Entering the world of the enigmatic ESA SHIELDS, Richard Lewis steps into the singer’s record-lined living room to discuss his debut LP, stage affectations and the alt. pop auteur’s creative collaborations.
Devonshire Road, Toxteth, L8, is one of Liverpool’s lesser-known thoroughfares when it comes to musical connections, rather unfairly as it turns out. The road’s capacious Victorian mansions provided lodgings for some of the city’s most famed mavericks in the early 1980s, with Number 20 serving as the de facto Echo & The Bunnymen HQ through drummer Pete de Freitas’ presence alongside Teardrop Explodes leader Julian Cope, and Wild Swans main man Paul Simpson. Legend would have it that the building’s living conditions surpassed even those depicted in iconic 1980s vom-com The Young Ones for squalor, Thatcher-era desperation and all-round craziness. The house was also home to an American import described only as “The Adolescent (Crazy Guest)” by Cope in his classic autobiography Head On. Now we know her as Courtney Love.
Fast-forward to the present day and Devonshire Road is still providing a home for oddball musical types, as it is the current residence of one-man underground pop consortium Esa Shields. “I’m going to Berlin tomorrow and I found out three days ago that they’re putting me on in Hamburg too, supporting [cult electro doyen] Felix Kubin,” Shields explains as we meet up in his front room-cum-studio, surrounded by a record collection that looks to be the entire stock of Rough Trade East, West and all points in-between. “A mate of mine is lending me another one of these tonight cos I can’t delete anything off here,” the singer states, nodding at the behemoth of an Akai 12-track digital recorder that nestles in the corner of the room. “I wanna have a seamless backing track so I don’t have gaps looking through other discs as I’m playing.”
Ovum Caper, Esa Shields’ sparkling debut LP issued in September 2014 by vinyl-only German label Gagarin Records (hence the trip over), assimilates a bewildering array of genres, and finds its resultant off-kilter pop songs successfully bridging the gap between skewed and melodic. “I’m very glad it’s been released; it’s a relief, really,” Shields says of the seven-years-in-the-making LP, as he lights the first in an endless succession of Marlboros. “It’s nice to hear people talking about it, which I thought would never happen. There were gigs where there was literally no audience for years.”
Performed almost in its entirety by Shields, the album’s wayward keyboard textures, obscure guitar tunings and androgynous vocals lodge in the brain deliciously over repeated listens. The backlit Lost Time evokes an obscure sixties girl group, while the doomy synth lines and folk-inspired vocal melody of Woods And Gullies suggest a mash up of a John Carpenter soundtrack and Fairport Convention. The whimsical acid folk of Shelley Duvall and the gorgeous Casio keyboard-led pop bijou of Monde Capricorn, meanwhile, provide the album’s considerable highlights, on an LP where, no matter how discordant proceedings get across the eleven tracks, a pop sensibility always shines through.
Formerly a member of superlative alt. rock unit SeaWitches, and featured on a Super Numeri-curated compilation in 2005, Esa Shields has long been a part of the city’s rich and varied underground scene. A memorable appearance at Korova supporting Ladytron in 2006 saw the singer eating an apple onstage, a move some interpreted by some as a piece of performance art. “That was just out of nerves!” the singer grins as he remembers the incident. “You were able to smoke then, too; I really miss that,” he says, lamenting the death of the stress-busting onstage ciggie.
On the subject of live work, while a band is being recruited to bring his songs to the stage later in the year, Shields’ tracks have up to now almost always been performed solo, juxtaposing live vocals with backing tracks supplied by a 4-track recorder. Esa cites a gig by US pop provocateur Ariel Pink at The Kazimier in 2012 – which saw the singer playing behind a screen up on the venue’s balcony – as an example of the direction he hopes his own shows will take. “I’m a not massive fan of him [Ariel Pink], but him playing behind a screen, I loved that. That’s the sort of stuff I come up with but never do. I always leave it far too late and just end up… singing,” he shrugs. “I’d like to make shows more interesting, definitely, rather than me just standing there, still.” For a long time hampered by stage fright, it seems as though Shields has gradually got to grips with his stagecraft over time as his fears of performing have eased. “I’ve got more faith with the music now,” he nods.
While Ovum Caper’s pink artwork, which features various kinky illustrations, is certainly eye-catching, for a brief time the LP was going to be issued in a format that would have made Björk’s multimedia extravaganzas look prosaic. “Initially I wanted it to come with a set of little cards. Y’know, those ones that open up and play a tune,” Shields says. “There would have been a version of a song in each one of them. It would have been far too expensive, though that’s still an open-ended idea, mind!”
Esa’s internet presence, aside from the recent additions of SoundCloud and Bandcamp pages, is generally scarce and literally non-existent in the case of social media. “I suppose I should but I quite like not being on any sites like Facebook,” the singer mumbles, ruminating on the ever-increasing number of sites musicians supposedly “have” to be signed up to in the present day. “I’ll be emailing more regularly since I’ve got an email address now, though,” he announces brightly.
Drawn extensively from Eastern European cinema and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, in addition to seemingly every category of music ever conceived, much of Shields’ Library of Congress-proportioned record collection has been sourced from the ‘Soundtracks and Compilations’ section in Probe. Recent acquisitions include discs by Krzysztof Komeda, who scored a clutch of Roman Polanski classics, plus legendary composer Bernard Hermann’s score for Brian De Palma shocker Sisters. “Ideally that’s the direction I’d like to go in,” Shields nods when asked if he would ever branch out into soundtracks for films and television. “It’d be great to do one for an action film and totally fuck it up!” he laughs.
Alongside solo work, an impressive amount of plate-spinning by the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist is currently taking place with various collaborative ventures. Immersive sound and visual experience Lost Minutes, with Legends Of Flight, returns to the Unity Theatre in February following a successful run in October. A friend’s band called The Inksets, meanwhile, is in its fledgling stages. “I’m really looking forward to that,” he enthuses of the project. “We’ve been wanting to get that off the ground for ages. We did a couple of songs in the summer but it’s been slow since then cos of my album. They had this song before I joined, then I put my two penny worth in on guitar,” he explains as he plays me a demo version of the track, a slab of propulsive robotic pop.
Amidst ongoing activity around Ovum Caper, the follow-up is already taking shape, with a release pencilled in for later this year. “I’ve got most of it recorded, with two songs to go. I’ve got most of the vocals done; then I’ll get it mixed and hopefully get it issued. It’s gonna be totally miscellaneous this one, it’s shaping up that way,” Esa says of the set, which certainly looks set to retains his debut LP’s eclecticism. “It’s more or less the same sort of principle. I’m not thinking about it until I’ve got twelve songs that sit comfortably with each other.”
And with that we bid farewell, as the preparations for the trip to Germany are wrapped up. If Ovum Caper announced the belated arrival of a genuine one-off talent, then Shields’ subsequent journey into the unexplored realms of outsider pop looks set to be just as compelling.
Ovum Caper is out now on Gagarin Records.