Lyrically speaking, there is no set thematic agenda when the acclaimed singer-songwriter conceptualized and penned Back to the Middle. In an authentic troubadour fashion, Estepa lets the song take him to where it wants to go most of the time. “But by the end I did notice a leaning towards the idea of letting go and acceptance,” Estepa shares on his official album bio. “Life throws us curveballs that we may not want or see coming, but then we ask ourselves how do we deal with them? There’s always a slither of light ahead.”
While his previous record, Sometimes I Just Don’t Know exhibited a more melancholic, brooding treatment, Estepa’s six-song EP essentially gravitates on a balance between light and shade, with songs whose bright sparks pop up. Expanding his sonic palette with power pop choruses and irresistible exuberance,Back to the Middlesounds brighter and jumpier than he’s never sounded before, and is buoyed with a renewed sense of energy.
The title track "Back to the Middle" is particularly interesting in a way that it evokes a different kind of joy and feel-good melody on a resonant level. “To me, it’s a good little upbeat pop tune that has all the hallmarks that I like in a song – a good hook, catchy harmonies and jangly guitars,” Estepa explains in his bio.
Back to the Middle was recorded during the pandemic period, and was a product of Bryan Estepa’s eagerness to connect with people again, at least on a musical level. Needing to scratch a niggling creative itch, he got together with multi-ARIA and APRA award-winning Australian songwriter Josh Pyke, who helped shape the record with richness and timelessness embedded in its layers.
According to Estepa, what makes the record a clear cut above the rest is how he gave way to Josh Pyke’s production ideas and allowed the award-winning producer’s creative spin to add magic to these songs. “It felt really good to let Josh Pyke take control of production duties from the moment I handed over a bunch of my demos to him,” the pop-rock artist admits on his bio. “I have normally come to the studio very much prepared with production and overall sound ideas. But we approached this differently in that we built each song over the day and sometimes even finished writing them together just before we hit record, like on ‘Everything you wanted’. It was exciting watching the songs unveil themselves as we were trying new arrangements, going with weird instrument choices and not being afraid to try anything that will make the song distinct in its own way.”
Born in Cubao, Quezon City in the Philippines, Estepa and his family moved to Sydney, Australia in 1987. It was there, at the age of 15, that he began to pursue the craft of songwriting before starting his adult musical journey fronting indie pop band Swivel in the late-90s pub scene. He recorded his inaugural CD with the band, which paved the way for his solo career. A year of travelling across the USA and performing at open mic nights inspired songs for his debut EP, Start Again in 2003 and since then Estepa has gone on to release six critically acclaimed solo albums (All the Bells And Whistles, Sunday Best, Vessels, Heart Vs Mind, Every Little Thing and Sometimes I Just Don’t Know).
Estepa recently wrote a piece for SBS detailing his formative musical years as a Filipino growing up in Western Sydney and early in 2021 he appeared as a guest-host on ABC Radio's Weekend Evenings, broadcast live across Australia, discussing his career in music.
One Music PH recently had a one-on-one interview with Bryan Estepa...
One Music PH: Albums like yours seem to be a lost art form these days, especially guitar-driven pop rock music influenced by the likes of Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, and Jackson Browne, to name a few…
Bryan: Well, just the artists you mentioned – Elvis, Dylan, Jackson Browne, you know – that’s the music I grew up listening to, and I still love it. That West Coast 70’s light rock, early 80’s guitar pop driven music, that’s my bread and butter, that’s what I grew up on listening to. That’s the music I remember growing up to in the Philippines, that’s what I heard my uncles playing on their shitty acoustic guitars (smirks), that’s what we sang along to, the songs on the Jingle books – Seals & Crofts“Summer Breeze”, you know, Abba songs and James Taylor songs. So I think it’s always informed my music from the very beginning. You always come back to your roots. I think as we grow older we become eclectic with our music tastes. We go through metal phases, we go through drum & bass phases, whatever. But at the end of the day, I think you always come back to the music that got you excited with music to start with, like The Beatles.
