Some artists appear to be more than a person. Their music can tap into some pre-existing older power that is arresting and irresistible.
This is wholly true of Eska, the Zimbabwe-born folk singer from south London who has entranced Gilles Peterson, Jamie Cullum and many others since arriving on the scene in 2013 with her debut EP 'Gatekeeper'. Collaborations with Cinematic Orchestra, Zero 7 and Bobby McFerrin followed and Peterson even went as far as naming her "one of the most important singers in the UK right now". When she strikes up her earthy folk and soul the effect is transcendental, channelling the elements – a taster of this can be found in her phenomenal performance in a 'Barn Session' for 'In the Woods' festival.
In the lead up to the May release of her eponymous debut album, it's no surprise that her talents now see her writing for Grace Jones – in her words "an enormous, artistic spirit". Eska's musical talents are only matched by a deep consideration of what it means to be a singer today and her eloquent answers below make for one of the most fascinating interviews you will read this year.
Ahead of her London gig at 'Rich Mix', R$N asked her about her craft, her influences and, of course, writing for Grace Jones;
What are the strongest themes that come out in your music?
There's a strong identification with London, nature, life-cycles, mythology and the colour blue. Musically, it's an amalgam of all the things I've loved since childhood, particularly various styles of choral singing and vocal production.
In your songwriting do you like to tell stories or do you try to evoke a feeling?
Both are significant to me. Songwriting and production is architectural – I enjoy word and sound painting ie sculpting sounds around lyrics and vice versa.
What made you decide to release your upcoming album independently?
It is actually a joint release with my label, Earthling Recordings and Naim Edge Recordings. In Earthling I have a permanent home for my creative output where I get to handpick all collaborators – that's an empowering and important position to be in as an artist.
How much work has that involved for you personally (on top of creating the music)?
It's a 24 hour, 7 day a week commitment – my life – and I love it!
It seems you have attracted some high profile followers such as Gilles Peterson, what does that support mean to you?
Gilles Peterson has been supportive of many of my past musical collaborations but most significantly he was perceptive enough to hear very early on that there was more to me artistically than the sum of those collaborative efforts. Gilles has remained supportive throughout my developmental years. It's been rare to encounter people in the industry who have great ears alongside musical breadth and aren't listening solely with their eyes.
What have been the strongest musical influences on you? Where does your sound come from?
It comes from my cultural heritage; Zimbabwe, London, English folk music, pop music, jazz, a love of choral singing, singer-songwriters such as Minnie Ripperton, Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren and Kate Bush alongside producers such as Quincy Jones and Charles Stepney. In the immediate, it would be all the brilliant musicians I've had the privilege of 'sharpening iron' with over the years.
Even though you moved away from Zimbabwe when you were very young, do you feel it has influenced your music at all?
I'm not sure that I could gauge the extent. I do know that mbira music makes me very emotional. Zimbabwe may be a distant memory in pictures and smells – I came here when I was two-years-old – but it's the blood in my veins, no getting away from that.
Your singing uses some interesting syncopation at times – where does that come from?
I've been fascinated with vocal ensembles since childhood. My love of choral music stems from singing in choirs and madrigal groups since early teens. I led gospel choirs from the age of 16. I was very privileged to be exposed to great choral works when I was young and I've always had a huge admiration for detailed vocal arranging whether that be rainforest pygmies or works by Vivaldi.
I read you have been writing for Grace Jones – what has that been like and how did that come about?
Grace's producer Ivor Guest heard demos of my album through a mutual friend David Okumu who played on my record. Ivor got me involved alongside David to write with Grace. She has such a definite sense of her self and I'm rewarded by being around an enormous, artist spirit. That continues to be a revelation.
How do you approach writing for other artists compared to writing for yourself?
The creative flow is greatly influenced by the depth of personal connection you have with your collaborator. Facing myself has been the greater challenge, ironically.
What other artists are you listening to right now?
Most recently, I've been listening to Joy Division, Fever Ray and Actress. Although, I keep returning to Slint's Spiderland of late.
Eska performs live at London's Rich Mix 16th May. For tickets and more info click here.
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