The opening track of Haim’s third studio album, Women in Music Pt. III, greets the listener with a soulful horn intro before Este Haim’s joyous walking bass line kicks in over a grooving drumbeat, tightly strummed guitars, and laid-back vocals. It’s a whole new vibe that has been cultivated by the trio of sisters over an almost two-year span of songwriting. Este’s bass work on “Los Angeles” foreshadows the 15 remaining tracks, as her musicianship allows her to both play for the song and play for the bass, at all times. While the trio’s music would most commonly be classified as pop rock, the influences of jazz, hip-hop, soul, R&B, and folk are more prevalent than ever on the new record, and Este gladly uses this platform to showcase her diversity as a bassist. Whether hanging back in the pocket on “3AM,” or melodically pushing the song forward on “I’ve Been Down,” her work makes an impact on every tune.
Despite all of the emotion, tension, angst, and coming of age that went into Haim’s latest recorded chapter, the album had an unfortunate release date of June 26, 2020, at the height of the COVID lockdown. With their love of performing superceding anything else, not being able to get in front of crowds and play their new songs was torture for Este and her sisters Danielle and Alana. Now four years since their previous tour, the COVID sentence has been lifted — and you can hear the elation in Este’s voice as she sits in a coffee shop in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the start of Haim’s global tour.
“This isn’t hyperbole, but playing is the only thing that brings me pure, unadulterated joy,” she allows. “We’ve been chomping at the bit to perform this music that we released two years ago, so there’s all this pent-up energy and excitement. Being back onstage rocking out with my sisters is the best feeling on earth. I finally feel myself again.”
Este was destined to be a bass player. Growing up in a musical family as the oldest of three daughters, she was always drawn to music, thanks to her drummer dad and guitar-playing mother. She had an early penchant for the drums, but that seat was already filled in her family, so she knew she had to pivot to another instrument to find her musical place. At age 8, she began to dabble on guitar, but that path was short-lived thanks to her talented five-year-old sister Danielle, who excelled and quickly took the second guitar chair. “It depressed me even at that age,” laughs Este. Her ill feelings didn’t last long, because her dad instinctively urged her to play bass — and thanks to an old VHS of Tina Weymouth and Talking Heads, she quickly found her passion in life. In hindsight, Haim sees her bass playing as the perfect connection to her drummer dad and guitarist mom. She’s embracing the middle ground by playing the instrument that marries the melody and the rhythm.
Performing as a family band called Rockinhaim at local Los Angeles charity events, churches, and delis in the girls’ early years, they evolved as musicians in their own ways. After attending UCLA and receiving a degree in ethnomusicology, Este was skilled as a songwriter and was ready to play the music that was inside of her. Along with her two sisters, Danielle and Alana, the band Haim was born. As years went by, their hard work as musicians and songwriters started paying off: Their fans began to multiply, and before long, Haim was selling out venues and playing for packed arenas and festivals. With that, Este became synonymous for always sporting her beloved 1973 Fender Precision that she affectionately calls “Blondie,” and also for her having simply one of the best bass-faces of all time. If you haven’t seen it by now, a quick Google Image search of her name will unveil the unabashed joy and expression that comes out every time she takes the stage.
Este’s writing and playing have extended her demand beyond Haim, as she’s evolved into a composer for film and television with her recent work on Maid, Cha Cha Real Smooth, and Netflix’s The Witch Boy. When she’s not on the road with her sisters or composing in the studio, you can typically find her woodshedding scales and soloing over old folk records at home, digging up sheet music at local Los Angeles shops, rubbing elbows with her A-list celebrity friends, or hanging out and talking shop with her close friend Thundercat. But right now you’ll find her in the spotlight, headlining concerts all over the world with Blondie in hand and her bass face beaming stronger than ever — and that’s exactly where she wants to be.
What is it like getting back onstage and performing after a four-year gap of shows?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous after not playing live for such a long time. But once I got onstage, I felt like a fish to water. Most artists will echo the sentiment that you write a song in your bedroom and it’s just you in a room, and then all of a sudden you record it, and it’s for everyone. Everyone has access to it, and then you get onstage and everyone knows the song and is singing it back to you. As a performer I’m transported back to the place where I was when I wrote it, and also to the place of the subject matter that I wrote about. It’s a lot. It’s very personal and very intense, but I’m an adrenaline junkie, so I thrive on emotion. And I love looking over to my right and seeing my sisters Danielle and Alana playing these songs with me. It’s so surreal.
You recently released a single called “Lost Track” that has a great bass line. How did that song come about?
My bass playing was really simple on it, and I just focused on the main groove throughout, and in supporting the vocals. I wanted it to be tasty and have a good, solid Fender Precision sound, with a round tone. I played my 1973 Precision, which I use for everything, and I’m really happy with the tone I got on that song. It was the first piece of music we put out after our previous album, and we’d been knocking things around from even before the record came out. We’re constantly writing as much as humanly possible, because you always need to be flexing that muscle. We were toying with a couple of ideas, but “Lost Track” always stood out to us. We decided to finish it and put it out, because the music industry is like the Wild West right now and the rules seem to be gone. We went into the studio and cranked it out quickly, which felt right for it. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles to the track, and we wanted to keep the feel of it live.
