Ester Dean's got hits, and you've heard them even if you haven't heard of Ester Dean. Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," Katy Perry's "Firework," Rihanna's "What's My Name?"—just three of the several platinum plaques that Dean has tacked to her writer's credit; her repertoire is so extraordinary that a couple years ago the New Yorker ran a 6,600-word profile of pop's low-key wonder woman. Since 2004, she's been in musical demand, even as she's recently started penning R&B collabs for herself.
However, since the niche success of the 2012 university musical comedy Pitch Perfect—in which Dean plays the grabby, butch Cynthia-Rose—Dean's made a course correction to her unwieldy, multifaceted career: from the booth, to the studio lot. Having just finished filming her scenes for Pitch Perfect 2 in Baton Rouge, Dean called us to talk about the music biz, Hollywood, and her preference for lights, camera, and action.
You’ve got a lot of stuff going on right now: Dirty Work Publishing, Pitch Perfect 2 in the works, songs and collabos out. What’s your top priority right now?
You know, people are not gonna accept this, but the most important thing I have in my head, in my spirit, is called change. And the change is TV and film. First of all, I didn’t know I was an actress. When I started out I wanted to be a voice-over actress, and they happened to put me in a movie. I happened to see a life for me in that area of entertainment. It was the easiest choice too, after a while, because I was like, “Oh, you know you can write songs after the set?” I’m like, “Oh I can still write songs? Yes!”
I can do something I love while doing a job that pays, and I’m a full-speed-ahead actress. Full-speed, and people don’t wanna hear that. People wanna hear that you’re writing more songs for their favorite artists, or you’re gonna do more music for yourself. Those things can happen, and will happen, yet for me, I need to do what’s best for me and my life. It feels exactly 100 percent correct when I do acting. I love it all the way.
Did you always plan on trying out both TV and film? Was that your long-term strategy?
I’m very spontaneous. When I went into Lorax, it was to get on Lorax. I wanted to be a voice-over because I was a voice-over in Ice Age: Continental Drift and Rio. They asked me for a song as they always do. I gave them a song the next morning, and they said that was the fastest they got the turnaround. My turnaround is fast. That’s just me being professional. I know people need stuff, so I give it to them fast, if I have it in me. If I don’t, I call them and tell them, “I’m sorry. Next week I’ll try again.”
They sent me the casting, and the lady said, “This movie’s almost casted, and we’re only missing a few people. Have you ever thought about doing live action?” I’ll tell you, I did not know what she was talking about. I did not know what live action meant. I thought I was gonna do a little drop-in, drop-out. I swear, I was like, “Oh shit!” I never planned to be on the screen, so I can’t say it was a long-term decision because I never saw myself there. Even when I was there I was so hesitant because I was supposed to be a fulltime writer, of course, and we were in the middle of [working with] Rihanna on a lot of other stuff.
being an actress is being able to create a decision by myself without anyone wondering how they’re going to get paid from it.
People thought I was crazy for acting. I was like, “Oh my God, is this gonna go straight to DVD?” Then I was like, “It doesn’t matter, Ester. We gotta do it! This is for you! This is not you writing a song for Nicki or Rihanna or Katy Perry. This is you doing what you need to do in life. Has nothing to do with anyone else but you.” That was the first time I actually did something for me in a long time. I don’t have a manager or a label; I don’t carry myself that way. Right now, I am independent in the bigger sense of the word. Nobody makes calls for me. I take care of everything. If you see me on a huge project, they called me. My phone, personally. To me, being an actress is being able to create a decision by myself without anyone wondering how they’re going to get paid from it.
Was it a conscious decision for you to go without a label or manager?
I fought to get out of my contract with Interscope for five years. Since I was in it. I begged to get out of that contract right after I parted ways with Polo right before the “Drop It Low” remix with Lil Wayne came out. I was already gone from that situation. I signed to Polo’s label and Interscope’s label because of my relationship with Polo, and after I parted ways, there was no way to get out of it until three months that I begged and pleaded for them to let me go.
I’ve been trying to get out since, because every song I tried to put out they wouldn’t put out. If I did a video myself they’d take it down. I didn’t understand the whole point. Why keep me if you don’t want me? It’s like being in a relationship with a bad boyfriend, but he’s cheating. Like, “Why do you want to be with me? Can you please stop stalking me?” I knew they wanted me there because I was a songwriter, and that songwriter might come out with a hit tomorrow. You don’t want to be the person who didn’t keep her.
When John Janick [Interscope CEO and Chairman] came on, I literally cried and begged and asked him to let me go. I was moving into acting and auditioning, and I wanted to do a role. I got so far up that I was at the audition for the network, and while sitting in the room waiting to audition, they wouldn’t let me because of my contract with Interscope. You don’t want me yet I can’t do this because of that. I had to get out of that.
