Artist Q & A: Eska

The last time I saw ESKA perform was May 2012 in English Skies, an autobiographical body of work that included an 80 piece vocal ensemble. It was magnificent.

At the end of May, ESKA – described as ‘one of the most important singers in the UK right now’ by Giles Peterson – will sing and play keyboards alongside Joe Newman (guitar), Jose Joyette (drums) and Andy Hamill (basses), performing original material at Birmingham’s The Hare & Hounds as part of the Jazzlines programme. In conversation with ESKA recently we talked about how her music came about.

“I wrote this body of work after collaborating for many years as a side player and songwriter in a lot of bands and for a lot of artists. I never started out thinking I was going to become a collaborator, it just began happening. I enjoyed it because I was learning a lot but it became my safety net, I had lot of confidence issues, I was so scared of being myself on stage – I felt so much safer if it was, say, Courtney Pine’s gig, but if it was my gig, I felt people were looking at me differently”.

“Matthew Herbert said to me ‘I want you to go away and write music that sounds like what it feels like in life for ESKA to be alive today’. It was the first time I’d been given a creative brief and I couldn’t hear anything instantly in my head. So here’s someone asking me what it sounds like to be me and I thought: I don’t know, but I’ve spent years doing this – what was I doing it for if I can’t answer that question?”

“I changed my schedule, I got off the collaboration train, I taught for three days a week and spent the rest of the time finding out what I sound like. It was the best gift I could have given myself”.

“My intention isn’t from a genre – I’m not trying to write a jazz song or a folk song, that’s not where my impulse comes from, the impulse comes from my spirituality. From the age of 17 I’ve been a devotional singer, leading people in worship and that’s a huge part of my life. From my late teens I suddenly had this epiphany that changed what music was about for me. It stopped being about all that classical technical stuff – seeing an old lady stand up and give her testimony then sing a hymn completely out of tune and there’s not a dry eye in the house!”

“Searching for a genuine, honest place from which to pour out your voice and for an audience to connect with that – they are looking for this other connection with you as a musician – your job as a devotional singer is to make this happen so that you all get to this place together, so that everyone has an encounter, an individual experience”.

When I ask ESKA about finding inspiration for the songs she told me that she collects words and phrases. “The funny thing is, it might be a word I’ve said 50,000 times but then I suddenly hear it in a different way – I’m always trying to somehow summarise the everyday thought, a thought that anyone can have, a universal thought, but in an intimate turn of phrase that I’ve heard someone say or that might have come to me.”

As evidenced on the GateKeeper EP, ESKA has absorbed from early influences such as Kate Bush and David Sylvian, but her music is so clearly her own voice, so very unique that to align her with another is pointless. “On one level I have established myself in collaborations but in many ways I’m a new artist and it all feels very fresh to me. I’m excited about standing there and owning the stage as myself, I’m confident about the material and I feel really good about that – at last!”

Jazzlines presents ESKA on Thursday 29 May at The Hare & Hounds

Words: Sara Colman for THSH/Jazzlines