Espa is a whole lot of things. You could easily mistake her for "just" a singer, but her attention to detail and her immersion into the entire experience of being an artist – from album visuals to stage performance to song production – is impressive. She takes what she does extremely seriously, which you can tell within minutes of speaking to her. We had a chat with her shortly after watching her perform live in Hoxton.
What's performing live like for you?
It’s the epitome of being an artist. It’s where everything that I work on, in all the different avenues that are occupied within the pop music realm, they all come together in one hour. The visuals, the styling, the persona, the music, the studio time, the band, the voice itself and the audience, and it’s that meeting, the patchwork quilt that makes the artist, that gets translated to the listeners, that allows the artist to exist. It comes together an it’s magical. It’s why I do it, it’s the only reason.
Live concerts are like church – like the most open church, where everyone from every denomination, race, sexuality, age, interest group, they come together, and no one looks at each other weirdly, everyone's there to experience the music and have a great time.
I’m a perfectionist through and through, never happy with anything. My mix engineer hates me – I send him messages like, “I think the reverb on the kick-drum is a little too short… actually, it’s too long. My voice could go up by one dB…”
You performed some brand new songs at the gig, too…
It was scary doing songs no one had heard before! And those weren’t even new for me; 141 was written in 2014. I wanted to gauge how it goes down. Performing new music live before it goes out is the perfect way to find out whether it will touch, move and inspire people. I think they went down well.
During the gig you mentioned that you were heading to the studio with Craig David the next day – how was that?
It was incredible. He’s been really supportive of me after I did a cover, and he’s tweeted a bit, and we shared the mic at MistaJam’s Christmas broadcast. It’s so interesting going from being a fan to occupying some of the same territory as him. Of course he’s a global popstar and I’m a new person, but it’s lovely to have his support. We’re writing with the idea of it maybe going on one of our records. Explorative writing.
You’ve worked with loads of different artists – what makes a good collaboration?
I’ve been really lucky to collaborate with people who are super well established. It works because these people are the real deal, because they don’t give a fuck about where I’m at. “Has she got enough followers on Twitter, is she this, is she that” – none of that. Giggs, the godfather of UK rap, he called me out of the blue after he heard Swan Song, and said to me, “I don’t know who you are or where you come from, but I have to work with you on this song.” He didn’t give a shit. And the same with the Flatbush Zombies, when they took me on – I just rocked up, this little London girl, to their crazy flat in Brooklyn, and they had no idea who I was, but we made music for hours and just hung out. That’s when collaborations work, when there’s no label people trying to set you up with someone so radio will play your songs. That’s never going to work.
Being ok with who I am and being bold about it has allowed me to collaborate authentically
Your collaborators hail from many different musical backgrounds – how does that work with the style of music you’re creating?
I’m quite a mishmash of influences myself. I grew up in a family with a jazz background, and then found myself heavily immersed in hip hop. But I’m also hugely influenced by people like Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Björk, and I think that makes me layered, in terms of genre. Giggs, for example, has a clear, strong sound, but he knows who he is, so he’s ok with blending our sounds. Being ok with who I am and being bold about it has allowed me to collaborate authentically, without trying to bend myself to fit with that person’s sound.
Was music a big part of your life, growing up?
I’m third generation musician in my family. My grandfather was the catalyst for all of us – he was brought up in the Docklands, and about to be drafted into the army. Every night, he would walk past this musical instruments shop on the docks, and he loved the look of this one shiny trombone. He’s Sicilian, and kind of crazy. He had no money, and one night he broke in! He stole the trombone, went to his shed, and practiced all night long. The next morning, he tried out for the army band, got the gig, and avoided joining the army-army. So that’s how music started in my family. He then went on to musically conduct Frank Sinatra, and worked with Shirley Bassey, Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jr – the list doesn’t end. Judy Garland gave him the nickname “The Beautiful Dreamer”.
