Szjerdene tends to evoke the same response from everyone I speak to about her, whether it’s A&Rs or brand new fans, experimental producers who make albums out of pigs or people who er, don’t do that. They all say – *sharp intake of breath* “Her voice!!” It stays with you, as it did with me when I first came across it four years ago.
The single “Blue Lullaby” from her recently released “Patchwork EP” is desperately melancholic, but the beauty of Szjerdene’s tone at times made me forget I was sad, and the next moment intensified the feeling almost unbearably. It may have taken her a couple of years to finish and release, but the mark of a good song is its ability to stand the test of time.
The performers I book for Put Me On It Live shows (so far Tanya Auclair, Dego with live band, Szjerdene and Tawiah) make it increasingly difficult to book the next one. I try to catch artists on the cusp of much bigger things, or those willing to do me huge favours, before it’s too late and they’re selling out huge venues. As I pushed my way through the crowd that night so many people stopped me to ask about Szjerdene and what she’s doing next. Working with her gave me the insight that she is very much a perfectionist, so the answer is probably taking her time, which makes it all the more exciting.
Purchase: Szjerdene “Patchwork The EP”
What do Tupac’s hologram, Grace Jones and Eska have in common? They’re the three things that kept me awake after Eska’s live performance at The Queen Elizabeth Hall on 7th May.
Before I say anything else, please only watch the video above up until the performance ends at 7.41 mins. It’s taken from a funding showcase where a first draft of the show was essentially pitched in order to be developed further. There is a certain way things are done in the world of fundraising, so it was necessary for Eska and her collaborators to politely discuss their plans and ideas for the work. In the real world she would have gotten up at the end and said “after that performance do you need any more proof this show will be amazing?? No, thought not. Pow!”, slammed the piano shut and sashayed off stage. Struan and Simon would have walked on with two large leather briefcases and whispered “you heard her, now make it rain”, whereupon the funders would have sprayed them with £50s. Well, at least that’s how it would work if someone died and left me in charge of the Arts Council.
So back to Tupac’s hologram. What the version in the video above lacked was the amazing 80 piece Goldsmith’s Vocal Ensemble in attendance at the QEH. “Vocal Ensemble” sounds like a fancy way of saying “choir”, however the word choir for many of us evokes freezing cold school halls at lunch time, droning along (what’s a harmony?), wishing Whoopie Goldberg would burst in dressed as a nun and sort it out. Or something. In fact GVE is much like my childhood fantasy version of a choir, but with added choreography, acting, really interesting songs and vocal arrangements, and Tom Herbert from The Invisible. Vocal Ensemble it is then. The overwhelming response at the end of the show (through stifled sobs) was “OMG Eska should always have a choir, why doesn’t she?!” from very enthusiastic people who have clearly not thought through the logistics of taking 80+ people anywhere. Do you see where I’m going with the hologram yet? 80 power cables rather than 80 people – make it rain Arts Council, make it rain.
Being an icon in the making must be a terrible burden. You can’t just show up to performances in a nice dress with a backing track and a line check, hoping for the best. You have a legacy to create and protect, and whilst Eska is a lovely person, she has done more than her fair share of paying dues. The atmosphere before the show began was buzzing, electric and hungry – hundreds of die hard fans praying that Eska was finally about to step on to the big stage her star deserves. I looked around and did the head count before the lights went down, not a spare seat, and a good percentage of the audience were well known musicians. There was also a woman who had the audacity to dress up like Grace Jones just because she looked like her. (Turns out it was Grace Jones, and yes I am going for an eye test). Perhaps icons recognise each other.
The music that night was beyond my descriptive abilities. Flawless is an over used word but there were none. It was beautiful, classy, and emotional in the extreme. There were so many occasions I was totally overwhelmed I couldn’t pick one, all I can say is that I was very grateful to be there. A teary-eyed Mara Caryle clasped my arm on the way out, asked if I was OK and suggested we set up a support group for “survivors of Eska at the QEH”. I think perhaps we might be better off setting up a group for those who weren’t there that night. If you are one of those people, I strongly suggest you add “seeing Eska’s English Skies Song Cycle live” to your bucket list.
My friend Theo Jemison, whose beautiful work I’ve featured here often, sent over this footage of Gil Scott Heron shortly before he passed away. There’s something so intimate about the way it’s shot, it makes you feel as though you were in the room, like an invented memory, or the memories of other gigs past joining up to take you a short leap in to the El Rey that night.
Whilst obviously Gil was a performer of the very best kind – honest, warm, sincere and musically very gifted – this kind of film makes me so grateful for film makers who are there to capture those moments for posterity. I don’t know how I would describe artists like Gil to my future kids with just their music to rely on; the next generation will be so much more visual than I, and I wonder how it will translate, but to have a little of the essence of the great and important voices of history preserved in cinematic moments like these gives me hope they will continue to live on vividly.