Muskogee-native Ester Dean talks with Billboard about her success as a songwriter and her solo career.
Ester Dean Talks Solo Career, Writing ‘S&M’ and ‘Firework’
by Gail Mitchell
It was 2009. Ester Dean had been plugging away for several years — without much success — trying to establish herself as a singer/songwriter.
Then she experienced what she describes as her “oh, wow” moment. Dean saw the inspirational 2006 documentary “The Secret,” which its creator Rhonda Byrne later turned into a best-selling book. The personal empowerment message of the film — “everything is possible, nothing is impossible” — resonated strongly with Dean.
“I’d put so many limits on how I believed things should work,” Dean says in her Southern-accented Betty-Boop-ish voice. “I started taking away those limitations, took myself out of the box. Now I’m ready to wow the world.”
Dean, who just three years ago was living on Section 8 housing vouchers, has started to do just that. The Muskogee, Okla., native was singing on demos and writing songs in Atlanta when she was introduced to Polow Da Don. He asked her to write a hook for Young Jeezy, and ended up signing her to his Zone 4/Interscope label in 2009. She also inked a publishing deal with producer Christopher “Tricky” Stewart’s RedZone Publishing.
Fast-forward to 2011. Now based in Los Angeles, Dean (@EsterDean) has co-written four of the first quarter’s top 100 airplay songs: Katy Perry’s “Firework” (No. 2); Rihanna’s “What’s My Name,” featuring Drake (No. 4), and “S&M” (No. 27); and Lloyd’s “Lay It Down” (No. 94). Those join a growing list of writing credits that includes T.I.’s “Remember Me,” featuring Mary J. Blige; Blige’s “I Am”; Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”; and “Let Me Take You to Rio” for the soundtrack to the animated feature “Rio.” Dean also co-wrote three tracks on the 2009 album “Graffiti” by Chris Brown, who returned the writing favor by guesting on Dean’s own single that year, “Drop It Low” — the first release under the deal she signed with Zone 4/Interscope. The track peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Now signed to Universal Music Publishing Group, Dean is working on upcoming projects from Blige, No Doubt and Nicole Scherzinger.
When did you start writing and singing?
When I was in the third grade; I wouldn’t pay attention in school at all. I did love English because they let you tell stories. I used to have these big-ass notebooks in which I’d write down all my thoughts. But in school, I was just the girl who sang all over the place, trying to see who wanted to make a group.
What key qualities do you have that make you a hit songwriter?
I’m limitless, spontaneous and fearless. I can take direction and also give it. And I don’t dwell on celebrity. [Artists and producers] don’t want me to kiss their ass and be all over them like a groupie. They want me to deliver. Some people can’t get past the fact that they’re standing in front of so-and-so. For me, it’s “Let’s get down to business.”
How did “S&M” come about?
I wrote it, Father forgive me, on a Sunday. The track was already there. The first thing that came to me was “Come on, come on.” I’m thinking, “I don’t know what in the hell this is about to be.” And I remembered I’d seen something that said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones.” Then came “But chains and whips excite me.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I got to write that.” I’m in the studio with the engineer and just kept looking at him, asking, “Is that OK?” And he says, “I like it.” When people have a great track that speaks to me, it feels like it already has a story in it.
“Firework” is another collaboration with Stargate. That was me and Katy [Perry] bouncing ideas back and forth. Katy already had the concept and the name in her head. That was one of the times when you allow yourself to be led by somebody who knows what he or she wants. She knew what she wanted, so I was like, “I’ll follow you.”
I’m universal. As much as I can get out a “Firework” with Katy, I can get a “Lil Freak” out with Usher. Or a “Lay It Down” with Lloyd. I can get Caribbean as I did on “Rio,” then go from there to working with No Doubt. I also want to let some of the Oklahoma out and get a little country, honey [laughs]. I’m a songwriter who just wants to bring people great songs.
Why are there still relatively few female songwriter/producers?
There are women who are writing and producing: Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and Missy Elliott. Then there are my friends who are dope-ass writers — like Cri$tyle, Priscilla Renea, Makeba Riddick, Traci Hale and Ericka Coulter. A woman has to step out and take away the limitations. I make myself heard because I let people know when I walk in the room that we are equal. We are human, so nobody is better than or less than me. We’re coming in here to do the same thing and split the percent 50-50. I only work with people who feel the same way.
I’m not walking into a sexist room. You can have it. Write the song yourself, you know? You give something, I give something. You get paid, I get paid. The day you get paid and I don’t is the day that we don’t work. My advice to women trying to break into this end of the business is to stand up for yourself and keep your skirt down. Know how much you’re worth. This is very much like working a regular job. You’re not going to give the McDonald’s manager some ass to get a burger, right?
You began working on your own debut album in 2009. Is that still moving forward?
Yes. People think I flopped because I haven’t put out more songs. I had to take time out for soul-searching. Now I’m able to give my all. I have a bigger purpose to come out with an album than because of a song. And I still want full-force Polow Da Don because it’s his vision. I just caught up with it. He’s a pusher for black music to be heard. And I think that’s what he likes about my voice: He can feel the emotion and passion in it and wants to show that.
What’s your take on the current state of R&B and hip-hop?
People need to stop putting a limit on what it is and what it isn’t. It’s what you put into it. However, people keep putting limitations on themselves and creating this reality that soul music is dead. That’s only in their reality. It’s not true. To me, Adele is R&B. Bruno Mars is R&B. It’s just good songwriting and songs. That is going to last. That’s what I’ve got to work on my damn self‹what’s going to last.