How did you approach scoring the film Cha Cha Real Smooth?
That was the first movie I ever composed for. The way I got into it was kind of haphazardly. I started with this TV show called Maid. I was always intrigued by it, and scoring is one of my many obsessions. I’m a film junkie; I literally watch everything. The opportunity presented itself, and I jumped at it. I was learning on the spot and adjusting as I was doing it. Then I got the opportunity to score Cha Cha, and I was so thrilled. My writing partner Stray [Christopher Stracey] and I hunkered down in the studio and explored a lot of things. We just threw the spaghetti at the wall and figured out what stuck. When you have a good producer and engineer, the possibilities are endless; you can get any sound, any instrumentation, and anything you can conceptualize. Stray and I played all of the instruments, because we didn’t want to bring in any outside players. We knew we had to make it our own.
You pulled from a lot of influences that are far from the sound of Haim.
That’s what I love about collaborating with Stray: We’re both obsessed with world music. I studied Brazilian percussion and Bulgarian voice in college, and Stray is equally infatuated with world music, so when we get into the studio we constantly bring up songs and sounds we’ve heard, and we start comparing notes. Our exploration of what the Cha Cha sound was going to be was figuring out how to service what’s happening on the screen, and how do we make it unique and cool and us. As artists we don’t have to answer to anyone, and we can make the music we want, and that’s it. The biggest learning curve was having to serve the movie and take a backseat to it in a way. This turned out to be a masterclass in composing.
From a bass standpoint, how different was scoring a film from writing songs for your own albums?
It’s not about me, but I love when it’s about me [laughs]. I’m not used to having someone to answer to. As a bass player, I had to remember what I like and what I think sounds good, and I brought that to those scores. There were times when we’d put an effect on my bass, which isn’t something I typically do with Haim, but it worked for the score. That’s kind of elementary, but I went into every session willing to do what worked for the production. I was constantly finding a balance between what the film needed and what I needed to put out there for myself. I did my due diligence, though, and picked everyone’s brain that I could. I met [Radiohead’s] Jonny Greenwood at a concert right before I started work on Maid, but I was so tongue-tied I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about scoring. There was no way on God’s green earth that I could even form a sentence in front of him. I met with a lot of friends who are composers and scorers, and I tried to get into the minutiae of what it is to compose. I didn’t want to take it lightly, and I wanted to do a good job.
You’ve become synonymous with your 1973 Fender Precision, “Blondie.” What do you love about it?
The relationship between Blondie and me formed in a haphazard way. Most musicians walk into a shop and pick something out and it’s love at first sight, but the way I got her was pretty bizarre. I was up at like 2AM when I was in college, looking for a ’70s P-Bass. Before that I had been playing a Music Man Stingray 5-string. When I got that bass I was very much into Korn and Limp Bizkit, and I was playing nu metal. I was also into Maroon 5, and Micky Madden played one. Then I discovered the Strokes, which ended my nu metal journey. So then I wanted a P-Bass. I was living at home and working while attending UCLA, so I could afford a new bass, but I couldn’t afford a pre-CBS Fender, because they’re the price of a house. I love a hunt, and Craigslist is like a treasure hunt for me. It’s so fast and so dangerous late at night; nothing good happens after midnight, and that means Craigslist, too. So I found this gorgeous ’73 Precision and it was in my price range, and I thought it wasn’t real. I messaged the poster like a shot in the dark, and I got an email reply within the hour. It was from Blake Sennet from Rilo Kiley, my favorite band at the time! Danielle had been touring with his bandmate, Jenny Lewis, for a while. It was so cosmic and so L.A. I wrote back and said I’d love to buy that magical bass and asked if I could come over and take a look at it. I have an overprotective father, and he told me I was not going to a random man’s house [alone] to buy a bass — so he came with me, and Blake allowed me to take it for a week to see if I really wanted it. I took it and slept with it in my bed for an entire week. I never put it down; I would play it until I was tired and then snuggle it. And then it was mine, and I’ll never let her go! She is a magical piece of art, and I love her. The dream of getting a pre-CBS bass died when I got Blondie.
You always seem to evolve your tone and dial it in for the good of the song. What’s your ideal bass sound?
The tone that I love on records from other people is a little different from the way I like my bass to sound. I grew up listening to funk music like Larry Graham. I like listening to slap bass with lots of high end and treble — that biting intensity. I’m also obsessed with Thundercat, and he knows that, which is annoying, because he knows how much I love him. I’m obsessed with his playing, and his tone is unique and so unlike anything else. It’s a little crunchier than what I like out of mine. He uses lots of pedals and effects, where I’m more of a purist. I listen to a lot of music from the ’60s and ’70s, where it’s clean, buttery, and warm. I also love Jaco and Bootsy, but when I’m making music with Haim, I tend to lean toward clean and warm. I don’t play with a pick, but I love [The Band’s] Rick Danko, who is very underrated. I also love the Kim Deals [the Pixies] and Tina Weymouths of the world.
