Australian teen songwriter and artist E^ST (a.k.a Mel Bester) has always moved to the beat of her own drum. Maybe it’s because music has been the one constant in her life (she relocated to Australia from South Africa when she was a kid, moving house with her family close to 30 times). Or perhaps it’s something more innate that sets her apart from her peers: a natural curiosity teamed with a gift for expressing the conflicted emotions of youth in her own distinctive voice.
Bester’s prodigious talent was first picked up on six years ago when she sent an acoustic demo off to Swedish publishing and production powerhouse The Kennel. The hitmakers were intrigued and invited this unknown teenager from the New South Wales Central Coast to Stockholm, twice, for month-long stints in the studio.
“The Swedes are pop machines, it’s impressive,” Bester says. “My style isn’t straight-up pop, but I learned how to structure a pop song, and to think about what I want to say and how to say it in a way that hasn’t been said before. They put a lot of faith in me. I grew in confidence.”
That pop aesthetic is a nice contrast to Bester’s nonconformist streak. Her new single, Life Goes On, is deceptively dark despite its buoyant title. Over a simple house piano line, her soulful vocal stalks the verses.
Relationships are “Momentary, temporary, transient, impermanent, fugitive, short-lived, fleeting,” Bester reminds herself. Then she turns the pep-talk on its head and admits: “I think of you more than you know.”
Bester wrote the song in Oxford, England, with producer Jim Eliot (Ellie Goulding, Foxes). “It got written so quickly,” she recalls. “As soon as he played that piano line I knew what I wanted to write about. It’s something very personal to me, about ghosts that aren’t physically with you anymore but still leave an impression. It’s admitting to missing someone but accepting that you have to let go of people sometimes.”
Above the pop hooks and moody indie-electronica and her mastery of sad words and happy music, it’s Bester’s voice that arrests the attention. There’s a weightiness and resonance to it; and a space in which pain can percolate. She put that to good use in her cover of The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony for triple j’s Like A Version segment, with its haunting detour into the trip-hop of Massive Attack. And yet: “There were three artists that I listened to as a child: Barbra Streisand, Sting and Céline Dion,” she laughs. “I can hear them in my voice, but I also decided to go all natural. We’re so conditioned to singing in American accents, but I love the Aussie accent and its round vowels.”
Life Goes On is Bester’s fourth release, following three EPs: Old Age in 2014 (which got picked up by triple j and wound up with Bester signing a deal with Warner aged 16); then The Alley and Get Money!, which featured a guest spot from rising Brisbane MC Mallrat.
Not knowing exactly where she’ll go with the forthcoming album is what keeps E^ST focussed. On the one hand, she likes her live shows to be high-energy (“lots of dancing; I definitely love to groove”), on the other, well, an earlier folky phase means she has an appreciation for stripping things back and hearing a song in its purest form. Rest assured, this studio junkie will deliver.
“I don’t talk about my emotions in person, but with my music I want to be as honest as I can so there’s something people can connect to”, she says. “It’s what drives me. Music makes every moment more magical”.