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ESNAVI 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
THE JOURNEY TO ECLECTIC SOUL
Phone interview recorded October 16, 2011

Milwaukee native Esnavi may be not be familiar to your ears yet, but her debut album is about to change all that. With its varied influences and its guitar-driven songs about "real life situations", EXIT E is about to breathe new life into today's soul music, beginning with its lead single "Unexpected Love".
Esnavi explains to Darnell Meyers-Johnson why it's important for her moniker and her music to have meaning and purpose...


Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with someone the critics are calling “the truth” and someone you need to know. You may not be familiar with her name yet but you will be soon. Her debut album EXIT E is about to drop—it will be available by the time that this interview airs. Some say she recalls the vibe of such incredible talents as India.Arie and Jill Scott; nevertheless her eclectic brand of soul is truly original. Today I am speaking with Esnavi. Greetings and welcome to SoulMusic.com. How are you?

Esnavi: I’m great. Thank you for having me on SoulMusic.com.

DMJ: Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us. Esnavi is an interesting name and we’ll talk about that in just a moment, but what is your given name and where are you from?

E: I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and my given name is still yet a mystery because part of Esnavi is “intriguing”—the I in Esnavi kinda stands for intriguing—so we leave a little bit of mystery in this beginning phase.

DMJ: We’ll find out later, I’m sure, once you’re accepting your Grammys and everything.

E: Of course.

DMJ: Well, since we’re talking about what part of Esnavi means, I understand it is an acronym. So just go ahead and tell us what the rest of it stands for.

E: It’s not so much of an acronym, it’s just that I made the name mean something. Because the name was born out of a creative session with the producer of my underground project before this album. When we came up with the name I was like, “Okay, that name sounds great. How can I make sense of it?” So I looked at each letter in the name and then I came up with adjectives that sort of described myself as a person and as an artist: so eclectic, soulful, natural, authentic, vivacious and intriguing is what Esnavi means.

DMJ: And people are saying that your brand of music, they’re calling it eclectic soul. What does that term mean to you when you hear it?

E: Well, the music on the album and my sound is sort of like a myriad of things. Every song doesn’t sound the same, every song varies and it’s different from each track to each feeling; the production on each song. I think it’s just like… not even a kaleidoscope, but it’s just a good mixture of different things. So it makes the music eclectic from song to song. It’s sixteen tracks on the album—so when you listen to it it’s like this musical journey, and it’s like eclectic soul. It has little pieces of this and pieces of that, all put together in one little package.

DMJ: Many people are going to be reading this interview or listening to it and discovering you for the very first time. You just talked a little about what they can expect when they hear the album, but I know that you’re also out there doing showcases and gigs. What should people expect when they come out to see you live?

E: A very dynamic, electrifying performance. I love to perform and I definitely give a lot of energy, and I expect them to just see a very good, entertaining show full of soul coming from me with a lot of live energy.

DMJ: Comparisons aren’t fair. I already know they’re not fair but they are to be expected; they’re part of being in the game. And as I said in the intro, you’ve been compared to everybody from Jill Scott to Erykah Badu. I’ve also heard people mention Tweet and a little bit of Meshell Ndegeocello, and probably more so than anybody else I hear India.Arie. Do you hear any of these people, any of their influence when you listen to your music?

E: Well, I’m a fan of all those people. I’m a music lover, so for me the comparisons are a compliment more so than a reality for me because I don’t necessarily hear it in my music. I know with this project it’s very acoustic-driven, so I could see why people would hear the India.Arie thing. And with the timbres of my voice and the texture of my voice it may be a little similar and rich like India.Arie’s, but I personally don’t hear the exact comparison. But as far as influences go, yes, I’ve definitely listened to all those artists and even beyond that handful of artists. I’ve listened to everybody from Bach to Lil Wayne. I’ve listened to music my whole life so I’ve been musically influenced by a host of different artists, so it’s probably a little bit of everything that I’ve picked up along the way in my music and that’s why I think the music is eclectic and the music is diverse—because it has a little bit of everything in it.

DMJ: So you don’t feel any sense of frustration or anything when you hear those comparisons? I know many artists, they want to be recognized for their own talent and not necessarily be put in the box as the next this or the next that. But you don’t feel any of that frustration?

