Published Jan 01, 2006"2001. That's the release date. June/July, 2001."
Esthero says this with a laugh, albeit a rueful one, as she wolfs down latkes and matzo ball soup at Toronto's folk-friendly Free Times Café. No, don't hightail it to your used record shop the small-yet-striking orange-haired singer is not discussing an album you missed. It was actually the first of many drop dates for Wikked Lil' Grrrls, her seven-years-in-the-making sophomore effort.
The T-dot singer's comeback kicked off with last year's twelve-inch "OG Bitch" a dukes up diss track that topped Billboard's club charts, set hip-hop tongues a-waggin' and became an insta-gay anthem and We R In Need of a Musical Revolution EP, which railed against the Ashanti-saturated state of radio (and threw a few elbows R. Kelly's way). A pair of local performances earlier this year even brought out the likes of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Outkast's Andre 3000.
"It surprises me that people are so supportive," Esthero says, before immediately, confidently, reconsidering. "But no, I've still been around and I have a good voice. I haven't entirely disappeared. I'm humbled by it, but I'm not surprised."
Others might be. Certainly "trip-hop," the all-encompassing genre Esthero became a poster girl for back in 1998 with her quarter-million-selling debut (alongside ex-partner Doc) Breath From Another has largely faded from memory.
But if Esthero's album ambitions were repeatedly thwarted, her voice was not so easily forgotten. Those sultry, swaggering vocals claim a distinctive edge even as they fit firmly onto almost anything, be it a Concrete Blonde cover, a torch orchestra, hip-hop or dance music.
Originally signed to Sony's Work Group imprint, she hopped over to Warner/Reprise in 1999 where things slowed down due to her own procrastination and record label pussyfooting.
But Esthero did not pull a complete Axl. To make ends meet, she farmed her tunes out to film, TV and game soundtracks and worked with everyone from Black Eyed Peas, the Isley Brothers and house producer Ian Pooley to Goodie Mob, DJ Krush and Saul Williams.
"I was harassing my friend that works with Dr. Dre: Y'all need a hook?' People were like You don't wanna be that hook girl.' And I'm like, Why the fuck not?' That community kinda found me and in turn I found that community. Those are the people that reached out to me, more than anyone else."
Despite her urban aesthetic, Esthero grew up around rural Ontario (she won't name the small towns, only noting their location in "butt-fuck nowhere") in a musically-minded family her dad had a '60s hit while big bro J. Englishman is a Toronto-based singer/songwriter.
Armed with "something bigger than the high school plan," Esthero moved downtown at 16, street busking and playing open-mic nights, often right here at the Free Times Café.
"Once when I started to sing [this couple was] still babbling, drunk and really obnoxious, but I started singing and suddenly there was dead silence. You could hear a pin drop," she recalls, this time smiling without a trace of rue. "Almost every time I played here was like that. I noticed the difference between me and other people was that I commanded a certain amount of attention when I opened my mouth. It doesn't mean I'm the best, but that's when my soul shines. This is where the beginnings of my courage started to grow."
Her career grew quickly, too. After meeting Doc, they made a demo and by age 18 she had an American record deal, fawning reviews (Time mag compared her to Billie Holiday) and a cult fan base.
Doc soon departed and though they had a short-lived creative reunion, his handiwork on a couple Wikked cuts is unlikely to be repeated. Esthero won't elaborate on the beef, but "I'll tell you something right now, this is the last record a collaboration between me and Doc will ever appear on. They say Never say never.' I'm saying never."
Wikked's genre-mashing feels like a direct reaction to mainstream myopia, combining hip-hop, Stravinsky and Bacharach while offering jaunty 1920s-style rompers, jazzy tear-jerkers, ambient R&B and sunny pop.
Bolstered by cameos from friends like Andre and Cee-Lo Green, Esthero wrote and co-produced almost every cut on Wikked (alongside Track and Field, Spookey Ruben and Sean Lennon, among others). Though not as stylistically cohesive as her debut, it benefits both from Esthero's rein-taking and her ability to get over herself.
"I can program [beats], I can play piano, I can play guitar. There's all sorts of stuff I can do. But I know how well I can do it," she says. "I'm ego-less as far as the music is concerned. I don't need to play piano on a record to prove that I can. Why the fuck would I do that when I know that the record will suffer? That it could be so much greater if I let someone else do it that's better than me?
"Everything has to be about what's best for the music. Fuck me."