The first time writer Lucy Prebble met singer-songwriter Rebecca Lucy Taylor, AKA Self Esteem, they both walked out of the West End play they had just been watching. “It wasn’t a bad play, we just wanted to talk to each other,” Prebble laughs as she recounts the story. “So if people leave my own plays from now on, I’m not going to assume that they hate it, I’m going to assume that life is more interesting.”
That meeting was back in 2017, and since then the pair have discovered they have much in common: they both began their careers in Sheffield; they share a passion for the theatre – provided it holds their attention sufficiently – and they are both successful and uncompromising women in traditionally male-dominated creative industries.
In the intervening years, Prebble – who won acclaim with her 2009 play Enron – has cemented her status as one of Britain’s foremost theatre and TV writers, collaborating with her friend Billie Piper for the second time, following 2007’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl, on the searing 2020 comedy-drama I Hate Suzie (she is currently writing a second series), and with Jesse Armstrong on the award-winning HBO drama Succession. Taylor, meanwhile, left her first band, the indie-folk duo Slow Club, to begin a solo career as Self Esteem, producing ambitious, experimental pop that has drawn comparisons with Fiona Apple.
With the third season of Succession having just begun and Self Esteem’s brilliant second album, Prioritise Pleasure, released this week, the pair are addressing their largest audiences to date with works that reference startlingly similar themes – cowardice, self-sabotage, abuse and control.
When we meet, Prebble and Taylor haven’t seen each other in some time – not since before the start of the pandemic. As they have their photographs taken in an east London studio, the atmosphere is warmly conspiratorial. Loud blasts of laughter reverberate down the hallway as they curl their feet up on a battered leather sofa and launch into a fast-paced, impassioned conversation that covers everything from Taylor’s recent foray into theatre – devising a short play with the National Youth Theatre in 2019 and planning an immersive theatre experience around the production of Prioritise Pleasure – to critical validation, the lure of Twitter, and the power of saying no…
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Ammar Kalia: What did you talk about when you left the theatre that night in 2017?
Lucy Prebble: When we first met, Rebecca, you were interested in working in theatre and I remember thinking that might have been a step down for a musician of your talent. How do you feel about the different art forms?
Self Esteem: When we met I was in my old band and very unhappy, so an opportunity in anything else felt like a way out. As a kid I was obsessed with doing musical theatre but that dream turned into being in an indie band where I ultimately felt creatively stifled. Theatre seemed like an escape, and while I’m still fannying around with it, now that my actual career is finally more galvanised, its power is fading.
Finally not being desperate made everything better… I stopped trying to have a hit and then had one
LP: Theatre feels like something that you’d have to jump through quite a lot of hoops with, since there’s gatekeeping in it, whereas music strikes me as somewhere where you can purely express your craft without being overly controlled or corrected. Is that fair?
SE: The gatekeeping in theatre is crazy, there’s so much in it that is traditional. I used to be very into the idea that someone would see something in me, but now I’m sure of what I’m doing. For the most part music is the best art form for me because I can have the idea in the morning and be playing it at the bar that night. I didn’t fully understand that when we met.
LP: I remember that when you were making Compliments Please [Self Esteem’s 2019 debut album], you would be frustrated by a lack of people paying the attention the album deserved, so what changed and when did that happen?
SE: At the start of the pandemic, I realised that I was at last living as an artist full-time and if I stopped looking at what everyone else was doing, I was actually really happy. Finally not being desperate made everything better. Making the album with an “I’m just gonna please myself” attitude gave it the authenticity and vulnerability that people have connected with. I stopped trying to have a hit and then had one.
LP: It’s weird how often that happens; you let go of it and it comes to you.
SE: Spending time with you was so inspirational because you’ve never faltered in knowing that you’re really good at what you do. I feel like I’m there now, that you cannot fuck with the fact that I can do a good job. As a woman, it took this long for me to say what I mean, to stand by it and not be scared that someone’s going to say I’m difficult.
LP: Another question I wanted to ask was: who do you write or sing for and has it changed?
SE: That first record was about everyone else and I was mostly still writing songs to sound sexy and cool. Whereas now, it’s all me. I joke that I’m selfish, since I’ve written this record because I know I’ll be touring it for 18 months, so what do I want to play every night?
LP: A lot of your songs tend to be quite short and sometimes end abruptly. I’m always worried about overstaying my welcome in lengths of plays, so what’s your approach?
SE: It’s a taste thing, since I’ve got the crappy attention span that we’re all worried about. I think it’s important to also acknowledge the fact that the happy-ever-after doesn’t exist, because it can just stop at any time. The abrupt end can encourage you to live in the moment more, while it’s actually happening, since life doesn’t fade out nicely. I wanted this record to feel very much like it’s not like blue skies and sunshine. I’ve written it with light and shade, as that’s what life will be.
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AK: What is the difference in terms of writing alone and in collaboration? How does the writers’ room in TV or working with a bandmate compare with writing for yourself?
