Emily Estefan finds her voice
You could call it the most intimidating performance of Emily Estefan’s life.
That day, she had to sing for her mother. But not just any proud, nurturing mother. Rather, a proud, nurturing mother who also happens to be pop and Latin music superstar Gloria Estefan.
“I was already in music school,” Estefan said. “I was living alone in Boston, and I hadn’t even sung to myself alone because that’s how afraid I was of my own voice. I mean, quite literally the sound and what I had to contribute to the world.”
Today, the Berklee College of Music graduate has conquered her fears. She performs her first concert as a Festival Miami headliner on Thursday at Gusman Concert Hall, and she’ll release her debut album, “Take Whatever You Want,” on Friday.
But the young woman who grew up “sitting on the sides of stages,” where the vibration of the powerful horn sections from her mother’s concerts “makes you have this respect for music,” had to reach her own epiphany.
At the time, about three years ago, Estefan had graduated from Miami Country Day School, where she excelled as a point guard on the basketball team. She knew music, too. By 8, Estefan had asked for a drum set. She taught herself drums, guitar and keyboards by ear.
I went to hear the Dalai Lama speak at the UM and he said, ‘You can’t commit to two things fully or you’ll never get the joy of having one completely.’ And that was it. I can’t play basketball anymore. I have to give myself to music. It was one of the biggest lessons I learned in my life so far.
Emily Estefan on reconnecting with music after playing on the Miami Country Day basketball team in high school
But Estefan had little confidence in her abilities. Always a good student, she applied to Boston’s prestigious Berklee and hoped her affinity for studying and love of learning, still a passion, would ease her transition.
The private Massachusetts school is renowned for its daunting audition process and the achievements of former students, including Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Al DiMeola, Joe Zawinul, Donald Fagen and Melissa Etheridge.
“I didn’t think I was going to go to music school,” Estefan said from her studio inside Crescent Moon Studios, the Estefans’ recording hub on Bird Road in West Miami-Dade. Gold and platinum albums cut here by Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin line its walls. “I didn’t think I was good enough.”
At Berklee, Estefan was determined to honor her craft. “Every day it was questioning, ‘Why am I here?’ Obviously, they’ll want me to be here because of my parents, but I said f--- that. I want to study. I want to pick up the tools. So I studied arrangement, composition, production and philosophy.”
That musical education, Estefan said, “was everything to me. I use it every day now in my band.”
Estefan’s final assignment required that she do an orchestral arrangement for one of her own songs. Score the entire piece. Conduct the musicians from start to finish. “I never in a million years thought when I stepped foot on that campus that’s how I would be stepping off.”
But to find that confidence, Estefan first had to reveal her voice. At home.
What’s it like to be Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s daughter? They are just mom and dad, you know. The most down-to-earth people in the world. They are very proud of me and never try to superimpose their musical opinions on me.
Emily Estefan on growing up on Miami Beach’s Star Island with Grammy-winning parents
“I didn’t know she sang. She never sang for me and Gloria,” her father, Emilio Estefan, said, seated in a conference room at Crescent Moon. “Well, she sang for Gloria one time.”
On that day, Emily Estefan had one request. She told her mother not to cry and to look the other way.
Naturally, Gloria Estefan wept. “It took me a very long time to muster up the courage to shed that cowardice,” Estefan said. “I came back from my first break and sang for my mom, and I think that was the last puzzle piece for me to be able to explore my musicality.”
That turning point is reflected in “Ask Me To,” the album’s opening track. The Spanish version, “Si lo pides tú,” closes the album.
“The placement of the song on that record is important. I didn’t sing that song until I was 18, and now I’m 22,” Estefan said. “That song is from my old cowardly self giving my new self permission to go on this walkabout, and that’s what the rest of the record is about. It’s allowing myself to grow as a person, to grow as an artist. Most people perceive it as a love song about someone who broke my heart, but it’s about me.”
The storyline of Broadway’s “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan” takes place before the birth of Emily Estefan in December 1994. But she wrote the music for “If I Never Got to Tell You,” the musical’s one original number. Gloria Estefan wrote its lyrics.
