The most treasured albums always seem to conjure a picture or colour in their feel, be it a dark, glacial and desolate landscape to a sprawling suburban estate with translucent greens and deep sky blues. It’s these evocative images that give an album special, personal meaning.
For Sydney singer-songwriter Bryan Estepa, that snapshot is a weathered sepia-faded Polaroid of a couple walking hand in hand along a beach promenade. It could be the US West Coast, or the Australian east coast – but that’s the beauty of his new album Vessels, it carries you wherever you feel it can go. Oh, and then there are the melodies.
“I feel like I’m definitely getting better at writing those pop hooks without it sounding like I’ve tried so hard. It’s become a lot more natural,” Estepa says. “And I feel like when I write songs, they’re starting to sound like me.”
Like its carefree sound, Vessels was also a breeze to record – but this certainly wasn’t how it started out. When the 32-year-old singer-songwriter sat down to work on his third album, he initially found more second-guessing than inspiration.
“I went through a blank there for a little while; I just couldn’t write anything,” he admits. “ After the second album I realised I had an audience – not so much here but overseas – and it freaked me out. I was trying too hard, and it really did my head in.”
It’s no surprise Estepa had it playing on his mind; his first album, 2006’s All The Bells And Whistles, shaped a fan base across the globe, something he consolidated with 2008’s Sunday Best. Signed to Laughing Outlaw Records in Australia/International and Rock Indiana Records in Spain, he’s found a passionate audience – both in Australia and abroad – won over by his wonderful pop hooks and deft song crafting stamped with refreshing sincerity and honesty.
So, crippled with writers’ block, Estepa soon realised that what he’d already done was holding him back; the answer was to not look at the past but to bound forward into challenging, new territory. It was then he decided on a brave but inspired move to record live to tape, something he’d never dared in the past, which soon saw him amass the best set of songs of his career.
“I went old-school,” he says. “I would record everything live and just capture that moment. A six to seven-piece band live in the studio, straight to tape. What’s the worst that can happen? If it didn’t go well we’d start again. But I knew we had to do something different.”
But it went very well indeed. Laid down in two sessions at Linear Recording in Sydney, with engineer Chris Vallejo (Josh Pyke) and Estepa as producer, the band nailed half of Vessels in May 2009, returning nearly a year later to finish the second batch of songs. Incredibly, it took less than 10 days to record.
“It was the fastest record I’ve done,” he says. “And it was the easiest record I’ve made. The easiest, the least stressful and the most natural. After not knowing how to approach it to start with, when it was stressful, it was all about going back to basics.”
The ease and enjoyment of recording oozes through Vessels, with its breezy vibe and gorgeous melodies that echo some of the album’s great inspirations like Wilco, Neil Young & Crazy Horse and the Jayhawks. From the gentle swagger of opener “Won’t Let You Down”, featuring a instantly classic pop hook that ingrains itself on first spin, to the warmth and nostalgia of “Purple Patch”.
Estepa also pushes his songwriting further than ever. Like the observational piece “Pull Ourselves Together”, where a couple’s struggle speaks of wider themes of delusion and dissatisfaction. Yet any lyrical weight is lifted through those glorious, sunny melodies.
“Like the last record, it’s a snapshot of my life at the time. Then, I was approaching 30 and was starting to reassess a few things,” he explains. “I’m still like that – it’s only two years since then – but musically the approach was so different.”
And an integral part of this new approach was celebrating imperfections. Working with mixer Michael Carpenter, sounds that would otherwise be removed – a cracked voice, a guitar slide – remain and offer the record a tangible sense of life.
“I wanted it to be a shared experience with everyone. So if we mess up, then that’s it; it’s the moment. You hear the band make a chord mistake or you hear my voice crack in some parts, but that’s also the beauty of it,” he explains. “When you listen to Beatles records you hear things like a dropped glass, tiny things, and it humanises the record. In this day and age of ProTools, it’s so easy to make every track so perfect. Some records just sound more human.”
It also makes them sound more real. As Estepa says, Vessels isn’t a grand concept record with an overall theme; it’s simply an inspired collection of songs from a talented singer-songwriter who paints with such wonderful colours it’s impossible not to get carried away.
By: Bron Thompson