In a musical world pipe-lined by corporate businesses meant to drive record sales through mass-accessibility, truly honest records at the end of a musical fad are understandably difficult to come in contact with. Massive Attack and Portishead pioneered the Bristol sound, but by the end of the 20th Century’s Trip-Hop phase, there had been enough copycat releases that meant to capitalize off the sound to build an army. Toronto’s singer-songwriter Jenny-Bea Englishman and producer Martin “Doc” McKinney broke the mold of imitation by releasing a brutally untainted, incorruptible Downtempo debut Breath From Another, under the duo moniker Esthero.
What’s described above and is saving face for records like 1998’s Breath From Another is the status quo of cult classics, and their extraordinary ability to infiltrate the mass market quietly, but ultimately remain under the radar. Englishman and McKinney were able to bubble up through film spots (“Lounge” in Zero Effect, “That Girl” in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Boiler Room, and “Country Livin’ (The World I Know)” remixed by Goodie Mob for the Slam Soundtrack), but simmer down enough to have one of the most respected, touching debut records in the niche-electronic scene.
Released on April 28th, 1998 through the shifting music trends, the project garnered enough strength to transport eclectic grooves through the hearts 250,000+ sales, and many more listeners as the way to listen and consume music altered through time.
Here, we take a look back at the inhalations and heaven sent vibes of which embody the blue aura and multifaceted spirit of Breath From Another. From the words of Englishman to 2020k, past interviews, liner notes, and more, below is an exploration of an album’s heart and what causes it to strongly beat sixteen years on.
Half a World Away…
Though the origin of Downtempo music in the 90’s stemmed mostly from European vibes, Esthero hemmed their craft in North America, Canada. Meeting through EMI affiliated terms, the two created six demos that perked the ears of Sony Music enough to sign them to their Work Group (Jamiroquai, Jennifer Lopez, Len) imprint. Obviously impressed, a promo EP entitled Short of Breath was released, featuring four tracks of which couldn’t be more diverse from one another. A few months later, Breath From Another followed.
Not only is the Esthero project half a world away geographically, it’s also distinct in influences. In an uncomfortable interview with Darren Gwele, Doc offers a shimmering light about the multitude of genres featured on Breath From Another. “I like to call it a ‘salad bowl’ concept – there’s all different flavours in there, but they all maintain their own shit – nothing gets pushed together. That’s the cool thing about crossing shit over, if you can maintain the individual identity of the different things and respect them for what they are then it can be really cool.”
Somehow, diversity suits Esthero’s debut record well. In a melting pot, ingredients from the Pop, Jazz, and Electronica spectrum mix themselves amongst guitar layers, atmospheric vocals, and lite drum ‘n’ bass, dub inspired rhythms. Perhaps the most interesting use of instrumentation comes on “Flipher Overture,” in which Rami Jaffee (Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, and keyboardist for The Wallflowers) plays an Optigan, an instrument manufactured by Mattel in 1971 that produces lo-fi instrumentation through prerecorded optical discs and was manufactured for the consumer environment, not professional.
“Flipher Overture” seems to be one of the most interesting pieces of music, despite its short-coming of only being forty-two seconds long. Cee-Lo Green looped the interlude on the song “Champain” from his mixtape Cee-Lo & Greg Street Present… Stray Bullets, and it’s without question why. Potentially named for being the overture of the B-side on Breath From Another’s vinyl edition (FlipHer Over
ture, get it?), the song soars through string and guitar arrangements that recall melodic aspects of classical music, while fast paced rhythms scream for tyrant Electronica to march the composition forth.
The sheer amount of production, engineering, and compositional work that represents the whole of Esthero’s Breath From Another is largely overlooked for the controversy surrounding Doc and Jenny’s personal friendship (which has destructed), and replaced with babbling comparisons to Bjork and Sade. Sure, Englishman sounds obscure, and she does one good Bjork impersonation, but it’s a defining quality, and one that was wrongly objectified time and time again for being a rip off. Some could argue it’s typical Girl Vs. Girl journalistic sexism at its cliched finest, but no one can argue against talent, which Esthero surely has an abundant amount of (check out The Chris Rock Show performance of “Heaven Sent” if you’re unsure).
Anywayz, Breath From Another has absolute wonderful mixing work from Doc McKinney, as well as Dave “Hard Drive” Pensado, Jeff Griffin, Warren Riker, Blair Robb, and Abacus. As well as engineering work from Kyle T. Hamilton, with a gorgeous mastering job by Eddy Schreyer and Gene Grimaldi at Oasis Mastering. Just how wonderful is it to know that Breath From Another has an average dynamic range of 10dB, as well as a maximum dynamic range of 11dB on two tracks (and this is from the lossy version, no less).
The way songs flow and are given space, the debut record from Esthero can translate beautifully in just about any pair of speakers, and reveal its layers of beauty over time, with each listen.
The lyrical love design inside of Esthero’s debut is a wonderful adventure through the life and times of the passionate adolescence. Jenny wrote most of the material for Breath From Another when she was between sixteen and seventeen years old, and while the record does exhale quite a few exasperated growing pains, the language of which encompasses this album speaks so vaguely, but distinctly of its subject matter that the humanistic appeal of the record is nothing short of magnificent.
