Emily Estefan gets on her (musical) feet

Staff Writer
Emily Estefan talks about her music and making her mom cry

Don't call Emily Estefan a mini Gloria.

With her arm tattoos and black hair half cropped and half long, the daughter of Miami's conga couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan has a millennial scruff rock look all her own.

She knows she can't escape her famous last name, which was catapulted into international stardom in the mid-1980s with her parents' Latin, dance and pop music. Here in Crescent Moon Studios in Miami, the Estefans' best-selling album covers and concert photos decorate the walls, hallways, even the elevator panels.

But the 21-year-old is honing her own sound in the state-of-the-art studio -- shades of jazz, rhythm and blues, and funk that she sings in a husky Amy Winehouse style -- preparing for the Feb. 3 launch of her first full-length album, "Take Whatever You Want."

The album features 13 songs that she wrote and composed as a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Estefan plays all the instruments on the album -- drums, guitar, bass and keys -- except the horns, which were remixed here at Crescent Moon.

The album represents her biggest musical coming out party. Two years ago, she sang "Where the Boys Are" at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Last year, she belted a medley of disco songs with her mom as well as an original song before a crowd of 100,000 at the Miami Beach centennial party.

But it's her own music she wants people to remember.

"The thrill for me, or what's exciting for me, is when somebody says, 'Oh it's kind of a retro sound, or how it's kind of like...' everybody takes it and interprets it how they want and I think that is awesome," said Estefan as she sat at the studio's control board. "The name of the album is 'Take Whatever You Want' because that's exactly what I want people to do. Whatever you relate to in it, whatever you hear, whatever you associate, everything is correct."

Estefan was famous even before she was born. She was dubbed the "miracle baby" after her parents publicly shared their struggles to conceive their second child after Gloria Estefan broke her back in a 1990 tour bus accident.

Not long after she came into the world, music enveloped Emily. In a video that her mom posted on YouTube, a little Estefan sings "Calendar Girl." She began playing piano at the age of 5. But she really felt at home on the drums.

"I was just walking around with drum sticks, hitting everything I could," recalled Estefan, who received her first drum set at age 7. "My parents tell me stories of me putting together pots and pans as drums...I felt really safe behind the drum set. I feel like it's a good way to let out anger and work on isolation of limbs. I just felt very protected and that came most naturally to me."

She showed off her drumming skills while on tour with her parents in 2004. It was her mom's last concert tour.

"My mom would go change and I would jam a little in concert on the drums, in the shyest possible way, I didn't even want to look out at the audience," she said with a smile.

She continued playing drums and basketball throughout high school at Miami Country Day. That's where one of her teachers suggested that she should play with his cover band, The Groove Dogz.

"It was my baptism of fire," Estefan said, recalling performing classic songs by Led Zeppelin and The Eagles at venues in Miami Springs and Vero Beach. "I learned a lot about what it means to really be a musician."

And what began as a hobby evolved into something bigger, a musical calling that she thought she could pursue as a career.

"It was honestly just before college that I decided to really give myself over to it," said Estefan.

"I think I always knew it was my passion because music takes over me in a very tangible euphoric way," said Estefan, who majored in contemporary writing and production. Her principal instrument: drum set.

"She is real humble. She is just a sponge for information," recalled Jerry Gates, who had her in a few classes including an orchestration class where she had to compose, record and conduct an orchestral piece. "If it's in her head, she wants to write it. She is not worrying about making it [for] a particular market. She is just trying to put some stuff out there that she feels."

Still, Estefan hadn't found her voice.

"I was even scared to sing for myself because there is always that fear of, OK, what if I open my mouth and I sound exactly like my mother? Nobody is going to take me seriously and they're not going to listen to what I have to say," said Estefan, whose thick eyebrows and big brown eyes call to mind a younger version of her mom.

She overcame that fear when she sang before her mom during a visit from college to the family's beach house in Vero Beach.

"I told her, 'OK I am going to sing for you now. You can't cry. You can't look at me.' She broke both those rules," she said. "I love to tell stories and the voice is so intimate and important for that. I needed to get over it. I think she was just excited and at least proud that I could overcome that fear because I was scared."

At Berklee, she focused on her own music. She lived in an off-campus apartment and called her recording studio there Fairy Light Studio. During that time two years ago, she also created the songs that would eventually fill her first album.

"I literally recorded it all in my apartment...The only thing that we changed or overdubbed was the horns," said Estefan, who moved back to Miami Beach after graduating from Berklee last May.

She's already released two videos from the album. In one track called "F#ck to Be," Estefan dresses up as a blonde and blue-eyed pretty girl and a red-head with a short skirt.

"I think the message is that there is nothing wrong with differences in a person or how you want to be in life. I am going to be true to myself," she said of the video that was directed by her mom. "Those different looks and stuff, they are not me and that's a lot of the pressure that people put on me to be, to be this like princess kind of girl who is not like me," said Estefan, whose arms are tattooed with dragon flies, peonies and the word ALIEN. There's also a small tattoo of her mom's face inside a moon.

Emily Estefan said her parents help only when she asks for it.

"They don't like to get involved if I don't want them to. They are encyclopedias of incredible information, career-wise and musically, but when I make my music, it's very isolated and very much on my own."

In September, she released "Reigns (Every Night)." In that video, shot in Miami Springs, she playfully stalks a male neighbor as she sings the funky horn-infused track. She also recently formed her own indie label, Alien Shrimp Records, and signed a distribution deal with Sony's RED division this year.

She is preparing to debut her music at Festival Miami at the University of Miami Feb. 2. The album will be released at midnight Feb. 3.

"Every day, I have a little bit larger of a panic attack because it's been so sheltered and the people who have been involved with it have been so limited."

She hopes people will "take it lightheartedly with the knowledge that it is my first naked self and my true honest self. If there are parts of it that you don't like or don't relate to, that's awesome, I encourage that. I am not trying to please anybody but it is all completely honest and from a place of just pure discovery."

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