Ester Dean sounds every bit as cheery as the kids she’s singing to on “Let It Grow,” the uplifting cut and lead single from 3-D animated film Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (in theaters today). The 24-year-old Oklahoma native and Los Angeles transplant is not just a singer. She’s also responsible for writing major hits for stars like Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Usher, and Rihanna.
While she was in New York City working on her forthcoming debut album, Dean checked in with Complex to talk about working on The Lorax, as well as the stories behind some of her biggest records. She even revealed the thought process that frees her up from getting too attached to songs she writes and sells. Songwriting may not be the world’s oldest profession, but there are certain similarities between the music game and the pimp game.
Written by Brad Wete (@bradwete)
On The Lorax single “Let It Grow”:
“I just got to see the movie, so it’s actually nice that I know what the movie is now. They have a lot of different songs in the movie, and one of them is called ‘Let It Grow.’ It has all of the characters singing a song about letting the trees grow. Then they needed a pop version of something like that—a version that could go on the radio. So I came in and Tricky [Stewart] asked me to do a song. They took it to me at 8 o’clock at night, I gave it back to them at 8 o’clock in the morning. That really threw them for a loop. I don’t think they thought I worked that hard or that fast. That’s how I do it. As long as somebody gives me something and I like it—you know what I’m saying? I’ll do it really fast.
“In L.A.—that’s where I live—I go walking in the trails and walk through the trees and stuff like that. And it’s so crazy because that week before they sent it, I had been trying to write little freaky songs and just different songs that I normally write and I just couldn’t. I was just wondering why I couldn’t get out what I wanted to get out. And it wasn’t that I was trying to get out that, I was just trying to get out something. And when that song came I sung it and my mom came in, and my sister came in, and it was like an experience for me. I got to say what I believe in. Even though they’re talking about seeds, I’m talking about planting seeds in the state of the mind and letting them grow. Because I believe in mind states, you know? Somebody can say something good to you and somebody can say something bad to you, but at the end of the day those are all seeds. So I was coming from that place.”
“I also did [a soundtrack cut for the movie] Rio. I did ‘Let Me Take You to Rio.’ It’s so funny because I never mean to sing the songs—all these songs that you hear are demos. They’re demos, and when the movie people get it they have other people sing it. Once they hear the difference, they’re like, ‘Ah well, can we keep Ester on it?’ Like, ‘Let it Grow,’ I sang that for somebody else. And then they came back to me. I wrote the end-title song for Ice Age: Continental Drift, so that’s coming out. And with that one, it’s going to have the cast in it, and then I got a part in that movie. But, it’s all demos.”
On her solo career:
“As of right now we have ‘Gimme Money’ and it’s featuring Nicki Minaj. I’ve been working on my album for like two months, and the thing is, I write songs every day. So, all we do is look at the songs and see which ones belong to me. And I could have written something super, super hot. But if it’s a better fit for another artist, I’ll give it away. We’re about to work ‘Gimme Money.’ So ‘Gimme Money’ is my single already. It’s a song that I was getting ready to put out. And [management] was, like ‘OK, but you can’t just have one single.’ So I had to hold ‘Gimme Money’ from the time that I wanted to put it out, and I had to go back in there and I had to really work. And I had to stop focusing on any other artists, and start focusing on myself. So if any artist comes out now, and they have my song, it was probably sold to them a while ago.”
On writing Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”:
“I had seen Nicki when she was down at Will.i.am’s studio one time, and she was like, ‘I’ve been looking for you. Let me get your number.’ I love Nicki and we did songs together, but I had never met her while doing songs together. We did the Sean Kingston song, the Christina Aguilera song—just different people’s songs that I had did and she rapped on. But I had never met her. So I gave her my number and then one night in the middle of the night she’s like, ‘Hey this is Nicki, can you come down to the studio?’ And it was real late, and it was far where she was.
“She was in the Valley, and I was in L.A. But I was like, ‘Yeah! Shit, I want to work with Nicki.’ I got up there and she was like, ‘I just have this track that I know you’ll kill.’ And I went in the booth and I started screaming and singing and I came up with the hook. Then I was like, ‘Do you like that?’ and then I was like, ‘Do you like this bass?’ So, you know, we’re collaborating on what it should say. And then I sung it, and then I sung the melody for the bridge. And then we were going to get Katy Perry to do it. Again, everything is a demo. It was me singing the stacks and all that stuff for somebody else to understand what it was going to do. And then I left, and when I heard it on the radio that was the first time I heard it again. So you know, you go, you did your job, and then you go home.”