Interestingly enough, fervency flourishes at younger ages and Englishman knows it. In an interview with David D. Robbins Jr., she recalls the vigorous writing process “[the debut] was written from the perspective of a 17-year-old girl. And when you’re 17, you’re fucking passionate. Because everything is new, everything is fucking now, do or die. You get older and get a little more relaxed. I think a lot of that comes from the passion of being young.”
In the same conversation with Robbins, the songstress would also give out more information into the motives behind Breath From Another’s lyrical themes. Stating, “A lot of the songs came from a very personal place. A lot of it came from trying to find strength in myself. I didn’t want to be the whiny jilted lover. ”
Breath From Another tells stories with cryptic enthusiasm. From the title track’s opening scratches from DJ Grouch from the movie Deliverance. To the uplifting change of complete structure in the song’s chorus, “Breath From Another” tells us not to compromise what’s gold for the soul you never sold, while the song’s verses and raps from Shug and Meesah brood a tale of desperation.
Brayden Baird provides Breath From Another with one of the more memorable, optimistic moments through his melodic trumpet on the popped out, almost bubbly “That Girl,” then comes back around to join Trombonist Evan Cranley, Tenor Sax player Ewan Miller for an outstanding brass section, put together by Doc, on “Lounge.” On “Lounge,” Jenny Englishman took to her blog, Esthero in Progress in May 2010 to discuss the meaning of the song, saying she had no idea what she wrote that about, because music is more of a visual, phonetic tool to her, then went on to describe a scene full of sophistication and dismay of which inspired the lyrics. Her imagination, if you will.
Even further, 2020k spoke with Englishman two years ago, and asked if she could share any specific memories she had while making the debut album. Specifically, we asked “When someone says Breath From Another to you now, is there anything in particular you think about?” In response, she spoke “I think of the first time I was in the studio and the first song we wrote, which was ‘Superheros.’ It’s been a while, I was a kid, a baby.”
Then, she turned quiet. Too quiet – like a pregnant pause that’s gone on for far too long, but the kind of pause that’s filled with deep thought – reflection, with a silent retrospective back in time.
Finally, she solemnly clued me in on “Swallow Me,” arguably the record’s most confessional song. “…and then I think of the very end of that record, which was ‘Swallow me,’ and what that song meant to me, just as far as overcoming fear.”
The conclusion to this acknowledgement of song meaning is perhaps some of the most open we’ve seen Jenny-Bea Englishman be in regards to Breath From Another. Almost apprehensively, she continued discussing “Swallow Me” with just one more sentence, “I wrote that in a hotel…” she paused again, before allowing one melancholic, lone word to complete the sentence “…alone.”
In conversation between Esthero and 2020k, the ethereal siren cracked jokes and ended on a conscientious note. “It’s funny, I think of that record and I don’t know if I feel sad, or I feel old,” she laughs. “But, I’ve come a long way. It was a special record and was born out of a very specific combination of people…at a specific time and place.”
For reasons still not disclosed, Jenny and Martin had a falling out and the Esthero moniker became a pseudonym specifically for Englishman’s solo ventures. While the two came together for two tracks on Breath From Another’s 2005 follow up Wikked Lil’ Grrrls (“If Tha Mood” and “Bad Boy Clyde” respectively), Esthero boasted over never working with Doc again in a 2005 interview with Exclaim.
Regardless, Breath From Another is one of the staples in Electronic music that is impossible to ignore. The artistic chemistry created by Englishman, McKinney, and their engineering team is a rarity in any form of the music industry. The giving of breath from all parties involved with the Esthero debut to us is a gift that should be taken with the utmost graciousness and respect.
Music was the lamb that made a lion out of me.
Happy Birthday, Breath From Another.
Breath From Another by Esthero was released April 28th, 2014 [iTunes]
Music Was the Lamb that Made a Lion Out of Me…
To celebrate sixteen years of Breath From Another we’re giving away one copy of the album by Esthero!!!!!!!
This is a joint giveaway between 2020k, Avenge the Virgins, and Open Til Midnight!
This copy was a copy bought on International Record Store Day in 2013, in which it was saved from the clearance bin. I needed to save it, I felt completely obligated. I’d seen this disc sitting in the suburban town I lived in for 23 years and knew that it’d been on that shelf since at least 2008. Why? It has nothing to do with the music’s content, surely, but sadly not too many people in suburbia want anything to do with alternative music (which relates back to the opening paragraph of this article). The world I know is a world too slow, basically. This is a used copy of the US CD version of Breath From Another, as it was purchased to support a physical music store.
To win, there are a few different ways:
First way to win: You must follow 2020k on Facebook. This automatically enters you! After you’ve followed, like or share this article. For every like or share you’ll receive one additional entry. Bonus points if you leave a comment sharing an Esthero related story or letting us know your favorite Esthero song.
Second way to win: Follow @Twenty20k on Twitter and retweet this.
Third way to win: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “2020k Breath From Another Entry!” and let us know your name, as well as an Esthero related story or favorite Esthero song. A few more lines wouldn’t hurt either. 😉 One entry per email allowed.