Anna Holmquist of Ester on Sharing Joy in Saturn’s Return

Turn Around represents a major milestone for Ester, the project of Chicago singer/songwriter Anna Holmquist. It’s their first album to feature a full band, but beyond that, the songs reckon with a transformative stretch of Holmquist’s life–the time over which they’ve been growing into a new phase of adulthood and finding new ways to appreciate the fullness of existence.

When they first came to Chicago in their college years, Holmquist was involved with a cult, an experience they unpack in the fiery, chant-like “John’s Car.” In the breezier, bittersweet-celebratory “Holy Daze,” which previously appeared on their solo-led debut Curtains, they deal with the aftermath of that time and reclaim a sense of agency over their body and soul. Throughout the album, Holmquist wields that agency with electrifying force, speaking mantras, blessings, pleas, and occasional curses with self-empowered fervor.

Cellist Katelyn Cohen, guitarist Chris Colson, drummer Raul Cotaquispe, synth-player Will Hulseman, and bassist Tim Newsum lend extra weight to those melodic declarations. Together, they fill Turn Around with bright flourishes in its lighter moments (like the hopeful openness of “The Space”) and heightened intensity in its darker ones–maybe none so explosive as “When You Wake,” with its pulsing drum buildup, howling guitars, and Holmquist’s doubled vocals rising to an overdriven fever pitch.

Before the release of Turn Around, Holmquist spoke to The All Scene Eye about the social and celestial motion that influenced the album, the joy of sharing the creative process, and their recent turn as a podcaster.

Most of the songs on this new record, Turn Around, came from one six-month period of writing. When was that, and what kicked it off?

It was right at the tail end of 2017 and the start of 2018, so around six months there. What kicked it off was a big breakup–it kicked many things off. So yeah, I had a long relationship, we broke up, and then I wrote a lot of these songs. I mean, a lot of them are not directly related to it. I just had a period of creativity post-breakup, and I had a lot of time and space to go deep into it, since I wasn’t in a relationship.

One thing I’ve read is that this was around the beginning of your Saturn return. For people who don’t know, what is that, and how did it manifest for you?

Saturn return is an astrological thing where Saturn returns to the place it was when you were born. I think it’s supposed to happen every, you know, somewhere between 27 to 30 years, and in general, it’s a time of transformation. It can be a time where things in your life fall apart, change majorly–you’re supposed to learn a lot about yourself. It lasts for a while. I think mine is still going, but it started right around that time. Some people describe it as the time that you become an adult, or something like that. I think it was kicked off with a big breakup, but really it’s been a process of learning to like myself and be okay with being alone, and to be able to find meaning and fulfillment through things inside of myself rather than externally.

What role has songwriting played in that for you, and how has it changed as you’ve entered this period of adulthood?

Songwriting for me has always been a way to process what’s happening in my life. There are songs that I write that are not about my inner feelings and emotions, of course, but it’s always been a way for me to process changes, so it’s really always been a coping mechanism. I used that during this period too, but something that’s changed a little bit for me is–I don’t know if this is entirely different, or maybe just a thing I realized, but using songwriting as a way to express and find joy and shared joy with other people. I think that has happened especially over the past couple years. I’ve thought more about that, rather than just using it as a way to write cathartically and write sad songs, which is a thing I tend towards. Songwriting as more of a celebration is something I’ve thought about a lot.

How did that come up as this group of songs started to crystallize into album shape?

One thing that was really exciting about this was writing songs for one of the first times with a full band in mind. I had written stuff solo and performed solo for many years–a really long time–but this was the first time I’ve had a full band backing me, so being able to fully realize the entirety of the songs I was creating has been exciting for me. Working with a lot of really excellent, super talented, and kind musicians who have a similar vision for my songs, want to bring ideas to the table, and want to experiment has been really exciting and just a joyful process. Everybody who worked on this album believed in it and is just a joy to work with–it was a celebratory process of everybody being really excited, bringing ideas to the table, and being impressed with each other.

You put out an EP last year with some full-band arrangements on it. How did the group form, and how did that project come together?

