Self Esteem Brings Pop Mastery To Hammersmith

“Do I look alright?” Rebecca Lucy Taylor – AKA Self Esteem – asks ironically, red lipstick smeared widely over face before scolding an audience member for raising their phone torch during a quiet spot in tonight’s set: “Don’t do that, it’s not a Coldplay show!”. She later apologises of course, “before we go into the bridge I’d like to apologise … to Chris Martin. Because I actually fucking love Coldplay”. She explains in her broad Sheffield accent that the distraction of said phone torch puts her off “accessing a memory of someone I loved in 2015”, Taylor’s raw charm and dry humour on display in a way that isn’t really possible during the full production aspects of tonight.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

When the 2021 Mercury Music Prize nominees were announced, attention was quickly drawn towards the second “solo” L.P. from Self Esteem. Described as unapologetically “pop”, the rhythm-driven collection of songs, articulated with stunning vocal harmony arrangements elevated Prioritise Pleasure beyond the groundwork laid by 2019’s Compliments Please and won Taylor BBC Music Introducing’s Artist Of the Year prize that year. But Self Esteem is – and by no mean feat – one of the most successful reinventions in recent times. 

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

From their formation in 2006 until disbandment in 2017, Taylor was one half of indie outfit Slow Club, the group putting out five records during that period, garnering moderate chart success but building a strong following and touring the world. Feeling “stifled” by not wanting to let her Slow Club partner Charles Watson down, the pair disbanded to pursue solo endeavours. And so tonight, at the first of three sold-out shows at London’s 5,000-capacity Hammersmith Apollo as part of Taylor’s “victory lap” for Prioritise Pleasure, the stage is set for a demonstration in pop mastery by a musical force unleashed.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

Walking on stage, shrouded in darkness and wearing their signature over-sized, double-breasted grey suits, Self Esteem’s band take their positions, her dance partners and vocal harmony companions Marged Siôn, Levi Heaton and Seraphina Simone sitting on a prop staircase as keyboardist/bass player Sophie Galpin and “token man” (as Taylor later describes him) and drummer Mike Park start hammering out the rhythm to title track Prioritise Pleasure, the sophomore record’s title track immediately pulling the Apollo crowd into the moment as Taylor herself appears at the top of the staircase.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

Okay, so it’s been done before and the stage staircase isn’t the largest or most dramatic, but it’s beside the point, it’s the music that draws us in: the jarring synth bursts woven into storming beats and gorgeous vocals spitting out a hard-hitting narrative.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

Along with their vocal duties, Siôn, Heaton and Simone complete a four-person dance troupe with Taylor, with set pieces of the likes you might find at a Madonna show. And the crowd love it, the silenced closing bars of tonight’s first song allowing them to scream along the words more than audibly, the four singers stopping to take a breath.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

But it’s immediately back to it with the aptly-named Fucking Wizardy, rattling drumming driving a fast-paced rhythm as Self Esteem makes use of the wide Hammersmith Stage, traversing the very edge to get as close to her audience as possible. “This is a song about me being a moody bitch”, she offers introducing the slap bass-infused, funk-laden new album tune Moody, those closest to the front in a frenzy while even those at the back can’t help but bop along as Sophie Galpin hammers her bass.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

Synth-led Just Kids commences with an uplifting choral vocal arrangement that shimmers across the former Gaumont Palace cinema venue before time comes for the first costume change of the evening, Taylor moving out of sight while her group shed their oversized suits to reveal red full-body suits, masks with gaps for eyes and mouths being slipped on as Taylor reappears at the top of her staircase donning a cowboy hat for a live outing of new tune Mother.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

How Can I Help You has the crowd clapping along from the outset, red light continuing to bathe the Hammersmith stage as the angry tune progresses into its catchy, shout-along chorus(?) of “I don’t know shit” repeated over and over. A slow-drive start to new tune Love Second, takes the punch out of the crowd next, Taylor’s powerful vocal over-accented by Cher-style ProTools effects before storming drums return Hammersmith to its former bouncing state.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

Girl Crush is one of only two cuts from 2019 debut L.P. Compliments Please and has the crowd singing along with every word, the power-pop anthem offering genuine call and response moments before Taylor demands: “London let me hear you scream”, the red lights giving way to white, allowing us to see the band proudly wear Joker-style, overdrawn lipstick on their faces.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

John Elton sees Taylor occupying the stage truly solo for the only time tonight, having gone through another wardrobe change (this time into an black suit with 1980s-era shoulder pads) and wearing a white electric guitar for a soulful, paired-back rendition of the sophomore album cut, her voice the major instrument on display. “Do I look alright?” she asks ironically, red lipstick now smeared widely over face. Poignantly she wears a silver brooch displaying “97%”, previously having stated that it represents “the number of women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed in their lives”.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

The 345 has the 36-year-old leading an a cappella opening of the song with her audience as her band reappear on stage dressed in black oversized trousers with braces over white sleeveless shirts and matching smeared red lipstick, the song rounded out by the bandleader hugging each of her band … shaking hands with her “token man”.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

“Is anyone coming for triple?” she asks, eluding to the trio of shows she’s playing at tonight’s venue. “We do exactly the same thing” she offers flatly, Hammersmith erupting with laughter before the tempo is increased for dance anthem You Forever, Siôn, Heaton and Simone embodying the 1980s female backing singer mould as they stride the stage alongside Taylor before the four collapse into each other.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

The main set is closed out with the largely spoken I Do This All The Time, the tale of the singer not wanting to go to the listener’s birthday drinks resonating strongly with the mundane soap operas of small things playing out in our heads has Hammersmith chanting along with every minutia.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

A brief stage departure allows for Taylor to put on a white t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Free Gary”, the singer showing support for the embattled former England striker and BBC sports presenter Gary Lineker following his suspension from the BBC following tweeting against Government’s controversial plan to ban asylum seekers coming into the UK illegally, her solidarity with the football star going down well with her audience.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

Tonight is a masterclass in pop perfection for the 2020s. Each song is carefully crafted, from its instrumentation, masterful lyrics through to gorgeous vocal harmonies which only increase awareness of the frontwoman and multi-instrumentalist’s own powerful sound. The carefully-choreographed dance routines are high-energy and, if anything, make a point of the fact that the women on stage aren’t the previous generation’s idea of what fit and athletic dancers should look like. Self Esteem is political, playful, powerful. But Rebecca Taylor is a normal person, wrapping everyday tales up in glorious experimental pop sheen.

Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo

Live review and photography of Self Esteem @ Hammersmith Apollo by Kalpesh Patel on 11th March 2023

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