The Collective Unconscious of King Woman and Miserable Mastermind Kristina EsfandiariMandy Brownholtz |
“Everyone’s will be different, because we think different, lives are different — so the color will be different.”
Aura portraits, anyway.
I only just met Kristina Esfandiari, the life force behind King Woman and Miserable. We're standing in Magic Jewelry in Chinatown, where we’d met to get our auras photographed. Surrounded by all manner of crystals and astronomical charts, we sit and place our hands on metal plates, meant to extract our inner truths (or to detect the aura, I guess), as the woman working there snaps the photos. They develop like Polaroids, and suddenly there they are: our auras, bright clouds of color surrounding the silhouette of our figures inside them.
Mine is largely red, with a cloud of orange eclipsing my face. Later, when I looked up Magic Jewelry on Instagram, amidst a sea of orange and red aura readings, I felt fairly unoriginal. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Esfandiari's aura is complicated and, at the very least, more interesting than mine. A puff of yellow and pink hovers over her face, the bottom alternating green, purple, blue. There are hints of red and orange, the center white and blue.
The lady points to each color, explaining what it all means. Orange and red are good, indicating an open heart and loyalty. Green and yellow combine to indicate a prowess for business and the imminence of new opportunity. Then she points towards the center of the image: “The white and blue color inside … it means you are more settled down, more peaceful with yourself.”
“Right now, or will be?” Esfandiari asks.
“Coming, coming. Coming is a blue color. Blue is a peaceful kind, with yourself. You will listen to yourself; you will ask, ‘How can I take the next step?’ Also, your heart chakra is very open … the purple color, it means open, with all your relationships. You just need to adjust for your sleeping quality — your sleeping quality is not really good. A little bit dark in here. You need to adjust. I think the next time you come here, the picture will be different! But it’s a beautiful future.”
This seems an appropriate analysis of the 28-year-old musician, as far as I’d grown to know her since she moved to Brooklyn from the Bay Area at the end of September: open-hearted, but with a bit of darkness, and on the verge of a beautiful future. Esfandiari’s artistic trajectory is shooting upward, everything indicating that 2017 will be even more fruitful for her than the last two years have been. 2015 saw the release of King Woman’s epically dark Doubt EP — gut-wrenching, but beautiful in its raw emotional power. Relapse quickly scooped them up and signed them for a full-length, Created in the Image of Suffering, which drops on February 24. In 2016, Esfandiari’s focus turned inward to her solo project, Miserable. She released her first solo LP, Uncontrollable, on the Native Sound. Gloomy and drawn out, offering a vibe of total emotional exhaustion, the record reads like a diary entry, or letters you’ve written to someone that you’ll never send. The record earned major praise, nailing a spot on several best-of-2016 lists.
Raised in Sacramento, Esfandiari descended upon the Bay Area scene at age 20. She relocated to Brooklyn at the end of Miserable’s fall 2016 tour. Buried behind the characters she plays on stage, she’s striking and enigmatic in public, but warm and incredibly sincere in private. The Miserable / King Woman dichotomy is an interesting one — the aliases tell a story of personal growth, with Esfandiari herself smack dab in the middle. I went to meet Esfandiari one evening after work and found her poring over a copy of Carl Jung’s Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, and suddenly everything made more sense. Her projects serve not only as artistic outlets, but archetypes of who she was, who she is and who she wants to be, collective in their grief. Jung believed that life operates as a predetermined blueprint, but through individuation — the lifelong psychological process of differentiation of the self — we dig up parts of ourselves that are buried within our unconscious, either because they’re too scary or we haven’t reached a point of being ready to embody them.
King Woman and Miserable deal with overlapping themes — grief, heartache — but in different ways. King Woman reclaims power and subverts expectations of the masculine and the feminine, emitting a wisdom of shared experience. Esfandiari has been through the trenches and come out wounded, but stronger for it, almost saying, “I’ve been there and it sucks, but you’ll be all right, because you have to be.” Whereas Miserable is darker in a way, because in addition to her despair, she possesses an insecurity that King Woman lacks. Miserable is like the shadow, the glimpse of himself that Kurtz gets before he whimpers, “The horror!” and dies at the end of Heart of Darkness.
I ask Esfandiari how she conceived these personas. “I feel like they found me," she replies. "King Woman just happened. It was just something I became, like I don’t even know how it happened. The name came to me and I just went, 'Okay.' Like I just knew, absolutely knew. I started doing shows, and had this weird experience where I blacked out and came to and knew that I was King Woman after that. And it’s weird because it was our first King Woman tour, and I was feeling so anxious before the tour started, and I knew something crazy was about to happen to me.
