At first sight, Ben Esser seems like some anachronistic type of rockstar, nattily clad in plaid ska pants or suspenders and an unbeatable mod-top fade—a little bit Specials with some wayward art dude thrown in. But while you might like to imagine him kicking around the grittier parts of London, breaking hearts and inspiring legions of West End youths (and Hedi Slimane, who was intrigued enough to photograph him for his London Rock Diary), the 23-year-old admits sheepishly to being a studio shut in, committing every free moment to writing pop music, crafting beats and making perfect 20-minute mixtapes that blend everything from the deepest new dubstep to vintage Punjabi folk-pop. “The studio’s one of the places that I’ve felt the most comfortable, and it’s kind of my social life as well,” says Esser. “This is the problem. I don’t do anything else. I need to find a hobby. I need to start making quilts. You know those things, those patchwork quilts? I need to relax.”
If you took Esser’s self-aware, sometimes neurotic lyrics literally, you’d think you were dealing with the world’s biggest loser in love—like some cool, high-functioning British version of Woody Allen. His first album, Braveface, drips with anxious tracks about girlfriend fighting, self-sabotage, emotional freak-outs, and the ensuing inevitable relationship armageddon. But he’s embedded his woes in sunny, bubbly pop—ebullient, quirky tracks whose synth dazzles and bongoing drum machines break out with chorus shouts and hooks galore. On “This Time Around,” the pre-date disclaimer This is a warning/I’m only gonna let you down hovers atop a bed of totally jubilant guitar pop. Esser claims he’s mostly channeling imaginary feelings for maximum effect. “I quite like the idea of creating characters and playing off the traditional roles that people play in a tragic, love-song sense,” he says. “But I guess some of them are slightly more exaggerated than in real life.” And almost as proof, Esser sings in “I Love You,” You tear me up and you break me apart/ Still, love is no excuse for bad art.
Earlier this year, while in Austin for South by Southwest, Esser had the state of Texas tattooed on his forearm. “The next day, I spoke to my girlfriend’s dad, who lives in Virginia, and he was like, ‘Texas?! Everyone hates Texas! George Bush is from Texas.’ Yeah, but I’m glad I got it. I just like the fact that it’s just one of those random things that you do, and you don’t really think about it. And that was the point of it, you know?” Herein lies the magic of Esser’s lovestruck brow-furrowing: Where most people agonize over permanent damage, he just wants to make sure it matches his hair.
Stream: Esser, Braveface