E: No, not frustration at all, because all the writers are pretty much Grammy winners, for one; and the thing is when you’re new and no one knows you, I think people feel the need to have to compare it to something. But once Esnavi is out there they will know that Esnavi has a sound of her own and that sound is Esnavi. So once the world is familiar with me and my music I don’t think the comparisons will probably continue on; I think it’s just because I’m new, you have to have something to compare it to so people can put it in some sort of category or some sort of box. I don’t really get frustrated with it because the comparisons are to great artists. Now if they’re comparing me perhaps to some artist I didn’t like or weren’t that talented or weren’t successful, then maybe I’d be like “Eh… nah, I’m not really feeling that.” But I’m being compared to great artists that I actually admire myself and have been very successful and that are still doing their thing. So once I’m out there I don’t think I will continue to get those comparisons because people will be able to see and feel my uniqueness, because my album is incomparable. This album is not like anything that’s out there or has been done, and it definitely stands on its own. It’s different.

DMJ: And I’m really glad that you said that too about the fact that once people hear you more and more they’ll realize that you have your own style and your own uniqueness about you, because that’s kind of what happened with me when I was listening to your music. When I heard the first couple of songs I thought, “Oh, I didn’t know India.Arie had a new song out,” or whatever. And that was my initial impression, but as I listened to the entire album—and I’ve been listening to it nonstop since I first got it—every time that I listen to it I hear who you really are, and in my mind it’s less and less about how you may sound like these other people, because really you don’t when you break it down and get used to it. So I’m glad that you said that.

E: Yeah, that’s exactly what I think, so I’m glad you feel that, because hopefully when people are exposed to it they experience the same thing you experienced: as they listen to it they start hearing me and the comparisons go out the window. “Okay, this is Esnavi.”

DMJ: Let’s go back a little bit. I understand, unlike many singers, you didn’t grow up singing. So when did you discover that talent and how did you discover it?

E: I discovered my vocal ability when I was in high school. I grew up loving music—like I say, my parents were music lovers and I’ve been a music lover my whole life and I’ve been performing since I was a little child, so the performance side was always in me and I always loved poems and things of that nature as a young child as well. And singing was something that I always did, however I didn’t have the vocal ability to do it. I recall vividly around the age of eight, nine, singing songs and really having a bad voice—not being able to sing or have the vocal ability. That didn’t stop me from singing, but when I was in high school… it was sort of like I woke up one day and I could sing, if you could imagine that.

So I went from singing songs that I would hear in the house on the radio to one day, I was singing in a high-school corridor because the acoustics were really great and I was just singing some song that was probably out that I liked, I don’t remember—and I was listening and I was like, “Oh my God, wait—this sounds good this time. What happened?” I was singing and one of my friends from high school, he heard me and he was like, “Wait, was that you?” And I was like, “Yeah, I know!” And I was just singing and singing… it was really crazy. It was just like something overnight that I can’t explain. I don’t know what happened, but I discovered my vocal ability one day walking into high school and since that point I tried to develop my talent and joined the high-school choir and enter some talent shows and just really, really started singing even more—just singing and singing and singing, developing my voice because I was so excited that I could sing. I believe everybody can sing, because singing is just an action like speaking and talking; but it was that I discovered the sounds of my voice, while singing, was good. That’s what I can say.

DMJ: That’s interesting how you discovered that and it wasn’t present earlier. So you kind of even surprised yourself with your own talent and how it came about. Now I know that you were a marketing major in college. We know that as a performer, you become a product to a certain extent. So when did the marketing major decide to become the product?

E: One thing I want to say is that I am so glad that I have a degree in marketing, because it’s definitely helped me with the business side of my artistry. Being independent and not having the huge major budget to rely on, you have to step in and say, “Okay, let’s use some of those marketing skills that you learned in college.” Because like you said, I am a product, I am a brand, I am a business and I have to market and promote myself. So I have the product, I have the placement—because the album is coming out in online stores—and actually, “Unexpected Love” is out now on iTunes.

But yeah, I definitely apply a lot of those marketing skills that I learned in college to my career now. It is a business and I am an artist that recognizes I am a product that every day in my own personal world I’m out there, marketing and promoting myself on the daily. I definitely exploit social media for those purposes and even go out hand to hand. I just came back from L.A.; I did the Taste of Soul music festival, which was great—I performed in front of, like, two hundred thousand people. And as soon as I got offstage, my team and I were out there handing out fliers hand to hand to the actual audience, selling CDs to the actual people. I believe because I am a product, no one can really sell me like I can sell me. So I noticed that that interaction with your crowd and the people who are your audience and your fans, it definitely has more of an impact than just sending the street team out. I definitely take the marketing and selling myself as a product seriously.

