It all started with Kristina Esfandiari, and just like her other “main project”, Miserable, it grew unceasingly – with a help from a band that is indubitably in sync. It’s been a long, long road for Kristina Esfandiari. A road filled with doubts, pain and scars. From those torturous moments arrives Created In The Image of Suffering, King Woman’s debut album, and surely a landmark in her short career. Our conversation is an attempt to decipher the glorious moment and the surroundings, which are as important, if not more. After all it’s a complex and stunning tapestry.
On November 25th 2015 you tweeted Created In The Image Of Suffering. For how long was the title of the album in your head before you decided to use it? Where does it come from and what does it mean for you?
The name came to me but I didn’t know what it meant. I was just like, “What is this name? This is crazy. Why am I thinking this weird thing?” I didn’t really know what we were going to call the album because we hadn’t even really fully written the album when we got into the studio. It was like, “Oh, we’re just going fucking wing it.” We just wanted to record because it had been so long and everyone was just bothering about Doubt, “When are you going to put out a new record? We need to know. We can’t listen to the same four songs over and over again.”
And at that time you had already written Miserable’s Uncontrollable, right?
Yeah, I’ve been kind of back and forth writing stuff with King Woman and Miserable, and other projects that I have. I’m always writing, you know me. But it was hard juggling writing so much at once, it was kind of making me insane but it also makes me insane not to do it, so I’m just trapped, essentially, in my creative process. [laughs] But yeah, the name just kind of popped into my head and I just thought it would be good to keep it in mind since it stuck with me. So, we got in the studio and we were kind of tying up some of the songs and trying to fully realize how we wanted some of the songs to sound… but we were just kind of like, “Fuck it! Let’s just go in the studio and do it.” So, we got some time with Jack Shirley who’s a pleasure to work with… he made us vegan ice cream, which I’m not vegan but it was the best ice cream I’ve ever had in my life, it was so good – I told him he should open an ice cream shop. He has a dog named Rocky, a couple of cats, and his partner is such a sweetheart… It was a very calm and relaxed atmosphere to record in. I get really stressed out in the studio, it’s not my favorite thing. Yeah, Jack made us feel very comfortable and he was so wonderful to work with, so kind. We were just in there and I was just trying to write out all my feelings about the songs that are on the album and how they relate… trying to figure out… This record is just one of those things. I was nervous about doing interviews because I didn’t really have much to say about it, because it’s such a deep feeling for me, it’s kind of beyond words for me. Everyone is like, “What is this or that?” and I end up being kind of speechless. It transcend words for me. It’s so much of my life into like one year, so I was kind of writing out how I was feeling about each song and what each song meant to me and I was just scribbling really fast in a piece of paper – I think I still have it – and I just wrote at the bottom of the paper, kind of not really thinking about what I was doing, created in the image of suffering, and then I underlined it. It was like, “Ok, that’s the title of the record.” [laughs] It’s one of those things that just is.
Do you have a meaning for it now?
Yeah… so, I was kind of hoping that you could help me work out some of my feelings off this album, because every time I talk to you and I do an interview with you…
I have a theory…
I know you have. [laughs] So, growing up in church, I knew the bible back and forth pretty much, and it says that we are created in the image of God. I remember that it was confusing to me. I didn’t even know who God was. I was like, “Is God a man? Why is everyone telling me that I was created in the image of God?” It confused me and every time I heard it I would hate it. It didn’t speak to me, it didn’t click. I was reading an article, a while back, about how the one thing that all humans have in common is suffering and I was thinking about that a lot. It was around the time the title came to me.
Why do you have to read uplifting articles all the time?
[laughs] Oh you know, I’m such an uplifting person. [laughs]
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this album is the first where you don’t appear alone on the cover. Did you want to intentionally kind of separate Miserable from King Woman in the sense the King Woman is a band and Miserable is your solo project?
No, I just wanted to people to see that we are a band. I really like having… Some people are really weird about putting their face on the album cover but to me is like a self-portrait or something. I want people to see me on the cover… I don’t, it’s my music. But having the boys on the cover, I’ve had this idea come to me and I asked if they would mind being on the cover. They didn’t mind and we went with it. I don’t know, I like being on the cover and I want people to see the boys’ faces. We are a band, it’s a lot more collaborative now. We are very close.
You were always very open with the fact that your relationship with Colin Gallagher (one of your best friends and someone you know since a very young age), and his “untapped potential” were kind of the foundations of King Woman. You have evolved on an artistic level and I imagine he did the same. How the creative relationship between you guys has changed and evolved since Doubt?
Colin really helped me grow as a person in a really amazing way. We have this kind of psychic connection. Like, I was singing something in the shower and then I go to practice, and Colin says, “Hey, I wrote this guitar part.” And it went perfectly to what I was singing in the shower. That’s the kind of connection we have. I just really like his style. He has an impeccable taste and his tone is really good. And we love each other a lot. So, we’re very, very close. It is really easy for us to come together and understand each other and write together because we just vibe really well. I think we have that type of connection where we get each other musically and then my drummer Joey [Raygoza]… he’s so talented. I don’t know, he’s just like a fierce drummer and he has these little ideas that are just so good. He’s kind of shy about speaking up about them but when he does is always a light ball over your head, like “Oh my god, why didn’t we think about that?” I also grew up with him – him and Colin. Our bass player Peter [Arensdorf] is just kind of the glue for the band. Everything we lacked or we kind of sucked at, he was good at. It just wasn’t complete until Pete joined the band. He’s really good at structuring songs. He’s the one who came up with initial idea for “Hierophant”. He’s an amazing songwriter. I think we’ve all just been growing, collaborating, trusting, and loving each other more. I think that’s why it has been working for us.
