- ABOUT US
Oklahoma native Ester Dean is one of pop music’s hottest songwriters, and her success continues with an upcoming album and film role.
By Ryan LaCroix
Published September/October 2012
A snapshot of the top songs on the 2011 Billboard Hot 100 chart lists pop megahits: Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass,” and Rihanna’s “What’s My Name?” All three were monster hits; all three were written or cowritten by Ester Dean.
The Muskogee-born musician has become a force in the music industry. In May 2012, she was named the BMI Pop Songwriter of the Year and awarded BMI’s Pop Song of the Year for “Firework” along with cowriter Sandy Vee.
“I love working with everybody because they welcome me and they’re warm to me,” Dean said at the 2012 BMI Pop Awards. “A little girl from Oklahoma getting to write with all these big stars—it’s great.”
A list of artists Dean has written for reads like a top-forty countdown—Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, Usher, and Shakira.
Though most of her success has come in pop and R&B, Dean says she isn’t limited to one or two genres. Last year, her first country song hit the charts, with American Idol winner Scotty McCreery’s debut single “I Love You This Big.” The song, cowritten with Brett James, who grew up in Cordell and Oklahoma City, was the highest debut single of any new country artist since 1990. Dean and James also cowrote Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” with former ACM@UCO student Dante Jones, who currently lives in Los Angeles. That song was a number-one single on the Billboard Adult Pop Songs chart before landing on the country charts.
“Ester’s melodies are insane,” says Jones, who graduated from high school in Edmond. “She’s good at capturing exciting moments. It’s simple, but it’s a sophisticated simple. Her songs get stuck in your head.”
Though some might not expect a songwriter with a pop resumé like Dean’s to pen country hits, Dean says she feels at home in either genre.
“I don’t believe in changing who I am and where I come from for the sake of somebody’s comfort,” she says. “I’m about as country as they get.”
Dean, whose great-grandmother was Cherokee, never hesitates to tell people she’s from Oklahoma.
“Same talent comes out of New York that comes out of Oklahoma,” Dean says. “Talented people are everywhere.”
Growing up, Dean and her siblings watched as their mother, Hester, starred in the touring gospel musical comedy Reverend, I’m Available. Ester’s first public singing appearance came in the play as a member of the backing choir.
“My mother was always out there singing, so we got to travel around with her as she went after her dreams,” Dean says.
While still a teenager, Dean saved some money and called a Muskogee recording studio. Her plan? To sing to the man on the other end of the phone. He was impressed with her voice, and soon, Dean and her mother were driving from Tulsa, where they lived at the time, to Muskogee to cut demos.
Dean finished high school in Omaha, Nebraska, then ventured to Atlanta to get her start in the music business. At a 2005 concert by fellow Tulsans the Gap Band, producer Tricky Stewart heard Dean singing in the crowd. Stewart, known for producing number-one hits including Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” signed Dean to write songs and sing demos. Her talents quickly gained the attention of Polow da Don, a producer and cowriter of hits for Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, including “London Bridge” and “Glamorous.”
“I only worked with Polow for two weeks before he flew me down to LA, and I stayed here,” Dean says.
After working all night, Polow would go home while Dean stayed, showering at the studio, then writing and recording more songs. She says it wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to record three to four demos per day. And that was just in her off time before Polow returned to the studio the next day.
Dean has become so proficient at writing hits over the last few years that it has put her own album on hold. Despite having top-forty success in 2009 with the one-off single “Drop It Low,” Dean says there are people who wish she would just write songs for them.
“The industry wants songs, so when you go to record executives, they say, ‘I can take twenty of your songs and give them to twenty artists,’” Dean says. “You always have to get stronger as you move up.”
Though she has found a niche as a songwriter, Dean still aims to share her own voice with the world. She landed a management deal with Jay-Z’s new label, RocNation, at the beginning of 2012, and her as-yet-untitled debut album is expected this fall.
She also has ventured onto the silver screen, voicing the Sloth Siren in Ice Age: Continental Drift this year and writing a song, “We Are,” for the film. Her first traditional film role will be in Pitch Perfect, in which she will play Cynthia Rose, a member of an all-girl college a cappella group. The film opened in theaters September 28.
Though she is engulfed in a fast-paced life of music and film, Dean sometimes longs for the simpler era of her Oklahoma childhood.
“I miss barbecues, because that’s what I knew about Oklahoma—I’d go to O’Brien Park, and all my family would be there,” Dean says. “It was a close-knit community.”
Dean, who has family in Tulsa, Muskogee, Sapulpa, and Lawton, has succeeded on her indefatigable work ethic and a belief that she can always do more. It’s those quintessentially Okie qualities that she hopes will take her from being a behind-the-scenes force to a star in her own right.
Get There: Dean’s 2009 single “Drop It Low,” featuring Chris Brown, from the album More Than a Game (Music Inspired By the Film), is available on iTunes. For more information about Ester Dean, visit esterdean.com.