Santa Fe-based singer-songwriter Esther Rose is another one of those local stories wherein an artist slowly builds a relationship with our fair city before one day realizing they want to make it their home. Rose spent a decade in New Orleans after growing up in Michigan. A late bloomer in the songwriting world, she took to music at 27 and has since built a name for herself as a crooner with a gorgeous voice who isn’t afraid to open up when it comes to lyricism. It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, a whole lot of vulnerability whether Rose is with a full band or on her lonesome. This week, Rose joins forces with fellow songwriters Phoebe Hunt, Lily Evans and Lonnie the Cloud as part of the ongoing Songwriter Night With Esther Rose series at the El Rey Court (7-9 pm Sunday, Feb. 4. Free. 1862 Cerrillos Road, (505) 982-1931). These events only happen when they happen, so we caught up with Rose to learn a little more ahead of the show and before she hits the road on tour in February and March. This interview was edited for length and clarity. (Alex De Vore)
Don’t take this the wrong way, but why move to Santa Fe of all places if you’re doing music?
I mean, that’s a good question. Ummm…Well, it was a hard decision. I’d lived in New Orleans for 10 years before moving here about three years ago. But I moved here for love. To start a relationship. I was just following that.
But I would always stop through and play here when I was away from New Orleans. It’s sort of the closest distance for the most extreme beauty and contrast from New Orleans—the dry, the elevation, the sunshine. I started coming here in 2015 and spending as much time camping as possible. And making friends; playing fun honky-tonk house shows. By the time I moved here, I had a really nice group of folks to play music with, and it was enough of a promise to know that I would have those musical relationships.
I think my first show was at [DIY space] Ghost or maybe Zephyr. It was always a small and fun, weird show [when I’d play in Santa Fe]. The DIY scene here is incredible, and now that I’ve lived here for a while, I know that some of the most fun happens in houses.
We hear about visual artists finding entirely new ideas of self and new practices in Santa Fe. Was it similar for you as a songwriter?
Yeah, I think for me it was like this question of ‘Can I do it on my own now?’ Songwriting is just something I do alone, though. It’s my practice, my craft and I don’t need anyone to make me do it. I kind of understand that a little bit more now, but it was scary at first.
So much of it is sharing and being inspired by your contemporaries and listening to great music. Being a fan of other people is a huge reason why I go back to New Orleans—in fact I’m making my next record there. Being a fan is just as important as having something to offer.
The way I can mark [my songwriting growth] is that there are more words than ever. I’m performing solo a lot. I’m digging inward a lot more. The conversations I’m having with people are inspiring, and those are propelling the songs, but it’s also inward and contemplative the way my music has changed from living out here.
A lot of people live in New Mexico because they really want to live in New Mexico and don’t necessarily want to be on the road, and I understand why I need to do that. And the solo show is so rewarding. I get to tell stories, try new material—I get to connect with the audience. The stripped-down show, I get to embrace that.
How do you put together your El Rey shows?
What I realized I missed the most is people singing in my kitchen, people picking up a guitar and sharing and having it be a normal part of my life. I’m curating these songwriter nights and normalizing intimacy that way. I always play brand new material that’s super rough because it’s amazing to play new material for an audience. It’s a part of my process now. And even if most of my friends aren’t songwriters, they’re writers or poets or secret poets. There’s an exchange happening.
New Mexico gets missed a lot with these booking agents who route through Colorado or Arizona, so I’m inviting people to come have a night at the hotel, meet Heather [McKearnan] at the [La Reina] bar, drink a ton of mezcal. It’s a little world there, and I’m grateful for the portal of the El Rey. I’ll keep doing it whenever I’m home, as long as I can, whenever I can.