I remember you talking about how you’ve had to learn how to communicate, be a leader, and share the creative process with other people for Doubt, the first King Woman’s release with a full band. How was it this time around?
I think that being a leader is less about people following behind you and more helping others to realize who they are and progress as a musician. And it’s more about, for me, encouraging and setting an example, I guess. I want everyone in my band to excel as a musician. For example, when I noticed that Peter was gifted as a songwriter I told him that he was talented and that he should start a solo project. Just paying attention to people, trying to find their gifts, and then help them cultivating those gifts and trying to boost their confidence. I love to help people realize their potential and I enjoy seeing them grow. Being a leader has been good. Everyone kind of knows their role in the band now and we all kind of vibe, so it’s not hard. They all know what they have to contribute, and everyone respects each other. It was a rough patch between Doubt and now because we went through so many bass players and everyone was kind of trying to figure out where they belong, but I feel we have figured it out and it’s very collaborative now. I’ve set into my role and I feel very relaxed. I don’t feel stressed out. I feel very good about who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s been pretty easy for the most part, kind of natural.
“The turning point for me was when I realized that nobody really believed in me and I stopped and realized, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right because I have to believe in myself. Fuck all these people.’”
I want to ask you about your relationship with Breannyn Delongis. You moved to Brooklyn together and you helped her create an amazing EP that goes by the name of I Was Not Well for her project High and Fragile.
My baby! Yeah, I do a lot of backing vocals on I Was Not Well, especially on the song “Happy Birthday”. We have a very longstanding relation. We used to work together. When I met her she asked me, “What sign are you?” and when I said I was Pisces she just told me, “Me too. We will be friends.” [laughs] From there on… we have a kind of an up and down relationship. We weren’t that close at first because we both had our own things going on and we were going through a rough time. When we started to get closer she started showing me some songs that she was writing. I don’t think she was intending to do anything with them and I said, “You need to become a musician. You need to record this shit and do this. I will help you. I will go with you to the studio.” It was hard to get her in the studio because I don’t think she fully knew her calling to music. And I think she was doubting herself. It was like pulling her by her hair to fucking get her to go into the studio. She would say, “No, I don’t feel good. My voice… I’m feeling sick,” and I was like “No, we’re doing it on this day. We’re going.” And finally got her there and she was a fucking natural. She killed it! One takes on guitar… vocals were a little difficult for her because I don’t think she was very confident with her voice at the time. But we did it and she had a great experience. She listen back to the EP a million times. Every time I would see her she would be listening to music on headphones and I would ask her, “What are you listening to?” and the answer was always the same, “My EP. I can’t believe I made this.” We have a very deep loving relationship. We’ve been through a lot together and I think she feels ever grateful and kind of in debt to me because she says that I’ve changed her life. But I don’t think she owes me shit. She has done a lot for me too. She helped me to overcome my… I had some really bad shit happening to me when I was a young girl and I stopped playing guitar live. That was kind of why Colin started to play guitar for King Woman, because I couldn’t mentally. My hands would shake and get too sweaty and I couldn’t hold my guitar. So, I had kind of a breakdown in our practice space before me and Bre went on the Miserable US tour together – because she played bass on that tour – and I was just like, “I can’t do this, Bre. I can’t play these songs live. I can’t do it.” And she was like, “NO! You can do it. We are going to work through this shit mentally right now.” I just had a breakdown and just lost my fucking mind. I was freaking out. There was this weird moment of energy shift where she just hugged me and helped me mentally to get to this place where I could do it. After that I was fine and we did a fucking full US tour together. I think we just kind of have a cosmic friendship. She says we are like Bowie and Lou Reed. [laughs] She has a lot of potential. We are doing this tour together where she’s going to be doing her solo stuff and we’ve just had a long conversation on the phone today. I also kind of manage her because I just want to see her get off the ground with it. And I know that once she does she won’t needed me at all, she will be killing it. I want to find her the right label. I want to find her home musically and just like help her get more confidence. She has a really great band out here, so I think she will have no problem.
I imagine this relationship has affected you on a creative level, right?
That’s a great question. It’s affected me immensely. It’s been transformative for me because the new Miserable stuff that I’ve written is so informed by Bre’s energy because I’ve spent so much time with her. And she’s been such a magical inspiring force in my life. She has this very strong and powerful energy, you know what I mean? And she’s had a hard life. She has substance to her and she has been a guiding force in my life.
After listening to your music for the last 3 years or something… I have this unshakable feeling – and it’s definitely not based or supported by anything too specific – that you’re kind of holding back vocally, it seems that there’s some ground that could be covered by you vocally.
