilege for me is really singing over the people that want to hear the songs, and just sharing the stories that go with them. I don't really mind who it is. . .I'm not fussy!"
One way in which Esther has been taking her music to the people is through performing in branches of Café Nero. "And that has just been lovely for me," she observes, "because I feel like I've connected with an entirely new group of people, and done something which I never thought I would do. It has just been the most fantastic experience. I've loved every minute of it. I think for me I want to keep fostering a love of music and keep songwriting, keep doing gigs and hopefully growing to a point where I'm doing bigger gigs and support stuff."
Esther recently had a second child and recognises that having children has put everything in place. "I think in a good way music's taken more of an appropriate place in my life. I think it was sort of a secret obsession for a long time. So the challenge for me now is always negotiating music and my children. But that's no bad thing. A very good thing I think."
I am wondering how the coffee shop gigs go? It seems that Esther simply turns up with a small but effective portable PA system, plugs in and plays. "I can carry it on my own, it is the smallest but most brilliant sounding thing I have ever come across. So I'm absolutely over the moon with that and that does make it very simple to do this tour. Obviously you've planned it in advance with the store, but we're doing two or three gigs over a lunch time period, sort of between 11 and two. We kind of turn up, sing for about half an hour and chat, then move on to the next place. It's a bit like busking."
But if I go off and have a quiet little coffee in a coffee shop somewhere, I don't know if I want someone in the corner singing at me! "I know," she says, "you do feel a little bit. . . I'm always aware that some people have come out for a quiet coffee, that's why we tend to do two 15 minute slots in the set, and just give people a chance if they want to make a run for it, they don't feel like they're stuck. And actually people do feel pretty free, and I say, you know, we're normally positioned in the store in a place where if people want to sit they can do but if people want to get away there's still enough of the store left for me to be more background music than kind of in your face. It's been amazing actually, I've had the most wonderful response from people, and yes we've kind of turned people's coffee time into a little gig for them which has been brilliant, great fun."
So you never know, the next time you pop out for a coffee, you might find Esther Alexander in the corner providing some musical accompaniment to your beverage.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.