My dad is a composer and trumpet player, he worked for the BBC for years, my mom is a saxophonist and a singer, my auntie was the original Maria in West Side Story in the West End, my uncle is a trumpet player… it goes on and on. But it’s kind of all in that jazzy, Hollywood, theatre realm, so that’s the sound I grew up with. When I was 14 my granddad gave me my first job, singing in his band. That was my education in being a live performer. I left home at 15, permanently, went to this boarding school for musicians, and studied composition, writing, producing and Logic, and then went on to the Royal Academy of Music, where I met my best friend and long-time collaborator Kwabs.
I’ve played to tens of thousands of people who haven’t been listening or don’t give a fuck, and that’s given me a really thick skin.
I’m 24 now, and although I’ve only done a handful of shows as Espa, I’m really lucky to have had the opportunity to do so many shit gigs. So many weddings, so many Bar Mitzvahs, so many corporate parties. I’ve played to tens of thousands of people who haven’t been listening or don’t give a fuck, and that’s given me a really thick skin.
When I left the Academy 2 1/2 years ago, I was like, fuck this, I’m just going to give everything I have to pursing my childhood dream of being a pop star. Lots of young adults feel that it’s unrealistic, naive and silly to believe that your childhood dream is how you could live your life, but I’m doing it. I’m not touring the world, nor am I a massive celebrity, but I get to make music and create for a living, that’s literally the manifestation of my dream as a child, so that’s really cool.
Do you believe in visualisation manifestation, then?
Completely. Completely. I practice the law of attraction and I do visualisation manifestation as a daily part of my life. It’s the reason why I’m here.
You’ve mentioned bits of your background and upbringing – how did that influence you, growing up?
Well, I didn’t find out that I was Jewish until I was 18. My mum was so badly bullied and abused when she was growing up for being the only Jewish kid, in Romford in the '70s; it was fucked, horrific abuse. She was hung out of the school window, stones were thrown at her on the street. She blocked it out and did what she thought was best, which was not tell me or my brother. She thought that if we don’t know it, we can’t be aware of it, and thus not experience the same things as her. My father used to say “You can’t mention the j-word”, and I never understood that. And one day my nan told me what her maiden name was, Cohen, and I said, “Isn’t that Jewish?”, and she goes, “Oh yes darling, we’re Jews! We’re from Russia!”
I didn’t find out that I was Jewish until I was 18
How did you react?
I booked a flight to Israel. I never told my mum that I was hurt by her lack of telling me about my heritage. Her youth stunted her emotional development so much. But for me, finding out about it was amazing, because I finally had some kind of cultural background, and one that is so rich and vibrant. It made sense to me immediately. I’m Jewish, of course I’m Jewish.
You flew to New York when you were 18 without a plan of where you would stay or what you would do – how was that?
I was so scared. I left home early, and got used to making shit up as I went along. I knew no one, not one person when I got there. I rented an apartment on Airbnb in Harlem. I bought a cell phone, went to a jazz club in Greenwich village, and asked to sing. They let me, and I got chatting to a few people afterwards who invited me to a jam session the next day. After about three weeks I had a crew, I had a band, and I was rehearsing at the Manhattan School of Music. I went there with an open mind and an open heart, but also with a plan of how I was going to immerse myself in the community, and it just fell into place.
Lots of young adults feel that it’s unrealistic, naive and silly to believe that your childhood dream is how you could live your life, but I’m doing it.
Tell us a bit about the beautiful artwork for your new EP…
I’m really into crystals. It’s a bit wanky, but whatever. I’ve got a rose quartz in my bag right now. I wanted to show my face but not expose myself fully. It was inspired by Rankin’s work, that slightly off-centre portrait, same as the cover of my first EP. My make-up artist and I, we chose crystals that I felt connected to, smashed them up and put them on my face.
What are the things you want to be known for and achieve as an artist?
At the core of who I am is my desire to be of service. As a kid, I would always say, “I want to be famous, I want to be a pop star”, and now I really understand why – through being an artist, whilst holding on to my integrity, by overseeing every aspect of my work, I’m able to gain access to many people’s lives and ears – through the exploration of my imagination, and the musical translation of that, I can be of service and hold a space for healing and transformation, in whatever capacity they’re willing to take that on. That’s the real reason why I get up every day, and try my best to hit the nail on the head with each song, and each visual, and each crazy, crystal-faced photo. To hopefully enrich people’s lives, in some way.