Seeing Esther play has carried a weight of suspended expectation for a long time: I’ve always believed she demands a bigger arena to be heard, an audience numbering the thousands rather than the dozens. I’ve seen Esther play in several iterations so far. As a busker, as Esther Yoxall + backing band, as treasure Waiting For Pirates and now as Quiet Choir, with probably a couple in between too. Even on her shit nights I love how she plays, how she leans away from the mic to pull you into the hollow of her voice and how she seems to grow a few feet whe she’s playing straight into your spine.
I met E under the most indie of circumstances: wandering London within a month of moving up here – wearing a Libertines t-shirt and an olive green Army surplus jacket – I hear the faintest strains of a busker floating up from Piccadilly Station. I hang nearby and listen for a while, introducing myself to her in a rare fit of self-confidence, inadvertently initiating a long-standing friendship that eventually connected about five random strands of my life (she was one step removed from Ellie, Del, McKelvie, Kate and One-Night-Stand-From-Work, each of whom I would meet independent of Esther).
I saw her play tonight for the first time in about a year. It’s fair to say she wasn’t on top form, but she got me hooked long ago and as a result her performances are distorted positively by memory and sensation. After the gig she apologised for the crap showing but…
…but really, all this is a prologue. I’m telling you this so it punches home when I say that my head was way elsewhere tonight, buried in the emotional tangents stirred by a support act I’m likely to never see again.
Alex Sheppard makes eye contact with the hazy blue glow of the Par Can lantern, but I find myself willfully locking onto her eyes as if the gig is for me alone. This hasn’t happened for a while.
Much as I enjoy the set this stranger plays, I’m quick to concede that it’s not acoustically a unique experience. This is a girl with a guitar, like any other; pretty and young and fragile and metronomic and fractured and, yes, a shade derivative but with a charm and a smile that belongs to her, not easily given up.
It’s the lyrical concerns that rob me of my staunch indifference. Her songs aren’t about an urban experience, they’re about the London experience. Importantly it’s London as seen by the new arrival, someone a few years into their formative trial-by-fire, a vision of raw romanticism built of cheap drinks and late-night dances. It’s staggering out of Madame JoJo’s or The Roxy with sticky lips and a churning stomach, returning to condoms used and new on the bedside table and unmade sheets. It’s love, well, something a lot like it. It’s a fractured amalgam of The City’s topography filtered through the shitfaced selectivity of someone enjoying themselves a bit too hard.
I’m in the Bull and Gate watching Sheppard play, but also I’m in Angel in the summer of 2005. It’s the peak of a ten-day heatwave and I’m on a rooftop opposite the old BT building in front of a bbq coking veggie sausages and drinking cans of beer with perfect company. I had a shit time in that place, but that memory along with a handful of others are the ones that stick with me, the ones that get stirred up by the thought of innocently engaging with this city. And, yes, she’s playing a song that has nothing to do with the memory I get to wallow in briefly, but she’s using the same familiar language and that’s all that matters.
Her lyrics speak of glitter and disintegration, wrapping Kenickie’s shimmering skin into the poster slogans that blossomed around The City after the underground bombings: She is built of the sparkle of millions, as the city is. She doesn’t dodge the sick stains on the tarmac of Soho so much as glide above it. I’d be stunned if there isn’t a former Libertines fan in there somewhere too, parrying cinematic oblivion with magnetic nihilism, both glorified with tongue in cheek, immature and compelling, brilliant. Sheppard sings version of herself, culturally specific and precise enough to warp the distance between me now and me then and then and then and also then.
I say “hi” afterwards because it feels right to, and those she’s with chuckle at it because that’s just part of the bargain: She has her friends and her scene and she wasn’t speaking to me alone in the room, much as as it seemed so for a small fraction of the day.
I leave after E plays, throat scratchy with what will likely grow into a vicious little cough over the next few days – too few vitamins and too much Guinness. Kentish Town resonates with immediate history after six months of working on Prince of Wales Road. Tonight feels important, and I could swim in that buzz.