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Tianna Esperanza explores a range of emotions on "Terror"

Shervin Lainez

Tianna Esperanza has stories to tell, and on her breakout debut album “Terror” she does just that. Each song paints a portrait and drags listeners into her world in a unique way. Her way with words is equally matched by a powerful voice that is both distinctive and special. The album also features a few guest spots including one from Esperanza’s mentor and friend Valerie June on the closing track “Lone Child.”

Esperanza recently caught up with WUNC Music’s Brian Burns to discuss the album and what it feels like to revisit old traumas through music.

WUNC Music: Congrats on the new album “Terror.” Can you tell us a bit about the recording process for the record? When did you begin writing?

Tianna Esperanza: Well, its technically my debut album, so I think with many debut albums you’re working on it your whole life. But really, I did a lot of the work two years ago in the middle of COVID in Vancouver, Canada with my producer Chin Injeti.

I was signed to BMG in 2020 and was able to begin recording after that. So for two or three months I stayed quarantined in Canada, working in the studio every single day, 13 hours a day with Chin Injeti and the other engineer Brian West. Four of the songs, we wrote while I was there, including the title track “Terror.”

I had shown up with the song “Lewis,” which I wrote when I was 14 years old, and then “Three Straight Bitches From Hell” I had already written, as well as “Pick a Stone” which I wrote with Rachel Yamagata. So there was a lot that I showed up with already in my pocket, but we did a lot of collaboration on all of the songs.

WUNC Music: I know you grew up in Cape Cod, can you tell us what growing up there was like and how it influenced your art?

TE: Growing up on Cape Cod was difficult for me at times. It still is, when I'm there, because Cape Cod is so white and very segregated economically. But it's also beautiful and peaceful and calm. And it's one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. So being able to enjoy the ocean anytime of the year and enjoy the woods anytime of the year and have access so close to my home is such a treat and a luxury. So I think that in so many ways, my home has fueled my art and fueled my activism.

WUNC Music: The songs on your record span a huge range of emotions. On the title track you address both the death of your young brother and also your experience with sexual assault. How does it feel to share these experiences with a public audience and revisit those traumas when you’re performing them live?

TE: The main reason I even shared those stories is because I am comfortable sharing them in a live setting. When I’m lost in the music I feel like I’m not alone. But I also have privacy on the stage. And I'm just with my thoughts and my experiences, and I can revisit them in my own way, in my comfort zone.

Music is my passion, my life, my love, and it is healing for me. So to visit my trauma that way feels safe. Sharing that experience with other people — I hope — is inspiring and meaningful for them. It is scary in some ways, to be sacrificing that in front of so many people that may or may not understand, or may not like me, but I think in that way I feel empowered and I feel strength in my vulnerability.

WUNC Music: That’s wonderful. I’m sure there are so many people listening to your music who can relate to those topics in a very personal way and are feeling seen. It takes a lot of bravery to revisit those experiences over and over.

TE: Yeah, I think the hardest part for me is revisiting it. I have images and memories in my head that are hard to revisit constantly, but the big piece of this is healing. It’s not the same as having PTSD and revisiting it that way. Sometimes it may be after the show, but someone will come up to me and say “that happened to me too” and that changes the way I feel about the performance. It also makes me feel less alone.

WUNC Music: On the other hand, the first single from the record “Buy You A New Attitude” is just a super catchy and fun song with a lot of humor. What’s the backstory on that one?

TE: That song was inspired more by the melody and by the genre than it was by the story. I said to Chin, “I really want to do a Nina Simone-esque old school jazz song,” because that’s so me. It’s raunchy, it’s fun, it’s silly. I knew that I needed to challenge myself to write a joyful or silly song because usually I feel like I have to dig deep and say something spiritual or thoughtful. I felt like “Okay, this time I can just have fun, because I am fun! Let’s explore that side of my personality a bit more.”

WUNC Music: One more question, and it’s one I ask everybody to wrap things up. What music or art has been bringing you joy lately?

TE: I’m a big fan of film, so watching movies brings me a lot of joy when I’m on the road. I love old Hollywood movies, which is probably not a surprise. Anything with Mae West brings me joy. One of my favorite movies is “Design For Living.” It’s a beautiful old movie that explores one woman with two men, very apropos for “Buy You A New Attitude.” But I’ve also been listening to a lot of Michael Kiwanuka and Benjamin Clementine, they’re both soulful artists who really calm me down when I’m busy all the time.

WUNC Music: Thanks so much for your time today, Tianna. It was a joy talking with you.

TE: It was lovely speaking with you!

Brian Burns is the Music Director for WUNC Music, WUNC's AAA music discovery station. He has been working within the local music scene for over a decade. On the weekends you might see him DJing at various spots around the Triangle, or digging through boxes of records. He's also the host of Future Shock on WUNC Music and a contributor to NPR Music. He graduated from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science with an MSLS in 2015.
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