Masterfully created with classical finesse, the skilled musicianship Eska exhibits on her self-titled debut album feels unparalleled. Challenged by acclaimed musician and producer Matthew Herbert to write a record, which emotionally demonstrated what it felt like to be alive in the world today, the deeply soulful and spiritual musical journey then unfurled into a genre entirely of its own. Sharing her deeply personal thoughts on the expansive opportunities on offer to those curious of mind, Eska's only demand for her creative commission was to write a body of music that felt original and organic.
Single-handedly writing, playing, and arranging a wide-ranging orchestration of instruments, the exotic blends of international sounds that play out on the eponymous album take Eska's audience on a visceral journey. Introducing a plethora of unorthodox harmonies and tempos, she flips chart music the bird and ascends higher into a mysterious and magical cloud of mind-warping, heavenly-chimed heights. This is a deeply personal and monumental album with universal appeal, and it's one that anyone—any age, background, or taste—can relate to.
Interview by Milly McMahon (@MillyMcMahon)
Which track touches you the most deeply on the album, and why?
"Boundaries" will always affect me the most deeply. I'm very proud of that as a composition, and the arrangements it incorporates. I remember when I had worked out the instrumental orchesterals, I had composed that on Logic and I didn't intend to get a string or a horn section nor woodwind, or any of that. I'd never worked with instrumentation before but Matthew [Herbert] was very encouraging of that and he thought we could do it. He knew Logic was great but that it couldn't beat the real thing. I was a bit intimidated by the thought of doing that, but I'm actually really glad that we ended up getting an orchestra. I remember feeling completely proud of that, hearing the French horn and woodwind session playing; it made me unafraid to realise my dreams and that happened because of Mathew. No ideas were too overt for him.
You have a degree in Maths—has that informed the way you make music, in any way?
Education can be a real curse for making music, but it can be equally positive and negative. Sometimes, the more you know can get in the way a bit. Some of the most talented music makers I've made music with aren't necessarily academic about their approach to music, and that's what excited me. They aren't just listening to something and all the rules pop up. They feel their ideas, the technical does not bombard them with with the 'yes' and 'no' and 'do's' and 'dont's'. If anything, for me, post education is about trying to suspend everything you know and become a child again.
With all the information I've acquired, I'm trying to find the really childlike approach that you can hear with artists like Captain Beefheart. You can appreciate that he's come from an art background but you can also hear this manic side that's all about real freedom, which is really childlike and daring in a way that only a child could be. That's the only place I want to stay in. If any knowledge helps remind me of that, then that's fine. If it does the opposite, I'm not very interested. Having said that, there have been parts of my life which have been all about being academic and having to learn and I've enjoyed that and still find that learning interests and excites me. I do still enjoy learning about shapes in harmonies; that still fascinates me. You only know when the music is good from valuing your ears, and no amount of cash can help you with that.
In education, there is a right and a wrong. You went back into teaching after working as a producer and writing for musicians before that, to center yourself. I wondered how teaching allowed you to be more concise with knowing what sound you wanted to go on to produce. You have said, previously, that you had lost your way trying to write the music you were sure you wanted to make. How did teaching reignite your creative understanding of self?
Teaching gave me time to have my own thoughts, so I wasn't on the road on other people's projects and had time and money to focus on myself. But at the same time, it was all about the wonder of teaching which still, for me, is the best profession in the world. There's a wonder about teaching that will always make me laugh. But it wasn't a direct correlation; the time I needed to not listen to other people was very important. My ears are very sensitive, you see, so if I work on another project then I'll be influenced by that sound and way of thinking and its very hard to find yourself in that. I bombarded myself with that for 10 years and I learned a lot, but one of the downsides is that I lost that childlike innocence and approach to hearing myself. After speaking to Matthew, him posing the question to me "Go and write music which is all about how it feels to be alive today", I remember knowing that's where I needed to get back to. A place of wonder, a place of childhood, delighting in just one chord that I could play for hours. I just knew that I wanted to get excited about my own ideas and not being afraid to own them.
There were dozens and dozens of songs that I gave to Matthew which had too many affectations coming from a specific genre; hip-hop or R&B. Too overt for me to own them anyway. When I was thinking about trying to get back to that childlike sensibility, I thought about the music I grew up listening to and I didn't grow up listening to hip-hop. If I was doing that music, I felt like I was putting it on, not working it. Even jazz... These were genres I was invited to get involved with. It wasn't my roots music, it was just about trying to enjoy music again. Just listening and writing for 18 months, I was like a child in the sand pit bouncing around from the swimming pool to the climbing frame. Musically, this album feels like a kid in a play park, enjoying it all—not just one element, but the whole experience. As a songwriter, I was just trying to find the best sound to fit a song.
I was listening to a conversation you had on NTS about the narrowing spectrum of genres young people are blinkered to, and you mentioned grime. I wondered what your thoughts were on the lyrical focus of commercial music reaching young people today, and if you thought perhaps grime was too aggressive?
I think there's room for aggression in music and all forms of expression in music. Music should reflect our emotions, angst and all of those things. I would always encourage young people to express themselves in music; it's a lot safer than the alternative. Go for it: rap, sing, dance your heart out. The thing that saddens me, from an educational perspective, is when it feels like people haven't been shown an alternative, sometimes there's dumbing down in the education system. It doesn't get beyond allowing impressionable people going beyond what they want that's immediately satisfying. I think it's demeaning to young people to think that they cant or wont learn more, if you find a way of showing them how. I've seen it before: people getting excited by music they didn't know. You don't have to feel limited by your background. My life started out in a bed-sit in Blackheath!
I come from a working class background and my parents worked really hard. English is my second language, but I was very fortunate to have teachers who were very open-minded to the music young people were listening to; but they ferociously challenged us about what to hear and think and showed us alternatives. That's the reason I got the opportunity to explore other things... There's a huge world out there. If education should be anything, it should demonstrate how big and unlimited the world is—be it through art, science, or music. The world is your oyster. For me, what I love, is the London thing; the way we have an incredible melting pot of culture, the way cultures collide and create genres that evolve from decade to decade. The digital age, and how much more accessible music creation is, it's fantastic that young people should have access to it all. I had access to a violin for eight years, a cello for five years, a youth orchestra. Some people don't have that.
She's already playing the keyboard! She gurgles her way though her dad's album as well [laughs]. Wonder has huge amounts of personality and is in her smiling phase right now. So cute!