Self Esteem: ‘I was tired of being this sweet heterosexual lady in a band’

Once an earnest indie singer with Slow Club, Rebecca Lucy Taylor is now a take-no-prisoners pop diva. Can her patriarchy-smashing anthems conquer the charts?

In a comedy sketch that was released to promote her 2019 debut Compliments Please, Rebecca Lucy Taylor is grilled about the imagined impact of the album 20 years on (it was so great, it “destroyed music as we know it”). With a transatlantic accent, impeded facial movement and wearing a tiara over a turban , she faces a hostile male interviewer who attempts to sum up her revolutionary sound: it is “melodic complaining”, “poor-me periodcore”, and “menstrual madness set to music”.

“That’s what it is!” cackles Taylor, two years on. “Can’t deny it!” It’s true that the 34-year-old – better known by her nom de disque, Self Esteem – makes music packed with warts-and-all honesty and, yes, a certain amount of justified complaining. Topics include toxic relationships and the insidious effects of the patriarchy. But her songs are also maximalist, danceable and infectiously fun – a wholesale rejection of the restrained indie-folk of her previous band Slow Club. “I’m trying to do a Trojan horse thing,” explains Taylor over a cup of coffee in her PR team’s dazzlingly white offices. “You think you’re getting this sugary injection of a pop song but it’s going to leave you with something more.”

Compliments Please did not have the seismic effect Taylor joked about, but it did establish Self Esteem as an exciting new pop star. Hers is not the kind of ruthlessly commercial pop that is machine-tooled for chart domination. Instead, it’s pop as an aesthetic and a mood – big-chorused but experimental too. “My friend said it’s art-pop,” recalls Taylor. “I was like: ‘Yes!’ It means there’s more layers to it.” One of those layers is camp – Taylor performed at Glastonbury 2019 in a minidress made of Boots Advantage cards – but there is also sincerity. Brilliant recent single I Do This All the Time chronicles the thought process behind not wanting to go to somebody’s birthday drinks in a droll sprechgesang over a hypnotic beat – think Arab Strap’s The First Big Weekend but fuelled by social anxiety instead of youthful hedonism.

On stage … at All Points East festival in 2019.
On stage … at All Points East festival in 2019. Photograph: Burak Çıngı/Redferns

That song is taken from Self Esteem’s forthcoming second album, Prioritise Pleasure. On its cover, she poses in a cowboy hat and extremely high-cut leotard. Its title is a rallying cry against a society that has convinced its female population they should put other people’s needs before their own. “We’ve been trained to be submissive and secondary and all I’m doing with this is going, what if we’re not?”

“Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have / Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun / Prioritise pleasure,” goes one of I Do This All the Time’s most memorable lines. Women, she says, are not encouraged to indulge in “true mindless relaxation” in the way that men are, via video games and football, for example. “What’s the version of that for me?” (We agree that shopping and perfecting makeup techniques are too much like self-optimising work to count.) Has Taylor got any advice for an interviewer who is dangerously obsessed with productivity? “Have a bath with a nice candle! It sounds daft but it really is a good little intro to it,” she grins. “I’m really at the start of it as well, but saying prioritise pleasure every day for the next year is going to help me remember to.”

Taylor’s dispatches from the frontline of millennial womanhood began life in 2017 as an Instagram account. Back then, she was still in Slow Club; she used the account to free herself from the restrictive image she felt people had of her. “This sweet, heterosexual lady in a band. I just wanted to prove I was a whole being that had other stuff going on.” (Taylor came out as bisexual in 2013.) Early on, she used the platform to post “a picture of me in my pants with a box of Dominos, which is nothing, but if I’d represented myself in that way via the Slow Club channels it would have been like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?!’” she laughs, comparing her transition to Miley Cyrus’s brash emergence from the cocoon of kids TV.

At that point, Slow Club had dominated Taylor’s life since she was a teenager in Rotherham. She met co-founder Charles Watson on the Sheffield gig circuit, where she was playing with her high school outfit the Devlin Project. “I could die thinking about how cringe it was,” she says. “I’m in skinny jeans oversinging the fuck out of a Smiths song.” In her late teens, Slow Club won a small indie record deal: cue a decade of critical praise, moderate success and frequently miserable touring. “We said yes to everything, apart from one Wombats support tour. We did one show with them and everyone [in the crowd] was shouting ‘Get your tits out’ at me. We got loads of laddy shit. It was before it was cool to be not a dickhead.”

