Eska Mtungwazi: ‘I deferred my life for years’


Her debut album has been nominated for a Mercury prize. So why did Eska Mtungwazi, 44, take so long to make the leap from backing singer to solo artist?


‘I’ve had to find the place of African-American music in my life’: Eska Mtungwazi came from Zimbabwe to England aged two. Photograph: Julian Broad for the Observer

‘I’ve had to find the place of African-American music in my life’: Eska Mtungwazi came from Zimbabwe to England aged two. Photograph: Julian Broad for the Observer

Glance at the credits on Eska Mtungwazi’s Mercury-nominated debut album ESKA, and you’ll wonder if she’s perfected the art of self-cloning. She’s written all the songs, with a few co-writers here and there, and performs lead and backing vocals, but then that’s the deal with singer-songwriters. But supplying wurlitzer, harmonium, clarinet and tambourine, too – all on one song? Strings, cuatro, hand percussion, glockenspiel and grand piano on another? Skank organ? Rocks? (By the way, she also has a maths degree from the LSE.)

Apart from anything else, such range speaks of enormous self-confidence. And yet, she explains to me as we sit soaking up the last bit of autumn sun in Shoreditch, that’s not the whole story. Although she’s never lacked faith in her musical ability – “I had a healthy ego for that!” she laughs – believing that she could move from a highly successful career as a vocalist on other people’s work to flourish as a solo musician was a different matter. “When I try to envision who I was,” she says of her past self, “I see this scared little mouse who just wants to have a bit of cheese.”

Now 44, she’s worked for many years with artists of immense stature, including Grace Jones, Nitin Sawhney, Bobby McFerrin and Courtney Pine. But always playing on someone else’s team had its drawbacks. “While I’m very proud of my back catalogue,” she explains, “it’s tended to overshadow anything of my own. And constantly being assessed by your previous collaborations can be very hard. I’m looking forward to the day where the first few lines of an interview aren’t listing all the collaborations I’ve done.”

But with her Gatekeeper EP, released in 2013 on Earthling Recordings, the label she set up in her kitchen, and now her first full-length album, ESKA, she has garnered high-profile fans such as Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum. At the end of the month, she will go up against the likes of Aphex Twin, Jamie XX and Florence + the Machine to contest one of Britain’s foremost music prizes. Recently iconoclastic designer Rick Owens chose her to perform at his headline-grabbing show at Paris Fashion Week. So why would the engaging, clever and highly articulate woman sitting in front of me lack confidence? As we talk, it becomes clearer why it’s taken Eska a little while to fight her way out of….read more on Guardian.co.uk

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