“So, we played that show in Santa Cruz at the Witch House, in this tiny room … Then we started playing, and I don’t know — I had never screamed in my life, like musically. I never tried to scream or anything. I was told that was demonic, so I never did it. But I listened to Converge and shit and was like, ‘I wish ... I want to do that.’ Like, I related to that, you know? I just remember screaming and blacking out, and then coming to and looking up, still screaming, and just the look on everyone’s face was just like, 'What the fuck is happening right now?' And we played the rest of the set ... and then afterwards, I remember feeling like a completely different person. I felt like I left my body ... it was just like all these weird things I struggle with fell off, fell to the wayside, like I had this new sense of identity.”
Contrast that with Miserable. When Esfandiari posts about this project online, she hashtags #MiserableGirl. Girl, not Woman. Of this, she says she thinks of Miserable as her teenage self, trapped in an oppressive home and unable to express the heaviness of emotion she carried around with her. “Growing up, there was a lot of invasion of privacy, which was really painful for me," she says. "I couldn’t keep a diary, my family would go through my shit all the time ... I never felt like I had my own safe space where I could think, and where I could be creative and shit … And I guess I never really got to have my true teenage experience in a lot of ways — like, what do teenagers do? They cry and have these really intense feelings. I wasn’t allowed to be what I wanted to be and express my anger, or my sadness, or any kind of emotion outwardly ... I guess the more I started to write for Miserable, I really wanted to embody something, like something for teenagers, honestly. Just like my teenage self who never really got a chance to be that.”
Miserable characterizes Esfandiari’s invalidated pain, a part of her that is her, but who she doesn’t necessarily want to be. For that, Uncontrollable feels empathetic, like one mortal to another dealing with the same bullshit, without any answers.
But while King Woman articulates strength garnered from experiencing heartache and being better for it, Miserable embodies a different kind of strength — the courage required to face the grief that we’ve ignored too long. “You can’t have light without the dark,” Esfandiari says. “The shadow person is said to be the seed of creativity. We need our shadow person ... that’s where a lot of creativity resides. It hurts, but for me at this point in my life, like, I don’t always succeed at this, but I try to embrace things that scare me and make me uncomfortable ... I just think I’m in this place where, you know, you have your shadow person, and you have to learn how to embrace that, because it’s never going away. You need to learn to see it not as something bad, but as something that just is. And when you can do that, you like yourself a lot more.”
The white and blue color inside means you are more settled down, more peaceful with yourself. Esfandiari’s projects are different aspects of herself, characters in a personal journey of self-acceptance and love. She steps seamlessly from Miserable to King Woman and back again, embracing the ugly with compassion and translating it into powerful music. Though the themes overlap in terms of songwriting, she instinctively knows what goes with which project.
“It’s like a different vein, or two different wells," she explains. "Like, oh, I’m in the mindset to write something for Miserable, one part of who I am, so I can just write from that existing place; and then when I’m doing King Woman stuff, it’s usually we’re all collaborating, so the energy, you know, is not just me — it’s the boys, too, because we all write together these days. That’s really rewarding. I really like collaborating with them because they’re all so talented. We all bring something to the table, you know?”
This makes sense: Doubt has a loftier universality that Uncontrollable lacks, but makes up for in personality, almost conversational in its intimacy and directness. She aspires for that vibe when writing as Miserable: “I really love to bring that feeling of comfort. And freedom. I feel like King Woman is about freedom, like it’s very liberating, and Miserable is about comforting.”
Embodying these characters comes with a greater responsibility than Esfandiari initially realized, in that they come with some preconceived notions of who she is, personally. Archetypes tend to be universal, after all. “It’s really weird!” she exclaims. “People will say things to me like, ‘But you’re King Woman,’ unflappable and with all the answers. And I just stare at them, like I’m this all-knowing being or something. I’m a fuck-up just like anybody else. I have my flaws just like anybody else.”
These assumptions can become uncomfortable on a much greater scale, though. Esfandiari describes the onslaught of emails from music journalists looking for her thoughts after the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, which affected her on a very personal level. I ask her what it was like to be hounded this way, when all of a sudden Pitchfork wants to know about your feelings before you’ve even had a chance to process them. “It’s very strange," she admits."I guess with these titles, you know, with all musicians or people who are getting any attention, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. And you can ignore it or you can figure out the best way to handle it, and I just don’t know what to think about a lot of it ... But at the end of the day, I still bleed. I’m still a human and I’m still working out my own shit. And I’m happy to be, like, a banner of power and courage to whoever feels like that about what I do, but I think that people just forget that you’re still human sometimes, you know? Put you on a pedestal.”
She admits, though, that it’s not all bad; for as many journalists hassling her for comments, there have been just as many listeners walking up to the merch table after a show to tell her how much her records mean to them. “This is why I do it," she emphasizes. "I just want people to be able to relate to me. I just want whatever I do to be good for my community, and I want to help people. I like to help people.”
