For Self Esteem – AKA Rebecca Lucy Taylor – Glastonbury is where it all began, sort of. “It was Gary Lightbody!” she told Alexis Petridis in the second of the Guardian’s onstage interviews with musicians on the William’s Green stage. “I was at school, he was in some of the [Glastonbury] footage and he did a Bright Eyes cover.” She made a new musical discovery and was inspired to set off down her own path as a musician.
It’s been a long one: after a decade in the indie duo Slow Club, Taylor quit to start Self Esteem. She released her debut solo album, Compliments Please, in 2019 to quiet acclaim, but it wasn’t until last year’s bold, ruthlessly self-examining Prioritise Pleasure that the Self Esteem phenomenon truly kicked off. It was the Guardian’s album of the year, and her live shows – which she describes, brilliantly, as “a kind of horrible church” – have near enough become sites of pilgrimages, particularly for adult pop fans who want to hear their real-life experiences reflected back at them.
At first, though, said Taylor, she was “too scared to say I was gonna go solo. I started an Instagram under the name Self Esteem and started posting paintings and poems. It felt massive to me.” She spoke candidly about her ongoing work to attempt to shed the self-consciousness and people-pleasing that characterised her first band experience, in order to be truer to her own desires. “Being a woman, I feel like I’m asking too much, I’m attention-seeking,” she said. “It’s easy to go, ‘I’m gonna keep it safe and easy and that will keep me liked’.”
As an ardent pop fan, life in an indie band became stifling, she explained. “If you can’t be yourself, you go crazy, in any facet of life. I know it was just a band but I went crazy, I couldn’t be myself. It’s hard being from Rotherham and saying this but I’m an artist, I wake up every day and want to make art. I was having to make art through someone else’s lens.”
It was a series of ruptures that had kickstarted the Self Esteem project, she explained. She had split from a long-term partner, left London and would work any job going. “I took a job as a fairy in a panto,” she explained. “It was very unenjoyable. I liked getting paid but it was two shows a day, six days a week. I was breaking up with my partner and I’d put the phone down and pick up my wand.” Meanwhile, she approached her new music as if it was “like a full-time job. The goal was just to exist at all and it’s fucking lovely. It’s become a right laugh.”
It was important to her that Self Esteem had a distinct style, she said. “In Slow Club I used to struggle with the fact there was no manifesto, aesthetic – it was just two people’s opinions. It’s not a good way to make art, I don’t think.” Part of that trademark comes from Taylor’s frank lyricism about her own flaws – and the things that men have told her she is.
“People are like, ‘It must be cathartic?’ And I don’t think it is,” she said. “It’s hard but I get exhilarated, I get so high off it. And I think it’s because in my life, I never say what I mean … In songs, people don’t ask me what it’s about, and that safety makes me say what I mean and that’s what I get out of it. I wonder if one day I’ll just get to write songs about being in love, you know how Ed Sheeran just writes a song about his girlfriend.”
When Taylor wrote her breakout single, last year’s I Do This All the Time, she knew she had “nailed it”, she admitted. In Slow Club, she had always tried to write hits and failed. When she first went solo, she investigated the world of cowriting with other songwriters and hated it. “With Prioritise Pleasure, forcibly, because of the pandemic, I was on my own. I wrote it with no end in sight, and that’s how this album happened. And, of course, as soon as you stop trying, the universe [hands you a gift]. Not to be all ‘live laugh love’ but … ‘live laugh love’ is important, isn’t it.”
Music gave Taylor an outlet for the full-throated expression she had always sought, and struggled with in her personal life, she said. “It’s more me than I am making a cup of tea.”
She also spoke honestly about the realities of being a musician and what needs to change in the music industry. Negative experiences with sound engineers had prompted her to hire her own technicians, “which means I take home less money … It’s so unregulated and you have to spend a lot of money to make sure you’re gonna be alright. That’s the main thing for me. It’s not a well-paid job, you have to need to do it. But there could be changes made so I’m not paying to not have a terrible time.”
Taylor was floating ideas for her third solo album, she said. “It’s interesting going into the next bit – this is my day in the sun where there will be more yesses than noes and I need to make the most of that. I want to execute it to its full potential.”
Though not quite yet, she stressed. “I want to milk Prioritise Pleasure dry!”
• The final Guardian live interview is with Angélique Kidjo at 10.20am on the William’s Green stage on Sunday.