She has been labeled "trip-hop," but her style has always crossed genre lines. With a smooth, unique voice over which she exhibits fine control, the Canadian singer Esthero seduced the recording industry and fans with her first release, Breath From Another. With a sound that has compared her to talents as wide-ranging as Bjork and Billie Holiday, fans waited with baited breath for a follow-up album that failed to materialize until seven years later. During that time Esthero could be found contributing to a variety of recordings by other artists, including songwriter and singer Sean Lennon, hip-hop artist Mos Def, and deejay and re-mixer DJ Krush.
From Coffeeshop to Record Label
Born Jen-Bea Englishman in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, Esthero came from a musically talented family. In the 1960s her father performed under the pseudonym of Teak Wood. She claims to have always wanted to be a rock star, and has remembered trying to play instruments and performing for her family at the young age of three. Her brother, Jason Englishman, has also made a mark in Canadian music. He records and performs under the name J. Englishman.
In 1996 Esthero moved to Toronto with her brother. She performed in coffeehouses singing an eclectic mix of songs, including hits by Annie Lennox and Elvis Costello. Her performances captured the attention of the recording industry and she eventually signed with the WORK Group. With money to record demos, Esthero began working on songs with Martin "Doc" McKinney, whom she met through mutual friends in the music scene in Toronto. Their collaboration eventually led to the production of Breath From Another. The duo performed under the moniker Esthero, a name that Englishman created, which brought together the elements of a character in a movie she once saw. She combined the character's name, Esther, with one of her lines in the film about being a hero. Eventually Englishman assumed the name, and her partnership with McKinney ended.
As a duo she had performed mostly with McKinney, but now on her own, she toured with an eight-piece band that included trumpet, drums, turntable, and backup singer. Toni Ruberto of the Buffalo News described her performance at the 1998 Edgefest: "The coquettish singer's fittingly ethereal vocal stylings on the current single 'Heaven Sent' created a sonic landscape against the song's bossa nova swag." The following year she performed at the Coachella Festival in California.
It was a fast track for Esthero. Within two years of leaving home she had a record contract and an album. Breath From Another sold a quarter of a million copies. Unfortunately, due to restructuring and staff changes, Esthero lost her support from the WORK Group, where she had originally signed. In the shuffling, her sales numbers didn't make a big enough impression for the record company to keep her signed. While Esthero was personally satisfied with the success of the album, her record company considered it a failure because it did not earn back the money they had put into it. At the same time, Esthero was holding true to her artistic instinct. For her that meant not forcing herself to write lyrics when she had no inspiration to do so.
A Dry Spell
Soon after her release from the WORK Group she signed with Reprise Records, a division of Warner Brothers. She struggled with writer's block, and partially attributed her dry spell to the money she made after her first album. She explained to Richard Harrington of the Washington Post, "All of a sudden, I had a lot of convenience at my fingertips…. I grew up without a lot of money and suddenly had, not a ton of money, but more than I'd ever had."
Even though Esthero didn't have the inspiration to write new songs at that time, her voice could still be heard as she collaborated with a variety of other artists. She worked with musicians such as Sean Lennon, Andre 3000 of Outkast, and Cee-Lo Green, formerly of the group Goodie Mob. In 1998 her recording of "Country Livin' (The World I Know)" was included on the soundtrack for the film Slam. The recorded garnered Esthero a lot of attention and acclaim in the American hip-hop community. She told Harrington, "I was the only non-hip-hop and the only white artist on the soundtrack … after the record came out, I started getting calls from American hip-hop folks and getting love from them."
The recording led her to opportunities to work with Mos Def, Saul Williams, Rascalz, DJ Krush, and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. She also appeared on recordings by Ian Pooley, Black Eyed Peas, and her own single "O.G. Bitch," all of which were hits in the dance club genre. In 2001 "O.G. Bitch" was at the top of Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Club Play listing. In 2004 she released a six-track EP titled We R In Need of a Musical Revolution. The title track as well as other songs on the EP were included on her 2005 album Wikkid Lil' Grrrls, her first full album release since her 1998 debut album.
