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Interview: ESKA

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The past year has been pretty crazy for singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Eska.

These 12 months have seen her releasing her self-titled album, becoming a mother and becoming a Mercury Prize Award nominee.

“Sleep?!” she laughs down the other end of the phone.

“I get about two hours a night. If I get to four, I'm very, very happy. It's not a lot!”

“It's a good problem to have, I'm not complaining. It's the nature of the work and I'm so accepting of it - you have to be.”

“I run on adrenaline. That and winging a prayer.”

Positively flows from her voice, she’s upbeat and exudes friendliness, a trait that undepins her music.

Earlier this year, ESKA dropped her debut solo album. It followed 2013’s Gatekeeper EP which led to her being called “one of the most important singers in the UK right now”.

Eska elegantly rips up any rulebook on genre.

Throughout her life she has studied, learnt and listened to numerous types of music – believing that dedicating to one is a constraint.

“I think genre is made for the industry. It doesn't help the creative.

“Unless there is a very specific intention in the creative process, if you say to yourself 'I want to create a sound like...' I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but genre is very much an industry led concept. 

“It's a way of trying to sell records and drawing people in.

“I don't think it helps the people on the other side, the artists trying to make these things when we are led by how the industry functions. 

“When you're at a point where you've made something then you know, somehow you're going to get involved with the industry mechanism.

“Until then, I think for myself it's very important that I keep away from thinking about genre or style and all of these things.”

For Eska, her strong values of creative freedom dig right back to her childhood. From a tender age she was writing songs and learning guitar, violin and piano.

“I was raised by first generation African parents. My dad had a really big record, vinyl collection. It had everything from Ahmad Jamal through to Madonna, all on vinyl. I was raised to think broadly about music and originality.

To understand that there are more than two types of music. My dad had an amazing appreciation of music!”

Eska begins to laugh, spluttering at the memory

“Like Captain & Tennille, really bizarre things!”

“Like only I knew about at my school, if I was to talk about that record collection to friends they would not have known what I was talking about.

“That was really precious, really really precious.”

Another aspect of her childhood that the musician feels grateful towards is her school and education. Speaking passionately about being exposed to a variety of styles in music from classical to contemporary repertoire.

The school listened and took notice of Eska’s talent in music and helped her to get a scholarship into a conservatoire, as well as vocal tuition.

“I feel somehow, the stars aligned and it was just right that my musical upbringing at home was mirrored at school.”

This appreciation reflects greatly in the recent album, splashed with funk and electronica.

Opening track ‘This Is How a Garden Grows’ highlights her background in jazz. It stirs delicate keys and a beautiful arrangement that is only improved by lathered caramel vocals.

Soulful, almost theatrical vocals boom throughout ‘Boundaries’ with angelic, choir backing.

Lead single ‘Rock of Ages’ carries a folksy feel in its story telling elements and gentle crooning allowing the main melody to really take centre stage.

‘Heroes and Villains’ feels the groove of reggae, spotted with dub. There’s a bluesy tone as an R&B attitude rubs in vocals.

Starting tenderly ‘Gatekeeper’ flows on soulful tones, before building to a dramatic peak of free flowing ballad. It roars, not to be tamed, with a husk in her voice both complementing and contradicting warm instrumentals.

“I really did have to dig that deep and go back to my childhood sensibilities. I'd lost that with being a professional musician. From working and being invited onto collaborations, I was going here and going there. Writing this for one person and that for another. 

“Somewhere along the way I lost the childhood sensibilities about music. I'm not saying that any of it wasn't fun or anything like that. But I was being very much led by other people, as opposed to being led by what I believe in.”

Having spent the mid of her musical career working as a guest vocalist and co-writer, it was a refreshing challenge to be free again to make her own work.

Producer and composer Matthew Herbert bluntly told her to “go away and write music that sounds like what it feels like for you to be alive today.”

Then almost a decade of writing and recording, Eska’s first solo work came to surface.

“When I think about my childhood compositions and song writing, from when I was like twelve, it didn't have the same things. In collaborating I stopped loving what I did personally because the more I got involved in the industry I thought, it doesn't want people like me.

