Cape Town – While most South Africans will associate the name Esjay Jones with Stealing Love Jones, the Durban-based rock band formed in 2005, the name Esjay is now being mentioned among songwriting royalty in the US.
It’s 18:00 in Cape Town when I Skype Esjay. It’s 09:00 in the morning and she just woke up an hour ago, she tells me from her home in Los Angeles.
Esjay will soon be getting on a plane and headed home to South Africa for the first time in five years to share the stage with her good friends, US rockers Alien Ant Farm, on their first SA tour. And while she doesn’t miss those Stealing Love Jones days of touring and living in a bus with four boys, she is super-excited for this special tour.
"I have everything lined up, I’ve got a new surfboard from Els Surf waiting for me in Durban, so I’m getting my Indian Ocean full. It’s going to be one for the books and it’s going to be such a treat to have the Alien Ant Farm boys with us - it’s going to be surreal and I’m really very excited!" Esjay exclaims.
'Hit it off like a house on fire'
Esjay recently released a new single with Alien Ant Farm frontman, Dryden Mitchell, titled Bonfire. Esjay and Dryden are actually such good friends that she recently attended his 4-year-old daughter’s birthday party. Like, she’s part of the family. "But how?" I ask.
"Basically when I got over here to the States, obviously we had tried very hard to make Stealing Love Jones work. You know, the crazy thing is, when we got here I realised that bands are at such a different level in every way, shape and form. When we came to the States I was just like, 'oh my gosh we suck! This is crazy!' It was a very humbling experience and the band didn’t get signed as we had hoped and dreamed. Once I made the decision to move back to the States, I naturally fell into the role of 'top 40 songwriter'," Esjay explains.
"A label had brought me in and said, 'why don’t you try writing for other bands?' And I was like, ‘what do you mean? Artists don’t write their own songs? How weird is that?’' So I started working with top 40 artists and then got into the production side. At that time Alien Ant Farm and myself were managed by the same company, so when they started working on their next album they put us together and that was the first time we met. Dryden and I just hit it off like a house on fire. We went to the Grammys together and you know, we’ve just stayed friends. One night Dryden and I were Facetiming and I literally said 'man, we gotta make a South African tour happen!' And we’ve got a do a song together, and he was like, 'let’s do it!'" laughs Esjay.
And as they say, the rest is history.
'I really don’t think that it has anything to do with talent'
"So how does one go about writing songs for a living, for other people? What is the creative process behind it?" I ask.
"I’m constantly writing, I generally write a song a day," says Esjay. "If I’m not with an artist one on one, I will write a song and produce it in my home studio and then pitch it. I have an agent that works for me who is super-connected with all the A&R’s, major labels etc. They basically pitch the songs which is a pretty difficult game. It’s easier if you are in the studio with the artist; but that happens rarer and rarer these days."
Esjay says that generally how it works now is that when they get into the studio there’s usually a producer and a songwriter. "The producer would’ve already started a beat, and have an idea of the music and instrumentation. The artist and I would then top-line the song; the 'top-line' is what the industry calls the lyrics and the melody. So in a nut-shell, how the top 40 music industry works."
"What is the biggest difference between our local songwriting industry compared to the US?" I ask.
"You know, the crazy thing is that I really don’t think that it has anything to do with talent. As strange as that sounds, I feel like people in SA are just as talented as American songwriters or Swedish songwriters. And those darn Swedes, (Esjay laughs) they are the guys who write all the big hits! Max Martin and the gang! Seriously though, I honestly think it’s just about being shown how to write a song," says Esjay.
"I’ve had an education over here that you can’t pay for. I sit in the studio with Alex da Kid or JR Rotem, or any of these massive producers that have produced the world’s biggest songs and I just look over their shoulders and take notes the whole time. Like, why do they do that? Why are they putting parallel compression on that? Why did they choose to do that? Let’s dig into the structure and melody of the song etc."
"I think if you want to write or produce a massive smash hit, you just need to de-construct whatever big song is on the radio at the moment, and look at the formula: How many bars in the verse, what’s happening in the pre-chorus, what’s happening in the hook, is there a post? It’s a formula you know, there is a songwriting formula that has been around since The Beatles. Everything goes hand in hand but what might be even more important than the structure is the melody - you’ve gotta have those huge hooks! Melody is god in the songwriting game. It’s a little bit sad because I do feel that we’ve lost the art of songwriting to some degree. I don’t believe that a song that is number one today is going to be remembered in 20 years like a Tom Petty song, or like Led Zeppelin," says Esjay.
And what is the winning formula for writing a hit song?
"There is definitely a standard pop formula. Obviously now that EDM has basically become pop music and it’s what you hear on the radio, there’s a different formula. It’s no longer a vocal hook. It’s the drop. Instead of there being a big vocal chorus, it’s like some crazy musical production, instead of a vocal melody they’re using an instrument. So the industry has changed a little bit in terms of songwriting, but yes absolutely, we have to have hit that first chorus by 45 seconds, otherwise people are bored. We live in a world where everything is instant so we have to adapt," Esjay reveals.
While Esjay’s worked with many famous artists which include Nile Rodgers, Brandy, Sean Kingston, Gina Schock of the Go Go’s and Trey Vittetoe (who have written songs for artists like Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus) she also attends regular songwriting camps. "Writing camps are basically just a song factory. The label will choose 20 producers, 20 songwriters and we basically just round-robin for a couple of days and they get 200 songs, and they pick one. It’s a really crazy kind of soulless industry, but I mean I’m still very honoured to be apart it," says Esjay.
'How did this even happen?'
In-between texting her very good friend, Orange is The New Black’s Taryn Manning, and facetiming with Dryden, which she did just the previous night, Esjay still freaks out every now and then about her life and her famous friends in LA.
"I’m a super-emotional person, and sometimes I just get a little weepy you know - like how did this even happen? It’s so cool! It’s just so crazy and mind blowing, it seems so far away in South Africa, but once you hit this industry in LA, it’s just so normal, it’s like, the amount of people that used to or are my idols are now my friends. It’s mind blowing," says Esjay.
As we near the end of our chat, I have to ask, what can fans expect from your show when you come to SA? "We have some exiting stuff planned with surprise guests and Dryden and I are going to be performing our new single Bonfire with Made For Broadway. I’m super-excited to be performing, it’s been a long time and I’m excited to get back on South African soil. And rock everybody’s faces off!"
Esjay Jones tour details:
22 October – Northwood Crusaders Sports Club, Durban. Catch this acoustic fundraiser show in aid of Diabetes South Africa with Esjay and friends on Sunday at 12:00. Entry is free and is for all ages.
27 October – GoodLuck Bar, Johannesburg (with Alien Ant Farm)
28 October – Arcade Empire Halloween Party, Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria (with Alien Ant Farm_
31 October – Virgina Airfield, Durban (with Alien Ant Farm)
Esjay not on line-up:
3 and 4 November – Mercury Live, Cape Town (with Alien Ant Farm)