Earlier this year, Oakland singer-songwriter Kristina Esfandiari released "Oven" as the lead single on Uncontrollable, the latest album from her solo project, Miserable. The languid track is beautifully melancholic, with swathes of droning, reverb-laden guitar nearly drowning out Esfandiari's sorrowful, breathy singing. It quickly made its rounds on social media and received rave reviews from outlets such as Noisey and Spin. But instead of celebrating the song's positive reception, Esfandiari found herself in a sudden panic.
"I hid under my blanket and cried. I was so embarrassed," she admitted in a recent interview. "Those were like journal entries, basically. ... And I was just like, 'Why the fuck did I do this? Why did I put myself out there like this? This is, like, really intense. Why do I continue to do this?'"
In person, Esfandiari is stoic and exudes a self-assured calm. Throughout our conversation, she politely asserted her boundaries when I asked certain questions, careful about how much information she cared to divulge. But in contrast, her confessional songwriting is an intensely emotional outlet.
The former singer of the shoegaze band Whirr, Esfandiari also fronts the doom band King Woman. She started the well-regarded Oakland quartet as a way to process her childhood trauma. As she has disclosed in many interviews, she was raised in a Charismatic Christian sect that enforced strict gender roles and authoritarian ways of thinking — which, now in her late twenties, she says she's still unlearning.
"The acts [my parents] did in the church were very bizarre, traumatizing for a child," she reflected. "I don't really want to talk about specifically what they did. But it was just scary and dark."
While the lyrical themes Esfandiari explores in King Woman and Miserable have both evolved since each project's inception, Miserable hones in on Esfandiari's romantic life. Her work under the moniker is rife with themes of pain, betrayal, and heartbreak.
She started the project in 2014 and released two EPs, Halloween Dream and Dog Days, that year. Uncontrollable, which came out at the end of April, is Miserable's first full-length album. The new record's atmospheric, molasses-paced guitar playing — distorted as if filtered through a wind tunnel — and absence of drums on many of the tracks underscore these heavy lyrical themes. Its sound is relentlessly dour but also gorgeous.
Esfandiari revealed that the tracks on Uncontrollable mostly center around one particular previous relationship — where a lack of closure compounded her devastation and left her questioning her instincts. The album unabashedly indulges in this sadness, marinating on the feeling and withholding an optimistic conclusion to complete its narrative arc ("Oven" invokes the means of Sylvia Plath's famous suicide).
It might sound melodramatic, but in a fast-paced world where we're encouraged to triumphantly bounce-back from negative experiences without skipping a beat, listening to Uncontrollable can be validating. The album reminds us that sometimes we need to experience our difficult emotions instead of avoiding them.
"It's like, 'No. I'm not okay. Nope. Not okay. And that's okay that I'm not okay,'" said Esfandiari of her lyrics. "Honestly, it was very fucking sad. I was consumed by sadness when I recorded that, to the point where my friends had to be like, 'Kristina, get out of that place.'"
Esfandiari described the recording process of Uncontrollable as "draining." Creating its foggy, atmospheric sound required recording many layers of vocals. That part of the process took an emotional toll on the singer, as she repeatedly had to return to the low mental state she was in when she originally wrote the lyrics.
However, Esfandiari said that fans' reactions at shows made her feel affirmed, and she was heartened by the fact that her music has helped others get through their own personal struggles. "I don't really understand it, but when I was on tour, people were coming up to me saying all sorts of crazy shit," she laughed. "Like, 'Your record got me through my divorce.' Crazy shit! I was just like, 'I hate that record. I don't know why you like it so much, but thanks!'"
While Esfandiari's music is deeply emotional, her tough, self-possessed demeanor subverts the stereotype of female vulnerability as a sign of weakness — and she's unafraid to stand up for herself and other women. She recently returned from a King Woman tour with Wax Idols, a popular, female-fronted new wave band from the Bay Area. The two groups began that tour as openers for legendary metal band Pentagram, but split off from it after both bands accused Pentagram and its team of sexist and unprofessional treatment on the road. "It was an intense tour. It did not go the way I expected it to go," she said, declining to comment further.
Esfandiari said she recently finished recording the next King Woman album, Created in the Image of Suffering, which is due out in February. In a somewhat atypical process, Esfandiari usually comes up with album and song titles before she starts writing her music. She said that she hears her songs audibly in her head before they're written, and records acoustic demos on GarageBand before developing the layers of processed vocals and instrumentation that give her sound the full-bodied, dimensional qualities it's known for.
Currently, she's working on her next Miserable album, Pink Noise, so named after the ambient sounds people listen to to help them sleep. And the feminine connotations of its title are no accident, either.
"It's very sexually charged," she said with a twinkle in her eye. "It's just about me falling in love with several different people, especially while traveling. Having many lovers. It's like a little memoir. I'm really excited about it. I wasn't really expecting that to be my next record."