Growing Young: The Rise And Rise Of E^ST

Henry Oliver 

Sometimes you can just feel an artist is on the edge of something big. A few songs in a row that seem to build, both creatively and in how many people they’re reaching, towards some kind of breakthrough. The horizon of stardom seems to be moving towards them at speed. Australian pop singer and songwriter E^ST (birth name: Melisa Bester) is one of those artists.

Last year’s ‘Life Goes On’ was a breakout single for the 19-year-old, with nearly 7 million plays on Spotify to date, spreading mostly through word of mouth. The song’s infectious, summery beat balances perfectly with E^ST’s velvety voice, which is intimate in the verses and anthemic in the chorus. It’s all-too easy to imagine a room full of people yelling-along to the song’s climax: “I should let go / But I think of you more than you know.” ‘Life Goes On’ is the kind of song that nearly any listener can empathise with: the struggle to move on, the impermanence of young love, and the inevitability of life going on with you or without you. 

Her new single ‘Blowjob’, released in late-March, is a perfect companion and contrast to ‘Life Goes On’. It’s a piano ballad with skipping electronic drums and cinematic violins. And like ‘Life Goes On’, ‘Blowjob’ mixes intimate verses and sing-along-able choruses, though this time, the effect is more stark, searching, and, to be honest, depressing. While both explore the difficulties of love, sex and relationships, ‘Blowjob’ deals with the harsh realities and emptiness of mismatched expectations in sex and intimacy.

I really don’t know, why are we so damn hard to love, she sings. Down on my knees / Really just need, just need your open arms / And you just need a blowjob.

“It was really nerve-racking putting this one out,” she says over Skype from her Central Coast home. “I was really stressed about it and wasn't sure how people were going to react, what they were gonna read into the song. But it was also like super relieving to put it out because I wrote it in September last year, so it's been with me for awhile and I was like, I need to freaking just share it now. Like, I've kept this long enough.”

The song is new territory for E^ST. Where ‘Life Goes On’ is broad and universal, ‘Blowjob’ is specific and personal. And while the chorus is written using as “we” and “us”, the verses tell a story that rings true with experience. “There’s just a brutality about it, like a brutal honesty that maybe I've avoided in some of my other songs.”

The song “just happened” during a session with her frequent collaborator and co-writer Jim Eliot. “This, um, situation that the song was inspired by what had happened like two weeks prior to me meeting up with Jim,” she says. “So it was a really super fresh thing in my life and we were just both really quiet that day in the studio. Jim was just kind of playing the piano and I just wrote the song. It was something that neither of us really put much thought into. We just let it naturally unfold and then it was after we wrote the song I was like, 'Yeah, that is really intense'.

So, how did a South-African-born, Australian-based 19-year-old, with already a handful of EPs and, now, a couple more singles that are getting attention around the world, get here, writing in London and LA and Stockholm? “There are no steps you can follow to be where I am, like everything has just pulled together in such a weird way,” she says. “It's almost hard for me to try and recall how I even got here.”

At four or five-years-old, her family moved to Australia from South Africa in search of a new life. She says it was a dangerous place to live. “My mom just didn't want to raise kids in a country where your friends are getting killed around you. And the racism is so bad – she didn't want us to grow up being racist.”

They moved to Dubbo in rural New South Wales, six hours from Sydney. Then to Newcastle, and to Maitland, and to Central Coast, and to Sydney and to Tamworth, Australia’s country music capital (“That sucked,” she says. “I really hated that town”) before settling back to the Central Coast where she’s still lives after moving house over 30 times.

She says she grew up in a musical family and always sung as a kid. At 12 or 13 she started writing songs and, after sending a demo to Swedish publishing and production company The Kennel, she was invited to spend a month in Sweden writing in studios and workshops. “I went for a month and everyday I would go to a different studio and work with different people. I'd never done anything like that before. It was super daunting. Like I'd go in and meet these professional songwriters and producers and I just kinda like sit there and just watch them work and pick up on how they thought about things so it was a huge learning curve that first month.”

She says she didn’t really know how to write or structure songs, but that the producers at the Kennel had been impressed with unique sense of songwriting. “When I was that young, I wasn't really influenced by many outside influences and it was very unfiltered and I think people are drawn to that,” she says. “I think that's why we're seeing so many young kids doing really well in the music industry because that's just like an honesty to that music that maybe you lose as you grow older. And so I think it was maybe that drew people more than my actual skills because they definitely needed some development.”

She spent two separate months in Sweden, signing a publishing deal with the Kennel at 13 and then a recording contract with a US label at 14. Merely a year later, she was dropped by her label, which she describes as “disheartening” and “discouraging”, so she decided to take a break from music and just try living a more normal life for a while - the life of any normal 15-year-old.

“I needed to figure out if I actually want to try again, like if I want to continue pursuing music,” she says. “So I took like a year off. I didn't really write anything. I didn't travel. I just a bit of a kid and was just figuring things out and then as I turned 16, I just felt the need to write songs again. But they were different from what I had written previously and it just kind of felt like a new page. Then I was like, 'OK, I'm writing these songs, which means that I need to do this’, like I needed to share them. So I chose a new name, which was E^ST because it felt like that signified a new beginning. It was going away from music that inspired me to come back to it.

I was so young then. When you're young, you have unrealistic expectations of what being a musician and an artist is going to be like, so I feel like going through that experience woke me up a little bit and threw reality in my face and even 16 is still really young to start a new project, I feel like I went into it not as naïve as maybe I would've been if I didn't go through that experience with the record label previously.”

During her mid-teens, as any teenager does, she’d been through many phases, trying musical styles, but when she became E^ST, she started again where her songwriting had begun, with just her voice and an acoustic guitar.

“I was super folky, like all my songs were on acoustic guitar and I took the songs into the studio with John Castle and he introduced some more electronic elements to the songs and I was like, 'Oh my God, that is so cool'. And I'd never really thought of going down that track. But it just felt so natural when we were working on the songs. And since then it's been pretty electronic.”

Since then, she refined her sound over three EPs, building on her sound without really settling on a stable aesthetic. The three EPs are the sound of her growing up, trying new things and processing different influences and experiences. “That was part of the reason why I didn't want to commit to an album, because I just didn't feel like the music was in the right space and I just didn't know if it was the right time for an album either,” she says. “It's a really big thing to take on and you kind of want to be confident that there's going to be a platform for once you release it, which I haven't felt previously, but I do feel like I'm working my way towards it.”

And while shes enjoying the response her singles have been attracting, she’s holding on to some special songs that will only work on the longer format. “Some of my favourite songs are songs that I probably wouldn't make it onto an EP or wouldn't be a single, but there's a place for them on an album. They're the songs that I especially want to share. So I am working towards an album and I do feel like I'm coming into myself as a, as a writer and I feel like the music is in a place where I want commit to it.”