An illuminating conversation with King Woman's Kristina Esfandiari
on religion, the power of vulnerability, and the band's debut record.
I’ve been told before to never meet your creative inspirations. Well, after meeting Kristina Esfandiari last month for this interview, I’m beyond grateful that I didn’t take that advice. Esfandiari is known as the masthead of the Brooklyn-by-way-of-San Francisco "rock" band King Woman. It’s tricky to get more descriptive than rock when describing King Woman’s sound. Their debut full length, Created In The Image Of Suffering, is at some moments shoegaze, at others doom, and occasionally even drone. But, to me, at all times, its the primal scream that I was never allowed and share collectively with so many women and men in the face of various forms of abuse, subjection, and silencing. King Woman is music far better experienced than discussed, but nevertheless Esfandiari and I sat at the back of a SoHo dive bar, with whiskey doubles and little plastic dinosaurs as tokens for happy hour seconds, to discuss the days you don’t want to live, the sexism of scripture, walking through fear, and King Woman’s debut on Relapse Records.
The Le Sigh: What do you think of artist interviews? I feel like some artists appreciate how they can contribute to the band’s persona, and some artists rather not be so involved and want the music speak for itself.
Kristina Esfandiari: That’s a great question. I hate interviews a lot of the time because people tend to ask me very intrusive and poorly crafted questions. Sometimes people just want to dig, or they just care about getting “points” for themselves because they interviewed so-and-so. They don’t really care about human connection. I’m a pretty open person, but I do have my limits as far as what I’m willing to answer. You say the wrong thing in an interview and people are just going to tear you to shreds. At the same time, I’ve done interviews and, afterwards, I get like twelve emails from people saying "I can’t thank you enough. I really needed to hear what you had to say.” So there are moments when I think ‘Okay this is kind of cool,” but, lately, I’ve been doing so many interviews back to back every day, and I feel like I’m emptying myself out and there’s no privacy. I think they’re a double-edged sword.
TLS: As you’ve said in the past, King Woman is a creative outlet for you coming to terms with what you’ve described as “a very spiritually oppressive environment” of “a Charismatic Christian church.” Is King Woman’s debut album Created In The Image of Suffering a continuation of that spiritual exploration?
KE: I feel like the music is always evolving. I was raised religious, and I know the Bible front to back. It’s drilled into my head. Some of the scriptures are very beautiful, and they’ll pop into my head sometimes. I use to really hate it, because of what I related to it and because of what I was working through at the time. A lot of those things I don’t support anymore, but I can admire certain things from a distance now. I’m still working through a lot, and I think I will be for my whole life.
King Woman, and me as a person, will always be going through some kind of metamorphosis. I think as we release more singles you’ll see the different themes that weave throughout the record. We talk about unrequited love, aliens, being abused at church, cognitive dissonances that are created from certain abusive experiences, the conflict of being a female and being raised in church, and the anima and animus. It’s weird, listening back to the record, and being able to map out my journey. I was going through a really graceless time in my life when I was working on the record. I was in my Saturn return. It’s a very trying period where a lot of intense, pivotal things can happen in a person’s life. For example, some people experience the death of a loved one or a big breakup. These events kind of help to transport you to this place where you can shed old skin. For me, I felt very lost and confused while making this record. Everything was just so mentally straining. Writing the lyrics was hard for me, and I felt like I couldn’t quite focus. I was talking with a friend the other day, and I was telling her more now than ever before, I want to scrap everything that I’ve ever done and start fresh. She told me that’s what being an artist is.
TLS: I was raised religious, and King Woman has given me so much clarity and hope for working my own shit out.
KE: You can literally do whatever the fuck you want to do, and that’s really the bottom line. So many people tried to tell me who and what I was, and then I finally realized that I create my own future and my own destiny. Once you realize that no one can really fuck with you.
TLS: Sometimes when you come from a religious background there’s a lot of guilt that’s hard to shake no matter how much you reject everything you were raised with.
KE: Oh yeah, guilt, shame. Everything that is pleasurable about the human experience is totally bad. Sex is bad. We have these old white men telling us what to do with our virginity. I mean, what the fuck is that? It’s so fucked up, especially for women.
TLS: Yea, and there are no women in positions of power.
KE: No they’re Jezebel, they needed to be quieted. The scriptures are so sexist.
TLS: Did you have any hesitations about starting King Woman, and being vocal about your past? If so, how did you overcome or handle those feelings? There’s a tremendous amount of vulnerability involved.