DMJ: As it should be. I think even major artists should embrace that more. Some of them are so used to having marketing teams, maybe with the label… but a lot of that is fading out on major labels; there’s not a lot of marketing money out there unless you’re a big, huge name like Beyoncé. But it’s good that you’re embracing that early on, that’s important.

E: And you even notice a lot of artists that come out these days, they have albums, and you really don’t even know they have albums out. I’ve been just stumbling upon artists… like I didn’t know this person had an album out. I'm discovering it now because now that I’m on the radio and I’m on the charts with these artists. My song “Unexpected Love” has reached the Top 40. But as far as marketing from the major labels, I would never know these people were out. I would never know.

DMJ: So let’s talk about the album, EXIT E. Tell me what the concept of it is and how it all came together.

E: The concept is it’s my step on the musical highway. It’s where you get off… you know how you take a ride… say for instance, you look at the highway and the highway is just full of CDs? And you come to me, Exit E, and you get off and you take a ride with me when you get off at my exit. As we were working on the album most of the songs were born out of impromptu sessions, so I would go to the studio and the producer—who is also a musician; the guitarist Michel Kunz, who produced the entire album—he would play music and I would just come up with songs on the spot. And as we were working and developing the album, by the time we got maybe to the fifth or sixth track, and I was like, “Wow, each song sounds different—each song is taking me to a different place, from the production, from the mood it’s exuding, the lyrics, the vocal arrangement.” I’m like, “This is sounding like a musical journey, here. You’re taking me on a little trip; each song is different.” So by the time we got to the sixteenth track and we put the whole album together and we listened to it, I was like, “Wow, this is really a musical journey. This is really taking me a lot of different places. I’m not feeling this as one overall vibe, except just from goodness.” To me, the music just feels good overall as an umbrella, but as I listen to each track I’m like, “Wow, this is taking me to different places and making me feel different ways. This is like a musical journey.” And that’s how EXIT E popped into my head. I was like, “Okay, what can I name this to encompass what’s going on?” Because at that point, to me, it became a concept album. It wasn’t just an album and I named it something; no. This is like a concept album, and on my debut album I want everything to make sense. EXIT E just came to me… a short title and I think a lot of people like it.

DMJ: You just mentioned your producer, and correct me if I’m wrong but I think you co-wrote all the songs with him, right?

E: Yes.

DMJ: So tell me a little bit about how you guys work together and particularly how you manage to have a cohesive sound. Even though all the songs sound different, they all sort of go together: there’s a cohesiveness to it, and it’s not like some albums where people try to do something different and they don’t sound connected in any way. All of these songs sound connected, so tell me how you guys work together and how you made that happen.

E: That’s a really good question, because that was one of my problems with my underground project that I put out before this one. It was experimental and all of the songs were all over the place. And although this album is diverse and it goes different places, the glue, I think, was the acoustic guitar, and that’s why the entire album is pretty much acoustic-driven, because that instrument kind of ties all the songs together. And of course, my voice. Although I deliver it a little differently from song to song, I think the way I vocally arranged everything and my vocal delivery made it cohesive in that sense as well. So I think through my vocal style and the use of the guitar throughout the entire album we were able to tie all those songs together, where it made sense and you weren’t like, “Okay, well, this doesn’t sound like it fits on the album,” and da-da-da-da.

That was one thing that he wanted to make sure as a producer, that we made sure it was cohesive when we decided to do the concept thing and do the different tracks and go with what we felt. He made sure that the guitar was placed in the right places throughout the album to keep it together. Because you don’t want to listen to an album and be like, “Okay, wow. This seems like this should be over here, and this was all the way over here…” So yeah, I think because we entered into such an organic process working on the album we were able to do that. We didn’t deal with a lot of tracks. It wasn’t like he had a track that was sitting in his catalogue for a couple years and said, “Hey, do a song with this.” We kind of did everything together, and I think that’s how everything made sense, because we just did it all off live energy. That’s how we were able to make it make sense.

DMJ: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the songs in particular, and I’m going to ask you about one of my favourites on there and that’s “Electric Fantasy”. It’s kind of bluesy, and it had me hooked from the very first line when you said: “The problem I have is the love of my life.” I have to ask you, what inspired that particular tune?

