It’s Friday morning and Rebecca Lucy Taylor is itching to get back in the studio.
“This is one of my favourite parts of the process. Doing a day’s work on a song and then that 10 minutes before I get back and press play – it’s the most exciting bit ever,” she says. “Sometimes I press play and it’s not as good as I thought, but most of the time I’m absolutely buzzing, walking around and thinking I’m a genius. Of course, that fades out eventually.”
Taylor is working on songs for the follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2019 album Compliments Please. Released under the name Self Esteem, the record marked her emergence as a solo artist after more than a decade of being one half of the indie folk pop band Slow Club.
“It was the first time I was able to not please anyone but myself and the album came out of that.”
“Self Esteem was the first time I was able to not please anybody but myself and the first album is what came out of that,” she says, noting the second album will build on what she started. “I’m still really interested in sampling and computerised production. But the new album will be more streamlined, a bit bolder. I’ve got the guts to push it as far as I want to.”
The name for Taylor’s new venture came about in a conversation with a friend. “I was saying that all bands’ names are terrible, apart from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I said if I ever got the chance to start a band I’d call it Sex Appeal or Self Esteem.” Self Esteem stuck and the irony is not lost on her. “It’s become this thing that has finally given me self-esteem. I know it’s kind of cheesy but it’s true.”
It’s been a long and at times difficult road for Taylor to get to this. Slow Club, which consisted of her and fellow musician Charles Watson, was formed in Sheffield in 2006. The pair amassed a dedicated fan base, world tours followed and they even made a music video starring Daniel Radcliffe. But by the time Slow Club’s fifth and final album was released, it was clear that Taylor had stopped enjoying the work, a point made painfully clear in the film Our Most Brilliant Friends, in which filmmaker Piers Dennis documented what was to be the band’s final UK tour in 2016.
However welcome their decision to part ways was, it was still “terrifying”, says Taylor.
“It was a horrible year afterwards. Charles was the only person I’d ever made music with. I thought I was in my lane and I had to stay in it and it was too late to get out. I thought no one wanted to see the real me. It was scary – scary music wise and scary money wise.”
The fear was compounded by the fact that the man she’d made music with for so many years released a solo album soon after the band broke up.
“I was like shiiiiittttt! Because I knew what I wanted to do was going to take ages to build and I had a whole new team and I was slowly convincing people to wear t-shirts. I mean I had merchandise before I had any music! It was all a lot harder than just carrying on. It was a bit scary, but all the more sweet for it.”
Compliments Please is a celebration of Taylor’s independence and musically it’s very different to Slow Club’s guitar-driven sounds. Keyboards and sampling drive the music now, those and Taylor’s own powerful voice. And watching her videos, such as her debut song Your Wife, it’s clear that visually Self Esteem takes a new direction as well, as Taylor stares defiantly into the camera, emanating brash confidence.
“People often ask me if Self Esteem is a persona,” says Taylor. “But it’s not a character I put on. This sexy, powerful me is me.”
Sexy and powerful she may be, but there’s a knowing smile on show in the video as well. And though Taylor insists that she wants to be taken seriously, there is a sense that she isn’t taking herself too seriously at all.
“I guess I learnt from early on to make a joke about myself to be able to get what I really wanted,” she says. “I’m making myself a butt of the joke before other people can.”
There’s a similar tension about her appearance. “In Slow Club there were these roles I had to play that had been assigned to me by the band, by society and by the industry. Back then I was obsessed with what I looked like and I tried to be pretty and small. And no one made me do it – it was just that was the way it was because the people who were successful were like Laura Marling. That was what I was trying to do – trying to be Laura Marling. I could train for years and never have the essence of that woman.”
But although she rails against this pressure to look a certain way she hasn’t yet escaped it.
“I saw Lewis Capaldi on the red carpet at the Grammys, stood there holding his tummy because he’s quite a big lad. He’s great and I love him, but there’s no way I could do that because I’m totally obsessed with losing weight and looking better for when the next album comes out. It’s ingrained. I suppose I feel like I’m a bit old to be doing what I am doing now.”
Which brings us to the question of how old she actually is. She laughs. “I’m 28. I’m always 28. I might be turning 29 this year.
“I’m working on being proud of my real age. When I’m up on stage and I’m looking into the audience I see loads of women who haven’t got the houses and the kids and the things that I feel constant pressure about at my age.”
There is, she recognises, something important about being a woman on stage “not being rake thin and still going on dates that don’t work. Men can do it forever. They can stand there in the anoraks forever making music and being cool, shagging whoever they want on tour. They can go through their forties doing that.”
Taylor was born in Rotherham but has lived in London for some time now, though she harbours a dream to return north and live in Manchester. Her dad, now retired, was a steel worker and her mum a secretary but her parents met while her dad was at art college and in a band. Taylor recalls a childhood home where records were played more often than the TV was on. She cites her early influences as, among others, The Carpenters, Kate Bush and Fleetwood Mac. Although she originally planned to play the drums for her GCSE exam, she was persuaded by a music teacher to use her voice after he heard her sing in a school production.
Her northern upbringing doesn’t particularly inform her music, she says. “The Peaks don’t inspire me like an ex-boyfriend does. But I’m proud not to be a stage school kid. I know how hard it is for someone from a working-class background to get into the music industry and if I never do anything else, making music my full-time career is a huge achievement in itself.
“There are no guarantees in this industry. There’s barely any money in it even if you do become successful. But there are so many things that only exist because people had the time to put into it because they didn’t have to do a crap job.”
Despite the fact that she’s now “fulfilled musically”, happy that she can “finally get heard and have an idea and do it”, she’s plagued by self-doubt. “I got to the end of my tour and the album campaign and I had this feeling like it’s not worked, it’s not been big enough, it’s not been good enough. And I started looking at what other people were doing, all these unhealthy behaviours, and I have had to take two months to ask myself why, why do I do it? And I still can’t quite answer that question, but creation is the only way I can soothe my heart.”
Anxiety and self-doubt aside, nothing will beat the thrill that Taylor now feels working as Self Esteem.
“Not one particular person did it, but I’ve been made to feel wrong in the past, as a woman and as a musician. Now it’s like a party in my head most of the time – the weight that’s been lifted by realising that I’m not that bad, just by shifting my perspective and shifting who I work with. Of course, there are still problems that come out of that and I’m still struggling in a lot of other ways, but I can’t get enough of working on my own. And if I worked with other people, I’d find it really difficult to compromise again. Well, unless the price was really high.”
She laughs. “If I was offered the chance to be Rod Stewart’s backing singer, I’d put on red lipstick and a short skirt. I’d love that. Then I’d compromise.”
Compliments Please is available now. Cuddles Please, a new EP, is released 1 May on Fiction Records
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