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Tianna Esperanza's uphill climb to conquering 'Terror'

Tianna Esperanza, whose debut album <em>Terror</em> was released Feb. 17.
Shervin Lainez
Courtesy of the artist
Tianna Esperanza, whose debut album Terror was released Feb. 17.

"When I was first listening to [your music]," Morning Edition host Leila Fadel tells singer-songwriter Tianna Esperanza, "I was more listening to just the music, before the lyrics really set into my head – this sort of sweet track, like a renaissance-style music. And then you hear what you're saying."

Sometimes, when I'm walking
and a man looks at me,
I think of all the ways
I could make him bleed.

I would dig my key
into his eye.
I'd crack his teeth,
liver and spleen.

Those lyrics, from the song "Terror," is a striking way to start Esperanza's new album, which shares its title. The resulting collection is an eclectic mix of musical styles – folk and classical, jazz and swing, with hip-hop looming throughout – that NPR Music's chief critic Ann Powers described as "masterful."

"When I was 8 years old," Esperanza explains of the song's origins, "my brother passed away – and when I was 13, and many times in my life, I've experienced ranges of sexual assault and abuse. I'm bringing these stories out slowly, in my own comfort ... to transcend my pain and connect with others."

Esperanza may have learned some of that creative honesty from their grandmother, Paloma McLardy, who was better known as Palmolive during her time in the still-beloved punk groups The Slits and The Raincoats.

Esperanza recalls hearing from McLardy "about her experience working in London in that time, not having a lot of money. And of course, we've talked about dealing with the kind of grittier, grosser sides of punk being very male. As a woman, it's so important to be on that, because this is an industry that can be very predatory."

Esperanza explains that their upbringing – in a mixed-race family, amidst the otherwise homogenous community of Cape Cod, Mass. – was difficult. Esperanza's family, mostly white, was "very good about trying to fill in some of those gaps, but there's only so much they could do and understand ... I was yearning for Black friends, and understanding how to do my Black hair, and not having products on Cape Cod and things like that."

That search for Black mentorship ultimately led to Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Valerie June, who turns in a guest appearance on Terror.

"We would speak almost every week for five months," Esperanza explains. "Valerie and I connected instantly and we talked about our love for folk music... That's not what's expected from a Black woman. I feel like there's still a mindset of, you know, what we are good for is: silky [vocal] runs, and R&B, and curvaceous dresses. And that's what sells. I think that there's so much more to our stories."

To hear the full conversation, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.