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10 Questions For Singer-Songwriter ESKA | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions For Singer-Songwriter ESKA

10 Questions For Singer-Songwriter ESKA

Multifaceted performer on the Mercury Prize and musical humanity

ESKA: "It’s a complete and utter adventure"Jaroslav Moravec

Eska Mtungwazi (b 1971) was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Lewisham, south London, her early musical tastes inspired and shaped by her father’s vinyl collection, and her experiences singing both church music and in classical ensembles. She studied Maths originally, and has built a career incrementally, spending ten years as a session musician, and accumulating generic and stylistic influences which have shaped her hugely varied act.   

She released ESKA, her debut album, in April this year, and has found rapidly increasing acclaim for her unique blend of soul, jazz and folk, tinged with psychedelia. Championed by influential figures from the music industry from Grace Jones to Gilles Peterson, she has been played on Jamie Cullum’s radio show, and described by Laura Mvula as the “finest female vocalist in the UK”. She is on the Mercury Prize shortlist, to be decided tonight.

[MATTHEW WRIGHT] A lot of coverage describes you as the best singer people have never heard of. Does that reputation annoy you?  

[ESKA] It intrigues me that I’d be called that. There’s a story to be told, and that story is true, that was the life I’ve been living up until this point. That’s the person, the musician I was. It’s also a story that gives people hope. [The Mercury Prize nomination] turns a sad tale into something full of hope. That’s the sense I’ve had for the past few months. Your life doesn’t necessarily bloom at the point you think it’s going to. It’s inspiring.

The Mercury Prize nomination offers you a new spectrum of exposure. How will that change what you do?  

It will only change it as far as I engage in whatever opportunities come, which I pursue. The success correlates to the work I put in pre- and post-Mercury. Mercury gives you the opportunity to win in whatever way you want. My plan’s been forming over the last few weeks: meeting new people, thinking about my ambitions for the next album, touring across Europe, distributing my album in other countries, lots of potential new openings. It’s important for artists to work out for themselves what they can from these situations.  

You have an interesting vocal range, with a light, airy, nimble top end, but also a powerful, gutsy middle and bottom range. Is that something you’ve worked on?

Before making an honest musical statement I had to make an honest personal statement

Part of my background is in classical music. I started going to church at the age of 15, and had the whole gospel influence, which used my voice in this other way, and taught me to be experimental, with improvisation of passages, and long collaborative performances. It also taught me a different emotional approach from classical music. These collaborations expanded my voice, in terms of time, and agility. The experiment and collaboration was very enriching for my voice. Eventually I was at the point where, given a particular song, I would think, well I can do this straight, but my voice can do a bit more than that, and I can be more colourful. Then I tried incorporating this into my songwriting, it stretches my voice and makes it do interesting things. Once I’ve created an arrangement, I think, this is the sound world in which my voice can dance around, and I can start having fun. Sometimes I’ll record things, and I’ll surprise myself with some of the things I can do with my voice, and challenge myself to create something new.

So how does your composition process work?

The vocals are the last thing I do. I have a sense of the melody when I’m writing the arrangements, but I never know exactly how I’ll deliver them. I always improvise the melody. I wouldn’t know what I’m going for: it’s never fully formed till the final take. I may also vary a lyric from gig to gig. It’s a complete and utter adventure. When I’m live, on stage, there are songs that come alive every time I perform them. You can approach each performance like Groundhog Day, but my interest doesn’t lie in replicating my records each performance perfectly. My live performance is quite a contrast to the sound recording. I’m a different person every day, so the words in my mouth have to change from the ones I wrote five years ago. How am I going to bring it alive for a new audience? I can explore the material and shapeshift.    

Your lyrics and subject matter encompass the folkloric, pastoral, and mythical, both classical mythology and biblical stories. How does that mixture work out in practice? It’s a lot to fit into a four-minute song?

My subject is the moral of the story, and how they get used as metaphors. In “She’s In The Flowers” I’m telling the story of a man whose mother has passed away, and she doesn’t get to see him become a man. The flowers are the mother’s favourites, and the moral to the story is that she’s passed away, she has a winter, she lives in Hades for six months of the year, she returns and it’s spring. So, somehow there’s a moral in that story, and the fable mirrors the experience of the young man I’m writing about. I’ve used both the myth and the real-life story.

