CVLT Nation Interviews Kristina Esfandiari
Bobby Cochran interviews Kristina Esfandiari (King Woman, Miserable) for CVLT Nation
Some things are just meant to be. There are some of us fortunate enough to be guided onto an unmistakable path by invisible hands, or encouraged by important people who appear at just the right time to help or offer gifts.
Kristina Esfandiari has found herself fronting a brilliant band, King Woman, receiving accolades for her shoegaze-y solo project Miserable, and respected as an outspoken feminist and supporter of women in the arts. All of this without a plan or any pretense, and despite an oppressive upbringing and many personal hurdles.
I meet Kristina mid-morning at a tiny coffee shop in the Piedmont District of Oakland. Encouraged by the un-rock-n-roll 10 AM meeting time, I had the impression she takes her work seriously and doesn’t fuck around. This was confirmed, once we dug into discussing what her bands mean to her, how hard she’s worked to get where she is, and how much effort she puts into making bold statements, raising people around her up, and putting her boot to the neck of ignorance and sexism in music.
“I need to do music. This is my calling. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. There is no other path for me. I want to help people and make music. I’ve been doing it for a while and it was hazy until I started doing Miserable and King Woman and then I found myself, as far as music goes.”
Photo by Bobby Cochran
King Woman embark on a US tour with Wax Idols and Pentagram on 5/17
Tell me about the beginning of King Woman… when did that project start?
I started at the end of 2009, early 2010. It was really just me changing the name of an older project and tweaking it slightly. I was kind of doing it while I was in Whirr, writing songs and recording for it, and we went our separate ways and I just went full time with King Woman and Miserable.
So those two things happened at the same time?
What do you feel like Miserable provides for you creatively and musically that King Woman may not?
Miserable is really nostalgic for me. King Woman is cathartic and big and the lyrics are very intuitive, beyond me, and I’m collaborating with other people on it. It used to be just me, but I get to collaborate with all the people I love on that.
Miserable is pretty much just me, unless I invite someone to collaborate with me on it, and it is continuously changing. A lot of what I wrote was about me feeling betrayed, or some things about a love interest. Now it is becoming more of a “poppy” thing. I’m working on two albums for Miserable; I’m writing for them, always writing. It’s going in a more “poppy” direction, which is something I like to explore and think I’m really good at. I wrote this Dog Days EP for Miserable when I went on a bender in New York with a bunch of my friends, doing a lot of drugs, and I was like, “I want to write a poppy beat for Miserable!” I wrote the songs in my head one morning, went to my friend Sam’s house – he’s in this band Smiles, and they’re amazing – and I was like, “Sam! Get your drum machine out. Let’s write this fucking EP together.” We just wrote this sick EP. It’s honestly one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I didn’t put it out on a label. My friend Emma, from the UK, released it on a limited number of cassettes. It’s just my baby, and everyone is like, “Oh, I want to release this for you!” and I’m like, “No, I don’t want anybody touching it.” I did it for me and I love it.
So I kind of want to go more in that direction after the full length is being released at the end of this month. It’s nice to have a balance. I don’t want to write just such downer music for two projects. I weighs on me.
And the folks that are in King Woman now, are they the same folks that have been in it for a while?
King Woman was a solo thing. Joey and Colin are two of my best friends, I’ve known them since I was very young. We grew up together in Vacaville; they just kind of came around and it really came together – I’m not exactly sure how! We didn’t really kick it in the Bay Area and then all of a sudden we were in a band together, and I was like, “How is this happening? This is weird!” We get along really well. We have great communication in the band and a lot of love. I think that’s part of the reason why we are doing well. We do music because we love it, and we aren’t pretentious. We love people, love each other and we’re hella close and can communicate with each other really clearly, especially when touring, because it gets crazy.
So you grew up together, but ended up in the Bay Area separately and started playing music together?
Yeah, I asked Colin to help me with some music and he ended up playing a show with me and it just kind of happened. It’s a blur. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but it is working out! We have so much fun. I get to tour with my best friends. It feels like a huge connection – it’s a huge commitment.
Do you have a specific ambition or vision for King Woman, or are you just waiting to see where it goes?
Not really waiting to see where it will go … I know where it’s going. I started it because I wanted to play dark folk music, then it turned in to something bigger than that. When I started getting into psychedelics and realizing a bunch of things about my upbringing, like religious shit and abuse, I just started writing these songs…it was kind of a haze for me. I would be holding the mic or writing things down, and they would start playing something, looping something and these words would just come out, and I would listen back and think, “Oh my God, that’s how I feel!” I didn’t know that’s how I felt. I was like, “Whoa! How did I even…?” It freaked me out that I was writing blindly – I knew how I was feeling, but I didn’t know at the same time. I didn’t even know how these lyrics came out of me. They are very simple, but they mean so much to me.
