Being a part of a musical dynasty is never easy. Look at the careers of Natalie Cole, Wilson Phillips or Ben Taylor, you'll notice each one of these artists had to set themselves apart from the legacies they were connected to and find their own voices.
Singer, songwriter and producer Emily Estefan knows this struggle all too well. The second child of the global pop icon Gloria Estefan and her equally impressive producer-husband Emilio Estefan, Emily is the product of excellence. It was during her tenure at the prestigious Berklee College of Music that Emily balanced student life and her own dreams of an artistic voice steeped in her own experiences.
Released last month on her own label Alien Shrimp, her debut album Take Whatever You Want is a soulful, unpretentious collection of pop that is vibrant and relevant—one of the year's best releases thus far. Emily recently sat down with Quentin Harrison to discuss her route to Take Whatever You Want and how her authenticity is at the core of what motivates her to create her own art and to seek out the art of others.
Quentin Harrison: Talk about the creative process behind Take Whatever You Want and what you sought to accomplish for yourself and your audience?
Emily Estefan: First of all thank you so much for listening! One thing I appreciate is the attention span to listen to a complete album, so thank you for that. As far as the creative process for the record, it's funny because I had no idea I was making an album. I was so excited about walking in this new skin and kind of exploring this new element of myself. I lived up in Boston where I was going to college (at the Berklee College of Music). I would get home from class at 9pm and have some dinner and then work on my music from 11pm to 6am, sleep for a few hours and then go to class. After two months of that, I looked back and had 13 tracks, that's my lucky number. That's the moment I realized I had an album, it was not intentional at all.
I recorded it all in Boston in my apartment, the only thing I overdubbed later were the horns. I had laid down the horn arrangements with synthesizers and when I got back to Miami, I brought in my horn players, which are the only musicians on the album that aren't me.
QH: Elaborate on your influences and how they've made an impact on your sound.
EE: For me, when I get enthralled with an artist it has nothing to do with the genre. It has to do with whether I believe them or not. Whatever I listen to is something I can feel. One of my biggest inspirations is a band called Snarky Puppy. They're mostly an instrumental band and they've been around for a long time. The band director Michael League plays the bass and writes a lot of their songs and arranges them. They just do unbelievable stuff with music! They're compiling an army of artists right now on their label GroundUP and they're gonna destroy the world with music [laughs]! They had a festival in Miami a couple of months ago and I was lucky enough to play in it. Those are the kind of people that inspire me, people who are people first and artists as a result of being a person. I love Erykah Badu, Michael Jackson, and my parents when it comes to Latin music. When I sit down to make music, I'm never thinking “Let me make it sound like this,” I've just been able to soak up so much stuff in my life, I could go on and on about music.
QH: Your record, while being distributed by Sony Red, is the product of your own label Alien Shrimp. What was the impetus for starting your career independently and what are your goals for the label?
EE: It's an interesting climate in the music industry right now. In the past, you needed a (conventional) resource that not many people had access to, to record your music. Now, you can record with a laptop, or whatever else you may use, and you can make a whole record, depending on if you have a band already or if you're an independent producer. Now, with the avenue for digital distribution online there is a lot of competition, but you have the power to put something online. That (power) has to do with feeling, passion and commitment.
When people ask me about my goals for success, I don't think about sold out shows and lots of money, I think about continuing to be able to wake up and say that I can strap my instrument around my neck and that I can mix (a record) until 5am. I'm going to do my best to stay in that direction, but business wise I would love to continue to have Alien Shrimp grow and in the future continue to collaborate with people who share my same vision for music.
QH: Being a part of the Estefan legacy is an honor, but you've been unafraid to set your own course for your career. How did you achieve this?
EE: I'm a huge fan of my parents! The reason that our (creative) dynamic works so well is that we respect each other and allow space. They've never intruded on or questioned my music. A lot of people say, “Why didn't you sign to your dad's label, you could have had a lot more help or exposure,” but that's the opposite of what I should be doing with my career choices. I don't want to separate myself from them, I'm very proud and honored to be a part of the family. But, of course, it's really difficult to have someone's first perception always be “Oh, it's the Estefans’ kid.” It took me time to get comfortable enough with myself, but in the end, if you listen to my stuff and you don't like it, that's cool. But, if you like it, you're going to listen to it no matter what.
QH: You are a writer, producer and instrumentalist, something women rarely get acknowledged for in music, even today. Could you detail your instrument of choice and what it means to be a female instrumentalist?
EE: My principal instrument in college was the drums. But, psychologically, thinking about it now, I was a very shy little girl [laughs]. I felt really protected behind the drums, they're a really great tool for expression. I grew up sitting on stages where you could feel the rhythm section under your feet, so, my affinity for the drums, my connection to the drums, is natural. But, when it comes to being an instrumentalist, it's hard to call myself that because a true instrumentalist dedicates maybe 80% of their day to their instrument. When I sit down to play, I think of instruments for me as “vocabulary,” colors (to use) or ways of expression. So, I play guitar, bass, synthesizers, keys, drums, percussion, Rhodes, everything but the horns. For example, with my band, I have a nine-piece band, they play my arrangements. They play much better than I could because they're true instrumentalists, but, the point is that it's me and that it's an uninterrupted flow of my expression.
When it comes to women in the music industry, there's such a stigma about female instrumentalists. They're still regarded as “that girl rock band,” “that chick drummer” or “that chick guitarist,” instead of as a great guitarist. We still have a long way to go.
QH: As a Latina, especially in this social and political period in our country, your voice is more important than ever. How do you use your voice and your music to connect to others in this tumultuous time?
EE: I've met a couple of people who have sat down and said, “I'm going to write this song that's going to change the world,” if that's what you're thinking when you write the song, that's not going to happen. Because you're writing it from something that was not authentic to you, it was premeditated, so the intention is already tainted.
For me, when I talk about things in my music that I feel drawn to, it comes from a place where I was so frustrated or so sad, at that moment I couldn't do anything else but write it down. The day that I wrote “Take 5,” I had been severely disrespected at school, because somebody had made a comment about me being a female musician. Instead of telling them off, I went home and I wrote and that's what came out. It's about authenticity and honesty, whatever you want to change in the world or whatever you believe in, it's going to translate into your music whether you want it to or not.
I think we need a lot of love and light in the world right now. Sometimes, that comes in the form of a song that makes you just want to dance and sometimes it comes in the form of getting down to what's really wrong and translating that in your own voice.
QH: Can you discuss what performing live means to you?
EE: I've been playing in bands since I was 13, but I played with my mom at 8 and 9 for fun. I had been raised watching one of the biggest bands ever. My mom has a big ass band [laughs], at one point there could be, like, 20 musicians on stage. The appreciation I have for the sound and feeling that people can create when they're playing their instruments live, it means a lot to me and it's not something I'm willing to sacrifice when it comes to how I want to reinterpret my stuff live. So, it is super important to me.
QH: What are your five favorite albums of all time?
EE: Oh, I can't answer that, that's an unfair question because it changes (laughs). How about I tell you the last five albums I've been listening to? Michael Jackson's Off the Wall (1979), Snarky Puppy's Tell Your Friends (2010), Kimbra's Vows (2012), The Beatles Abbey Road (1969), and Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007).