The 14-song album, “Take Whatever You Want,” is a revelation, too. Remarkably deep and sophisticated, the jazzy, funky music sounds like an artist’s fourth album rather than a first effort. Estefan wrote, sang, produced and played every instrument in her apartment studio in Boston three years ago — except for the horns, which were overdubbed at Crescent Moon.
She’ll be joined by her nine-piece band at Festival Miami.
On the album’s “Take 5,” a song about female empowerment, equality and respect, are sound collages, including Sen. Hillary Clinton’s address to the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and a focal point of her 2016 presidential campaign — “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” The audio clips bolster Estefan’s message.
“One of the things I value most in life is equality — treating people how you want to be treated. I think everybody has their thing they have to deal with in life. It’s difficult to be a female musician and drummer because that’s my instrument. I don’t want us to say we’re the same because everybody has their own thing they contribute to the world and … that’s the beauty.”
Estefan is reminded of the song’s relevance on a daily basis, especially as its lyrics fit the tenor of the times that led to the recent global women’s marches.
“I dealt with it on a daily basis. People throwing shade at me because ‘You’re a woman.’ It’s pretty much saying: Can we get on the same page? Because if not, you’re going to need to adjust because it’s my hope that the world will get to a place — and it’s just a hope because the world has a long way to go — [to where] people feel they are accepted and treated right.”
To describe the music and the sound of her voice almost does the artist a disservice. Does she sound like her mother? Not so much when she sings; the timbre is a bit more evident when she speaks. Emily Estefan is her own entity.
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong experience when it comes to interpreting art. So apply your own experience. That adds yet another layer to the communication of the artwork. That’s the whole purpose to the name of the album,” Estefan said.
I called my mom when I was writing “F#ck to Be.” It wasn’t a good day for me, and I turned to the song, and I was angry, and it manifested in how I wanted for it to come across. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted because I want the focus to be on how I’m feeling. But this one word, in this moment, really just captures how I’m feeling. And she was just, ‘Follow your gut. If you think it’s distracting too much from the message of the song then think about a way around it. But if not, don’t edit yourself.’
Emily Estefan on seeking musical input from mom, Gloria Estefan
“Take Whatever You Want” is the work of an original, with integrity. The album is the summation of everything she has listened to, from the hook-filled songbooks of Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and her latest obsession, the improvisational jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy.
“I feel a very nostalgic connection to the music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” she adds. “I listen to those arrangements where I hear the tight voicings on clarinets, like moving in melodic lines, and I feel nostalgic. I remember the first time I heard Billie Holiday sing. I was, ‘Oh, my God!’ I can’t pinpoint it, which makes me even more in love with it. That’s why I’m so drawn into this. The more I learned about everything that went into the whys she was the way she was, or somebody like a Nina Simone, people that had a lot going on on top of what I was just blanketly hearing, created this allure to the feeling I had when I listened to that music.”
Emilio Estefan ventures his own description of his daughter’s sound: “To me, it’s like an Amy Winehouse with a Latino feel. A fusion of things. I see her as very Miami. Miami in the way it’s a fusion — the syncopations, the things she does, the parts she uses. There’s a little Haitian music. A little Latino. But more than anything, it’s really her sound, so I’m very proud. She’s a better musician than me or Gloria. She’s teaching me new things because she’s in a new era.”
Just a few minutes earlier, Emilio poked his head into his daughter’s studio.
“I was talking s--- about you,” she said.
“Good!” Dad said.
“One of the biggest gifts you can be given is to sing one of your songs in front of people,” Estefan, still smiling, says of her upcoming Festival Miami concert. “And please, people, go, because 99 percent of the people going will be my family, and there’ll be one extremely confused person who is going to be like, ‘Why are they cheering for this girl?’ … I’m so looking forward to it.”
If You Go
What: Emily Estefan’s Festival Miami debut performance as part of the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s Festival Miami
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: UM Gusman Concert Hall, 1314 Miller Rd., Coral Gables
Information: 305-284-4940 or FestivalMiami.com