KE: I don’t think you’re alive if you’re not vulnerable. If I’m not vulnerable at some point in my day, or week, or month, I question what I’m doing. If you’re not living vulnerably, you’re probably not living very true to yourself. That’s what I believe. I try to be very open-hearted and honest, and, yes, it gives me anxiety sometimes. It can be difficult when I do interviews, and I’m relating to people so openly about things that I struggle with. King Woman is something so beyond me, and I’m not saying that in an arrogant way. It’s this thing that happened. I was being carried along for this ride, and it was so much bigger than what I was. It’s humbling, and it’s scary. I’m really grateful for it, and I know it’s just going to continue to grow and grow. As it does, it’s more eyes on me, and I’m trying to make sure I handle everything with wisdom and grace, but I don’t always succeed.
I doubt myself a lot. I have a fucking “doubt” tattoo. For whatever reason, doubt and discouragement have plagued my life since I can remember. I’ll be working on Miserable [Kristina’s other project] stuff in my practice space for three hours, get frustrated, and tell myself “you suck at guitar.” I have these moments where these negative voices enter my mind. I have freakouts just like anybody else. I have struggles, but I’m always willing to face them with courage and work through them. I’ve kind of trained myself to say, “Okay get the fuck back up.” Each time it gets a little easier. I know this is my calling. I know this helps people. I’m not always feeling it, but it’s not always about your feelings. I have felt like an absolute loser my whole life. I got picked on ever since I was in kindergarten. I was gravely shy to the point where it hurt me, and I was homeschooled because I had a lot of anxiety. I have always felt like the biggest loser. I still have days though where I’m like "Why am I here?" I think, to myself, “What I do is so meaningless.” However, there are days when I feel so full of purpose. It’s just being human. We have days where we’re on absolute highs, and then we have days where we feel like absolute trash and we’re questioning our existence. We all have our gifts whether it’s creating art or managing a store. If you have something that helps you get out of bed in the morning, hold onto it. Cultivate it. Playing music saved my life. I would be fucking dead if I didn’t have music. I’m always writing, working on a record, trying to help other artists and people. If I didn’t have that kind of purpose then why the fuck would I even want to be here? Find that thing that gives you life and serve it.
TLS: So when describing your debut EP Doubt, Rolling Stone labeled it as "angry." Would you label King Woman in this way and do you feel comfortable having these labels attributed?
KE: Labels are labels, and people are always going to label you. People get so uncomfortable when they can’t. Most of us don’t like to be pigeonholed or told we’re this or that. People say King Woman’s a "metal band" or a "doom band." You can call us what you want, but we’ll never be any of those things. We don’t subscribe to any of that. We play music that’s always going to change because it’s its own entity. Yeah, some of it was angry, and some of it will continue to be angry, but it’s not all angry because not every song is about one thing. I’m multi-faceted just like anybody else. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. We make honest, heartfelt music.
TLS: The first single you released, “Utopia,” is it a description, antithesis, or mocking of the idea of utopia? Or maybe you’re attempting to define what utopia is to you?
KE: The idea of utopia really has nothing to do with the song. We didn’t have a name for the song, so we originally called it "riff-topia." Then I said, "Why don’t we just call it utopia!" So that’s why it’s called that. There’s no meaning behind the title. The song is related to my experience partaking in an ayahuasca ceremony with a romantic partner I had at the time. It’s kind of a love song, and it’s also kind of about my experience with ayahuasca.
TLS: When I look at the imagery for King Woman, I don’t see a lot of allusions to Christian symbolism and themes. Is this a conscious decision, and how do you feel about reclaiming and re-purposing religious imagery?
KE: For me, everything is intuitive. If I think something is the right thing to do, I do it. It doesn’t matter what it’s related to. The name King Woman just came to me, and I knew it was something. People say that you have these guides - voices that speak to you - or whatever, and I feel like my guides just led me to that name. As far as how I feel about reclaiming, I think the cross is beautiful because it’s the correlation between male and female. It dates so far back. When you look at the cross some people see one thing and some people see another. I wear a cross that my grandmother gave me. To me it’s protection. It represents suffering, sacrifice, and male and female energy.
TLS: I saw you perform at Saint Vitus last year. What kind of space are you trying to create or simulate when you’re performing, and how critical is the audience's participation in achieving that atmosphere?
