Unknown Pleasures: We Caught Up With Kristina Esfandiari Of Miserable

In these last few years Kristina Esfandiari’s creative output not only has been amazing – with Miserable and King Woman – but also an irrefutable proof of the quality of her artistic vision. We caught up with Kristina to talk about Miserable’s debut album, Uncontrollable, to discuss what’s behind such painful pieces of music.

Hey, before I start to annoy you with my kind of intrusive questions about your record… I’ve noticed that you shared the latest Rihanna’s video and you even shared a photo with a caption saying, “work work work work”. Are you freaking out, as I am, with how fucking awesome that record is?
[laughs] I love it. It’s so good. And I’m so pissed about how people have been talking shit on the record because I think it’s fucking amazing. That song “Desperado” is so fucking good. I loved the “Work” single, I thought it was awesome, and I think people just need to shut the fuck up. I just love her whole appeal, I’m really drawn to her. I love most of her records. She’s also another inspiration for me. I like how she doesn’t give fuck about what anybody thinks. She’s a badass.

Help me with the timeline. When we spoke last time, in February of 2015, you had already written the album and you told me that you had started recording it with Max Senna. So, how much time did it take to record Uncontrollable?
Oh my fucking god. Dude, it took forever. I didn’t get it done until… well, I had been talking with you about recording but it took over a year, honestly. Maybe we wrap it up at the beginning of January of 2016. I started recording with Max and my friend Evan [James], who’s in Far Away Places and Grey Zine. He flew out from New York to come visit and we kind of worked on a couple songs for the record and he was also out here working on his record. So, we started the record with Max and I took what I had to Pat Hill [Tera Melos, 7 Seconds], who I usually work with, to make it sound the way I wanted it to because I’m really comfortable working with him and I was having a hard time… Honestly, this record was the hardest release. I wasn’t feeling it, really. I was just, “I need to get these songs done,” and I was really stressed out. I wasn’t really in a good mental space and my health wasn’t very good when I was working on this and I was also having problems with my voice. Things were weird when I was working on this record. I finally took it to Pat and I was feeling that some things were missing, but I wasn’t really sure what those things were. And then I was looking to these tracks that my friend Kyle Bates of drowse, that he had sent me to collaborate on and I heard them and I was like, “Hey man, can I sing over these and use them for my album? I really like them and I think they really suit with the mood of my record.” He said I could do whatever I wanted and I ended up listening to these two tracks – “Stay Cold” and “Salt Water” – over and over again and writing lyrics for them and put them on the album. Other than that… yeah, it was really hard and it took a lot of time. I’m honestly shocked at all the positive feedback towards the record so far. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received at all. I mean, I’m never too much insecure like, “Oh no, what if they don’t like my record?” I’m just like, “I don’t know if anybody is going to be into this. I’m into it but I don’t think anybody else is going to enjoy it.” [laughs] I think it’s like the doubt of being a musician or something.

I’m always fascinated with what’s behind your covers. I never expected you to show yourself like that… I mean, your covers seemed to always to kind of deviate attention from you, in a way. Would it be fair to presume that it wasn’t an easy decision for you to use that specific cover?
Oh yeah, definitely not. It wasn’t personally the one I wanted to use, per se. I had another one in mind. I felt like it was the most polished one we had. Me and Julio [Anta, responsible for the layout] kind of settled on it. It was another image I wanted to use, personally… it was still showing my face. I feel like this release is really intimate, it’s like accidentally stumbling upon someone’s diary, in a sense. And the fact that you can see my face and the light is on my face… I don’t know, I felt like it was a good representation of how I felt internally about the album. It was kind of up-close, very personal.