Esfandiari has always prioritized the underground music community. Like many of us who have ended up in this ramshackle universe, she grew up in an unstable environment, taking solace in her scene like a chosen family. But upon moving to Oakland from Sacramento, she describes her boredom with the music scene, feeling out of place among a sea of generic garage rock bands. And so she took the lead, bringing together artists and musicians that she admired to find spaces to perform:
“I started collecting these friends, like, ‘Oh, you play this kind of music, so you do this, and you do this, and, well, where are we gonna play these shows? Where can we play? Why are all these places shutting down?’ And then, before I knew it, around the time King Woman really started to do very well, I looked around and was like, 'Wow, we have a community here. People come to our shows and it’s insane, like they really care and they’re feeling it and they’re telling me it feels like mass, or church.' 'Cause that’s what shows were to me. Like, all my friends are gonna play this show, and all my friends are gonna come to this show, and then we’re all gonna play this amazing show and we’re all gonna get close and we’re gonna express ourselves and we’re gonna interact, and then we’re gonna party after and it’s gonna be awesome.”
As Esfandiari's sphere of influence between King Woman and Miserable grew, so did her need to contribute more to the community that had embraced her. In addition to curating shows, she began to manage local bands pro bono, trying to share the knowledge she had gathered navigating the labyrinth music industry herself. While successful, she admits it would have been much easier had someone been there to guide her. “I don’t need shit from you; I just want to watch you thrive, and I feel like I had to learn a lot of shit on my own," she says. "People were so stingy with their help, and I fucking hate that ... You bring the homies with you.” Among the artists she’s worked with in the last few years are Bay Area acts Creative Native and High & Fragile, the alias of songwriter Breannyn Delongis. Esfandiari just produced Delongis’ first EP, i was not well, self-released on Bandcamp in December.
Her commitment to lifting up local, underground artists is still evident in the lineups for Miserable’s February tour, heavy with up-and-comers from L.A. and the Bay Area. And yet, she is still seeking that sense of community in Brooklyn, having not yet found quite what she’s looking for within the expansive universe of its DIY music scene, “Living here has been kind of isolating," she confesses. "The sense of community I had in the Bay Area and the sense of community I have out here is pretty day and night ... I do have my people out here, but it’s so spread out — like, if you’re not two stops away from someone on the train, you don’t see them.”
But the people she has encountered here have been inspiring. With the King Woman album recorded and the band in California, Esfandiari’s focus has rested mainly on Miserable these last few months in Brooklyn. The moment she arrived, she hopped on Tinder, but not for that — to find a band. And she’s delved deep; the change has inevitably influenced her songwriting, as she faces the alienation of a new home, but also the exhilaration of new people walking into her life. And for the better — she says she’s sitting on two full-lengths and four EPs, and recording another EP now.
While everything around Esfandiari seems fluid and changing, from her zip code to the personas she embodies on stage, what remains constant is her hunger to produce, to be better. In spite of the acclaim Uncontrollable achieved, she admits that she wanted to trash it, the recording process having left her so emotionally drained. “Everything just felt like it was terrible and graceless, like I was trudging through some fucking mud," she recalls. "So, my mental state was just ... I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t be what I wanted to be, which was really difficult, and it took me forever to finish that record.”
Despite her incredible productivity, she says that recently, more than ever, she hates everything she’s done. Her desire to do it again — to do it better — drives her back into the studio: “I will write something and be, like, 'This is fucking killer,' and then when I’m done, I’m like, 'I fucking hate it. Just get rid of it. We’re not putting it out. It’s terrible,' and it’s just, I do shit like that. But Bruce Springsteen said that about, I think it was Born to Run? He threw it in a pool or something! And that’s like one of my favorite records.”
This would be a time to interject, “But you’re King Woman!” She says these things without a hint of feigned humility. It makes sense, if you think about it, to hate the product of facing your own emotional turmoil. To slog through heavy, hard emotions, only to meet the darkest shadows of your inner self, and then to have it all packaged up on vinyl to return to whenever you want. And yet, this is all part of letting go, the process by which we become the people we are meant to be. Esfandiari has done this, through both King Woman and Miserable, by examining all the sides of herself and offering them up to us as universal tools to achieve our own self-discovery. She shared the darkest parts of herself with us so that it might be easier for us to face our own, all the while embracing the cache of strength and power she has gleaned along the way, so that maybe we too can find that same strength in ourselves.
Esfandiari will tour as Miserable for most of February, kicking off with a New York show at Berlin, then heading west. From there, she’ll link up with King Woman and play a few California shows to celebrate the release of the new record, heading back to Brooklyn for a show at Saint Vitus. King Woman plays a few dates with Oathbreaker, and then flies to Europe to play Roadburn Festival and tour with Chelsea Wolfe.
She hasn’t been back to Magic Jewelry yet for a psychic update. It’s hard to say when and where exactly she’ll find inner peace. Still, each day, she inches a bit closer toward the brilliant future her aura promises.
It must be the white and blue inside.