In pop songs written about women, their subjects tend to be either idolized or demonized. That's what prompted Liz Phair to pen her album-long answer to the Stones' Exile on Main Street. It's also the reason that led Paper Bird singer Esmé Patterson to release Woman to Woman, her new seven-song EP of answer songs.
"It was a discovery in perspective shifting — the perspective of famous songs about women," says Patterson. "It was refreshing not to write about my own life and to approach these questions of perspective, identity, love and distance from outside my own experience. Though of course my own experience always makes it in."
Doing a set of songs that weren't directly about her came as a relief because her 2012 full-length debut, All Princes, was so very personal. The process kicked off when Paper Bird's van broke down, keeping them off the road and forcing Patterson to take a full-time job. She sought to make the best of it and began work on a solo album. In the midst of it she wound up getting divorced.
"That was definitely a big time of change and a big amount of fuel to throw on the fire of making my first record," she says. "On this last record I put out in April, it was a lot of fun to not write about my own life."
She got the idea for the new EP while learning how to play Townes Van Zandt's song "Loretta," which finds the narrator proudly recollecting how he has this girl on a string: "She don't cry when I can't stay, least not till she's all alone." This kind of struck Patterson, and she was surprised she hadn't listened closer to the words of one of her favorite songs. So she started looking for others.
The songs Patterson chose to answer include the Beach Boys' "Caroline No" ("The Glow"), The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" ("Bluebird") and Elvis Costello's "Alison," redubbed "Valentine." All the songs stand up well on their own, but knowing the source material makes the songs that much richer.
In the original "Alison," Costello's character reconnects with an old flame years later, then complains about her husband ("bet he took all he could take") and how she's changed ("with the way you look I understand that you are not impressed"). "My aim is true," Costello sings, but "bitchy" seems more like it.
"It sounds like a love song, then the verses are really angry and retributive but you're really not sure where the slight occurred," Patterson explains. "It's like, 'Hold on. I really don't know why you're so mad and you've been holding on to this. It's just breaking your own heart after I've been out of your life for so long. You're just doing it to yourself. Get over it.'"
Patterson enjoys having both a band and solo outlet, though she says it was a little scary at first being up there without other musicians to shield her.
"It's terrifying in some ways to be so vulnerable," she admits. "But in other ways it's really freeing."