With Dog Days containing a collection of upbeat songs and with the cover of Uncontrollable people were probably expecting something different from these songs, sound wise. Did you want to throw people off, sort of speak? Perhaps play a little bit with people’s perceptions.
No. I don’t think too much about that, per se. I just kind of go with how I’m feeling and as long as I’m true to how I feel and what I feel I need to process and work on next… I’m always curious as to what people will think, but it’s not necessarily something I put much thought into. The record was really me just ringing out every last drop of desperation, sadness, and feelings of betrayal. Feelings I couldn’t find closure where I really desperately needed it, and so I just kind of sat with myself in a room, with my little Orange amp, a half-broke guitar, a loop pedal, and I would just stay up really late and just try to locate or search out these feelings in me and play guitar to match how I was feeling. Because those feelings were so deep and things I couldn’t really put into lyrics. It was really, really the hardest record to finish and write. It felt very graceless, very confused, I was very unsure about the record and lot of things. I was just feeling kind of hazy in general. I guess that didn’t translate over because people’s reaction to the album have been pretty wild.

Reading the lyrics, I couldn’t help thinking that these are letters that you wrote to yourself to kind of keep you in check and remind you of what’s wrong and bad and what’s important. Is it a fair assessment of Uncontrollable?
No, I didn’t write them to myself. They are songs to a specific person… or persons. A lot of the songs are about the same person I wrote about for Halloween Dream. I just couldn’t seem to find closure, and I couldn’t find it from this person, so I had to write about and get all the emotions out. Find a way to let it go and finally release it and just be like, “I’m done with this chapter of my life. I’ve done everything I can. I have no control over this.” Some of the songs are about different things, you know what I mean? Most of them are about one person.

You live in a place that has an average of 260 sunny days per year and you decide to start the album with the sound of the rain. How much of a reference to depression does that particular choice reflects? It also seems like a tip for what’s to come, which I’ve interpreted as an experience that will wash your soul.
Oh wow, you’re too deep, man. [laughs] Listen, I did so many interviews, but you’re my favorite person to do interviews with. You’re so deep, you’re so observant, and your questions are refreshing because I get the same fucking questions over and over again. I’ve done like ten interviews just last month and I’m so sick of doing interviews because they’re so boring. They ask me the same exact questions every time. It’s almost like when you ask me these questions you’re helping me putting together the puzzle pieces of how I feel about the album, in a sense, because you’re helping me to see things that I previously hadn’t observed about the record. The rain is from… I was living with my boyfriend at the time – Charles, he is one of my really good friends now – and we lived in this really weird warehouse, like communal warehouse, and we had like a sunroof and it was raining like really, really, really bad when they were doing like flood warnings and I always like to sample things on my phone so I just recorded it. Then I sampled “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, that’s what that piano part is. It’s just slowed down. It was one of Charles’s favorite songs, actually, because I asked him, “If you were to die, what song would you want to be played at your funeral?” and he said “Kind of Blue”. So, just with the rain, having that rain sample, and thinking of Charles and how much he means to me, I just wanted to put that in the beginning of the record and I worked on that, slowing down the track with Pat. I was like, “I want it, I hear this like sad piano but I can’t… I feel like I want to slow or sample an old jazz track.” Because I wanted the album to have kind of a jazzy feel. I had been listening to a lot of Etta James and Chet Baker, at the time, and I feel like jazz and blues are some of the saddest music you can listen to, and it relates so much to sadness in your soul and heart. That’s how that rain came about, but now that you mention the “washing away”… yeah, definitely. I feel like I was definitely cleansed and like had a new sense of reality after I finish the album. I felt like I closed a chapter of my life, or written a full diary and then burned it or something, you know? I felt like I finally had been able to cope and let go and find closure for myself.

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“I have not given birth to a child but I can compare this to how I would imagine a woman would feel after being in labor for way too long.”

What came first, the lyrics or the music? I’m curious to know how you approached the music this time around.
It was a little bit of both. I came up with the album title before I came up with the music. I wrote around the album title which is what I do a lot of the time. I come up with the title for the album and then I write the album based on that theme. So, I came up with Uncontrollable because for me it felt like the only word that could be that all-encompassing word that fit how I was feeling. And then some of the songs, like I said, I was writing whilst in this room. And the room honestly was really scary and I was having a lot of night terrors. I couldn’t sleep a lot of the times so I would sit in a corner so that I could see everything, because I was scared. I was tripping myself out and I was very isolated and feeling very depressed at the time. I wasn’t even fully awake a lot of the time, and I would just play like these sleepy loops on my guitar and lyrics were coming through that. And then I wrote some of the songs on the acoustic guitar… I would say that for the most part the guitar came before the lyrics but on some of them, like “Oven”, I already had the whole lyrics in my head before I sat down to work it out. Thinking about it, maybe that was the only one I had lyrics before having the music.

