In Pitch Perfect (2012), the all-female college accappella group Barden Bellas engage in a riff-off with their competitors. In the middle of the battle, a new category emerges: “Songs About Sex.” The usually quiet Bella Cynthia-Rose steps to the front and begins the familiar refrain of Rihanna’s lustful dance-floor hit “S&M”—”‘Cause I may be bad / But I’m perfectly good at it / Sex in the air/ I don’t care for the smell of it / Sticks and stones may break my bones/ But whips and chains excite me.” In Pitch Perfect and its follow-up, Pitch Perfect 2, which opens today, Tulsa, Ohio native Ester Dean plays Cynthia-Rose, and coincidentally, it was also Dean who penned Rihanna’s hit.
Now 33, Dean is one of a handful of elite pop songwriters who dominate the American Top 40. In addition to “S&M,” she wrote the number one hits “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name,” and “Firework,” and co-wrote “Super Bass” and “Pills N Potions” with Nicki Minaj. In 2011, she began acting with voice-over roles in Rio and Ice-Age: Continental Drift.
Here, Dean, who just wrapped a tour supporting Nicki Minaj as a solo artist, talks to her Pitch Perfect 2 director and co-star, Elizabeth Banks. “Everyone loves Ester,” Banks says before their interview. “You’ll see.”
ELIZABETH BANKS: How was your tour with Nicki?
ESTER DEAN: It was so good! I thought she was going to say no. I was like, “So, you look like you’re going to do this big tour…can I come? Can I open up for you?”
BANKS: That’s amazing. You are the personification of, “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.” I love that.
DEAN: I was just like, “In my dreams, I would love to be able to go on a real major tour.” I don’t know where I got that from. I wasn’t comfortable on stage for years. It was good—18 shows. I want to do it again.
BANKS: People don’t know that you’re really committed to your artistic process—I call it a dream board. Can you talk a little about how you put stuff out into the world?
DEAN: I have vision boards, and people think that I put the vision board up and I look at it all the time, but what I do is, when I’m having an emotional time and I’m stressed out or feeling bad, I go to the store and get all the stuff for a vision board. Instead of channeling the negative thoughts or being depressed, I change it around and I start making boards. I have a thing—I call it magic—but I feel like I can write stuff down in the middle of the night and wake up and it happens. I write what I want in my journal. I try to reach for the stars because if you say you want something small and it happens, you don’t believe it. So I try to say something wild and crazy like “Pitch Perfect 10,” and then watch it happen.
BANKS: [laughs] I hope Pitch Perfect 10 happens for both of our sakes. I love that you do that. I studied The Artist’s Way when I was studying acting a million years ago, but I think it is really important to put out what you want so the world knows what to give you.
DEAN: It’s so crazy, because before I met any of y’all, I wrote down that I wanted to be in a movie like Glee. When I went to visit casting, I was trying to get an audition for a voiceover, and the lady was like, “There’s a movie called Pitch Perfect if you want to try out for something on screen.”
BANKS: You came in late in our process. We were looking around, “Who is going to be this person?” We had no idea. We auditioned a lot of people. We weren’t sure how big that role was supposed to be. There are a lot of characters in the Barden Bellas, and we want everyone to be interesting and unique, but we didn’t know how much there would be to do. And you know better than anyone how, from the first film to this one, Cynthia-Rose has come into her own and is really owning who she is. There are so many more jokes we can tell because of that.
DEAN: Someone asked what was the best part about working with you, and I said “Of course we did our jobs, you say the part in the script, but Elizabeth lets us freestyle and be free to figure out who Cynthia-Rose is.” I didn’t feel confined. I felt like, “Let’s see if I can make Elizabeth laugh.” It was a fun thing.
BANKS: When did you know that you could sing?
DEAN: Everyone in my family can sing—my momma can sing, my cousins. I was in the third grade and I was that kid who was so bad in school because I could sing. I was like, “I don’t need to learn math, honey. I’m going to make it.” [laughs] My music teacher was like, “Ester, you need to pay attention in class.” I’m like, “No miss lady, ’cause I can sing.” I didn’t want anybody to change the way I sung. I learned by gospel CDs and by watching my momma sing; I didn’t need this teacher to tell me. I wish I had, because then I would have learned how to play the damn piano or something. I would have a couple of more things under my belt if I wasn’t so hard-headed. It was definitely in elementary school that I was singing and teachers would tell me, “Ester, you can’t sing all day in school. You can come up here and sing for us, but you are going to have to shut up after a while.”
BANKS: You know, it’s never too late. You can learn piano. You’re young.
DEAN: Every time I try to do it, I feel like I’m getting carpal tunnel. I’ve tried guitar—that hurts. You have to break your fingers to learn how to play guitar. And then piano, I just play all the black keys, like Cynthia-Rose would. [laughs]
BANKS: You said your mom and your cousin are musical too, but when did you realize that you were going to be the one to actually pursue it?
DEAN: My cousins had a group, and I’d seen them record themselves and make music. Then my mom, she did gospel plays, so I was on the road with her. It wasn’t jealousy of my mom up there, [but] of these other girls that were up there. I felt like, “I know I can sing better than y’all.” We would go during the summer in elementary and middle school, and I felt like, “Why can’t I sing? Why can’t I say a line in the play?” And I just thought, “I’m going to show everybody! Just wait.” I always liked to prove myself.
BANKS: It’s a great motivator, a very interesting motivator, that kind of envy. When you were filming the first movie, you said you felt like you were cheating on your career because you were supposed to be working on Rihanna’s album. Do you still feel like acting is cheating?