When we got the rough mixes back for the Doubt EP, I just sat in my back yard and cried for two hours listening to it on repeat. It helped me personally, and I wondered if it was going to help anybody else. It was really powerful for me, and I wanted to help people that had been raised how I was raised and had nobody to talk to, and were unaware of how abusive their upbringing was. A lot of it for me started there, but it keeps growing and developing. I now have a very strong passion for helping women, for opening their eyes and empowering them. So it just keeps growing and feels beyond me, so much bigger than me. I go with my intuition and what it’s telling me to write. It is a very mystical being…King Woman is fucking powerful. I don’t understand it, I’m just going with it.
I don’t remember where I first heard of KW, but it struck me immediately that there was something real and unique about it. Have you been playing music your whole life, or is it something you discovered when you were older?
I was forced to do music at church since I was very young. I did not want to do it. I was very, very shy growing up, REALLY shy, and I’m not shy at all anymore, which is really fun. I wouldn’t talk in school most of my life, I wouldn’t say one word to anybody. My mom told me that God told her I was going to be a great musician someday. How could she say that to me? So I had to sing in church. I was a worship leader.
Then one of my friends bought me a guitar when I was really young, and then gifted me a banjo, saying, “You need to be on the stage.” I was super emotional, I cried. “How can you fucking get me this expensive guitar and you’ve never even seen me do music! Why? What?”
So I had instruments and I would pick them up and put them down. I was in a really oppressive environment all the time. I didn’t understand creativity. My head was out of fucking whack. I didn’t know who the fuck I was. When I got older, someone asked me to help them out with a school project and write a song. I wrote this short song out of nowhere. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have lessons or anything. I listened back and I was like, “Whoa, this is really fucking good!” Then I wrote a couple more and I was like, “I’m kind of good at this! Why?” I didn’t understand what I was doing. It was freaking me out.
Are you still connected to your family? Do they appreciate what you are doing?
I’m as connected to them as you can be. I have some serious boundaries with them. I love them, but we are not on the same wavelength. I still have my spiritual beliefs, but I would never raise a kid the way I was raised. My parents are both very religious. I’d like to think that every parent does the best they can while raising their kid, and that’s kind of where my head’s at. They did what they could, because who knows what the fuck kind of shit they dealt with when they were little. My parents don’t really talk about that stuff. I try to be compassionate and understanding. But you know, I have to go see a therapist and I’m still very fucked up. I still have my demons on an everyday basis that I have to carry around with me, and that sucks. I wish I could be more free eventually, and enjoy life a little bit more. I’m constantly and violently pursuing that – to heal and to become more whole every day. It’s a challenge, and I want to be a better person every day, but you can’t force some things, you know?
It’s true. Some of those things end up being lifetime processes.
Some things never go away. You wish they would, but …!
I was raised in an authoritarian household, and it was, “I’m the parent, you’re the kid. You have no opinion. You listen to what I say. Your opinion doesn’t matter. Your thoughts don’t matter. And it’s yes or no. I rule this house with a fucking iron fist.” That is really damaging to a child, because they are not taught how to make choices. Their skills are impaired in every sense. I think what I would like to avoid doing if I ever decide to have children, which I probably won’t, is admit when I’m wrong and let them know their opinion does matter to me. To a degree, “you are a child and there are just certain things you are not going to do because I have to protect you” makes sense. But I feel that from what I have observed in life in general, and I would assume being a parent you need a lot of fucking wisdom to raise children.
Photo by Bobby Cochran
So, as a female musician, especially one in heavy music, how difficult has it been for you to maintain your space, integrity, and respect in musical environments. Has it been easy or challenging?
I was in a band with some of the most sexist people that existed on the planet. I learned a lot about sexism and misogyny from traveling with those people. One of the members straight up turned around and (said), “Girls aren’t funny. I’ve never met a funny girl in my life.” If I made a joke, (they were) in shock, “that was actually kind of funny!” I was still learning about feminism. I was probably a bit PC at first about things, I was, “Oh, you just did this-” I was still learning about it. No one is born knowing all this shit. We need to be educated. Some people are ignorant and want to stay ignorant. Some people are like, “Oh, you’re right.” You educate them, you tell them what’s up. “You’re ignorant – let me tell you what life’s really about and how it is for women.” They are like, “I’m genuinely sorry, I’ll remember that.” You have to gauge who you are talking to and you have to have discernment, because some people genuinely have so much internalized hate towards women and they are going to stay that way, you know?