When you finally end writing and recording this album… did you find yourself in a better place?
I was so relieved when it got mastered. It was like, “Ok, the record is approved. It’s mastered. It’s done.” I just felt so… I have not given birth to a child, but I can compare this to how I would imagine a woman would feel after being in labor for way too long. Everything about this record was hard to do. There were so many complications with it in every way. I felt like I was just pushing against a fucking brick wall. Somehow it all came together and seems to be doing well. I’m happy it ended. I never want to go back to it again. [laughs]

I know you’ve been always very reluctant to describe your music as uplifting. This time around, how do you feel about it?
I still don’t think it is… Well, I’ve been getting a lot of messages from people and they’re like, “Wow, you’re songs are so honest. Thank you for being brutally honest with your lyrics. You just put into words exactly how I have been feeling and I’ve never heard a song with these kind of lyrics.” There’s been a lot of that. I guess it’s uplifting in a sense, like I said before, that people don’t feel so alone when you’re honest and you’re real and vulnerable in your lyrics, which I think is the accurate way to describe my music. I’m very vulnerable in my songs. It’s like borderline embarrassing. This record is kind of embarrassing for me because it’s so honest.

How one does get the strength to be so honest?
I think honesty is strength. Being vulnerable is strength. You have to be emotionally strong to be a vulnerable person and I think people have it twisted and they think that if you’re vulnerable and you’re honest then you’re weak. It’s quite the opposite, which took me a long time to realize. But I still get shy sometimes. There’s still a very shy side to who I am. When the first song got premiered I wanted to hide under my blanket and not respond to any of the messages I was getting because I was so embarrassed with the fact of the song being so personal to me. I felt I was showing my diary to the world and I was like, “What the fuck are you doing? Why would you do that?” But then I started opening the messages and I was like, “Ok, this isn’t so bad. It’s quite fine, actually.” [laughs] Once Nikki Cage from True Widow and Chelsea Wolfe hit me up about the song “Oven” and how much they loved it. I was like, “Ok, this isn’t so bad. Two of my favorite women just complimented me. I’m ok.

And the thing is, you will probably die with that shyness and embarrassment, which I think there’s a good side to it.
Oh, thanks man. Thanks. [laughs]

Sorry to bring you the bad news. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, I think it keeps you humble. Growing up I was really shy, but I feel that people perceive me as more aggressive now, and kind of fierce, but I still have a very shy, reserved side to me. I spend a lot of time at home by myself.

Yeah, I still don’t get that. I noticed that some people perceive you as being this super aggressive woman, which it’s not really the way I would describe you.
I think with King Woman people perceive me that way because I’m very protective over women, and I’m a feminist, and I have to like stand my ground in certain things. I’m not a pushover. I still have this introverted shy side to me. It’s a big fear. I don’t like to be misunderstood and I think most artists are misunderstood. But it really scares me because I feel I’m really friendly, sweet person and I know some people perceive me a certain way.

I know it’s really hard to anticipate the affect that something you’ve created has on people, but do you have a good guess of what people might be feeling while listening to your album?
I think they may feel comforted by it in some ways. Desperation… so many things. Deep sadness and regret. Betrayal… I mean, these are all feelings I was feeling when I wrote it. I’m kind of looking forward to work on more upbeat stuff after this. I can’t be doing so much heavy stuff for both my projects. It’s a lot to work on. But it seems like when I want to write more poppy stuff I always seem to go back to the more sad stuff. I just started working on another Miserable album and I was making it really upbeat, but it seems really, really, really sad again. [laughs]

Words: Tiago Moreira // Photos: Mary Manning – Uncontrollable is out now on The Native Sound.
You can also read the interview here:

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