This is an exclusive song premiere, part of WBUR's effort to highlight New England musicians.
The world shut down in 2020, and Tianna Esperanza craved excitement. A rush. So she picked up kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. She bought a motorcycle. She couldn’t perform music for crowds anymore, but she could drive fast and hit hard. She could still feel.
It was around this time that the Cape Cod-based musician wrote the beginnings of a song that would eventually become “Old Friends.” “It’s a bit about the psyche of a friend, a male friend, in his early 20s… who feels lost, really, and is searching for a rush and an adventure,” she says. “Old Friends” ultimately became more of a study of male violence. But Esperanza thinks she tapped into her own yearning for escape, too.
The pandemic brought some unexpected fortune to the young musician: a writing partnership with the acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Mick Flannery. The two were connected through their managers. Esperanza hadn’t listened to Flannery’s music before, but says she fell in love instantly. Flannery reminded her of Leonard Cohen, but not in a “try hard” way. “He felt like himself,” she says. They struck up a cross-Atlantic writing partnership. “I’ve never written better with anybody,” Esperanza says. “Over the pandemic, we would sit for two to three times a week, sometimes for hours, and even be quiet on our own ends of Zoom and just sit and write together.”
“Old Friends” is one of the results of those long pandemic writing sessions. (It is being released as part of Folk Alliance International’s "Artists in (Their) Residence" series, and to promote a grant program for artists impacted financially by the pandemic.) The song begins with a quiet, circular melody, sung by Flannery in a low, tremulous voice. Then Esperanza surges in, full-throated, with a question that feels more like a challenge: “Is it so hard to believe/ That you could ever love me?” The song builds in intensity; it’s eerie, menacing. The shadowy figure of a man — a man burning with violent urges — shifts into focus on Flannery’s final verse: “A little boy went walkin’/ Out into the world … He happened on a hunger/ That grew into his mind/ And soon it rang like thunder/ Shook him from inside.”
There is inherent drama in the contrast between the two voices: Flannery’s is soft and worn, like old leather, and Esperanza’s is robust, bending occasionally into a blue note. You can hear her influences in her singing: jazz, folk, rock, punk. (Esperanza’s grandmother, Paloma McLardy, was a founding member of the seminal punk band the Slits.) But “Old Friends” is, at its heart, folk music — dreamlike and mythical, like a memory from long ago.