The gigging wore Taylor down. “It was always ear infections, throat infections, exhausted. My menstrual cycle rages through me every month, all these things made it loads more difficult for me. The boys loved being in the van for hours, I fucking hated it.” Without any financial reward (“I was skint”), and increasingly disenchanted with the band’s creative direction – she wanted to go bigger and more bombastic, the others refused – she began plotting her exit. She recorded her own demos in secret, and sent some to Jamie T, whom the band had toured with. “I’m the biggest Jamie T fan ever and he said it was good. I was like, if he thinks it’s good then it must be.” She laughs at the implication: “I needed a man to tell me it was good before I did it, which is the sad thing!”

Slow Club’s gradual demise became the subject of a 2018 documentary called Our Most Brilliant Friends, and today Taylor views their protracted breakup as a symptom of her own people-pleasing tendencies. “I was so scared of pissing [Watson] off – not because he inspired that in me, that’s just what I’m like.” She also worried that leaving the band would disappoint her parents, her label and “everyone I’d ever made music with”. Taylor is very funny when talking about her desperation to be liked – “I’ll be like, ‘Do you want a tenner? Please take this tenner off me so you don’t dislike me’” – but it’s a trait Self Esteem has helped her come to terms with. (Not that she’s relinquished it: at the end of our conversation she returns my mug to the kitchenette and then wipes down the worktops.)

Stifled … in Slow Club.
Stifled … in Slow Club. Photograph: Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images

Eventually Taylor bit the bullet, partly spurred on by RuPaul’s Drag Race, which she describes as “my religion. It actually changed my shit and helped me get out of the band because I was like: I could lip sync to pop songs in a dress and be happier.” She describes the decision to leave Slow Club as “the best risk I ever took. I really struggled with my mental health for my whole 20s, and a massive knot has untied via being able to truly, authentically express myself.”

Much of this self-expression doubles as a way of processing toxic relationships from Taylor’s past. “They were pretty abusive emotionally, in that way where you don’t notice it’s happening and then you feel like you’ve gone mad,” she explains. “It’s insidious and frightening.” The specific dynamic, she says, is one of “you’ve embarrassed me, behave, be smaller, be quieter. I’m still processing the times that men have made me feel like I’m too much, that they’d pick me if I was just a bit less, which makes me angry every night of my life, thinking about it.” On her latest single, also called Prioritise Pleasure, she recalls how she “shrunk, moved and changed / And still you felt the same.” But Taylor is also keen to point out her own mistakes. “I’ve been a right arsehole to some people, I’ve been dreadful.” This kind of nuance, detectable in her songs, means at times Taylor’s work feels like it is part of a post-#MeToo rumination, drilling down into problematic relationships where blame is complex and mistreatment often subtle.

At the other end of the seriousness spectrum, Self Esteem has also allowed Taylor to indulge what she calls her “West End Wendy” side. She is currently working on a theatre production revolving around the new record – “it’s immersive, you’re in the studio watching me trying to finish the album” – and plotting her return to the indie venue circuit she navigated with Slow Club, albeit with a very different kind of show. “I’ve been blasting the most daft choreography ever,” she enthuses. “I want to do Gaga, half-time Super Bowl standard, but I’m in the Bristol Fleece.” She’s getting there, she says, but has “already pulled a nerve in my neck”.

For all her palpable excitement about the future, Taylor still experiences some self-doubt about the frankness she deals in. “Sometimes I think if I’d been more mysterious, would I be more successful? I want to be like Christine [and the Queens] and she’s not burping on Instagram. But I also think it is too late, there’s no going back: my USP is that it’s me and this is unfortunately what I am.”

  • The singles Prioritise Pleasure and I Do This All the Time are out now on Fiction Records. The album Prioritise Pleasure is released 22 October. A UK and Ireland tour begins on 1 November.


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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