How an identity crisis propelled Eska towards Mercury Prize nomination
- Credit: Archant
After feeling overshadowed by her past collaborations, the musician finally has a voice of her own, writes Alex Bellotti
It’s sometimes hard to gauge why an artist entered the music industry, aside from the fact that they like music and are (ideally) pretty good at it. With Eska Mtungwazi, however, the intention is crystal clear; art is a form of self-expression, and often comes at the expense of time, money and the fragile sense of your own identity.
One of the lesser-known offerings from this year’s Mercury Prize list, the south Londoner’s debut record, Eska, is an extraordinary achievement. Soulful, spiritual, earthy; it purposely skips across genre, using sound like a child throwing paint across a canvas. (The soaring folk anthem Gatekeeper is a perfect example: few songwriters could feature backing vocals shouting ‘wheee’ like they’re flying down a waterslide and get away with it.)
The record’s back story is similarly compelling. Having collaborated for over a decade with the likes of Grace Jones, Nitin Sawhney and The Cinematic Orchestra, Eska had built up a reputation as one of the most adaptable musicians around. When it came to sending her long-awaited solo material to producer Matthew Herbert, however, she suddenly found her diverse back catalogue had eradicated any sense of her own musical identity – and the effect was unnerving.
“I realised at that point – and it was very scary, and made it deeply upsetting – that I genuinely couldn’t put my name to any of this stuff,” says the 44-year-old ahead of her upcoming show at Islington Assembly Hall. “They weren’t really me at all – they were me in collaborations or me just messing about, but where the genre was leading the song rather than the other way round.
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“I thought I needed to get back to my childhood song writing passion, where it was just purely about thinking, ‘I like these sort of chords’ and that was it, full stop, not thinking about style or anything like that.I really had to do some serious soul searching and in the end, the conclusion of sending all that stuff was saying, ‘Scrap it all, none of it’s going to make the record that I know is there inside me’.
Working as a teacher, the musician went back to basics, taking her lead from playful experimentalists such as Captain Beefheeart. For 18 months, she spent her time writing songs and learning new skills such as jazz piano to get back in touch with the thrill of the new.
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Having moved from Zimbabwe to Lewisham when she was two-years-old, the process also involved what Eska calls “reconciling to culture”.
“I’m black, I’m British, I’ve grown up playing classical music and listening to my dad’s eclectic vinyl collection – what sort of music does someone like that make? Do they make an R&B record? How would they, because how could that relate?
“With questions like that I was trying to challenge myself. What are the things you’ve borrowed or learned from, and what’s part of your creative DNA? What would happen if you drew from that well – not the begged and borrowed bit, but your roots and heritage?”
The eventual result was an intimate portrait of what it means to be Eska in 2015: a celebration of being a modern, multicultural Londoner, grounded in the deeper folk heritage of music and of spiritual figures like Persephone and Jonah.
Even once the songs were in place, recording them required another burst of ambition. “No one was interested in putting out a record of mine,” Eska explains, and so she invested a sum of £20,000 into her own music label, Earthling Records, which saw the release of her Gatekeeper EP in 2013.
The EP attracted fans in the form of DJ Gilles Peterson, Jamie Cullum and Laura Mvula, and – following the birth of her baby Wonder – and proved enough for Eska to be picked up by Naim Edge Recordings, who helped give her full debut the platform it deserved.
For Eska, the Mercury nomination has not only seen her album’s popularity soar (it enjoyed a 3000 per cent increase in streams in the three days following the announcement), but also vindicated the long journey to create it.
“I found it very difficult explaining my narrative, because I’d worked with so many people in the past, they kept overshadowing anything I was really trying to say through my work,” she adds.
“I thought, ‘Well I need to not say who I am, I just need to do it and let people engage with that’, and I’m just so overwhelmed at the reception. It’s a great affirmation and acknowledgement that maybe the definition that I brought to myself has some substance to it.”
Eska plays the Islington Assembly Hall on November 27. For tickets and full details, visit islingtonassemblyhall.co.uk