“I thought I'm too dark, I'm getting too old, and I’m not the right size. All these things came out and I started thinking why am I in this world that makes me think that I don't know whether I'm worthy enough to present something.

“It was easy to kind of hide, be in the shadows, and be a part of other peoples work and experience greatness in that way.

“Though it was never really satisfying. It was frustrating. I had to be able to make my own artistic statements but I can't remember how to do that. The last time I was doing that and enjoying it was when I was fifteen!

“I had to go back, retrace my steps, and go back to when I remembered that I felt okay about myself. 

“I stopped feeling okay about myself. That's not a good place to create things. You can easily be led by genre, you can easily be led by industry expectation. I didn't want that, I just wanted to make a statement that I could proudly put my name on.

“A lot of my collaborations started off, the intention was for it to be my project. As we moved along the way I was feeling in the collab, it was less and less about me and I couldn't put my name to anything.

“So when it came to naming this record it felt the most sensible thing to name it as myself. It was a statement of intent. Yes, this is me saying 'me Eska, certified!' I mean every note of it and I mean every word.”

And it shows. Deeply personal lyrics ooze from the core, and music plays in harmony with them weaving effortlessly.

Her own flourish adds a new leash of life to every track.

From the twinkling, homely opening ‘One afternoon in London’ of ‘To Be Remembered’. To the lullaby feel of ‘So Long Eddy’ that could so easily be adopted by a Church choir.

However, ESKA confides in how as a young Zimbabwean in Lewisham had its challenges.

“Being black and British, you grow up with a slight sense of alienation anyway.

“Particularly if you're of the few generations here, but even then you've got this heritage and it's something to embrace. But at the same time in terms of music and musical identity we're often kind of encouraged to look to African/American culture.

“Growing up, not only just growing up, but as a young person and creatively I've had to reference on my cultural identity.

“I go well look, the way that I've done jazz and I've done hip hop and I've done these genres but that's not my culture and that's not my heritage.

“That's African/American culture.

“I'm very appreciative of that music, but if I'm to say something and put a mark on the world and it be really a statement of who I am. Then it's got to sound like it's coming from where I'm from.”

“How do I do that when I'm bombarded by these expectations? Just because I'm black that my music has to sound a particular way. I feel actually I can park that, and still take from those wonderful sources but not be afraid to be myself and pull on my English heritage and my upbringing. So a lot of classical and folk stuff. Should I be afraid of that or not? 

“Even when I was naming the album, initially the name was 'English Sky' and I remember feeling in some way.

“Why does it make feel strange to say the word 'English'? When that's what making this record was about for me? It was about representing my cultural identity and who I am.

“I'm glad that people can hear that England is in there and London in there. As well as those things that have been borrowed elsewhere. They can see this is someone from somewhere else, that's truly for me a reflection of being a Londoner.”

For Eska, everywhere is a classroom. With an “it’s there so take it” approach to seeking inspiration.

Eska manages to keep control of her music, using her dynamic thinking from her degree in Maths but allowing the experimental curiosity of her childhood to take hold.

Having set up her own record label Earthling Recordings to release her music, she is deadly serious when she says “I have a label run out of my kitchen!”

Speaking of the Mercury Prize Award nomination, she explains:

“It's the award that I wanted, and that's the truth.

“It's the one place that I wanted recognition from.

“The other ones, if they were come - great. But Mercury is what I was hoping for!

“Every year there's controversy over the process of the Mercury. It still feels like the one award for independent artists like me.

“For someone like me to get on the radar at that level, this is the only award that is going to look out for someone like me. Where I feel historically there have been those independents that have been given a moment to shine through, for people to realise that there's great music being made and independently. It doesn't necessarily have to have the million dollar support that other records have, it's important that somewhere this kind of music can shine through potentially.

“I'm very, very delighted. Particularly because of how long it's taken for me to get to this point and to express myself, in many ways I feel this is for the little guys. I hope it's an encouraging thing for other artists who want to break whatever rule book.”

So that’s what she does. Breaking the rule book for the little guys to follow lead, and there’s something bravely humble about that.




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