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Interview with Esbe, Blow The Wind Southerly

Mar 1, 2023

For some artists the word ‘eclectic’ doesn’t do them justice, and for the London based artist Esbe it only begins to scratch the surface. ‘Classically trained’ is a term often bandied about, but Esbe graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, achieving an LRAM and winning the Julian Bream Prize for Guitar. As a composer she is informed by her North African and Eastern European heritage and influenced by her love of Early Music through folk, jazz and Indian classical music. Her new album Blow The Wind Southerly tackles familiar songs from the folk canon with a vocal flair that makes you sit up and listen. We caught up with her for a talk about the album, and her influences.

When did you begin writing songs and what, or who, inspired you?

I began playing the guitar, which became my principal study, at music college (Royal Academy of Music), when I was eleven. Beginning with a few chords, I started singing some songs, but liked to play around with tunes of my own. The first song I wrote had these lyrics: “The golden painted daffodil, I shall go to seek, with its eye and silver frill, I should never weep. It hangs its head so mournfully and will not tell you why all the secrets it doth keep will always make you cry”. (Don’t know about the ‘doth’. But rather sad for an eleven-year-old!) I didn’t write any more songs until I left the Academy but had written various pieces for a variety of instruments, mainly for friends, so some slightly odd combinations – trumpet, bassoon, flute, guitars. The first ever songs are on my album Far Away and are for voice and classical guitar. They’re pretty reflective and introspective, sort of art/torch songs, from the heart.

What is your approach to songwriting, what is the creative process like?

It really depends what the project is. Sometimes I begin writing in my head, or mull over some ideas, the lyrical content or melody. But I always still notate on manuscript first, as I write, and before recording. This was the case for the new album, Blow The Wind Southerly. I’d composed these arrangements in 2020 but got sidetracked by a couple of other recording projects. One of these was a collection of re-interpretations of well-known pop and jazz songs called Under Cover. Having recorded six albums of my own songs, it was fun producing other people’s songs, so I was then keen to record Blow The Wind Southerly. The other thing that was stimulating creatively was only having my own voice for production and I found new ways of recording.

Can you describe what the new album means to you, could you breakdown some of the tracks meaning?

I wanted to explore a modern interpretation of songs which are part of our collective consciousness. We know these songs but don’t quite remember when we actually learnt them.

As a classical musician you play music from across the ages, but I’d always felt drawn to early music – I loved playing Dowland, Bach and Weiss.

Sumer Is Icumen In, the first track on this album, is the earliest notated English folk song. I loved the fact that people had been singing this seven hundred years ago. Wow, what a connection to our history, and what a shame that we can’t hear their voices and how they sang it.

On Oranges And Lemons and Three Blind Mice, I wanted to give the new versions a fun and quirky vibe. The squeaks and weird vocals gave me a vision of a troop of mice running around, out of control, with an exasperated ‘farmer’s wife’ desperately trying to catch them.

On some of the other more lyrical songs, like the title track and ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean and Greensleeves, I introduced new harmonies, sometimes taking the tune to the relative minor key, like on Go Tell Aunt Nancy when she says the goose died in the mill-pond.

I was a bit daunted by Scarborough Fair as we’re all so familiar with the Simon and Garfunkel version. But when I began arranging the vocal grooves, a jaunty rhythm took shape, so I think it has a different vibe to theirs, plus I used a recording of a horse clip-clopping on cobbles to add to the imagery.

The saddest and most poignant song is the 16th Century Coventry Carol. I wanted to keep the mood, but I did create new harmonies which bring it up to the 21st Century. I particularly loved writing and singing these very close harmonies, they bring such an intensity to the song.

Esbe’s Spiral Firsts’

First record you ever bought
John Williams and Friends

First thing you think about in the morning
Lifting the edge of the duvet for the cat to come in for a snuggle cuddle. But then the current worries all start to emerge.

First thing you’ll buy when you make your first million
A meal at Hutong in The Shard to celebrate.

First person you’d send on a one-way ticket the the heart of the sun
Putin – sometimes just one individual has the power to change millions of people’s lives.

First thing you ever performed in public
I think it was ‘Kumbaya’, aged 9 in school assembly, which I’ve recorded on the new album.

First instrument you ever owned
My voice? I used to sing in bed – I thought that because my parents were downstairs they couldn’t hear me when I was supposed to be asleep!

First person you’d raise from the dead
I’m tempted to say Jesus or Tutankhamun – so many questions and it would be interesting to see what they were really like. But I miss a couple of dear friends who’ve died in the past few years, I’d love to give them a few more years.

First place you’d visit in a time machine
Ancient Egypt – but only if I could bring either my dentist or some antibiotics with me!

First person you’d ask to join your all star band
The London Symphony Orchestra but it would take ages asking them one by one!

First thing you’d change about yourself
Several things, but I don’t want to draw attention to them!

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