LP: I create with Billie Piper but I Hate Suzie was still very personal and I was convinced that it would be Marmite because of that. I was therefore so surprised by the number of people who loved it. What surprised me is that the more specific you are, and the more vulnerable you are, the more people respond. In Succession, Jesse Armstrong makes the final decisions but they pass through everybody first, so while it is much better for my mental health, since there are set hours and you see other people, it is more creatively diluted.
I Hate Suzie is the first piece where I don’t feel like I’m trying to please somebody else
SE: Suzie must feel like a long time coming for you?
LP: It’s interesting, because it’s the first piece where I don’t feel like I’m trying to please somebody else.
SE: Look what happens when a woman is given that environment – it’s fucking brilliant. For me, in Slow Club it felt like there was a remit to write to and it felt like doing a job, whereas Self Esteem is all consuming.
LP: Part of the talent in writing for Succession is learning what someone else wants, and I’m frighteningly good at that. It’s a talent that can make you disappear eventually if you do it too much. If I didn’t have Suzie, I feel like that could eventually become eroding. They do feed each other, though, and it’s such a relief not to do Suzie sometimes. I don’t want to rip my heart out on the page every day.
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AK: Is there a certain power in saying no to some opportunities too, or in walking away, like you did from Slow Club, Rebecca?
SE: I don’t feel like I said no to Slow Club but it got to a point where I was like, I can’t park so many ideas any more, as I thought I was going crackers.
LP: I’m the absolute queen of no. I rarely say yes, to the point where I worry about professional relationships because I only like to work on one or two things at a time. Americans are very different: there, the more you say no, the more they want you. It’s terrifying to realise that the only power you actually have as an artist is the power to walk away. And you can only start to do that when you feel safe.
Billie taught me something really important too, which was that I was also using “no” sometimes as massive defence, as some of it is masking fear. Billie taught me to say yes to things that scared me, when I knew they were true.
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AK: It’s interesting talking about boundaries and saying no, because you’re both prolific on Twitter and I was wondering what your relationship is to a platform that seems so lacking in boundaries…
SE: I just have a laugh with it. It’s like a friendship that’s one-sided! I’m addicted a bit to saying what I think, and it also helps me feel less alone.
LP: I feel like I was born dangerously and toxically into exactly the right time. When I was a kid, all I did was take my feelings and my observations, go up to my bedroom and write carefully crafted sentences destroying everybody to then put under the bed in a shoebox. Little did I know that as I was going into my 20s, people would begin corresponding only in written words. When I joined Twitter, I loved writing tweets from a creative point of view, like jokes or poetry. But that’s changed over the past 10 years, so much that I now feel sad when I write a tweet, since I always think everyone’s going to assume this is me talking in my voice. It’s an individualistic expression platform and a marketing tool.
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AK: How attuned are you to the responses to your work online?
LP: I’m very controlling and I read everything. Billie is completely the opposite and I really envy her for that, but she’s had to learn from a very young age to just not look. I’ve been quite shocked at the positivity of the responses to Succession though. It’s much easier for me to feel pride in that show because it’s a group effort, whereas with my more personal work, it feels excremental – like being proud of going to the toilet.
SE: I’ve got to just get used to it. The more people know about my work, the more responses I get. But mostly they’re proving why I’m doing it, especially with the Instagram comments, where there was a lot of “not all men” discourse. It can scare me, but as Tracey Emin says, it’s not good art unless people get upset.
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AK: How easy is it for you to write so many upsetting people in Succession, Lucy? And how hard is it to get out of that mind frame when the day is done?
LP: The people working on Succession, particularly the men, are honestly some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And it does make me think, is this show an expression of something that cannot be expressed in real life? People talk about how nasty Succession is, but I’ve recently been thinking more about how it’s actually a study in cowardice. That’s something we hardly ever see on screen. We’re so used to processing heroism that when you see cowardice, you can find it breathtaking. Not with Logan though – the reason he succeeds in constantly being in charge is maybe because he’s the only one who isn’t cowardly.
SE: It must be fun writing about people like that too, though?
LP: It has freed up a muscle in me that I hadn’t really used before. It gave me permission to try to make people gasp or laugh at the horribleness of these people and their situations. It opened a door for me that has now stayed open with I Hate Suzie. She could double down on being awful in certain moments and she could be really cowardly, which I wouldn’t have written before.
SE: It’s so exciting, because I still think we have only been given a certain type of woman for such a long time. In music, for instance, you either have to be a boss bitch or you’re singing a torch song, but that middle bit is the life I live in and no one really says it because popular art has to make such finite sense to people. In Succession and I Hate Suzie, you love someone who does something horrible, and that’s what life is like. I’m so excited by what those characters will do for other women on screen, since they really try to normalise the good and bad and everything in between.
LP: It goes back to us meeting and leaving the theatre; sometimes you do a service by two people disagreeing about whether something or its characters are good. The art is worth the disagreement as much as it’s worth people loving it. We go to watch things in order to feed those kinds of conversations and to learn more about each other.
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AK: Did you ever go back and watch the second half?
LP: I didn’t. I have no idea what happened!
SE: It wasn’t bad – we were just better!
Self Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure is out now on Fiction; series 3 of Succession is on Sky Atlantic and Now TV