Speaking of your close friendship with Thundercat, do you two talk bass shop often?
When I sit with Stephen and we jam, it’s usually just me asking how the hell he does what he does. How would one do that? I’ve been such a big fan of his since I was in high school and he was known as a great bass player at a different school. These were the early days of the internet, so it was all just word of mouth about him. Then he eventually put out his first record right around the time we put out our first record, and we started doing tours together. I’m a confident bitch, but around fellow bass players that I’m a fan of, I get super shy. Bass players and athletes really intimidate me. Everyone else, I don’t care; we’re all the same. But Stephen is the sweetest, kindest, funniest guy, and we have so many similarities with our lives — including coming from musical families. Even to this day, I’m in awe of him. He makes me want to quit. His technique is unreal.
Tell us a little about your own playing technique.
I had to learn how to get around the fingerboard without my left pinkie. Something happened when I was a kid, and now my pinkie finger locks, so I don’t use it. As a bass player, that’s pretty detrimental. I’ve tried to figure it out for years and I’ve seen doctors, but nothing fixes it; it’s pretty weird. So, I’ve always played with three fingers when it comes to fretting, but my ring finger is fast and furious and gets the job done. I grew up listening to James Jamerson, so to learn that he played with one finger on his right [plucking] hand made me feel better about being short a finger on my left. When playing something, I always faked it until I was able to get it together. It required me to work intensely on my other fingers and get a lot of stretch from them. I’m a firm believer that practice makes perfect, and more so that perfect practice makes perfect. When I’m onstage, however, I’m not thinking about anything other than the performance. I’m tireless when it comes to practicing. I think I surpassed my 10,000 hours [Malcolm Gladwell’s theory from Outliers] by the time I was nine. Bass playing is truly an art, and I want to add to it.
What have you been working on in your practice lately?
My favorite thing to do right now is put on folk records and just solo over them. I’ll throw on folk from the ’60s and ’70s and come up with solo bass parts. It’s very meditative for me and it keeps me sharp. The music is beautiful, and I get lost in it in the best way.
Speaking of performing, not only are you electrifying onstage, but you also have one of the best bass faces in the business.
Oh man, thank you. I really appreciate being recognized for my bass face. I try to just let go and not be bashful about the way I look, and be accepting of the faces I make and the way that my body moves when I’m onstage. I was a pretty rambunctious kid growing up who didn’t sit still ever, so it feels very natural to do that onstage and just let my body do what it wants. I was also a teenage girl once, and I made those faces onstage back then. I wanted to kiss a boy and boys would comment on my face, and I would try to rein it in and not make those faces, but then my playing would suck. So I was like, fuck it. My dad is a drummer, so I grew up watching him like he was a superhero and wanted to be like him. He makes faces when he plays, but he tries to hide them. I grew up seeing him making faces while playing and then catching himself and stopping. I thought that making those faces was normal, but like him, I began stopping myself until it made me suck.
Has playing while singing always been natural for you?
There’s nothing natural about it. I remember being 11 or 12, in the 6th grade, when we started Rockinhaim. My parents wanted us all to sing, but it didn’t come naturally to me. My dad would let me watch TV as long as it was MTV music videos, and I had to learn the songs and sing them. I would watch “Total Request Live” with my bass and mini bass amp on my couch, and I would learn the songs by ear and play and sing along with them. My parents were always big on us learning music by ear, and they refused to ever take us to sheet-music stores. And honestly, now I go to sheet music stores every chance I get. Anyway, it took a long time for singing and playing to feel comfortable for me because it’s kind of a mindfuck.
Why bass? How does the role of the instrument resonate with you personally?
As the oldest of the three Haim sisters, I like to think that I’m the foundation. The bass is the foundation of any band, so it fits me. I started as a drummer, from the second I could hold sticks in my hand, so rhythm and being the foundation is something I’ve always been attracted to. Bass isn’t always the thing that you pick out of a song, especially if you’re not a musician. Usually it’s the singer or drummer, because you feel the beat and the melody, or the guitar because it’s coming from higher in the mix. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I was able to pick out what the bass was doing, and that was around the time I started playing. One day my dad put on the VHS of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense . I saw Tina Weymouth, and that was it for me. She was so magnetic and I wanted to be that. It looked fun and it looked cool, and she was such a babe. I was so attracted to her energy, and I knew I wanted to do that. Then I discovered Jaco and couldn’t believe that bass could be a solo instrument, too. I’m the oldest and the one constantly seeking attention, and Jaco made me realize that bass players could be the star of the show. That’s great news for me! [Laughs.] –BM
Hear her on
Haim, Women in Music Pt. III [2020, Columbia]
Bass 1973 Fender Precision Bass
Rig Ampeg Heritage SVT-CL 300, Ampeg SVT 610HLF
Strings Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Nickel Wound (.050, .070, .085, .105)
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