Yeah, I think is true. I think on the newer stuff I’m working on… I think I relate to emotional stuff. I have had a lot of inhibitions my whole life and it’s something I have struggled with for a very long time, releasing my inhibitions. I overthink everything and I feel kind of trapped and held back emotionally because of that. It translates a lot different live but I don’t like being in the studio, I don’t like singing into a vocal booth. It’s more of a studio thing for me. I hate being in studios, I feel trapped. But the new stuff I’m working on… I don’t know, Bre is really helping me. I’ve just recorded some stuff and I just was panicking so bad that I had to have her sit there and she was just there eating food while I was tracking guitar. I don’t know, I just feel like 70% more comfortable having her there while I’m recording. That’s how much of a freak I am.
On Doubt you talk about how oppressive organized religion was for you but you’ve also stated, in one of our previous conversations, that you’re not an atheist and that you weren’t angry towards the idea of God. On this album you seem more open regarding your faith and you seem to be in a process of sort of reconciliation with religion and faith – it seemed for me that you’re trying to make peace with your true self, if you know what I mean.
I mean, I haven’t thought about that. It’s one of those questions that you’re supposed to ask me. [laughs] I think it has a lot of biblical themes around it… [pause] I don’t know. I would have to think about that. It’s a really intense question. I can give you a play-by-play on what each track is about because I don’t really know if I was trying to reconcile anything. They’re just kind of things that came out of me and I was singing about, I guess.
It would be amazing to have a play-by-play on what each track is about. I was not sure if I should ask you about some of the songs because they feel very personal.
Ok, so “Hierophant”… the person who played violin on that track is a person I was very in love with, he actually played on “Manna” too. The song is about falling in love and the time not really being right. I wrote that song for him. I think it’s a beautiful song and he plays on the song. [laughs] “Manna” is about this book I read online, a book that’s not really available anywhere – you can hardly find it and if you do it’s very expensive. It is about this idea that aliens brought the Israelites these machines so that they could make food. It bugs me out and I thought it was so sick so I wrote a song about it. [laughs] “Worn” is about… I met somebody that wanted to hang out and talk to me after they heard my music. They basically told me that they were sexually abused as a child by like a pastor in a youth camp. They were super depressed and I could tell they were struggling to this day. And I was just like, “I’m going to write the song for you.” That’s why we wrote “Worn”. “Deny” is about a lot of things. It’s about my mom and it’s about being in denial. And it’s also about people denying who they truly are for the sake of religion and trying to fit into this mold of what they think they should be and therefore denying their true self, and they’re miserable because of it. They’re sad and depressed. “Shame” is about… “Shame” is fucked up. Someone I loved very much told a very sad story about something that their father used to do to them and their siblings when they were young. I told them I would write a song for them… and I did. So, “Worn” and “Shame” are songs that I wrote for other people.
“I have had a lot of inhibitions my whole life and it’s something I have struggled with for a very long time, releasing my inhibitions. I overthink everything and I feel kind of trapped and held back emotionally because of that.”
You decided to end the record with a small piece from a choir song. I’ve heard it before – probably I remember the melody when I used to go to Church – but I don’t know the name of it and I have a hard time understanding exactly what they’re saying. What are they saying and why did you decide to use it to close the album?
[starts singing] I don’t know. I found this album cover online… I don’t even remember who the track is by. But I wanted to put some type of church-related song at the end and I just found this track that I thought it was just perfect. We’ve just fucked it up and slowed it down to sound creepy. The song is beautiful.
There was a moment in your life where family members were taking you lightly, boyfriends were not truly supporting your projects, and even old bandmates were mocking you because you were doing your own thing. Your situation, looking from the outside, has changed a lot and you have now two musical projects who have been getting exposure and attention from media and music fans. Has the situation surrounding you changed as well?
Oh yeah, totally. The boyfriend who wasn’t really supportive of what I was doing musically… I just don’t think he thought I could make it, that I could do it. And he was there when I signed with Relapse. I was like, “Cool, you were wrong.” [laughs] He was supportive but I don’t think he was convinced that I could do it. I had other partners in the past that would kind of go, “Oh, that’s cute, you’re in the band.” My parents have been really supportive. I think they’ve just kind of realized that they can’t be close with me if they don’t have a positive energy towards me. My dad calls me a rockstar now. [laughs] They’re really supportive now. As far as old band members that used to mock me… I don’t know what the fuck they think nor doesn’t it matter for me. They’re not exactly doing too well.
Does it feels strange? I mean, I have this idea that you were kind of underestimated your entire life – like people didn’t really expect much and perhaps you got used to expect that from people.
Being underestimated has fueled me to become who I am. It’s strange but it’s also good because I’ve been a fucking loser all my life, nobody fucking believed in me, and everyone thought I was weak. I proved them all wrong and I will continue to do so. I will continue to be an encouraging and positive person, to help people realize their dreams. But the turning point for me was when I realized that nobody really believed in me and I stopped and realized, “Oh yeah, that’s right because I have to believe in myself. Fuck all these people.” The moment where I started to believe in myself is when I started to doing well for myself. You can’t wait for other people to believe in you.