ESKA is the woman behind one of the most beautiful, challenging, and original records of the year so far. Her self-titled album blends its creator's spectacular voice with a dizzying array of musical genres, including funk, folk, psychedelia, experimental music, soul...I could go on.
This mesmerising musical stew has been rewarded with deafening hollers of critical approval (at time of writing, ESKA has a Metacritic score of 82, indicating 'Universal Acclaim'), and after years of co-writing and featuring on other people's tracks, Eska Mtungwazi has finally stepped into a spotlight of her own.
I recently sent ESKA a few questions about her amazing album, and she was kind enough to supply me with some answers. So, without further preamble...
Why did you decide to name the album after yourself?
It has taken over 150 released titles (as a co-writer or featured artist) for me to arrive at this album. 'ESKA' felt like the most appropriate title for a work that finally reconciled my artistic and cultural identity.
Is there a narrative or theme that ties these songs together?
On closer lyrical inspection there's a city and a river, the colours blue and red, references to mythological characters. The work as a whole sets me up as a heroine in my own quest. I suppose the quest was my journey making this album - I drew those conclusions once the record was complete.
I've seen cryptic references to something called 'English Skies' on Twitter - what's that?
It's not really cryptic; that was the original working title of my album. I had previously used the material to create a staged song-cycle with directors Struan Leslie and Simon Deacon. We unpacked the lyrics, using them as a 'script' in order to find a narrative for the performance using an 80-voice choir, a 5-piece band, and some sound and visual design. English Skies premiered at Southbank to a sold out Queen Elizabeth Hall.
What's your favourite song of the ten on the album?
Each song has its own merits. I like Shades Of Blue because it was the one song that I intentionally wanted to sound like a pop song, although I also was trying to be subversive in maintaining a 15/4 time signature - unorthodox for a pop format.
I did the arrangement in Logic and then got my band to replay it. I try to create an interesting sound world and then spend time letting my voice check out the parameters. I tend to write the music before the topline or lyrics. The refrain ("How we all would love to be remembered'") was the first lyric that came to mind. After that, I spent an age trying to figure out what the song was going to be about.
Are the people named on the album - Evelyn, Eddy - real or fictional?
They are whoever you desire them to be.
She's in the Flowers sounds a bit like a murder ballad - is that the case, or have I grossly misunderstood?
I like that idea - not something I would have come up with, so thanks for the inspiration! It's an amalgam of several ideas, as is the case for many of the lyrics on the album; the death of a young man's mother from a terminal illness and Persephone returning from Hades.
Which other artists were you listening to when you were writing and recording this LP?
Standout records were The Zombies, Ike & Tina Turner, Al Green, Sly & The Family Stone, Laura Nyro, Free Design, and Singers Unlimited.
A lot of these songs come with fairly complex arrangements - how are you recreating them live?
I love the challenge of trying to make this material work live. Instrumentation is limited to a 4/5-piece band using minimal playback.
Any concrete plans for album #2?
I'm writing continually but in the middle of one album cycle already - I reckon the next work will clearly reveal itself as the year unfolds.
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You can buy ESKA's album here. And you definitely should.