I’ve had to keep working until I’ve made sufficient noise to attract other people

The heritage of the story depends on what I’m trying to say. I’ve studied the usual range of myths at school, but I’ve also read African mythology, the wonderful Scandinavian stories, Finnish mythology, which is otherworldly. [Mythologist] Joseph Campbell brought them together for me, and identified the universal myth plots, that have been used in films, and so on. The mythology gives us stories we can tell in different ways. It’s the universal stories that I wanted to tell with this album. They’re so rich with big ideas. I thought it would be a powerful heritage to draw from.

You know when you’re approaching middle age because you can tell your life story in Joni Mitchell lyrics. One of the things I found so powerful is to think, when a Joni song has a particular impact on me, that she wrote that in the Sixties or Seventies, but it still has a resonance. I have no idea what she was writing about but I found myself in the song. That’s the ultimate lyricism, one who allows the listener to have their own experience.

You engage with a huge sweep of genres covering folk, jazz, soul, R&B. The opening of “This Is How a Garden Grows” (watch below), with its guitar and reverb almost sounds like country and western. Where do you feel at home?

What better way to express our humanity than say we are many things. It shows we’re still curious about who we are, right to our last breath. In my quest to articulate who I am I have to draw on many forms. I’m not a static human being who can draw on one emotion, one thought, one day. Surely when we’re delving deep into who we are we have to draw on that variety. It’s going to sound kaleidoscopic. There are going to be contradictions, happy accidents, humour, care. Some of them are not going to be amazing.

You took time out of professional music to rediscover your authentic voice, which you felt had been lost in the styles you were recording at the time. How did you recover it?

I was listening to some recordings I was making, and thinking, am I making this because it’s what I really want to do? Or is it because I’m enjoying the sound, and collaboration with this individual – which is nice – but how much of my authentic self is in this? I didn’t think I was making a genuine statement about me, who I am and how it reflects on someone who grew up in south-east London. The first great step was to take a pride in my culture. Before making an honest musical statement I had to make an honest personal statement, look in the mirror and be honest, and think, what kind of music will this person make, that’s real? I stopped running from myself.

I kept challenging myself, then the music started trickling. A musician has to encounter him/herself first, and rationalise why they’re making what they’re doing, even if the answer is just to make some money. Then they can go and make that kind of music better.

At the time I was making some R&B, hip-hop, music with African-American sensibility. I love this stuff but I don’t feel I’m doing it because it’s come to me. I’ve been invited into that world. What I’ve done since has come to me.

As well as the variety of voice and genre, you play a huge range of instruments: Wurlitzer, pianette, grand piano, harmonium, vibraphone, acoustic guitar, cuatro, DIY percussion, violin, cello, clarinet, recorder. How have you managed to learn all of these?  

I haven’t learnt them all: it’s me being officious about album credits. If you ask me what instrument I’m remotely virtuosic on, it’s none! My principal interest is in composition. Whatever is at my disposal, be it a radiator or a Yamaha P400, I’ll use to compose. That’s my motivation, and the reason that list is going to get longer. I won’t be doing a solo recital on any of them.

If you haven’t got tenacity in a business like music, it doesn’t matter how talented you are

You’ve built career without a manager, but still picked up very influential supporters, such as Jamie Cullum and Gilles Peterson. So you recommend self-management?

I never planned to still be self-managed at this point. I have my own record label and license my albums. I’ve collaborated closely on the project from beginning to end. It was never my intention to be as self-propelled as I’ve become. I wasn’t pursued by labels or managers, and I’ve had to keep working until I’ve made sufficient noise to attract other people.

It’s made me incredibly tenacious. If you haven’t got tenacity in a business like music, it doesn’t matter how talented you are. So I’m glad for the muscle, the pressure that this lack of interest has built up in me. I’ve benefited from not having the spotlight on till now. That’s exciting. Good things come to those who wait. I’m enjoying everything that’s happening right now.

You were a session musician for ten years: was that frustrating or a useful learning experience?

I learnt so much as a musician. One of the things it made me aware of is how much more the artist has to do than the musician. I’d often often retire to my hotel earlier than the artist, who still had to go to meetings and interviews. I’d be thankful it wasn’t me. It made me aware of how much responsibility the artist carries. I had to weigh up whether I was ready to carry those responsibilities for my art, to be an artist. It’s potentially crushing. I wanted to know I could do it properly.

  • ESKA will perform on the Mercury Prize Live 2015, tonight on BBC4, 9.30-10.30pm
  • Overleaf: watch ESKA perform "Gatekeeper" live at the Into The Woods 2012 Barn Sessions


Whatever is at my disposal, be it a radiator or a Yamaha P400, I’ll use to compose

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