DEAN: Now I feel guilty because I want to act more than I want to write songs. I’m a person who likes to transition; I like to grow. I’ve done so much songwriting and I know how to do it, [so] it’s not as challenging as it was when I was broke, in Georgia, trying to figure it out. Acting makes me feel broke again, it makes me feel unaccomplished. [laughs] I tend to be drawn more towards things that make me grow more than the easy shit. So now I feel like writing songs is cheating on acting. It’s weird.
BANKS: You feel like you don’t have that much more to prove in the songwriting category, but in acting you still have a lot to show people.
DEAN: I’m young. You can’t just sit there and be satisfied. People are like, “You’ve got all these number ones!” “Yeah…what else?” It all translates into money, and that’s how people think of being successful, but my success, I feel like, is credit—credit for a good job. I haven’t even gotten a Grammy, yet I’ve already decided I want an Emmy.
BANKS: You’re going to get the EGOT!
DEAN: What’s an EGOT?
BANKS: The Emmy, the Grammy, the Oscar, and the Tony.
DEAN: Ooooh. That sounds fun. I want an EGOT. I’m going to put that on my vision board.
BANKS: There’s only, like, eight people in the world that have that. But you know what, Ester Dean? You can get it. I actually, 100 percent believe you can get those. [laughs] What do you want for your future? Do you want to be focusing on your own music? Write for other people? Act more? Do something entirely different?
DEAN: I’m going to become a real professional actress. Writing, I do on the weekends. That’s how fast I can write. So acting becomes my real job, writing becomes my second job, and then when I turn 50, I think I’m going to open up an interior decorating company.
DEAN: I like interior decorating. I really like to build houses. And landscaping, I like that.
BANKS: I see you’ve become a gardener on the side too.
DEAN: I just like to stay creative. Anything that can keep my mind going. With song writing now, you wait on a producer to send you a track that you fill. And you know—we went through so many tracks for Pitch Perfect—you listen and feel like “that ain’t it.” You’re waiting for somebody to give you something you can feel. As long as I can stay creative and used my mind, it can be 20 hours a day. I sleep four hours, so I’ve got 20 hours.
BANKS: I know. I got woken up at 4:07 am a week ago, and I turn on my phone, and I see you tweeting at four o’clock in the morning: “I’m up!!” Go to sleep!
DEAN: I don’t have a manager, I don’t have an agent, I don’t have any of that stuff. I want to create a management company for people like me so that they don’t have to give up the way they present [themselves], they just have someone to help them keep their business afloat. I was up studying.
BANKS: When you write a song, are you writing specifically for someone, or are you just writing a great song and then you decide who to send it to?
DEAN: I write it in different voices. I write whatever the voice sounds like that is coming out of that music, and then I’ll send it to everybody. Artists aren’t looking for you to write them something; they’re looking for you to give them something new. Rhianna don’t want you to give her what you think that she wants. She needs you to give her something that’s fresh. So you have to bend your voice and bend your personality and bend the music to make sure it sounds like it’s new to everybody.
BANKS: What was the first song you sold to another artist?
DEAN: It was a song called “Ridin” for this girl Mya. I did a lot of songs that I sold, but then they never came out and I never got paid for it. You learn real fast that the music industry, in the beginning, you’re not going to get paid for a while, and then you start getting the accolades. Someone like Rihanna takes a song and you’re like, “Oh my god!”
BANKS: Was it Rihanna taking one of your songs that put you on the map?
DEAN: Well, it was Chris [Brown] taking a song, and then after Chris took the song, I met Rihanna and Rihanna was like, “Who is this girl? I like the way she sounds. I want you to sing everything I do.” I didn’t understand what she meant by that, but she was just saying, “I like your tone. I like the way you sing stuff, so I want you to write for me, ’cause I like the way you deliver those songs.”
BANKS: You’ve worked with a lot of big people, especially in the music business. Have you ever been star-struck?
DEAN: No. I got really excited about Beyoncé, but it was Beyoncé. I think I was more in awe of how pleasant she is.
BANKS: She is the nicest girl.
DEAN: Yeah. She comes in and sits on the floor, and I’m sitting on the couch. I’m like, “Shouldn’t I be on the floor? You can take my seat…” She’s super polite. She’s my celebrity best friend that don’t know it.
BANKS: What do you sing by yourself? Do you sing in the shower?
DEAN: I tend to sing opera and showtunes in the shower. I don’t know why, but when I get in the shower I turn into this big fat opera lady. [laughs]
BANKS: Do you listen to other music when you’re writing, or is that distracting?
DEAN: I don’t really start writing until later in the night. I’m a night owl. So basically, everything I needed to feel, I’ve gotten to feel that day—every conversation I needed to have, all the music I needed to hear. The mall is good for hearing new music because you hear music everywhere. I like to walk around the mall and hear what the kids are listening to, or what’s the feel of Middle America, ’cause that’s what the mall is. Then by the time I get to the studio, I’ve processed so much that it’s time to write music.
BANKS: What’s the best career advice you ever got?
DEAN: It was Tricky Stewart about songwriting. He said, “Treat your songs like they are your prostitutes. Let them go out and do what they do.” You don’t want to get so attached to a song that you can’t let it be scrutinized. You can’t let it get changed. You can’t let it be free.” So my songs are my hookers. I can’t worry about how they are going to be treated; they just need to bring home the bacon.
BANKS: Oh my gosh. I absolutely love what you just said to me. It’s amazing.
DEAN: It’s so funny and so sad at the same time.
BANKS: I tell that to writers a lot too. They hold onto ideas really tightly, and as someone who has to take a script out into the world and try to get it made, so many people put their hands on it that by the time it actually comes to fruition everything’s a collaboration.
PITCH PERFECT 2 OPENS TODAY, MAY 15. FOR MORE ON ESTER DEAN AND HER WORK AS A SOLO ARTIST AND SONGWRITER, VISIT HER WEBSITE.