Name: Esinam Dogbatse
Occupation: Songwriter, vocalist, lyricist
Nationality: Ghanaian-Belgian
Current release: ESINAM's debut album Shapes in Twilights of Infinity is out 3rd September via W.E.R.F.
Recommendations: I have posters in my studio/music room of paintings that I love so much. From Dali, Baskia, Guayasamin. A poster of Miles Davis and a poster of Angela Davis, a woman that I admire.
A book (that I found in second hands) and that I love to read few pages from from time to time, is “Three Wishes” of Pannonica de Koenigswarter. It is a bunch of jazz artists telling their 3 intimate wishes with pictures, portraits and archives. I love it! Then the kind of music I listen to changes all the time, is very eclectic. But at the moment I like to re-listen to D’Angelo or for example I listened the latest album of Hiatus Kayote today.

If you enjoyed this interview with ESINAM, visit her official website for further information. She is also on Instagram, Facebook and bandcamp.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

Music has been in my life since a very long time but I don’t really know where it comes from. I started music school when I was 5, I asked for it. Then I learned to play the classical piano for a decade thanks to my mother who supported me, even though it was not always easy for us to afford individual piano lessons. I was passionate about it and I knew I was lucky to learn music. I used to listen to classical music for hours, also Bob Marley and Tracy Chapman, and then later Erykah Badu, Björk or Oumou Sangaré among others ... The passion, the learning, the hours of practice and the art of listening were there from the very beginning.

During those years of studying classical piano, I was playing percussion, and other instruments too. I loved jamming. At the age of 18, I went away for a long journey. I started to play the flute, it was important to have an instrument that I could carry with me, and it would give me that feeling of freedom. I loved that instrument and improvisation. I started to play with some band as a flutist and percussionist, discovering the live shows and tour life.

And then, I created my musical world and my own project. Composing music came at that moment and then later the production process, too.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

My relation with the learning process was clearly “out” of the school path. Apart from my few years in music school when I was a child, and after my piano study period, I was not into going to school at all. I switched to playing the flute. Taking a flute that I borrowed from my neighbour and I started to play and learn improvisation by myself. I also learned other instruments just by playing them. The passion of learning, listening, trying, going through the process of experimentation and finding my own way of growing musically. Finding your own way to play and your own sound can take time. I have been in several projects as a side-musician, touring and learning how to be a professional musician over the years. Step by step with more experiences.

And then, a few years ago, I started my solo project, making my music with a desire for another form of freedom. I wanted to put everything together; my background, my influences, mixing my multi-identities, and playing different instruments on this project.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I am culturally mixed, half-half. I grew up between two cultures, from Belgium and Ghana. I grew up connected to two lifestyles very different from each other.

My identity is multiple since the day I was born and sometimes I feel that it is hard for me to make certain choices or to go in one direction only. I don’t know if it is linked but I like to let the ‘multi-identity’ be present in my music, without focussing on it. I just like to let the freedom into my creativity, no boundaries. So, for sure, I am not staying in one music gender, or one style. I like to keep the creative inspirations open to diverse influences. When I make music, I try to be the most honest and close to what I feel or what I am trying to say or to transmit at that moment.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

I think being a musician is always a creative challenge, you're always learning, trying, and searching.

But for a concrete example, when I started my solo project, the challenge to be alone on stage was not easy for me, because I am a shy person. I felt more creative and I was conscious about new things because of this project.

Also, it was a process to get comfortable with all the technical stuff. I have a solo set-up with loops, hardware, machines, samples etc. So, sometimes I had technical problems that happened. But whatever could happen, I was always going out of my comfort zone, find a way, using my creativity in the moment, to play and improvise music over technical skills or over technical issues. That project made me grow as an artist and as a person.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument?

I made my first EP, recording all the parts and learning some producing skills. It was nice to be involved in the whole process. For my first album, I kept that way of working but I went further, acquiring more and more skills. And involving other musicians too. My home studio is with simple recording equipment but the way I make music surely improved. As you progress as an artist, so your music progress too. It is all linked.

For my album I wanted to work with musicians and add band ‘colours’ for some tracks, more acoustic sounds and collaborations as well as producing tracks by myself. I see an expansion/evolution in the way of making it, in terms of with whom I work and how. Not necessarily with the equipment.

What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments / tools / equipment over the years?

I have my set-up, instruments and few machines that I put together to start my solo project. For a long time I've more or less kept the same set-up.

I am a «DIY/Resourceful/Find a way to be creative with what you have» kind of person. And also I like when my gear can easily fit into a case when travelling! That’s important! There is always a way to find new things and ideas with the same set-up, but it is true also that new gear or new instruments can sometimes give you new inputs. It can bring new ideas or colours of sounds and open a new road to explore …

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

The collaborations I’ve done lately were for my new album Shapes in Twilights of Infinity.