I was in a band with a bunch of people with “mommy issues,” and I wasn’t perfect, but a lot of things that happened were unwarranted and shitty, and I learned a lot about what sexism was in that band. It took me years after getting out of that band to realize how it affected me. Even after that, I was so in shock I was trying to say sorry and make things cool between us, but the older I got and the more I learned I was like, “No! Fuck that!” Those fuckers were emotionally gaslighting me all the time, making me feel crazy. No! They sucked and they were immature and they were sexist, and there is nothing wrong with me saying that. There was a point where I thought they were my best fucking friends, but most of the members of that band were extreme sexists and several other things. It sucks to realize, because I did have some really good times with them and I learned a lot from being in that band; but ultimately, I came out of that and reflected and grew as a musician and healed as a person.
King Woman has turned in to this thing – it is MY world, a world I have created, me and my band have created – and it’s a haven for people that do not feel safe. Fuck you if you think you are going to come in to our little kingdom and try to act like an asshole. We are creating a community. We are doing things our way because I felt like I had no control over the way I was being treated. I will not put myself in those situations anymore. Sometimes they arise. I feel like I command respect in my presence. I don’t let people fuck with me, but there are occasions where things happen to me still. That scares me, because I feel that I’ve become a very strong, aggressive woman, and I still get sexually harassed. I still live in this world; I’m not bullet-proof. I’m not immune to this shit. It still happens to me, still something I have to talk about. For the most part, I control my environment. I’m an adult. I don’t put myself in shitty situations, but bad things still happen.
A couple of weeks ago, a Lyft driver tried to sexually harass me, and it was terrifying. I got him fired. That scared me, because if that could happen to someone so aggressive like me – a lot of men are intimidated by me – what would happen to the timid girl who would have had the same thing happen to her in his car? How would she have reacted? So, things still happen to me. I have so many stories – where do I fucking start? I feel like it is important to continue to educate yourself in the community with other women, educate the men you love around you, and do the best you can. Create an environment that you want to be in. If you don’t like something that’s happening, create something new. Create a positive space that’s yours. Create a new world for yourself. You don’t have to be a part of that sexist bullshit. You don’t have to be a part of that band if they’re treating you poorly. Start your own fucking band.
The older I get, the more I realize I have control over my world, over my life and over the atmosphere that I create. When you are a child, when you are growing up, when you are ignorant to what is going on, you don’t have that kind of control. But I do, for the most part. Some things are out of my control, and we do our best.
When it comes to fans of yours or people who are part of the heavy music scene, guys who may not have any awareness… what are the things they can do to create some awareness?
Action. Be respectful. If you are in a group of dudes and one of them is telling a rape joke, how about you be that guy and say, “Hey guys, this isn’t cool or funny. Wake up.” Do the hard things. I don’t want you to tell me you’re a feminist. I want you to do the hard things that show me that you actually give a fuck. Do you know how many times I’ve been so hurt by group of people, men that I love and know, that I feel I should be safe around, who start making shitty jokes and saying “You do this like a girl!” or making a shitty joke about rape or whatever, and it’s like, “Really guys? I’m so disappointed.” And it still happens, and it still something we need to talk about. People just roll their eyes and are like, “Oh, she’s a feminist!” or “Oh, we’re still talking about this?” Yeah, we’re still talking about this. Do you know how many rapes happen every second of every day? Do you know how much abuse and violence is going on towards women every second? Around the world? It’s awful, and it’s my duty and responsibility to do what I can. Do I think I’m Superwoman and I am going to help everyone? Absolutely not. I choose my battles and use my wisdom and assert them in each situation, because it’s all situational. But I do have young guys coming up and saying, “Thank you so much, I respect you so much.” Cool, Dude. It’s cute seeing really young guys coming up like, “King Woman, thank you so much for playing.” That sense of respect – I want to instill respect and reverence towards women in everybody.
I had one guy come up to me, and he was like, “I know this is going to sound dumb, but listening to your interviews and music I feel…” He was just humbly trying to communicate how he felt and he was really nervous, and he was like, “Your music is changing me as a man. I get it, now. I understand.” “You understand?” He was like, “I’m trying. Thank you.” Alright, Dude. Respect. And I shook his hand…
My focus is more on women than men. I don’t want to fucking teach them shit. I want to fucking teach women and empower them to live differently. I want them to open their eyes and see how they can take control of situations and not be a victim. I had awful things happen to me, but I’ve turned those things into something beautiful and powerful. I’m not going to wallow in self-pity. It’s not productive. I’ve been there. I’ve been suicidal, depressed. You have to turn, make a choice to do something powerful with what you’ve been through and do something productive to help other people, protect other people, and share with other people.
My focus is women. I’m at the shows, and they come up to me and I just want to hug them and cry. The stories I hear are insane. From women, from people in general, whether it is religion or sexual abuse or just some awful horrendous fucking disgusting story that a woman is telling me. It happens to me all the time. They come up to me in tears, hugging me. They just want to hug me for like an hour. And I’m THERE. I just want to listen to them. I have always loved people and wanted to help people since I was little. Helping people and encouraging people the best I can – if I can make that something big through my music, then I’m gonna do it.
