Fifty days of music: Eska on Jeff Buckley

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As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re partnering with The House of St Barnabas for 50 days of listening experiences.

Bowers & Wilkins flagship 800 D3 loudspeakers have been installed in the Monro Room at the heart of the club, creating one of the most intimate and acoustically advanced listening environments in central London.

We’ve invited five influential, innovative guests each to create a special listening event and Q&A around a chosen album from our list of 50 great albums. Fourth in this series is South London singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Eska, whose Mercury Prize-nominated debut album came out last year.

Eska’s self-titled album has earned rave reviews. London’s Evening Standard described the recording as “touching, powerful, experimental and sensuous – you could pick just about any positive adjective and it would apply.” These words could just as easily have been written about the classic recording she chose to talk about, Jeff Buckley’s Grace.

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Compère for the evening was Jane Cornwell, Evening Standard jazz critic and author. She asks Eska about her early experiences listening to music:

“Sunday afternoons in my house with my dad were a vinyl listening ritual – from Duke Ellington to Wet Wet Wet to Kate Bush, it went all over the place. We had a two bed-room flat so we just had the living room and when Dad was in the zone to listen to music, it meant the TV would be off. You just had to give in to Sunday afternoons and Dad’s vinyl-time.

“Growing up in Lewisham in the ‘80s was amazing, it was a great cultural melting-pot. Proud white working-class, proud Caribbean and everyone working out how to co-exist. Music collided, culture collided, and you’d get wonderful hybrids because of that. On a weekend I could pick up a Japan record, a Nick Drake record and a Busta Rhymes record and take them home and have a love-in.”

Immersed in pop and jazz at home, Eska won a scholarship to a local conservatoire for violin and for classical vocal lessons, but at 15 she had something of an epiphany after visiting a Pentecostal church:

“I’d never heard anything like it. They were all arpeggio-ing in tongues. Not only did I feel I needed the spiritual experience, I needed the connection to the music. From having a formal training with written music and learning how to extract music from the page to this thing that people do where they’re extracting music from somewhere else. I needed to connect with that.”

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She eventually trained as a maths teacher after gaining a Masters at LSE. Perhaps not the obvious choice, but as she explains to Jane:

“I trained as a maths teacher because, in African culture, being a musician isn’t a job; it’s not a vocation. There’s a very different understanding of the arts, of music, in African culture. Everyone does it, it’s not something that has to be in a special place, put in a concert hall and people [having to] pay for it. It doesn’t make sense like that.”

And so to Jeff Buckley’s Grace. One of the most remarkable debuts ever recorded, this cult album is almost impossible to categorise, combining pop, classical music, jazz and alt-rock with huge bravado:

“I remember putting this on and I was instantly curious. About the sound of the record, the songwriting, the vocals. How incredibly ambitious the vocal was, particularly for a male vocalist.”

Choosing the opening track, Mojo Pin to play first, Eska continues:

“How unusual is that for an opening? It sets the stage for what he goes on to deliver. It’s about a girl he’s got it bad for, but even if you don’t catch the lyrics first time, it’s all there in his voice.”

As Buckley’s transcendent vocals start to fill the room, she gets up: “I’m going to listen to it in the audience, I don’t get to hear it like this at home.

“It’s genuinely in my top 10 most played records. I keep coming back to it. It’s a reference album for songwriters, producers; on every level you can’t help but go to this to reference the sound.

“I probably only listen to this once or twice a year now. I have to revisit it because of the quality of the sound and the songwriting. He sings like a psalmist. A huge influence for him was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; apparently he said, ‘he’s my Elvis’ and you can hear that, he’s trying to get somewhere, vocally, that’s so challenging.

“It’s pitch-perfect – the way he jumps around with intervals is delightful. It’s like a classical approach. Sonically, you can’t fault this record, the production and the mix are flawless.”

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The second track Eska chooses is one of the earliest recorded Buckley tracks, Last Goodbye. Originally called ‘Unforgotten’, it was his most commercially successful single:

As the music swells, the depth of the recording and incredible dynamics are revealed, prompting Jane to ask: “What’s the formula in that song that makes you want to bawl your eyes out?”.

“He just lets go” Eska replies. “He’s trying to get the listener to somewhere, he’s trying to get himself to somewhere. This is really over-the-top, everything supports that voice, everything in the mix dances with him. He’s like a psalmist, a shaman, the person in the middle whipping up that music so brilliantly.

“For me the best music does that; the performer lets go enough to allow the listener to feel they can let go.”

Inevitably the conversation comes round to what Jane refers to as the elephant in the room, Hallelujah. Eska nods:

“I can only listen to it inside this body of work. Outside of it, I haven’t really been able to for a long time because it’s lost its meaning, it’s been covered so many times.

“There are some songs that, unless you’re really up for the gig, you’ve just got to leave alone because you sound silly. It’s one of those songs that’s way bigger than the person who sings it.”

One of many covers on the album, the less-played but perhaps more remarkable Corpus Christi is queued up next:

“I don’t know the classical version, only his, and it’s almost like castrato. The control in his voice is astonishing. He’s a bridge into classical music, and even if that’s not at all your thing, he could persuade you to check out some opera.”

The Britten cover is unexpected, but is an excellent example of what makes the album so uniquely surprising. Jane comments: “It’s almost punk to put that on a debut album, it’s quite confrontational.” Eska agrees:

“Yeah! How dare he! To me, it’s that attitude that makes this so excellent. The sheer ambition.”

When it was released, 22 years ago, it failed commercially but was embraced by a few. Over the years and since Buckley’s early death it has sold over two million copies and features in many ‘greatest album of all time’ lists. Has it been overrated?
Has what happened to him given it greater longevity than it otherwise would have had?

“You need a big ego to think ‘I’m going to make something so big it will outlive me’. He wasn’t trying to make something throwaway; some of the tracks were four years old and he was still working on them, so he did have that kind of ego and ambition and perfectionism.

“If this was all he gave us, well, it gave me aspiration. Hopefully you’ll make the illest record you can, and in a way that’s the best way to be remembered.”

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Hi-fi setup:
800 D3 speakers
Turntable – Rega RP8
Amp – Classe 2300
Pre-Amp – Classe CP800

Eska’s debut album is out now

Read more House of St Barnabas 50 Days of Music blog posts

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Find out more about House of St Barnabas

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