KE: Everything. Live performance is King Woman. If that wasn’t a part of it, I wouldn’t really want to do it. Some people say it’s like mass and some have said it feels like some sort of therapy. When I hear that I’m like, “That’s the kind of church I want to go to.” This one time I performed, a woman in the crowd just started getting all into it, letting go, grabbing my hand, and screaming. I felt her energy. I could tell she needed to do this, so I went with it, and we were screaming “Burn” together. She came up to me after the show, and told me that her boyfriend of three years had physically abused her, she had gotten pregnant, had to have an abortion, and later discovered that he had been cheating on her with her best friend. She wanted to come to the show to get her anguish out, and I was so glad that she came. That’s real life. That’s why I do this shit. If people are having a hard day, especially women being treated like shit and getting catcalled on the street, I want them to come to my show and have mass. Let’s have real church. Freedom, expression, raw energy. Sexuality and anger welcomed. The things that are not welcomed in church, are welcomed at my shows.
As a performer, I have insecurities. I hold back a little bit still, and I’m really trying to work through that this year. Sometimes I struggle with dissociation. I’m trying to be more brave and push the envelope, but I get kind of scared sometimes just like anybody else. I mean, I went from being the shyest person you could ever fucking imagine to being able to do what I do now. The first show I played, I sounded like a goat because I was so nervous. I was sitting down on a chair and my leg was shaking so bad from nerves that I couldn’t play my guitar. I use to think that fear would somehow go away, but fear doesn’t leave. Fear is something you walk through. It’s something you overcome. I came to terms with the fact that performing was going to be embarrassing for a while. You’re going to sound like shit. You’re going to puke before you play, but eventually you won’t. Before you know it, I blinked, and I was on stage in front of thousands of people not even flinching. I’m grateful every day that I was brave enough to be that person, because it took a lot of fucking courage. Not everyone is willing to be brave. Not everyone is willing to embarrass themselves and humble themselves. A lot of your fears are illusions in your mind. It’s perspective.
TLS: I noticed on Twitter that you’re a big fan of pop music.
KE: I love pop music. I think it’s fucking genius.
TLS: Does your love for pop music have an influence on King Woman in any way?
KE: Yeah. Anything I’m listening to. I love R and B, rap, pop. I love so many different genres though. I listen to music morning to night. In the morning I’ll be listening to Motörhead, and then at night I’ll be listening to the new Childish Gambino record. Everything that impacts my senses informs what I do with my music. There’s so much good music out there, there’s not even enough time to explore all of it.
TLS: In that way, the Internet is a beautiful thing.
KE: Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing.
TLS: What is a creative movement or artist outside of music that inspires you, and not necessarily King Woman directly?
KE: I love reading Carl Jung. I really like Henry Miller. Currently, I’m reading this book that is all of the books that informed his writings. It’s interesting because in the beginning of the book he advises to read as little as possible.
TLS: That’s interesting. That’s the opposite of what you usually hear.
KE: I know, but I do that. I’m very obsessive, and I will read the same book a thousand times. I can never soak up enough of it. It’s quality over quantity for me. I’ve been reading a lot psychology books on trauma lately. I’ve always been really interested in psychology. I’m reading this book on healthy boundaries. Apparently, I have pretty unhealthy boundaries.
TLS: What advice do you have for someone who is deeply struggling to find their place in the world or knows it, but is lacking the courage or support to truly embrace it?
KE: Courage isn’t something that you lack. Courage is a choice. We all have the choice to be brave or to be afraid. It’s not like I had any more dose of courage than anyone else. I chose to be brave. That’s what I would say to someone. You’re afraid if you want to be afraid. You can hold the hand of fear, or you can take the hand of courage and go down that road. It’s never going to be a fucking easy road though. It’s going to be scary - no, it’s going to be terrifying, but you have to embrace the things that make you uncomfortable. That’s when you find what you’ve been looking for. But hey, it’s not for everyone. Some people want to be comfortable. So you have to follow your intuition to know what’s right for you. Follow that voice in your gut that’s telling you to ditch that shitty partner that’s treating you like shit. You have to take step one before you can get to step five. I had to leave a partner that I was with for a very long time so I could become what I’ve become today, and that was the hardest fucking decision I made in my whole life. It’s still painful to think about. This voice inside me told me that there was something more for me out there.
It took a long time for shit to fall into place for me, but I made the right choice. I doubted myself along the way. I had to sacrifice every comfortable thing I’d ever known. I had a comfortable life, but I was dead inside, because I didn’t have any purpose. I was with a really great person, but it wasn’t the right life for me. If you want to be great you have to sacrifice, and the sacrificing never ends. It’s not going to be all roses.
Listen to King Woman on bandcamp.
Photo by Shelly Simon
Written by Brooke Segarra