One Music PH: Can you please give us the lowdown on both Back to the Middle the album and “Back to the Middle” the song?
Bryan: Just this mini-album, it probably wouldn’t have happened if Sydney wasn’t on lockdown because of the pandemic. Because during the last 18 months we had moments where we were free again, and I had the chance to work with Josh Pyke my producer, who’s a pretty well-known artist here in Australia. And we worked together rin one day, and in that one day we realized that this actually works, we’re good, we work well together. And it snowballed from there, we recorded the next five songs. So I think “Back to the Middle” is the antithesis of my last album. I wanted a song that was happy. I wanted it to be jangly. I wanted it to be full of harmonies, like The Everly Brothers. I wanted the big organ. Like The Attractions. I just wanted it to be the classic guitar pop song that you want to put on your summer playlist, you want to hear it when you’re driving. I want positivity. And the title “Back to the Middle” – there’s an album by Paul McCartney, it’s called Back to the Egg. I’ve always liked that title, so mine was Back to the Middle, because I’ve always felt that with this pandemic, we’ve always been stuck in the middle, man. It could either go left, it could go right. So I was just trying to have that fulcrum, it could go good, it could go bad. That’s the inspiration behind the title, and I think it sounds cool, so I left it at that.
One Music PH: How was it like working with Josh Pyke?
Bryan: He brought a creative process and ideas that I normally would not do. I think that’s the job of a producer, they’re meant to challenge you, they’re meant to show you another direction, to bring another phase to your song that you didn’t expect or you didn’t know existed. Generally I’m a control freak, but I know what I want and I know where I want my songs to go, but with Josh I gave him the acoustic demo and asked him what do we want to do. And then we built the song from there. We grew up from the same era and have the same influences, but he’s got different pop sensibilities from mine. Where I might just stay on an acoustic guitar, he’ll ask me to try synths. Or he’ll ask to do a weird percussion thing (then proceeded to do a percussion progression on desk) with the snare drum. He’ll bring in…There’s a great record by Wilco called Yankee Hotel Foxtrot where every (makes hand gestures) lead or angle, instrumental or percussion was used to good effect and I think Josh brought that, ‘cause otherwise I’m a simple meat-and-potatoes guy, two guitars, a bass, drums, and a keyboard, and harmonies. And I think he added extra layers to the songs which I love.
One Music PH: Having admitted that you can be a control freak, what made you decide to trust Josh?
Bryan: I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time. I think he’s one of the best songwriters in Australia. And just the way he layers his songs, I just knew he was the right guy for it as soon as we started working together. I trust my gut all the time when it comes to my music decisions. And from the first day we worked together, it was the litmus test whether it was going to work, we did “Admit Now, Pay Later”. As soon as we finished that, I was so excited. I felt “Wow! I never heard my music like this before…” I never approached it this way before, and that was fucking exciting man. “Anong nangyari?! This is good!” I was excited again. When I said I was a control freak, it meant that I know what I want. I have an idea, but I’m always open to anything. With Josh, I just told him “You tell me what to do bro…” It was great, it was very liberating, actually.
One Music PH: Can you please give me the lowdown on my personal favorite “Everything You Wanted”?
Bryan: Yeah man. So I had the opening riff for that song (hums guitar riff). Then I had the beats to that song and it wasn’t quite finished. Josh asked me if I had any more songs. I then showed them this and asked him what he thought. He told me that it could work, but it was literally just 40% done. Then we sat down together and finished that song, arranged it and finished the lyric in 45 minutes. Like that (snaps fingers). He’s brilliant. We were tracking it within half an hour after that. That exemplifies that love of AM radio for me, that West Coast sound, the Jackson Brownes, The Doobie Brothers. I remember listening to that 80’s AM radio sound. Even now, the classic hits radio stations, I wanted that kind of song that brought me to those kinds of radio stations. I wanted something I could drive to. It was fun layering harmonies, acoustic guitars, it was fun. It’s just me asking aloud will anything will ever be enough. Sometimes we have things to our own content, but there’s always the itch to want more, whether it’s materialistic or love or money or whatever. Sometimes what we need is in front of us already and we don’t realize it because we’re searching for something that isn’t really there.
