Esbe is a London-based singer, composer, producer, artist and multi-instrumentalist. She studied classical guitar at the Royal Academy of Music. Her background is North African, Middle Eastern, British and Jewish. She has made five albums of her own compositions, influenced by all these musical styles, and has worked with musicians such as Natacha Atlas and Nitin Sawney. In her new album Under Cover, she has recorded songs by other people for the first time. Feature by Alison Bentley.
How do you make old songs sound new? Esbe’s new album Under Cover takes ten well-known and loved jazz and pop songs and gives them a new twist. She’s moved away from the songs’ original harmonies, using electronic sounds, percussion and orchestral arrangements.
“You can’t unhear something,” she explains. “I deliberately didn’t listen to the songs before doing the album. I’d do the production as I was singing them quietly, in my studio, pretending that I hadn’t heard them before- treating them like they were tunes that I’d written myself.”
Esbe hadn’t originally planned a new album- she was just trying things out, with a film noir theme in mind. “I thought of old black and white films, a moonlit smoky night and standing around in a long coat, waiting for an unknown somebody… I always had that image in my mind when I was recording.”
She simplifies the chords of Yesterday and the mood reflects the accompanying video, which she conceived and edited. “I feel The Beatles’ version is too bright for me when you’re contemplating what could have been… a darker feel felt more pertinent and it’s so immersive.” A Taste of Honey also has a less upbeat, more contemplative treatment with a simplified time signature. Esbe’s recent album Saqqara is influenced by Egyptian music and oriental scales. “I couldn’t resist putting in a bit of Middle Eastern improvising towards the end of A Taste of Honey.” Eleanor Rigby keeps the original’s string quartet sound but its bluesy treatment speeds up some of the lyrics so they’re more passionate.
Three songs are jazz standards. Esbe used to sing Don’t Explain with a jazz group, but being unable during lockdown to record with live musicians, she decided to take another route: spacey sounds and Middle Eastern grooves. “It’s two different ways of working. It’s nice to feed off what other people are doing, and I missed that with not performing- it becomes a group enterprise.“ But recording alone has given Esbe the opportunity to try out different things.
She was most nervous about Summertime, “…because it’s already a classical/jazz hybrid style. And I did want to do an arrangement with strings, so I kept to pizzicato, with slightly unnerving harmonies to add an edge to accompany the dreamy lullaby vocal.” Esbe loves Ella Fitzgerald and introduces some of her own style of vocal improvisation here. She brings a Middle Eastern feel to Night and Day too. “It’s quite nice when you haven’t got someone telling you what to do, to try different things. I love that song and I love singing it.”
There are two Paul Simon songs. Esbe has sung Bridge Over Troubled Water since childhood; she wanted to move away from the original piano part to do something more simple, focusing on the melody. ” I wanted the listener to focus just on the lyrics and beautiful tune with the most simple accompaniment, but brought in a deep impactful rhythm to give some drama as the song progressed.” The Sound of Silence has some dissonant harmonies and a trip-hop groove- Esbe admires Massive Attack and Goldfrapp. “I think the original is quite dark, so it’s just keeping that feel- as if I’ve wandered into a basement jazz bar and sat down singing the songs”
Esbe’s 2018 album Desert Songs: Memories of Rumi sets the poems of the 13th Century mystical Sufi poet. In Under Cover she turns to a different spiritual tradition. Amazing Grace, though, doesn’t have a reassuring feel. “With a lot of religious songs from that era there is a bit of foreboding… I felt that it was saying the world isn’t perfect.” Silent Night has a North African mood: “It was a homage to the region where the story was from- the Middle East, Israel and North Africa”
Under Cover has brought a new musical direction for Esbe. “When you are your own producer and programmer,” she concludes, “it gives you so much freedom to just go with what you want to create. But I think we are sometimes not acknowledged in quite the same way as male producers. I’d love to be flying the flag for all us female producers.”
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LINKS: Esbe’s website