On writing Rihanna’s “S&M”:
“The key to making a great sex song is to make it not really sound [like it’s] about sex. You know what I’m saying? Be able to talk sensually. Make it feel sexy. With ‘S&M,’ they didn’t really know what S&M was, and guess what? I didn’t either. I just liked the way it sounds. And I knew it was something sexual, until I went looked it up and I was like ‘Oh shit! that’s what? OK—I didn’t know that.’
“But you hear ‘S&M’ around, and you know what? S&M was always compared to clothing. It was always like, ‘Oh, that’s the S&M latex stuff.’ So you never knew what S&M really was, you just remembered it was a sexual thing—a sensual thing, like something of pleasure. So that’s why I liked it. The lines ‘I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it,’ that was sensual but that didn’t say something that was so striking. I want somebody to be like, ‘Oh, is she talking about sex?’ Not, ‘Oh, she’s talking about sex.’ Make it sensual all the way through. Not just so dirty, dirty, dirty.”
On writing Usher’s “Little Freak”:
“‘Little Freak,’ Gee Roberson from Hip-Hop Since 1978, he brought me the track. I was in there, and I was feeling myself. The way that I like to write songs for guys is... I feel like they’re a little disrespectful with the way they come at girls, you know what I’m saying? But girls like a little bit of that disrespectfulness. They like it when they say, ‘Let her put her hands in your pants.’ You know what I’m saying? That sounds sexy to me. I’m not going to do it, but the way he said that shit to me, I thought about it. I’m not doing it.
So it was like, ‘If he fucking with me, really fucking with her, let her put her hands in your pants.’ You know what I’m saying? I think that has sexy swag. He didn’t say in her ‘stuff.’ He didn’t say come ‘F’ me tonight. He said ‘Let her put her hands in your pants.’ That’s more innocent. You know what I’m saying? Usher was sexy when he said it. And then Nicki came in and I was like, ‘Everybody loves Raymond.’ I love that song. That’s like one of my favorite sexy songs. Like I can see a stripper up on a pole dancing with another stripper with that song. Even though you know it’s talking about sex, something about it turns you on. It’s something that even if you aren’t listening to the words, it’s turning you on and you don’t know why.”
On the songwriter pimp game:
“The songs are my whores. Mark Stewart, Tricky’s brother told me, because I was signed to Tricky as a songwriter for a while. He’s the one that made me a songwriter. He said, ‘You treat these songs like they’re your hoes. Don’t get attached. Don’t you worry about how it’s going to be touched, how it’s going to be felt on, what they’re going to do with it. You sell it and you get the money, and you let it go.’ That’s what saves you. It saves you from like, ‘Oh, why didn’t you do it like this?’ Fuck that shit. Do that. That’s your girl tonight. You pay me your money, that’s your girl. You know what I’m saying?
“I’m pimping myself. I am the pimp. But the thing is, I am the hoe. I’m pimping myself. That’s why I require to be paid. I will fuck you, but you understand, once it’s done, when I look up at you, you got some money you owe me. And you don’t want to meet [the mean pimp]. You know what I’m saying?”
On writing her part of “Countdown” with Beyoncé:
“That’s just a blessing that I even got on the song. I only did the second verse. There are a lot of people on that one. I make sure I don’t take credit for things I did not do. I did chop up the beat, though. The beat was a different way. And they ended up keeping the way that I chopped up the beat. I just did a little part. I don’t even know what The-Dream did but Dream did some parts and I can kind of tell what Dream’s. Mine is, “There’s ups and downs in this love,” you can feel that that’s me. I did “Start Over,” you know? That’s my baby.”
On writing Rihanna’s “You Da One”:
“Oh yeah that’s my baby. That was just fun. I did that at home and then Dr. Luke took it over to her, because I wasn’t going to play it for Rihanna. I didn’t know exactly what she was going for. So Dr. Luke took it to Barry Weiss and Rihanna. She loved it. Me and her wrote the bridge. I didn’t do a bridge. Sometimes I don’t do bridges to my songs I just keep it moving. I’ll be like, ‘It’s going to be a rapper. A rapper’s going to come in right there.’ It’s so fun.”