Are you finding it as easy to go about looking for work with film and television as you’d hope?
Fuck no! It’s still a hustle. I’m a nobody. [Laughs.] I’m a nobody, but I’m a somebody in the other world, so it humbles the hell out of you. I’m still trying to get an agent! I’m just some songwriter who they probably think pulled some strings, and I didn’t. I just auditioned and got the part, so I’m still out here doing exactly what an upcoming actress would do. I still gotta go buy someone’s acting lessons, and I still gotta do all that you have to do when they don’t know you. I have not proven myself in that world. Hopefully Pitch Perfect 2 will shine some more light, but I gotta grind just as much as anybody else. I think that might be what excites me, you know?
Turning back to music for a second: Which of those hits that you worked on with major artists are you proudest of?
Well, it always goes back to a song that’s not hip-hop-driven or R&B-driven. It’s the one that made a difference. When the music touches the kids in a way that motivates them to be better, I feel like that’s your biggest accomplishment. And that song would be Katy Perry’s “Firework.” It meant more. Yes, I did “S&M” and “What’s My Name?” right at the same time, but one of them makes you feel sexy, one of them makes you feel whimsical, and then one of them makes you feel like you could be anything you wanted to be. That’s the one I’m more motivated by. That’s the one I feel more thankful I had a part in.
More and more people are getting to know you as your own artist. Of your own songs, what most authentically represents your personality, your sense of style?
I’m very outspoken about the way that I say things. “Bam Bam,” which is like, “You’re fucking with the wrong thang/That pussy ain’t shit without a gold chain,” that’s my personality. When I was a kid they used to be like, “You have the worst mouth.” I was like, “Fuck this shit, fuck that.” I would curse so much. I was that girl.
I really feel like I control it as a grown up, but in my songs I just go back to swearing, and I just don’t care. [Laughs.] That’s how I express myself, and I love it. People be like, “Is she gay?” I don’t know! I just love talking about women; I love talking about men; I love talking about them as if they’re both the same. When I’m writing a song, I’m like, “Ohh, am I talking to a girl? Ohh, am I talking to a guy? Wait, I don’t care!” I’m talking about the act. Whoever’s in the act, I don’t care.
Sometimes it comes off very androgynous, and I love it. That’s who I am. I’m a very free fucking person in song. In song, I can say whatever I wanna say. I listen to it like, “Oh my God, I just said that!” [Laughs.] And I don’t care. I’ll be like, “Whatever, fuck ’em. They don’t like it, turn it off.” Ya know? So as an artist, “Bam Bam,” “Baby Making Love,” “Twerkin 4 Berkin,” those are all songs straight from me. Any day.
Are there any artists you look at like, “This is my homegirl, my homeboy”?
I think they’re all associate friends. The more you allow it to be that, the more you’ll find out about that. Your friends are your friends. Those are the people from Oklahoma, the friends from Nebraska, and the friends you met along the way when you were eating Cheetos, and that’s all you had was a dollar. Those are your friends! The other people are your business associates. Those are people you met making money, and even some of the songwriting friends you met making money are not your friends.
Other than Pitch Perfect 2, what other projects do you have your eye on?
I just finished Pitch Perfect 2, what, two weeks ago? So we just got back home and just put up my reel. I came back an actress. I went redoing a role that I did before. I left pretty much being a songwriter; I came back being an actress. So now I’m on my grind trying to figure out how to get to the next audition as I am also going to the biggest artists, doing sessions for them for a week. I’m juggling it. I haven’t got it yet, but it’s coming!
Actresses, even though you’d think they’re not, they are maybe the realest people who are famous.
I wanted to say something else about the friendship. I did get nine new friends in Baton Rouge and Pitch Perfect, though, because that’s a different industry. Actresses, even though you’d think they’re not, they are maybe the realest people who are famous.
Why do you say that?
I done cried so many times on Pitch Perfect just feeling the love from these girls, and I said, “That is why I like the film industry.” And it might just be them girls, but everybody on that set was just the sweetest, nicest, most understanding, caring, real people that I’ve ever met. It made me understand that those people are not living in an ego life. Music people are living an egotistical life. Artists have an ego to uphold. Actresses come in, and they do they part, but that’s the part. They know the difference between the part and real life.
In the music industry, they don’t know the difference between the part and real life. If you’re a rapper and you’re talking about drug dealing, that’s not real. You don’t do that. You just talk about it. Your real life is when you walk out of the booth, but in music they intertwine it and in acting they don’t. Here we are, humble people, who have real lives and treat each other as such, and that’s the beautiful part of being in the film and TV world. I have friends there. I have a lot of them.