Esmée Denters is undoubtedly on her way to musical stardom, with her debut album filled with songs she co-wrote with a host of top-notch hit-making producers. Esmée is one of the first artists signed to Justin Timberlake’s Interscope imprint Tennman Records, but a mere two years ago, this Dutch 20-year-old was just a pancake house waitress with a webcam and a dream.
An aspiring singer who fell in love with her father’s Stevie Wonder albums as a child, Esmée was 17 when she began posting videos of herself on YouTube singing her favorite hits by Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Pink, and Natasha Bedingfield, which she recorded in the bedroom of her suburban home of Oosterbeek in the Netherlands. “I had seen all these videos of amateur singers, which gave me the idea,” she says. “I was just interested in what other people thought of my voice,” she says. “My friends had told me they liked my singing, but I was curious to get strangers’ opinions because music was what I really wanted to do.” When the videos were a hit and viewers started to make requests, Esmée was encouraged and began posting several clips a week, including songs she’d written herself. Within nine months, Esmée’s videos had racked up 21 million views and the teenager became the No. 1 Most-Subscribed to Musician in the history of the popular video-sharing website.
It may have been her YouTube popularity that led Timberlake to seek out Esmée six months after her videos began to appear online, but it was her silky, soulful voice, natural charisma, and songwriting talent that sold him on signing her to his label, executive producing and co-producing the majority of her debut album. Timberlake, Chairman/CEO of Tennman Records says, “One of the reasons I started my label was to be able to discover and mentor new talent, and it’s been a great experience guiding Esmée’s development. I’ve been producing her in the studio and working with some other great collaborators on her album, and I’ve seen her writing go to another level. Some people have it and some people don’t – but this girl’s the real deal!”
In the summer of 2007, Justin and Esmée began to write songs together. “Sometimes I would come up with a title and he would suggest a melody,” Esmée says, “or I would come up with a melody and he’d suggest some lyrics. There were no rules.” Timberlake also lined up an impressive list of noted songwriters and producers to collaborate with him and Esmée, such as Polow Da Don (Usher, Ciara), Stargate (Rihanna, Ne-Yo), OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder (Leona Lewis, Natasha Bedingfield), and Toby Gad (Beyoncé, Fergie).
The result is an edgy, soulful pop-R&B set that Esmée says “truly reflects who I am as a person. It really sounds like me.” The first single, “Outta Here” is a hybrid of urban beats, pop lyrics and rock attitude, which Esmée explains is “a powerful song with a catchy melody, and above all, it has a strong message that says when someone treats you bad, just get out of that situation and think about yourself first.” The playful, doo-wop-laced “Eyes For You,” the sassy, retro-vibed “Admit It,” and the feisty, urban-flavored anthems “Love Dealer,” and “Victim” capture the side of Esmée “who wants to go out and dance and have fun,” while two beat-driven ballads, the acoustic-flavored “Just Can’t Have It” and the epic-sounding, string-laden “Gravity,” show “that I can also sing about serious stuff.” “Gravity,” which Esmée co-wrote with Timberlake and Timbaland producer protégé Hannon Lane, is about “being in love with somebody who’s bringing you down when you really want to fly,” she says. “I think everyone can relate to the lyrics in that song.”
Relatability was something that was important to Esmée on her debut outing, which is why she was thrilled for the opportunity to co-write the majority of the songs. “If you’re able to write a good song, then why not let you write?’” she explains. “I learned so much from being able to work with such talented, experienced people. When you’re trying to find your way, as I am, it makes you raise your game to be around people who are really good at what they do.”
For Esmée, getting the opportunity to work with a stable of top-flight talent was just another thrilling part of a journey that has been full of surreal moments – like stepping onstage for her first-ever live performance as the opening act for Timberlake on the European leg of his FutureSex/LoveShow Tour in June 2007. The girl who had previously only sung for her webcam was suddenly performing for nearly 70,000 people at the Amsterdam Arena in Holland. She handled it, and the next five stadium shows on the tour, with the confidence of a pro. “I was nervous,” she says, “but once you’re up there and you sing your first song, you don’t want to get off the stage. It’s a feeling I can’t really describe.”
Esmée’s composure also served her well when she was invited to appear a few months later on The Oprah Winfrey Show as part of an episode spotlighting YouTube sensations. “That was crazy,” she says of the experience. “I actually had told all my friends back home that I was going to be on her show someday. So when I got the call I was so excited that I couldn’t believe it was true.”
Esmée knows her path to stardom has been unlikely and she is thankful for everything that has happened to her, from building a loyal fan base on YouTube (her official channel alone has now racked up more than 133 million views), to scoring a record deal with one of her musical idols, to being able to realize her dream of making an album of songs she’s extremely proud of. “It was a strange way to become an artist,” she admits, “but I’m happy it happened this way. This was my way.”