I’m profiling local artists who capture some aspect of Boise in this new segment. First up is singer-songwriter McKenna Esteb, who I spoke with in the backyard of Surel’s Place in Garden City during her residency there in September. We dove deep into relationships, building community, and how self-love opened her up to a new mastery of her own music.
McKenna Esteb didn’t expect to find living in the former house of artist Surel Mitchell so comforting. But during her one-month residency there, she spent her mornings sitting on the docks at Quinn’s Pond and her days making music and journaling, two things in which she has years worth of experience.
Esteb is just beginning to reap the benefits of the last year spent getting to know herself. During the first Flipside Fest, in Sept. 2022, her and her band amicably agreed to part ways. The music she started making — at first aimlessly with friends and then in isolation for the first time in her life — shows a new version of Esteb exalting at what she’s found under a new leaf.
“I always used to lean on other people to help fill in my sound, and I think that’s what that old sound was … which was great, and I learned so much from that. But in the past, I’d [tell musicians] ‘that sounds cool — you know what you’re doing, I don’t,’ and that whole mindset,” Esteb said.
But for this album, she produced the demos, wrote each instrumental part, and handed musicians what she wanted.
That autonomy also meant more vulnerability, and more experimentation. “You can probably listen and go ‘oh, she got kind of weird here.’ And that’s because I got to do what I wanted.”
From “So Pretty” to “All Time Record”
Esteb’s new album is being released one song per month. “All Time Record,” “Big Fat Crush,” and “Warm Springs” are out now.
On streaming platforms, “So Pretty” preceded these songs by just a few months. It was the tail end of an earlier era of confusion: Esteb had a dream job and a great band, but she couldn’t help but “feel so empty.”
Then came “All Time Record,” a honeymoon song inspired by a new romantic relationship that surprised even her. In the music video for “So Pretty,” a fire represented her internal chaos; in “All Time Record,” she took a new stance: “If you don’t play with fire, you’ll never have fun.”
Esteb identifies as a romantic person, but that’s never been reciprocated until now. “I really settled for some bulls— in the past, and also in turn wasn’t a good person as well and did some really s—– things, because I didn’t know how to love myself and how to be loved.”
But that didn’t come without work: years of therapy, which she can’t recommend strongly enough, journaling, and choosing difficult things that were good for her.
Traversing Austin & Boise
In 2019, Esteb gave in to one of those temptations, said “f— it” and moved to Austin. Despite accustoming to the city during the pandemic, she fell in love with Austin but missed Boise, and decided to move back in 2021.
She was seeking a comfort that eluded her as a new person in a familiar place. She found that her old friends weren’t people she wanted to spend time with anymore, and the world had changed along with her. So, unexpectedly, she decided to be “a snake shedding its skin.”
“I cut off some relationships, which was very hard and conflicting to do,” Esteb said. “I kind of went into my own shell and was like, ‘what makes me happy, what doesn’t?’ And I cut out all the s— that wasn’t making me a better person, and that was hard. But because of that I think I enjoy life a lot more now.”
Esteb began building new connections and making music like “So Pretty” and “Mad Gxrls,” a rage anthem after the Supreme Court allowed states to ban abortion. But 2023 has been about finding joy on the next page life’s given her.
Especially when she first moved back to Boise, there were parts of her that wanted to move back to Austin or skip town to who-knows-where. But she stuck around to lay the foundation of a life here, and she’s grateful to Boise that it’s paying off.
“I think it’s a really cool time to be here because Boise is still a small city in the teen phases of figuring out who it is. It’s that awkward teen with a lot of internal conflict like ‘who am I?’ But it’s also really cool to be a part of that phase because there’s so much growth and change. You can throw things on the wall and see what sticks.”