Learning to be ESKA

Photo: Rebecca Hurt

As a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist performer and producer, Eska Mtungwazi – or ESKA – has shared stage and studio with a myriad of artists including MOBO award winner Soweto Kinch, music pioneer Nitin Sawhney, jazz musician Courtney Pine and avant-garde legend David Sylvian. Her guest appearances and collaborations encompass the far ends of the musical spectrum, from the sombre deep house soundscapes of Free Range Records’ beat maestro Jimpster to trip-hoppy downtempo heads Zero 7.

In the summer, she led the Goldsmiths Ensemble as opening act on the Holts stage at Glastonbury, joined by Matthew ‘Doctor Rockit’ Herbert and his Big Band. Her passion for music saw the launch of creative music company ‘The Wheel‘, directed by Eska herself – and now, at last, she is setting time aside to produce a record that is all her own: ‘English Skies’ will be out in late Autumn.

ESKA attributes much of who she is and what she does today to her childhood, fondly referring to her father and the records he played as her “earliest memory of music”.

“He would usually play them on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t realise it then, but he had such a big collection with a taste in everything: jazz, pop, avant-garde, he had it all. You would hear all these different colours and shapes coming from the living room,”  laughs Eska. “His appetite for music was very healthy and he found beauty in everything. Growing up with that, my brother and sister and I, we’ve all got those qualities.”

Zimbabwe-born and London raised, ESKA was encouraged by her parents to become involved with the creative arts. “They wanted us to have experiences they never had. They didn’t expect artistic and musical genius from us, but they wanted our lives to be as enriched as possible. So I started with the violin, picked up the cello, then piano and recorder. I was quite interested in classical music at that age,” she says, reminiscing about her time with the school orchestra.

“My parents sing, everyone sings. The whole family would sing and write together. I think everyone should sing and employ their voices whether they’re happy or sad, since singing is fundamental to life. I mean, for every occasion there’s probably a song,” says Eska. She regularly tells the Ensemble that singing comes from the heart and soul. “It’s not about talent or how you sound or look. There’s no age restriction. It’s about how you feel.”

ESKA’s relationship with music changed fundamentally when she was introduced to gospel music at 16 and became a Christian. “Both things had a huge impact on me. I had a sense of spiritual dynamism. They say music is about talent talent talent, but Christianity brings in a different dimension. When you go to church, they don’t care about talent,” she says.

Eska – Inside Out (Odyssey Live Cover Version)

“They care about sincerity, honesty, integrity. So there I was, suddenly thinking about all these things. It was  mind-blowing. It’s not often we focus on these things. It taught me to respect music as an entity. I mean, gospel isn’t about notes on the page. It’s about the spirit.”

ESKA experienced another transformation in her university days when she encountered jazz and avant-garde music. She was in bassist and producer Anthony Tidd’s jazz-dusted hip-hop-meets-soul project Quite Sane, supporting world legends including James Brown. “We weren’t sane at all. People would always say ‘are you guys insane?’ to us, and we liked that,” laughs Eska. “Our music involved a lot of improvisation and elements of jazz, which has strong links to my spiritual encounters since jazz is about being free. I felt right at home with it.”

She also worked with pop producers and, on the side, wrote songs for church and leading choirs. “It was great doing that, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to do with my voice. I went on a sort of journey where I did it all: radio pop, jazz, dance, rock…just to get to learn more about  myself,” she says thoughtfully . “You can get lost if you have so many choices. I got used to being a side-person, which I did enjoy, but in a way I didn’t. Fear was definitely a big motivator, I wasn’t so confident. You can hide behind vocal virtuosity and get used to that, so I didn’t know how I could express myself.”

It was ESKA’s chance encounter with electronic artist Matthew Herbert, three years ago, that changed her perspectives on life. “He sat me down and said look, slow down, take your time, so I took 18 months off on a sort of soul-searching journey. I was looking and listening and learning and searching until I found all these chords and melodies that I liked. It was very strange being in my house and only being able to answer to one person. Me.”

Eska at Look At Me London

Eska live at Look At Me London

After appearing on hundreds of songs over the years, ESKA’s upcoming album will be her first time working solo. “It took a big effort to let myself find me. Some may have found themselves at a young age, but for me I’ve had to face a lot of fears. I really had to learn how to be ESKA.”

“Whenever I was playing live, I always had to perform on someone else’s request. I mean, my performance at Look At Me London night, was only my second time performing as Eska. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll find myself and learn which face of myself I want the people to see. The idea is to keep doing solo shows until I’m comfortable, and then introduce some other elements. I’m thinking of developing a theatre show around my upcoming album.”

For an album of such personal significance, she feels it deserves no less. “Theatre would be a wrong term for it. What I mean is to be able to use theatrical devices in a musical performance. I want to use audio with theatrical devices, to explore and enhance myself and what the album is about,” she says. “I feel it needs that intimacy, that touch of grace, since I’m just used to rolling up to a gig and then moving on. Now I actually have to think about these things.”

Strong themes from ESKA’s childhood underpin the album, drawing together influences from soul, jazz and pop into fairly acoustic-based arrangements featuring orchestral elements. “It’s about the idea of play and the exploration of dreams and imagination, but from an almost child-like perspective. I want to enable people to find their own meanings and help connect them to spiritual things, using my music as a transcending voice.”

ESKA is due to support Little Dragon in Switzerland in August – visit her official website for information on upcoming London gigs.

Stay tuned for a review of her upcoming solo album ‘English Skies’.

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