One Music PH: Let’s talk about “Trick of the Light”…
Bryan: I think that’s probably one of the favorite songs I’ve ever written lyrically and production-wise. It’s about letting go, about accepting that things change, and how you handle it. It’s hard, you know, human nature is opposed to change, we want to be comfortable with what we have, but sometimes life throws us curveballs, and we have to accept that change happens. Letting go is hard even if we pull down our guard. We’re vulnerable, pero it’s how you deal with it.
Bryan: Clem, he’s terrible man, I don’t like him (laughs). I’m kidding, I love Clem. Firstly, I’m just glad, being with Lilystars helps me reconnect with my Filipino roots. I was already a big Orange and Lemons fan when I first discovered them in 2005. I was already a fan, I didn’t know they had a label until we got in touch and I was really just excited with the thought of connecting with an Asian and Filipino label that’s very progressive and cares about its artists. It’s always about music first, not about image, not about any supplementing hoopla. It’s always about the music, it’s the thing that I enjoy the most. I like being with Clem, and he challenges me to look at the music industry a different way, ‘cause it’s change so much since I first began in the late 90’s. It’s evolved so much to what it is now, with social media and digital streaming, and all the other things. It’s been good with Clem ‘cause he’s helped me adjust to these changes. I’m kind of old school now which is weird for me, you know what I mean? And Clem gets it man, we’re from the same generation as well. I love being with other Filipino artists, that’s really exciting for me, to see how progressive and creative, especially the young ones man. They’re fearless, they don’t give a shit.
One Music PH: Speaking of young artists, are you picking up on new music that you like?
Bryan: I’m a big fan of the artists in the Lilystars label, like Paper Satellites and The Geeks. Outside of that, I’m still a fan of Ely Buendia’s work. I’ve become friendly with Ely, we played a show together in Sydney. I love his work with Apartel, and Oktaves, the stuff that he does with his Offshore label. Most of these are encouraging, it inspires me to keep going, to try and be more creative. A lot of these artists are fearless and are going for it.
And yeah! Ely and I share a lot of influences, like everything revolves and starts around The Beatles, it’s all melody after that. Of course, where do we start with the Eraserheads? I love how guys like Clem and Ely, they’re passing on to the next generation while still being creative and they haven’t stopped. That’s inspiring for me. I’m in my mid-forties now, the guys in my label are, like 18 (laughs) and early 20’s. The road is long, man, it’s inspiring.
One Music PH: So now let’s talk about “Little White Lie”…
Bryan: I just wanted to write a nice little folk song. I love girl-boy voices together. I love Juliana Hatfield-Evan Dando Lemonheads kind of girl-boy singing together. So I called up a friend Peta Caswell who’s a great artist in Sydney. And I love how our voices (blended). That was fun as we got to play around arrangements, we used synth horns, for example. The basis was just a quiet folky acoustic song, then we built the layers on top, Wilco-style kind of thing. And on top of that, that beautiful sweet female vocals. It’s actually one of my favorites too in this album.
One Music PH: Give us the lowdown on “I Threw It All Away”…
Bryan: It was the last thing I included in the EP, it’s a Bob Dylan cover from Nashville Skyline. It wasn’t until my early twenties when I really understood Dylan, I connected with him. I’ve always heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” growing up, but that’s the more folky stuff, but once I really dug into him as a lyricist, I understood his genius, I was all in. That;s one of my favorite songs of his. I once recorded it for a Spanish label Dylan tribute album years ago and it wasn’t released digitally. So I remixed it and thought it was a great song to add.
One Music PH: Will you ever get around to writing a song in Filipino?
Bryan: Maybe. Limited lang Tagalog ko, ‘yun ang problema. Clem also wants me to write in Tagalog. I’d like to, but I don’t think it’s in me right now (laughs). I can sing in Tagalog, but I don’t think my literacy will be strong enough songwriting-wise. I’d love to one day though. And never say never, man.