Esthero Catches Her Breath and a Landmark LP
It was always a given that Jenny-Bea Englishman would command attention. Blessed with a voice that could be alternately compared with such disparate artists as Bjork, Sade, and Erykah Badu, it was a certainty that she would at least end up singing on someone's hit single. Her eclectic personal style and manic-pixie-dream-singer looks ensured that she would be a pin-up girl for a certain type of creative hopeful, a dream to aspire to. It was no surprise then when at 18-years-old she formed Esthero with producer Martin "Doc" McKinney (though later she would adopt the mantle as a solo artist), and it raised no eyebrows when they released Breath From Another in the spring of 1998 - it is what recording artists do, after all.
The surprise was that the record was stellar, and that an album that so deftly navigated the choppy waters between the emergent trip-hop and chillout scenes could do so without garnering platinum sales and worldwide ubiquity.
Toronto and Montreal were hotbeds of idiosyncratic hip-hop and musical collectivism in the late 90's. Between them, they would birth Len, Bran Van 3000, Chromeo and other acts who blurred the lines between rap, rock, and R&B with a spirit of good-natured inclusivity and - gosh darn it - FUN. It made sense that Esthero would get their start in the same boiling cauldron of activity, even if their modus operandi was markedly different. Where Len and BV3 showcased multitudes of revolving artists to create sketches that could cover nearly any genre of music, Englishman and McKinney were a production/songwriting duo who often wrote and recorded sans any outside help and they tended to stay in their lane, though it bears pointing out that the lane was one they helped to create and define.
Also around this time, Portishead, Poe, the Sneaker Pimps, and others were using trip-hop as a launching point toward college-rock radio. To varying degrees, these acts exemplified a melding of drum machines, turntablism, and synths with more standard guitar-based fare. They also showcased women as front-and-center voices in a way that much "Alternative" music had yet to catch up to (with notable exceptions: Elastica, Veruca Salt, PJ Harvey, and others). Women were demonstrably driving forces behind these acts, not relegated to playing an instrument and singing back-up, or to lending their voices to someone else's songs. While the Spice Girls were giving lip service to some non-specific notion of "Girl Power" that never seemed serious or significant, the women in these bands were living it in a space that had long been dominated by males.
By '98, trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack had long been stoking the fire of their sound being the "Next Big Thing", so the time was right for a record that could transcend the genre. Esthero took a run at doing just that by using trip-hop's skeleton as a framework upon which they layered guitar, strings, keys, brass and other instrumentation to spin world-apart narratives and torch-carrying ballads. "Heaven Sent" displays this brilliantly: a Spanish guitar riff is played against a roomy bass drum loop - the chorus becomes a sweeping cascade of strings and electric guitar. Over it all, Englishman's voice floats disembodied and omniscient, replaying a psychological horror of conspiracy and wrongdoing.
The other element that Esthero liberally pulled from was a nascent "chillout" or "downtempo" sound. Chillout came about as an answer to the frenetic house and dance music that was gaining marketshare fast in urban areas. The idea was that people who spent nights out going crazy at dance clubs would need a respite from that at some point, whether it be the after-party or the morning after the after-party. Artists like Röyksopp and Thievery Corporation were making waves by slowing things down and allowing for textures and tones that could be easy-listening and often more complex in mood and theme. Esthero capitalized by hijacking the ethos behind this vibe, ingraining an overall smoothness into Breath From Another that made it a staple on chillout mixtapes the world over. Check out "Country Livin' (The World I Know)" as case-in-point here: mellow tempo, atmospheric electronic beeps, vocal production that is angelically overdubbed - it's glossy yet comfortable, perfect for headphone listening or nighttime driving, or both. "Just look at those stars / baby, we could be stars…"
Throughout the album, Esthero frames personal statements in both hushed whispers and shouted declaratives. The songs can be read as startlingly confessional about her own needs and desires, or more globally related to "woman" in the collective sense. Englishman touches on a form of feminism that is (sadly) still relevant today: her heroines are independent ("I'll try to catch my own vibe"), headstrong ("You can't stop her now"), and they believe strongly in the saving power of music without any hint of cynicism ("Music was the man / that made a lion out of me"). This is the type of "statement" record that starving young singers and songwriters could get a lot of mileage out of with the way it played up the superlative talent involved and with its commitment to a studied restraint, always leaving the audience wanting more in the best possible way.
Ultimately, Breath may have been a bit ahead of its time. While today we allow for the genre gymnastics of Gwen Stefani and we take for granted the confrontationally soul-baring styles of more empowered female artists like Mitski, the world may not have been ready for Esthero in 1998. As the LP underperformed commercially, both trip-hop and chillout became diluted and all but fizzled out in the years following Y2K with only a few stalwarts still breaking new intra-genre ground in either territory. A 20th anniversary impending next year and a recent Polaris Shortlisting indicate that the time is right for a re-evaluation that will lead to a return to prominence for this gem.
But regardless of when or whether the world catches up, there remains a deeply devoted following of people who have been affected by this LP. One only has to look at Esthero's Instagram to see examples of longtime fans who wear their relationship with this album like badges of honor:
:: rick_batyr_music: "My fav album. Timeless. Innovative , and straight up has been an inspiration I carry in music I do…"
:: calewalde: "Still my favorite album. I buy it like copies of Catcher In The Rye."
:: jonboat420: "…this album is the reason my family exists…Your music…connects with so many people on a deep level…Thank you for everything."
It is too often the case that visionary works of art are left to languish in their own time, waiting patiently to be resurrected years later when the artists that the works inspired achieve some level of fame and notoriety. While there is certainly a moral victory in the "standing on giants' shoulders" theory, I prefer to think that Breath From Another exists in the singular space of a diamond falling perfectly into the middle of a lake with minimal splash. Time and reflection may or may not allow for the resulting waves to gain size and energy as they ripple outward to the shore, but Esthero will always have her voice. And to paraphrase the artist herself, as long as she has her voice, she'll never need arms to hold her.