A New Record
Esthero explained that a combination of forces led to the delay between albums. Dealing with errant record labels was one part of the equation, and the other part was, "I didn't have anything," she admitted to Ben Rayner of the Toronto Star. While dealing with her writer's block, she told Rayner, "I did features on other people's stuff, but I really did a lot of nothing for a long time." Her problems with the record label didn't end once she overcame her writer's block and got a record made. Reprise delayed mixing it for a year, then held it for another year, finally releasing it without any fanfare.
The new album emphasized the range of Esthero's interests. She can croon and emote like a seasoned jazz singer, then easily slide into a suggestive, sensual hip-hop style song. Esthero's unique sound and varied repertoire of styles originates from her interest in a variety of music. Esthero admitted to Harrington that some listeners are not so pleased with her hopping. "My taste is so vast it ends up like a premixed iPod shuffle…. Some people appreciate that, but I've gotten as much flak for it, as if it's disorganized." While others may see her as disorganized, Esthero seems to have pulled herself together enough to bring maturity and insight to her career. These traits appear to be serving her well.
Breath From Another, WORK Group, 1998.
Heaven Sent (CD single), WORK Group, 1998.
(Contributor) Slam: The Soundtrack, Sony, 1999.
(Contributor) Zero Effect Motion Picture Soundtrack, Epic Records, 1999.
(Contributor) Go: Music From The Motion Picture, Sony, 1999.
(Contributor) Soundtrack for Life (2000), Epic Records/Legacy Records, 2000.
(Contributor) Love and Basketball: Music from the Motion Picture, New Line Records, 2000.
(Contributor) Down With Love: Music from the Motion Picture, Reprise, 2003.
(Contributor) Taken to the Next Phase, Epic Records/Legacy Records, 2004.
O.G. Bitch (CD EP), Reprise, 2004.
O.B. Bitch Remixes, Reprise, 2004.
We R In Need of a Musical Revolution (CD EP), Reprise, 2004.
Wikkid Lil' Grrrls, Warner Bros. Records, 2005.
(With Michie Mee) "Don't Wanna Be Your Slave," 2000.
(With Rascalz) "Priceless," 2000.
(With Black Eyed Peas) "Weekends," 2000.
(With Ian Pooley) "Balmes (A Better Life)," 2001.
(With Saul Williams) "Tao of Now," 2001.
(With Nelly Furtado) "I Feel You," 2001.
(With Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes) "The Universal Quest," 2002.
(With John Forte) "How Could I?," 2002.
(With Jarvis Church) "Run For Your Life," 2002.
(With others) "Keep the Beat," 2002.
(With others) "The Streets Where You Live," 2002.
(With Blue Man Group) "White Rabbit," 2003.
(With Sugar Ray) "Heaven," 2003.
(With the Oddities) "Coming Down," 2003.
(With Last Emperor) "One Life," 2003.
(With Mos Def) "Summertime," 2004.
(With Carmen Rizzo) "Too Rude," 2004.
For the Record …
Born Jen-Bea Englishman on December 23, 1978, in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.
Moved to Toronto, 1996; released Breath From Another, 1998; performed at Edgefest, 1998; performed at the Coachella Festival in California, 1999; released O.G. Bitch (EP), 2004; released We R In Need of a Musical Revolution (EP), 2004; released Wikked Lil' Grrrls, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Reprise, c/o Warner Brothers Records, Inc., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505; phone: 818-846-9090. Website—Esthero Official Website: http://www.nearlycivilized.com/.
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), August 31, 1998, p. A11.
Canadian Musician, April 2005, pp. 36-39.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 17, 2005, p. 44.
Toronto Star, September 8, 2005, p. E08.
Washington Post, October 28, 2005, p. WW.06