The original full band formed from a group of friends that I’ve known for years, of people that I’ve played in other projects with or known through music. Basically, a couple of my friends were like, “Hey, if you started a full band for your music, we’d be in it,” and I was like, “Alright, fine.” [laughs] I was like, “Great, I’ll do it.” So Katelyn, my cellist, is somebody I’ve been playing with for years just as a duo, and she was on Curtains, our album that we put out in 2018 that is not a full-band album. It was really just a group of people that I’ve known for a while that I would be friends with and already respected as musicians, so that was really exciting too. It came together pretty naturally. There have been a few lineup changes since then just because, you know, people get busy, but it remains a group of friends and a group of people that I feel lucky to get to work with.

When you work with this group, does it change the kind of songs you write, or just the way they get expressed?

It changes which songs I choose to bring to the band. There are definitely songs that I write still that I don’t think need a full band arrangement; the last song on the album is just me and harmonies and guitar, but–I mean, I write a lot. Some of the things that I write are not good, and no one will ever hear them, and some of them I think are just quieter and smaller songs, so it’s really more about which ones are going to sound good with a full band arrangement–which ones are going to be interesting and fun for us to play and which ones are going to be best realized with a full band.

Where did you record this album, and what was that space like?

We recorded it at SHIRK Studios with Michael Mac. Michael Mac is a good friend and a great engineer. He recorded it, he mixed it, he mastered it, he produced it, you know. He put some ideas on it. It was excellent to work with him throughout the whole process because he really believes in the album as well, and it’s really nice to have somebody working on it from beginning to end.

SHIRK Studios is a really beautiful space. It has a really nice natural room back in, like, West Town, Ukrainian Village in Chicago. We had four days of tracking there, which actually turned out to be a good amount of time because we came in with some songs pretty much fully formed and were able to lay them down pretty quickly, but we also had some room to experiment in the studio, which is always what you want.

Do you have a favorite moment from that process?

I think an example of the kind of moment that I really love in the studio is–our drummer on this album, Raul Cotaquispe, he’s an amazing instrumentalist. Like, he’s a fantastic drummer, but he also plays guitar, he has a beautiful voice, but for the first song, “The Space,” he was like, “Hey, I have this Wurlitzer part in mind,” and then he played it, and we were like, “What? That’s so perfect. It has to go on the song.” It’s not a keyboard line I ever would have come up with and it’s not something we expected would happen, but he did it, it was great, and it went on the song. That’s what I really love about recording–you come in with your structure, or whatever, but having the space to have those little magic moments happen is great. That’s also why I love working with other people on my songs, because I never would have come up with that. It’s always exciting to hear what comes out of people’s minds.

There’s a really striking line in “The Space” of, “Let me be someone who lives with abandon.” Can you tell me about what that means to you, and how that song took shape?

That was definitely one I wrote post-breakup. I have a tattoo that I got with my friend that says “why not,” and that has been–sort of tongue-in-cheek, but also a serious mantra or motto for me the past couple years as well. Why not go for it? Why not live with abandon? Why not take a risk? You get your one life to live, and that’s it, as far as we know, so you might as well try to do what you want to do, you know? There are times to play it safe. Like, don’t drink and drive. [laughs] Don’t do things that are going to harm other people, obviously, but when it comes to going for it with your own dreams and desires, you have one chance, so you might as well try. 

I wrote that song with that in mind, and also I was just thinking about the fullness of life. Like, life isn’t just about feeling comforted and safe. It’s not just about feeling good and happy. The sadnesses and the hard things and the difficulty, all of that is a part of the experience of life, and I think that is something to be celebrated too. You can be sad and lonely, and that can be a good thing. That’s an experience that all of us share, and I think that’s important to celebrate as well, even though that’s also kind of an oxymoron maybe.

You released “Lock Me Up” as a single and you’ve said it’s one that you’re really proud of. What in particular makes you proud of that song?

That was one of the early ones I wrote for the album. The guitar riff that starts the song is basically the first guitar riff I ever wrote, so I’m proud of that. Part of thinking in the full-band context–it’s not something I really thought about before because, you know, it’s just me playing guitar. I can’t play a guitar riff and also play the rhythm. I only have so many arms, so–yeah, I’m really proud of that, and I think it just came together really well. I’m excited about the whole album, really, but I was pretty proud of that one for the guitar riff and the synth lines that Will Hulseman, genius keys player that he is, put on there.

As part of this full-band arrangement, you’ve been playing more electric guitar versus acoustic. Was that part of that shift to larger sounds?

