Songwriter Ester Dean steps out front after penning work for Britney Spears, Chris Brown, Katy Perry and others
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Pop songwriter Ester Dean’s Brentwood home is vibrating with heavy synths as the singer-songwriter lays down the vocals on one of the handful of demos she is completing that day.
The first thing she does when she emerges from behind the sound booth is comment on this writer’s tardiness to a scheduled interview and listening session.
“You’re late,” she said, adding an expletive, before erupting into fits of laughter.
Dean’s unabashed demeanor is infectious -– especially as she apologizes for the amount of curse words she said she’s sure will hit the cutting room floor. Her engineers and co-producer barely keep a straight face as they work as she cracks jokes and throw out vulgarities in between takes.
As clichéd as it sounds, it’s tough to imagine the amount of work the hugely in-demand, Grammy-nominated 24-year-old is able to get accomplished with her playfulness often keeping her doubled over in laughter. She’s written songs for Britney Spears, Chris Brown and a host of others, and is prepping a solo record.
“Three years ago I was dead broke,” she said in a rare moment of seriousness.
A wall in her studio is covered with collages of the goals she still hopes to achieve. Pictures of castles, cars and money are pasted together and surrounded by self-affirmations. She dreams big, but is the first to tell anyone who will listen that her success came only after she altered her outlook on herself.
“My mind set changed. I started thinking I deserved more,” she said of her positive outlook, which she attributed to the popular self-help DVD “The Secret.” “Things started happening for me. And quick.”
And in those three years she went from “dead broke” to one of urban pop’s most sought-after scribes.
After being introduced to producer Polow da Don and signing to his Zone 4 imprint through Interscope Records she went on to write tracks for Rihanna, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj, Mary J. Blige, Usher and Ciara among others. She said the steady flow of work came from her hunger –- and a reminder of those days of financial uncertainty, which she makes light of today (“Not being able to afford Fruit Loops and having to buy the Fruity O’s in the white box, or the mac and cheese that’s not in the blue box,” she joked.)
“I’d never leave the studio. [Polow] would leave to take a shower and I’d have my clothes ready to use the studio shower. He’d go to sleep and I’d work,” she said. “There are lots of people way more talented than me -- but I work more and I wanted it more. I never waited on anyone else.”
Dean, like most songwriters, initially planned on being an artist –- but she talked herself out of pursuing it.
“I had so many beliefs against being a singer, or what it takes. There was a lot of pain associated with that,” the Muskogee, Okla., native said. “The rejection of it all. I lived in a rejection state of mind. Not because of my voice, the mike never rejected me. It was harboring all those bad memories of being broke. It teaches you your worth. Nothing good comes from that.”
Ironically, her first offering as an artist, 2009’s Chris Brown-assisted “Drop It Low” came by happenstance.
“‘Drop It Low,’ honestly, was for Ciara, but she didn’t come get the song. And then Britney [Spears] wanted it,” she said. “During the demo [Polow] kept telling me, ‘You’ve gotta believe it’ as I was singing it. A week later he asked if I wanted to hear my new single.”
The club-friendly track, released as a single for the soundtrack to the LeBron James documentary “More Than a Game” cracked the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100. She said she feels ready now that she has “gotten her mind right” about stepping out from behind the scenes.
Dean offered a sampling of what she was crafting for the album including “Gimme Money,” a thumping R&B/Europop hybrid, and “Hero,” a sweeping pop ballad begging for radio play were standouts. She knows they are hits, but she has made it a habit of not being married to music.
“Look, these songs are for me, but I ain’t stupid,” she laughs. “If somebody wants them, they can have them.”
Though there is no release date pegged for the album, Dean is enjoying the ride –- which she is in control of.
She recently landed the title song to the upcoming children’s movie “Rio” (character voiceover has been a long dream of hers); despite Spears not recording “Drop It Low,” she scored two tracks on the pop diva’s comeback album, “Femme Fatale”; and she currently has a handful of hits on the charts courtesy of Rihanna’s “S&M” and “What’s My Name?” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.”
She’s tight-lipped on anything else in the works.
‘I don’t believe in saying things before they happen. When it comes out, and you see my name on it, let me know,’ Dean said. ‘If I say something and it doesn’t have my name on it, then that’s embarrassing.’
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy