From Shostakovich to Chris Brown and Jennifer Hudson, a talk with musician Ester Na
Even though Ester Na was raised in one of the most important cities in the history of classical music, her journey as a musician soon took her to more modern realms of jazz, R&B, and pop, eventually even bringing her to the United States. Now, after playing for big names like Ledisi, and Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, she’s working with Harvey Mason Jr., a titan in the realms of music production, where she’s worked on songs for both some of the biggest names in pop music, as well as a series of highly anticipated feature films. We had a chance to sit, down, and talk with Ester about her long, multi-faceted journey.
To start off, can you tell me a bit about your early life in music, specifically what it’s like to play in Vienna, one of the most famous cities in the history of music?
I started at the age of eight, playing cello, and I was surrounded by classical musicians, what with Vienna being a mecca for classical music. The exposure was pretty much constant; when you walk along the street there are classically trained musicians literally playing grand pianos for people just passing by. Access to music in that city is also very easy; for just 5 euros you can see pretty much any classical opera or orchestra, there are so many concerts to watch. While, granted, this does lead to a very competitive environment, being so surrounded by classical music really formed me, and gave me a structure to follow. First I competed in a national competition in Austria, where I won first prize, so after that I moved onto the international competitions.
Considering your national and international success as a classical musician, what inspired you to divert your focus towards more modern forms of music?
Even though I was on my way to a career as a solo cellist in Europe, I was also very limited because I wasn’t allowed to improvise. Classical music is always on paper, and the changes that you can make are in the nuances in your style, which left me feeling very hindered and claustrophobic. What really opened my eyes, was when I realized that, listening to the top 40’s on the radio, the top 10’s were always American, largely because Austria doesn’t really have a good pop-culture. As soon as I really started listening to R&B from artists like Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson, I was inspired, because this was where I could see the freedom to improvise and play what I wanted to.
Moving from this realization, what then inspired you to pursue pop music here in the United States?
I always, even before starting to study jazz piano, wanted to do contemporary music, but because there were no real forms of contemporary education, other than ones that would lead to some kind of professorship, the closest thing I could reach for was jazz. So, I decided to take the study of jazz piano which- while music studies in Vienna are very good, their education in jazz is still very old fashioned. You had to learn Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, but the studies were still very conservative, and they would never come to you with a Robert Glasper track, or Cory Henry, they just wouldn’t teach you that. So, I started thinking to myself ‘I need to get out of here and go to the real mecca for contemporary music,’ and that’s what prompted me to apply to Berklee.
It seems like you took to the American music scene very quickly, and it wasn’t long before you started playing in front of big names like Lenisi and Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts. Can you talk about your experience rising within this scene, very quickly?
As soon as I came to Berklee, I knew what I wanted; I just had to do my research and figure out who I had to reach out to in order to get these gigs, and be able to perform with incredible artists. One of them, Renese King, an Emmy-winning, incredible gospel and R&B vocalist, was a staff member at Berklee, so one day I just visited her, and performed in front of her. She liked the way I played, and started inviting me to collaborate on several gigs, one of which was for Deval Patrick, the then-governor of Boston. When I played in front of Ledisi, I was working in the voice department as a piano player, so they knew how I played, and what styles I could play, and when I knew Ledisi, was going to visit Boston, I raised my hand and let them know I really, really wanted to preform, and so they sent forward my resume and the next day it was good to go. A lot of it really was just reaching out to the right people and showing them that I had the skills, and how versatile my style was, how I could not only play R&B and Pop, but that I also came from a jazz and classical background.
Could you tell me how you became involved with Harvey Mason Jr?
I started working for him this January. I got the job through some really random circumstances. My friend knew the studio manager, who was looking for a producer and a keyboardist, so she recommended me to her, and I sent her my material, and it really happened within one week. I got to the interview and he liked me, and my production and performance material, so we started to collaborate at the very beginning of 2017.
What was the process of starting to understanding his musical world?
The amazing thing is that he was involved in many, many pop records that really inspired me; people like Toni Braxton, Chris Brown, the last Whitney Houston album… too many other people to mention. So, it was very easy to speak his musical language, because I grew up listening to his sounds. I also think that he could hear that in my production work.
Is there something you can identify that you bring to the table, during these sessions, or do you feel like you’re still learning a lot from him?
I think I’m learning more from him, because I’m still at a very early stage in our collaboration. He’s really mentoring me, and pointing me in the right direction. At the same time, I think he likes the way I produce the sounds in the songs, but at this stage I still think I have a lot to learn from him.
Again, not naming names on these projects, how would you compare working on these scenes to working on music for a musical personality?
Working for a film is a totally different language, because you can’t overpower the picture. You can’t make it too interesting, because your job is to bring mood to what’s on screen. Meanwhile, for a track, it is important to create an interesting production that can lift the voice and reinforce it.
Could you describe a bit about your creative process? Are there any particular styles of musicianship, or particular instruments, that you find yourself drawn to?
It really depends on the project that I’m doing. When I have to create a pop track, I try not to draw from Jazz, because once I do, the track will sound very complicated, and not cool. When I need to create a soundtrack for a film, that’s when I have a chance to draw from classical influences, as well as jazz. But you really do need to look at each project, and figure out what you can draw from to make the best music for it.
When collaborating, does it ever feel overwhelming to work with someone so deeply entrenched in popular music history?
When I started off, I was very nervous. Throughout the process, I never felt overwhelmed, but I was inspired. Harvey Mason Jr. is such a hardworking person, and he’s very down to earth, no matter if you’re an assistant, or just starting out, he shows everyone so much respect. So, I definitely feel he inspires me to be create the best work that I can.
It seems like your recent musical journey has meant a shift away from the performance based work early on, and more towards post-production work. Do you have a desire to be able to return to playing more for an audience?
My goal is to balance it 50/50. I do miss playing live, but at this stage of life I very much enjoy the post-production and behind the scenes work; which lets me play all the same instruments, just not in front of an audience, but if I have the chance and the opportunity, I’d still love to do a live performance again.
by Giorgio Chang