In fact, the album would have never been made without a helpful tip from a departed musician.
Westerman heard the late Isaiah "Ikey" Owens tell her to get in touch with his friend Chris. A quick online search led her to Owens’s friend Chris Schlarb of BIG EGO studios, whom she then hired to produce the album. The circumstances are chilling, but the result is an album that feels warm, relatable and full of ardor.
“After the Fact” opens with a golden, Americana vibe akin to Cat Power’s “The Greatest” and a sultriness reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer”. Wistful pedal steel and sober piano compliment the sparing, confessional lyrics.“I don’t like all those tricks you pull, you can hardly be yourself,” she sighs, “The strongest thing you can ever be is not hurtin’ for someone else.”
It’s a deceptively simple start to a transformative journey that takes you from California to New York to the Virgin Islands in a entrancing study of love, grief and being flat broke.
“Once I was a debutante, maybe you’d have guessed,” goes the childlike chant of “Change,” “Once I was a pauper who slept with pigs and pests. We’re born rich and ugly, we are born poor and blessed.”
It’s easy to believe that Westerman has been through all she recounts — including the the nautical adventures of “Anchors Aweigh,” where she declares “Let the magnificent squalls come. Where’s my compass and where’s my rum?”
She’s got the anecdotes to back it up. For starters, as a kid she lived in a tarpaper shack on the beach of her native St. Croix. “There was no floor, just the sand,” she says. “And when I lived on St. John, I took a boat to school.” Her earliest memories include sailing and singing with her father, Calypsonian Llewellyn Westerman. At the age of six, she and her mother permanently relocated to Southern California. “From a tiny island to suburban sprawl was a huge change,” she says. “I think I’ve been trying to reconcile the two worlds ever since.”
Westerman expresses her cultural span in stunning style. Ego Trip is the record you’d find floating in an alt universe Bermuda Triangle — with Sade to the North, Sondheim and the Carter Sisters to the East and West.
Throughout eleven short, sweet tracks, Afro-Caribbean rhythms wind amongst country, jazz and classical themes. Lyrically, she brews colloquialisms with formal, sometimes archaic language in phrases that burst with potency.
Not surprisingly, she dove into the work of writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Saul Williams while earning an undergraduate writing degree at UC Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies. Her poetic discipline shows up in just about every line of every song; she’s wickedly skilled at packing an emotional punch, sneak attack code switching and offering slang so wholly re-contextualized, you turn the phrase over in your head wondering why you’ve never heard it this way before.
”You’re rollin’ phat serenading gargoyles and shivas,” she sings to her deceased partner in “Where You At." “You’re a real missed cat who never made the promise to please us.” And in the title track, a weeping violin gives way to the words, “No sentimental sap, no bitch-slappin rap, just a smile from a friend every time the road bends.” The song then builds and swells in an outro referencing Bowie’s “Five years”.
Schlarb’s expert, tasteful touch as a producer amplifies each song's strength and ensures the listener a well-rounded excursion that’s technically and emotionally satisfying. Mandolin and brass, Wurlitzer and Hammond compliment rich melodies and syncopated delivery of tightly crafted verses. And while the subject matter is heavy and tragic, the listening experience is decidedly soothing and uplifting. For those reasons, Ego Trip is an album that truly fits all over the place.
What she offers is a grand tour of life’s crushing moments wrapped up in a collection of mantras for self-determination. “I only write songs that I’m willing to live in,” she says. With its uniqueness, craftsmanship and sheer beauty, Ego Trip is a peculiar world you’ll want to live in, too.
- D. Momanaee