E: Real-life situation. I can tell you that every single song that’s on the album stems from a real-life situation, real-life emotion… just everything is real. I was dating someone that loved very, very intently, and he just got to a spot where he was so confused. And I’m like, “You’re saying this but you’re doing that, then you’re doing that and you’re saying this. I know you love me but I can’t figure this out right now." I’m sure you’ve probably experienced that, where you’re with someone and things are good but then things get to this point of confusion. So “Electric Fantasy” was my release of my frustration with that situation. Since it was just an electric guitar and my voice I called it “Electric Fantasy”, because it was just electric guitar, and the fantasy part was if I could have just figured him out it would have just been like a fantasy to me, because the beauty of the love was that great that if we could get past that confusion it would’ve been almost like I was living a fantasy in love with this person.

DMJ: And you know what’s great about that is that whole idea, just as you just described it, is so universal and everybody can relate to being in a situation at one time or another like that. So that’s probably one of the reasons why I really liked that song, because I understood it.

E: I’m glad.

DMJ: On “Two Worlds” you sing about living in two worlds and trying to decide which one is the truth and which one is a lie. Is that song about the record business, in a way? As you’re approaching the mainstream release of your debut album do you feel that kind of conflict?

E: Well, it definitely deals with everything. I can’t say that it deals with a particular thing or another, but yes, the record industry sometimes can have you feeling “Is this the real world or is this a fake world?” Would you do something for the greed of it or would you do something for the need of it? So a situation like that—yeah, that’s something that could be applied to “Two Worlds”. But the overall idea of that song is, I think, everyone has been in a situation where they have to choose. They have to choose either to live righteously or choose to live another type of way. Or they have to choose to either be honest about something or they have to choose, am I going to lie about this? Do I want to do something, like I said, to be greedy, or do I want to do something just because I need to do it? Just choices, just life choices:

“Two Worlds” lives with the two choices that we pretty much are faced with on a day-to-day. There’s people who are in relationships, they’re married to people, and they cheat on them. They don’t even love them. So what are you doing? You’re living in two worlds: you say you’re married and you’re going home pretending to be this husband or this wife, but once you go out that door you’re something completely different. So how are you going to decide? Which world are you going to live in? And I really like that song. It’s funny, I don’t really play the guitar or play the piano but I have a guitar and I have a keyboard, and some of the song concepts, I just play a few chords. I remember I lived in a little duplex apartment here in Harlem and I came up with that song concept while I was in-between the downstairs and the upstairs of the duplex. It’s really weird. While I was on the little platform that song came to me, and it was like, “Okay, the upstairs and the downstairs,” and then the whole concept of “Two Worlds” just came to me in that moment. So that’s what that song’s about.

DMJ: Very interesting. And another one of my favorites is “Someday”. I like “Someday” because the piano intro is so simple, but it’s really beautiful, and the lyrics are optimistic and encouraging. What can you tell me about that song and what it means to you?

E: Let me tell you, that is my favourite song on the album. That was the most honest and therapeutic song for me. When I recorded that song I was going through what I was talking about, so I was at that point where it felt like I had given so much and I had been on this journey for so many years and I just don’t see anything coming back at this moment. I’m reaching out, I’m trying to get these connections… and with anything in life—and again this is all stuff that people can relate to—when you’re working towards something and you have a goal and you just feel like you’re giving your all, you can be approached in your mind, like, “God, is this worth it? What am I doing? I know this is what I should be doing but I’m just not being optimistic at this point. I don’t know, should I give up?” Blah-blah-blah.

Although I never, ever thought about giving up, but when I wrote that song, that’s kind of what I was going through. And I had to talk to myself when I wrote the song from the beginning line, that we’re not perfect, we all make mistakes, but we know we’re worth it and that’s why we give it all that it takes. So reminding myself that everything I imagined, it will happen someday. And what happened is writing the song… like you said it’s a very encouraging and inspiring song. And I listened to it and I actually cried, because I was like, “You know what? The world is going to hear my music. The world is going to hear this song.” I envisioned myself singing it in front of thousands and thousands of people. That was my therapy because that very song helped me get through that point in my life, and I hope that if anybody’s going through anything in their life, that song can be as encouraging and uplifting as it was for me.

