Once upon a time, there was a first-generation British girl from Zimbabwe. Her family had moved over to an ordinary part of South London when she was a toddler. She went through life feeling different, out-of-place, someone other. When she grew up, she thought she couldn't have kids; last year, she became mother to a daughter that arrived three months early, and was small enough to fit into the palm of her hand. Baby Wonder is six months old now, and her mother, Eska, is back at work. It's going to be a big year for both of them.
But Eska's story is much bigger than that. Once upon a time, she was also a girl whose parents became a primary school teacher and a midwife. She took violin lessons in school, and was so good she got a scholarship to a local conservatoire. Her talents for singing, arranging and writing got well-known in the industry; she left it to work on her own rich, warm, ambitious, genre-hopping music. Close your eyes and it sounds like it was beamed down from the more lavish days of the '70s; it's not retro, but adventurous, experimenting with structures and lyrics, big ideas and sounds, like many popular female musicians did then, like her heroes Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell. And then comes a voice to stop time...characterful, keening, intimate, extraordinary. This is all Eska too.
There are debut albums that shudder, jump, crackle, and flame from the speakers, that are the products of a mind, heart, and talent that has something – that has everything – to say. Eska's ESKA, her first shot into the world, is one of them.
Eska Mtungwazi grew up in Lewisham, her tiny ears opening to music very early. Music was at home in the songs her parents would sing, and on Sunday afternoons, when Eska's father brought out his vinyl. Bob James, The Crusaders, Madonna, Ahmal Jamad, Wet Wet Wet...his tastes were eclectic, but not precious, an approach that rubbed off onto his daughter; her early loves were the soundtracks from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Star Wars, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and a cassette recording of Duke Ellington's memorial service off the TV. Songs of all stripes and shades jumped and swirled around her childhood, each one as exciting as the last, all of them from the same world. It was OK to love them all equally, too; she knew that. She especially loved records with lots of players on them, like Quincy Jones' Sounds and Stuff Like That, with Herbie Hancock on piano and Chaka Khan at the microphone.
As she got older, Eska threw herself into music. There was the madrigal group in school, the choir she started running at her church, and that school violin...although she knows she was an oddity up the road in fancy Blackheath. That scholarship allowed her to be different though, she knows now, allowed her to be something other than everyone else.
After a sensible maths degree, music became Eska's life. She never had to look for a gig; people always heard about her, and came to her. She sang with Grace Jones, The Cinematic Orchestra, Ty, Tony Allen, people who knew she could turn her hand to jazz, folk, soul, world music, to anything. Eska was proud to be diverse, but she always did what she was asked; as a consequence, she never knew truly what she wanted to do.
When someone called her the Queen Of Soul in print – a name didn't mean anything to her – a touchpaper was lit. She stepped back, asked herself what she sounded like, and she couldn't hear a note. She went back to her roots, started studying the records she loved...and slowly, Eska started to emerge.
The list of artists she pored over shudder, jump, crackle and flame from her now. We've already mentioned Kate and Joni, and their templates for complex, but memorable, organic, glowing songwriting. Then comes Captain Beefheart. Ella Fitzgerald. Joanna Newsom's Ys. British prog groups like Gentle Giant and early Genesis. Vocal groups like The Free Design and Singers Unlimited. Choral music. Appalachian folk. Eska started talking about her ideas with electronic musician and composer Matthew Herbert, whose Big Band she sang with, and who encouraged her to record. They put together a huge band of talented instrumentalists – one that Quincy Jones would have been proud of, she laughs – and took over Dollis Hill's Fishmarket Studios for ten days. She hadn't sent the band her songs, though, not even sketches – a decision that may have made lesser musicians get up and walk, she knows now, but these people of calibre stayed. They responded to her intricate, hook-filled compositions with the sensitivity, beauty and dynamism she was hoping for. They're also qualities these songs demand.
Finished in later sessions with producer Louis “Slipperz” Hackett and all-round renaissance man Dave Okumu (singer/guitarist in Mercury nominees The Invisible, and producer for Jessie Ware), Eska presents an extraordinary soundworld, alive with inventive, beguiling instrumentation. There's the water-filled glass bottles, broomstick and wire on a tea-chest on the languorous This Is How A Garden Grows. There's the prepared piano and percussive radiator on the glorious Gatekeeper. There's tubular bells, Speak and Spell machines, vibraphones, handclaps rushing through the air.... and Eska herself playing violin, cello, clarinet, harmonium, cuatro, skank organ, a glockenspiel. On the wordless, a cappella Dear Evelyn, she multi-tracks her voice to make all the harmonies. Add reggae, folk and classical rhythms, and you have her influences all together. On this record, you could say, Eska found herself.
After she crafted her mesmerising musical landscape – the kind of place where complicated time signatures couch radio-friendly songs, like the stunning Shades Of Blue – Eska then added her bold, dauntless lyrics. Ideas from nature and mythology surge through them: from Joseph Campbell's bible about narratives in literature, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Gatekeeper); the queen of the underworld Persephone (She's In The Flowers); a heroine on a crusade to tear down walls around her heart like Joshua in the Battle of Jericho (Boundaries). Personal stories simmer too: a farewell from a friend to his ex-girlfriend (So Long, Eddy), a thank you to Eska's sister (Dear Evelyn), the death of another friend's mother. Here were individual worlds within bigger worlds, small moments made universal, and a record reminding you of the connections, the miracles, of if all.
Last summer, as the album was getting ready to be born, someone else came along, too. Wonder's arrival last July was after her mother's very short, very difficult pregnancy; Eska had to make decisions in Wonder's care that could have ended her life. She then spent months looking after her baby in hospital, at which point something clicked. This mother now knew how precious life really was – Wonder made her see that with clarity. That meant her record, her life-force, had to breathe by itself too. Wonder is now six months and well, and going on tour with her mother this summer, Eska's sister by their side. It's going to be a big year for all of them.
Eska's ESKA is a record full of wonder in itself. It is a record to pore over for hours, days, weeks, a lifetime. It is a place where you can lose yourself in the details, and Eska's rich, warm ambition. It is a record made by an ordinary woman with an extraordinary talent, spreading her wings at last, letting go, taking flight.
My Rock of Ages too many nights I’ve tried
Fighting sleep with a crowded mind
Several days, all through the night
I’m sure I’ve heard the dark angels hum
With the melody groaning I couldn’t keep my rest
With the melody strong, nearly made me lose my breath
Early in the morning, meeting You in the Garden
The look of love and lust was in her eyes, yes
Hid away when she knew her shame
But I too was naked in that rising sun
And You still hear me now?
I wish I feared You more than this fear inside of me
Then I’ll be a witness; can I be a witness to someone?
There’s no darkness dark enough to hide
From You, my Rock of Ages
And would You be all I need?
Yes I believe it, despite this constant flight in me
I’m asking, would You be all I need?
Though the melody is growing strong
Thieves coming out in the night
And they’ve been trying, trying to take me out before my time
They call You Rock of Ages
All Consuming Fire, all consuming fire
A thousand times that I am falling
Will be a thousand times that I will rise
And You hear me now?
I wish I feared You more than this fear inside I see
Then I’d take a good look
I’d take a good look in Your eyes as You see through mine
Ooh, You’re my Rock of Ages
Ooh, my rock, my right, my anchor holding