What advice do you have for young women who are getting in to music, especially heavy music? Any sort of core advice or guidance?
Know yourself. Don’t be desperate. Don’t tolerate bullshit. If you are uncomfortable in a situation, make a new one. If you are in a band and someone is treating you poorly, communicate with them, and if it is not working, find some new people. You have control over your life. Make this life and your path whatever you want it to be. Don’t take anybody’s shit. Do your best to bring women together, do your best not to pit yourselves against each other, because that is just how we were conditioned to be and that is not exactly what the truth is. That’s not what the reality should be. Love each other, and you’re not going to be perfect, but find a support system within each other, even if it’s just one person. You can have a choice to talk shit about another woman or not. You can change things, and you can make things that much better. Not that I’m perfect. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve seen women waking up, especially in the music scene, like, “I love you! I support you! We don’t need to compete with each other!” You don’t need to compete with other women. This world is huge and there is room for everybody.
It’s been really great to see you and Heather Fortune (Wax Idols) posting stuff together.
She’s my big sister. I told her, “I’m so excited to go on tour with you and learn all the things I don’t know.” I texted her when I was super messed up the other night, and was like, “You’re a legend in my eyes.” She was like, “I love you!”
How did that tour come about?
We’re good friends. I was going to LA for a show, we’d been chatting on the internet, and I just had this really strong intuitive feeling that she and I were going to connect. She came to my show and we sat down and talked for so long. I was like, “I love you,” and she was like, “I love you so much, how were we not connected?” I love that she is so fierce and unapologetic about who she is. She is an inspiration to me.
We did a photo shoot the other night and we drank a bunch of wine and got super high and it was so fun. We had such a good time. She’s not afraid, in photo shoots she’s just like doing poses, and I’m kind of awkward and laughing, and she’s like ,“Come on, girl! This is what you do!” She’s very confident. I love that, she’s teaching me a lot.
I have found that quite often strong women, especially in music, can illicit a response from people who aren’t used to strong women that can often turn into shit-talking.
Jealousy, fear, feeling inferior. So many things. She’s the best. Her live performance is mind blowing. Have you her live?
Yeah, I saw her open for Refused last year. It was great. I’m excited to see you guys all play together.
Heather and her band are awesome people, and I think we are going to have a great time. And I think it’s awesome for younger women to see two women tour together, because a lot of the time it is this very competitive thing, “Oh, can’t be on the same bill as this person because it’s another girl.” But it’s like, “No! We can do whatever the fuck we want!” We can make it work and it can be awesome. We’re not in competition, we’re both awesome. We’re co-headlining a tour, it’s going to be tight. We can just relax and have a good time, we don’t have to fucking argue and compete and be insecure. We love each other and are supportive of each other. “You’re a badass!” “And you’re a badass, too!” It’s gonna be awesome to get to see Wax Idols play every night.
We need a shift in perspective, that’s all it is. I was bullied really badly by women growing up, so I was really sensitive, quiet, didn’t really have much of a backbone because it was just the way I was raised. I was raised in a setting where I was told how to be and what to do and what to think. I was really sweet and I’d hang out with these fucking mean girls that would put me down. Believe me, it sucked. It made me feel really shitty about myself.
It all comes down to being an adult now and having control over my life. I can make it something beautiful; I don’t have to blame anybody and I don’t have to live in self-pity. Let’s make something that we want to make. Make something beautiful, stop making excuses.
Right, and those experiences have made us who we are in many ways, and I know that there is a lot of creativity and a lot of good things that have come out of my shitty experiences. That’s what we all try and hope to do – to take our shitty experiences and make them into something that’s positive and beautiful.
Even when you talk about the self as being dark and ugly, if you can express that and share it with people, they will find something comfort in it.
I’m always discovering new things, and that’s the cool thing about life. Even our pain, everything we go through, it’s all a beautiful journey that we should be thankful for. The healing process is beautiful. Going on that journey has been awesome for me, and I wouldn’t take any of my bad experiences back. Sometimes I struggle and I wish I didn’t, but ultimately our paths are all beautiful and amazing and we should be grateful for them and enjoy that healing process, because once you get there and arrive at the place you were looking for, it’s so rewarding. I read and listen to a lot of Osho, and he talks about how none of your emotions are bad – embrace them, whatever you are feeling. If you are feeling sad, sadness gives you depth. Embrace what you are feeling and don’t be afraid of it – the more you push it away, the worse it is going to get for you. If you embrace whatever you are feeling at the time, and sit with it and let it be what it is, it is going to be easier for you and it’s going to help you understand something about yourself and the world as a whole. We’re all connected, you know? We all affect each other. People who don’t think they affect others are ignorant. Every choice we make, the way we treat each other, affects everyone around us, we’re all connected, and that’s true.