DMJ: The optimism is what I really loved about it. And it’s funny that you just talked about how you envisioned yourself someday with everybody listening to your music, because that’s actually the feeling that I got when I first listened to your album: I couldn’t wait to tell people about it, and everybody’s like, “Who? Who is that?” But I’m just like, “Listen. When this album comes out, you gotta listen to it. You’re going to love it; it’s going to be the next best thing.” So I think it is going to happen for you. I’m feeling optimistic for you with this album.

E: Thank you. I appreciate that.

DMJ: The lead single is “Unexpected Love”, and it has a great hook that stays in your mind all day long. Have you ever experienced an unexpected love like the song talks about? I know you said every song is based on some element of real-life experience.

E: Absolutely. Every single song. I could do a documentary on every single song and explain what it’s about or where it came from and how it was real and true to me, but yes, I experienced an unexpected love. I was in a place where I wasn’t looking for anyone. I’d just gotten out of a relationship, so I was good, as they say: “I’m good, I’m in a good place. I feel a hundred percent content, happy with my life, with my friends, with everything that’s going on… I’m good.” But yeah, I was right here in Harlem and I was hanging out with a friend, and the reason why it was unexpected love was kind of a twofold situation: not only was it unexpected because I wasn’t looking to fall in love with someone, but it was unexpected because the person that it was wasn’t someone I would typically date. The exterior of that person was totally not someone that I would date. Once I got to know him and I got into his mind and saw how beautiful he was as a person, not only outside but in, it really took me aback and I’m like, “Oh my God, I would never have thought. You? Really? I would never have thought.” So it was unexpected in two ways. And what I’m also learning—like you said about “Electric Fantasy” and “Two Worlds”—all the music talks about things that everyone can relate to, and “Unexpected Love” I’m discovering that so many people love the song, and it’s because they can relate to it—they’ve had that unexpected love hit them. And again, those words: “I wasn’t looking for a love like mine. I wasn’t looking for it, but all that stuff, it really happened.

DMJ: In your bio it says that you’re not in this to become a celebrity. I know you’re a purpose-driven woman, so what is your purpose for being in the music game and what is it that you hope to achieve?

E: I’m hoping to enlighten people through my music and have them look at themselves and look at love from a different perspective—from a very loving place—and to evoke emotion from people when they see me perform and when they hear my music; for them to walk away feeling good. I think this music has a good spirit and good energy in it, and so when you listen to it I really want the listener to walk away feeling good, feeling inspired and having a feeling about it not just listening to it and then turning it off—to really make you feel a certain kind of way when you experience Esnavi. And I’m here to deliver good music to the world in my career. And that’s the purpose.

DMJ: Well, that’s a great way to wrap things up. But before we go, I know you said you’re very active on social media, so can you just let us know what your Facebook and Twitter is? Whatever you’re on so everybody can keep in touch with you.

E: I just relaunched my website; I want everyone to go to www.esnavi.com so you can get a snapshot of my world. All of my social networking links are on my site—my Twitter, my Facebook, YouTube channel, MySpace and ReverbNation. So you can go on there and connect with me. I actually have a blog on my website now, so I’m going to be interacting with people who go on there and have chats once a week about shows, and seeing more photos; and everything’s there at www.esnavi.com.

DMJ: Is there anything you want to say that we haven’t talked about?

E: No, just to anyone who listens to the interview or listens to my music, I so appreciate the love and support as an independent artist. I think we can embark on a good music revolution and I will be one of the artists that helps shift where soul music is right now. So support, “Unexpected Love” is on iTunes, and the album—like you said, by the time you hear this—will be out on iTunes as well. EXIT E, $9.99(USD) for sixteen wonderful tracks, and I guarantee you’re gonna love something. I’m not gonna say you have to love it all, but you’re gonna love something.

DMJ: And I’m going to go on the record as saying… and I haven’t compiled my top ten favourite albums of the year yet, but this one will definitely be on it. So if anybody’s listening to this, I personally encourage you to check this out. This has been one of the best albums I’ve heard all year. And Esnavi, thank you for coming by SoulMusic.com.

E: Thank you for having me.

DMJ: Our doors are open any time you want to come through.

E: I’ll knock on your door. Thank you so much for all the positive energy and the feedback, and I know it’s coming from a genuine place and I appreciate that. I really do.

DMJ: Most definitely. Well, thank you so much, and have a great day.

E: You too. Bye, listeners.

DMJ: All right, take care.

About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.
  
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