I invited 2 guests: First, Nadeem Din-Gabisi (UK) to write a poem and to record it on one of my tracks (“New Dawn”). I knew I’d like his input. And then, Sibusele Xaba, an incredible musician (South African) to sing and play guitar on another song (“Flowing River”). I sent them the draft of the music and then we did long distance collaboration, by messages, vocal notes, sending files, etc. It was on music that existed already and then I added their ‘touch’ and their sound as a new element. Then we finalised it together.

I’ve also collaborated as a flute player, sometimes added my sounds to other artist’s music too.  I made music for a theatre/slam piece with Sukina Douglas. I loved that collaboration; I had to create all the music of the piece in harmony with the story or the poems or the ambiance of the piece. It was very inspiring to work on it. Also because of the topics: Afropean identity, racism, ….

I love to collaborate with dancers too, I think it is very nice to mix different forms of art, and find the connections.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

Each week is changing, and every day is different. I know it makes it sometimes more difficult when you never have a routine. But my way of life is like that; I focus on small goals, bigger goals and consistency in what I do.  Depending on whether I am touring or not, I am adapting to the schedule.

I focus on being in a good shape/health too. Basics; eat well, sleep well (that’s not so easy), take care of my art (that includes practice time, creation, be inspired, ...). I try to read more when I manage to have free time. When I don’t have gigs, I enjoy doing sports, I regularly go running, I’ve started boxing - and swimming is good to remove stressful thoughts and stay ready for the next gig!

So, no routine is really fixed. I just try to enjoy my life day by day, go with the flow of what I have to do or to prepare, or whom I have to meet. Definitely, music is part of my life all the time. It is really part of who I am.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

For me, my solo project felt like a breakthrough because I was jumping into a new project as a solo artist and then as a leader. That was very stimulating. I feel so exited to perform it, do my release, each step I do is the best I can do at that moment. I’ve put so much in that project, I am fully dedicated to it and I put all my love and passion in the music and beyond. It is very personal.

I am involved in other projects or bands too. I am committed to what I do and I feel lucky and grateful to live this life. Sometimes, I forget to rest! (laughs)

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

In my case, I work in periods of time, cycles, phases. When I was working on my album, I was fully immersed in it, with intensity. During such a phase I won’t listen to other music. Then, when the music was done, I go to another cycle, another phase, it can be focus on practice or be inspired, study new things, and listen to a lot of other music, or do some other things …

My creativity is, kind of, linked to this. It goes and comes again. My studio or my set-up are always ready to use in case I have an idea in the middle of the night, you can never know when that suddenly happens.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

I’ve always known that music is powerful, it can deeply touch your soul. I experienced it, when I was going through difficult moments; music has this ability to take sadness or anxiety away. For sure, playing and listen to music makes me happy. I hope it makes you happy too.

It is also my way of expression, my songs can translate feelings that are not easy to describe or put into words. With music you can express a lot more, a lot of emotions and sensations, with a larger ‘palette’.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

Art and culture are for everybody, I think it is nice to link freedom to cultural influences, but then it really depends on how it is presented, how/who is involved and how the artist communicates about it. Sometimes that line between cultural exchange and appropriation is very, very thin.  

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

That’s an original question. For sure all our senses are connected. I don’t have a maniac habit about it but in my studio/practice room, I like to be ‘comfy’, warm, with a nice smell, having nice food before creating stuff. I have candles too. It depends of the mood. I make me feel at ease and comfortable by intuition and do what I need at that moment to create.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

For me art is a life style, a choice to be different from a lot of aspects. The world is a capitalist dictatorship. I don’t like or I don’t approve the unequal powers in our society. The world is crazy.

I think Art, Music and Culture are essentials. We need them to feel good, to stay grounded, to open eyes and minds. It helps to escape of that crazy world too. Of course, music is my job and I need to make money to have a decent life and concretise projects but my first purpose is to make my art. I am fully dedicated and committed to it. I don’t know if that’s political?

As a musician, artist, Afropean mixed woman, I try to do my best in my way of living. I try to be as conscious as I can, and be aware of my daily choices. There are heavy issues about racism, inequalities, climate change, ecology, pandemic problems … and sometimes it is too much to handle.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Yes! For sure music expresses something beyond words, it immerses you in other dimensions. The sounds can take you on a sensory travel and trigger deep emotions. Hard to explain, music is kind of magic … I hope people can feel it while listening to my music.

I used to play in a band with drums and percusion, 15 musicians playing beats together. The intense vibrations of the drums and the physical sensation is powerful. We could go to a point where the audience was dancing and we were all taken in a kind of trance. Very powerful energy.