Oh, for sure. In the past, in my own head, my songs have sounded bigger than they sound when I play them solo. That’s not true for everything–like I said, I still write songs that are meant to be smaller and quieter–but it was really exciting to shift to electric guitar and have that bigger sound so that I could fully realize what I heard in my head for some of the songs, or the feeling that I wanted to evoke, which I think can be more theatrical or grander-feeling.

I think one song that exemplifies that shift between records is “Holy Daze,” which is on both albums. What made you want to revisit that song and re-record it?

I wanted the full band version recorded, and it’s also my favorite song that I’ve ever written, so. [laughs] I wanted it on this album too. Because I’m proud of it, I’m like, “Well, maybe more people can hear it then.” But yeah, I wanted the full band version, and I also feel like it’s nice to have a bridge between the older album and the new one.

What makes it your favorite song that you’ve written?

I think it says exactly what I want it to say. I don’t feel like anything else is needed from it and I don’t feel like it’s missing anything. Most of the time when I’m writing songs, I’ll really like a particular part of the song, or I’ll think, “This one lyric gets really close to what I wanted to say,” or like, “This one line is what I was trying to say, and maybe the stuff around it doesn’t quite get there,” but with “Holy Daze,” I feel like all the words are right and all the music is right, so it’s a nice feeling. [laughs] I just don’t feel like it needs to be improved at all. It’s good as it is.

You host the Bad Songwriter Podcast, where you get musicians to dig into their earliest writing. What kind of insight has that given you into songwriting as a process?

Well, it makes me feel better about myself. [laughs] Again, it’s one of these universal things, right? If you’re a songwriter, you probably have old, bad songs. You probably have lyrics that you’re never going to use because you find them cheesy. Some people don’t, but a lot of people have songs that they wrote in high school, songs that they wrote in middle school or college, that are embarrassing to them now. 

Also, at first I thought, “This’ll be funny,” but really, it’s been super meaningful too. I think it’s a great thing to be able to look back on your growth as an artist, especially in the world of music today. It’s so difficult, because you can rarely and barely make money doing it, because the market is oversaturated with people making music and social media is fast. Music is hard to do, so I think it can be easy to feel discouraged, and it can be nice to look back at where you’ve come from and how much you’ve grown. That can be a thing to feel good about.

Has it changed the way you approach your own writing, to have had this window into other people’s thinking?

I guess, a little bit. I think when we have discussions on the podcast, I am thinking about how people say that they write. I mean, it’s really interesting to hear people’s processes, right? A lot of people write collaboratively. Some people really write solitary. Some people’s approach to songwriting has not changed over many years. Some people’s approach has changed dramatically. Recently, I put out an episode with Claire Wellin from San Fermin and Youth in a Roman Field, and she was talking about trying to make her lyric-writing more specific, so that has been something I’ve been thinking about lately. So yeah, I’m sure it’s rubbing off on me, and will continue to.

Who’s your dream get for the show?

Probably David Byrne. That would be pretty amazing. You know, I don’t know–does he have bad songs? [laughs] I think that would be interesting. I mean, everyone also. I want every songwriter on it, but David Byrne is the first person that comes to mind.

So, jarring twist back to the record: can you tell me about the title Turn Around?

It has a lot to do with what we were talking about, actually. It’s kind of a multiple meaning thing. Part of it is “turn around” like, turning around and taking a look back at where you came from so that you can more appreciate where you are now–using lessons from your past to inform your future and to make you feel grateful about where you are, and then “turn around” in the sense of having a big turnaround happen in your life. Your life is going in one direction and you think, “Well, this is it. This is how my life is now,” and then a major event happens, and you’re going in a totally different direction.

What have you taken away from taking the time to write and be by yourself and look back? What has that told you about your future and where you want to be?

I think that it has taught me that I’m okay on my own. It’s taught me that I can find a lot of joy in being alone and joy with other people. It’s taught me a lot about not compromising myself and not settling. I mean, this is not just to do with relationships. This is life in general. This is platonic relationships, this is job stuff, this is creatively–it just goes back to the “why not” thing. It’s taught me, “why not go for it and see what happens?” Also that, you know, a lot of shit happens to a lot of people and they get through it. That’s the stuff of life. Another universal experience.

What’s next for you after this album release?

I’m working on collaborations with a bunch of people right now, so some of those will probably be released in the next year. I’m doing some more synthesizer-based stuff, some more upbeat stuff, with various people, which has been very fun. I also have enough material to begin recording another full-band album, so we’ll probably start doing that pretty soon as well, alongside me working on these collaborations.


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