Esme Patterson will be honest.
The Denver singer-songwriter wrote her most popular song, “No River,” about a time she felt like she was being a jerk.
I first came across the song a few years ago when I watched Patterson’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Soon after, I saw her play a show in Davenport, Iowa, where I was living. “No River” seemed to stop time. Her velvety voice starts off with the words, “I can’t keep running, ‘cause I’m no river.” She goes on to say she won’t hurt you or help you, because she’s no fire. And she can’t sit still, because she’s no mountain.
No, she’s not any of those things. None of us are. As the crux of the minimalist lyrics of “No River” explains, she’s human.
It’s a comforting reminder of our limits. And Patterson has a charming way of lifting those limits up and making them a good thing. It’s OK to be human, and to not be able to do it all, she seems to say. It’s more than OK, because that’s what makes us, us.
When I called Patterson last week, I knew I wanted to hear the backstory of “No River,” which has more than 1 million streams on Spotify.
Patterson, who is making a rare stop in Colorado Springs on Friday, was real with me. She said she wrote the song after she cheated on a boyfriend.
“And I was paying for it,” she said.
The words of “No River” poured out.
“It was my way of saying, ‘I’m not perfect and I can do better than that,’” Patterson said. “I don’t want to be that kind of person, so I’m going to admit my failure and do the work of apologizing. I’m going to accept that I made a mistake and embrace my vulnerability at the same time.”
Back then, it helped the singer forgive herself. And the song has had a lasting impact. I experienced that first-hand at Patterson’s show in August at the Larimer Lounge in Denver. Everyone in the room sang along, earnestly, as she belted out, “I’m human.” That happened during her other songs, too. Honestly, whenever or whatever Patterson sings, it feels urgent to watch. You dare not look away.
That was the case when Patterson commandingly sang “What Do You Call a Woman?” The song appeared on Patterson’s 2014 concept album, “Woman to Woman,” in which she reimagined iconic love songs about women and rewrote them from the woman’s perspective.
“It was this strange moment I was in this motel in South Dakota and I was trying to learn some covers,” she recalled.
As she was learning the words of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” she got angry at the words.
“Maybe I was pissed at my boyfriend at the time or something,” Patterson said. “But it was just such a weird, one-sided perspective. I was like, ‘What would she say?’”
Patterson didn’t really intend it, but many took “Woman to Woman” as her making a feminist statement.
“The whole project was examining these projections on women,” she said. “I was just making an observation. I guess it’s radical to just be a woman these days.”
A few days before her show at the Larimer, by the way, Patterson joined frequent collaborator Shakey Graves in concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
Patterson is by now a staple in the Denver music scene, and so fans have noticed that she hasn’t put out new music since 2016’s “We Were Wild,” her album that includes “No River.”
There are a few reasons for that, she told me. After an intense year of touring and suffering a serious concussion during a show (a speaker fell on her head on stage), Patterson needed a break. Music hasn’t been her main priority over the last couple years, which has been a nice change of pace for the longtime road warrior. Before her solo career, Patterson was for eight years a member of the popular, but now defunct, band Paper Bird. She has been spending time on “secret projects.”
One sort-of secret project is her upcoming album, due to drop in early 2020.
She said her new music, which comes with more synth beats than her previous work, is inspired by the planet and nature and the internet and politics, topics that often fill her mind.
“I don’t know how everyone else isn’t thinking about that stuff all the time,” she said. “The things we’re facing right now, we have to face them together or we have no chance. I could talk forever about it.”
She plans to play some of her new music on Friday. And, per usual, she’ll play “No River.”
Every time she sings it, the song lands as a reminder that it’s OK to have bad days. Bad days are part of, as she sings, knowing you’re alive.
“Sometimes writing a song feels like a gift to me more than anything else,” she said. “A lot of people tell me they needed that song. I needed the song, too.”