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From working in a pancake house to becoming Justin Timberlake’s protege, Dutch singer Esmée Denters’s story is the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. But, she says, she’s no passing fad
It’s certainly a venue befitting a superstar-in-waiting. Behind Esmée Denters and her band, floor-to-ceiling windows frame a view of the fringes of the Las Vegas strip, with the neon and streetlights of the city’s western suburbs flattening into the darkness of the distant mountains. Inside a luxury suite, on the 60th floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, Denters is working hard to get the small audience – there are maybe two dozen people in the room – to concentrate on her rather than the mesmerising scene behind her. She seems to be equal to the task, but then again, as newcomers go, she’s unusually used to winning over both considerably bigger crowds, and smaller but much more influential ones.
She hasn’t released her first album yet, but Denters is already five years into her career. A 21-year-old from the village of Oosterbeek, near Arnhem in Holland (whose sole world-famous export before her was the secretive group of industrialists and world leaders that took its name from the village’s De Bilderberg hotel, which staged their first meeting in 1954), she was working as a waitress in a pancake house when videos of her singing cover versions started attracting millions of views on YouTube. Offers of record deals rained in, and the one that she opted for was from a new imprint with no track record, but one very significant selling point: it was owned by Justin Timberlake.
“With big record labels, you’re more like a number,” says Denters, chatting after her short acoustic performance. “Justin wanted to be more like a mentor or a big brother – to really be there. He started from such a young age and knows so much about the business that I was like, ‘What better mentor to have?'”
Rather than capitalise on all that internet buzz, Timberlake and the small team at his Tennman label have instead opted to take their time and develop Denters in an old-school music business manner. Instead of rush-releasing an album of new versions of the covers she had built her online reputation by performing, the majority of the all-new songs on Outta Here, her debut, were written or co-written by her. She’s also been backing up that online presence with the kind of hard slog new artists have traditionally undertaken – a US tour with the pop/rock act Honor Society was followed by UK dates with N-Dubz.
“Esmée’s a great example of someone who’s a ‘people’s choice’ kind of thing,” says Ken Komisar, a music industry veteran hired by Timberlake to run Tennman. “When we first signed Esmée, a bunch of different TV networks came to us and said, ‘Hey! Let’s do a reality series on her!’ But there’s a shared emotion and spirit that goes on in the creative process, and the idea of opening that up to the public without any controls was something we didn’t see as a benefit. Plus, they would have tried to do the kind of sensationalised reality series that diminishes the quality and credibility of an artist. That wasn’t our instinct.”
Another instinct the Tennman camp have trusted is not to allow Denters to end up being seen solely as Timberlake’s protege. There have been occasions where his star power has shone directly on her. After she convinced him to sign her when they met backstage at one of his Chicago gigs in 2007, Timberlake booked Denters to support him on his European dates (her first ever live performance was in a 55,000-capacity football stadium) and his patronage helped secure her an appearance on Oprah.
But Timberlake has preferred to take a background role: heavily involved in songwriting, production and A&R, but only minimally featured, often as a backing vocalist, on Denters’s album.
Tennman have extensively filmed the recording of the album, and Timberlake is not shy about the public getting to see him at work with her in the studio, but he’s keen to maintain a low-profile approach to her promotion.
Timberlake is in Las Vegas at the same time as Denters, hosting and headlining an all-star gig at Mandalay Bay’s O2-size concert venue to benefit a string of children’s hospitals he supports, and stepping into Bob Hope’s shoes to front a simultaneous PGA Tour golf event in the suburb of Summerlin, which aids the same charity.
Mandalay Bay’s pool area is festooned with banners advertising his 901 vodka brand; in another, even larger suite, the Memphis-based luggage company Ful, which counts Timberlake among its investors, is presenting its new range of golf bags and backpacks (including a model called the Tennman).
He’s spotted on the golf course as well as on the benefit show stage, but there’s no sign of him at Denters’s gig, or later on, when she performs a song from the balcony of a jam-packed nightclub in the upmarket Bellagio casino. “He casts a big shadow,” Komisar admits. “But his interest is in the creative part of it – the production and writing, and nurturing the artist, giving them some direction to hone where their individual imagination goes.
“After that, the artist has to live and thrive on their own. It’s about growth and development as opposed to the quick kill: his measures of success are over the life of a career. It’s not ‘hands off’ so much as wanting them to stand as a real individual talent, and hopefully giving them the confidence to do it themselves. He’s said, ‘I’m not gonna be Puffy.’ That flag-waving, banner-carrying – that’s not who he is; he doesn’t do it for himself so why would he do it now, for someone else?”
A cynic might see this as Timberlake wanting to have his cake and eat it – to profit from new artists but not get so close that he’s tainted by them if they fail. But Tennman isn’t just one of those vanity boutique imprints big labels give to popular artists in an attempt to retain their services: it’s his own money he’s spending so it’s absolutely in his interests to get things right.
Set up by Timberlake after his bid to buy his hometown imprint, Stax, ran aground, Tennman puts in the writing, recording and artist development groundwork, then licenses the resulting records through majors (its partner on Denters’s record is Interscope). And while her music – a pop-inflected take on au courant R&B and soul – isn’t a million miles from the sort of stuff Timberlake has made his name with, the other artists Tennman has signed (they include the singer-songwriter Matt Morris, whose heart-on-sleeve songs occasionally drift into the experimental atmospherics of Radiohead or Coldplay, and the rock-rap band Free Sol) won’t necessarily benefit as much from the association.
So, up there in front of that glittering cityscape backdrop, Denters is on her own. It’s a challenge she feels ready to meet.
“I’ll never leave this whole story behind me,” she says. “It’s what made me. But at some point, people have to get to know Esmée instead of knowing the covers and about Oprah and Justin Timberlake. That’s a lot of pressure, and the record’s got to live up to that.”
Esmée Denters’s single, Admit It, is released on 28 December; the album Outta Here is out on 11 January. Both are released by Tennman/Interscope