As we continue to reconnect with people that inspire us, this month we speak to singer-songwriter and facilitator Chesqua who we first met back in 2013 on a Brighter Sound residency led by Grammy Award winning jazz and funk collective Snarky Puppy.
Since then she’s gigged across the country with the residency band, worked hard to develop her artistic voice, and started a new chapter in her career as a music facilitator. Find out more about Chesqua’s journey, and how music has been her therapy through challenging times…
How did you first get involved with music?
I’ve actually come from quite a musical theatre background! I went to school in Wales and was in a choir, so my first experiences with music were singing in Welsh and being in musicals. That led me to go to Salford University to do Performing Arts. The course wasn’t really serving the purpose that I wanted, so I started seeking out other opportunities, looking for band members to write or do gigs with. I hadn’t done many gigs before, other than family parties and stuff – dragging my cousin up on guitar!
Soon after, in 2013, I got involved with Brighter Sound for the first time when I took part in the Snarky Puppy residency. I’d never written a song before and part of that project was creating loads of original material. It was really cool because we were all staying in Manchester so we’d get together at the end of the sessions and go to jam nights. It was insane really, being at these jam nights in Didsbury with Michael League!
Six months after the residency we got together, got some of the songs recorded properly and made some videos. It’s really nice to have a polished product at the end, because when you’re on a residency and performing, everything’s feeding off the emotion and the audience. So it was nice to have something to show for it. The band we created from that – Hans Prya – managed to stay together for about three years!
What did you do in those three years?
Well, the year after we supported Snarky Puppy at Manchester Jazz Festival! Aside from that, we did a lot of writing. We were all skint at the time. We were just at the end of university and we’d all plough this money into rehearsal rooms and gigs, never making money but we just loved it! The last performance we did was at Mostly Jazz Funk & Soul Festival, on the bill with Chaka Khan and Craig Charles. That led me into a lot more writing for other artists, especially in the electronic and dance music scenes. Brighter Sound was responsible for a lot really. You gave me a bit of a catapult.
How did taking part in that project impact you as an artist?
Before the project my listening was heavily focused around pop or musical theatre. But on the residency I was introduced to afrobeat, jazz, soul. It kind of inspired my first EP. Also, I suddenly had this network of friends, musicians, people I could jam with, people I could write with, all of which formed one massive support system for me. I’m really confident on stage, but in the studio or when I’m writing or in a setting where there’s loads of musicians, I’m the opposite. I was quite late in my development as a musician and a singer, so having that support system to reinforce me, like, “no, you’re good, you’ve done this” is one of the main things I’ve taken from it.
What’s happened between then and now?
I recorded my EP in 2016, and then I ended up getting management. But it was really the wrong time. I got a manager that really loved me, believed in me and believed I could be successful, but didn’t necessarily believe in my music. He felt it was too ‘niche’, ‘arty’ and ‘left’. He said if I took that as an inspiration and made it a bit more commercial then I would be successful. And it sounds silly saying everybody wants to be successful, but I think at one point you want to be, and then you go past that.
So I went on this three year journey of writing in sessions, working with loads of amazing producers, writing loads of songs that, in hindsight, I was a bit disconnected from. It didn’t feel like it was my music. They’re great songs but as an artist, looking back, I needed to go through that.
This year I took a step back from the studio and my management, and assessed where I was going and whether I was being true to myself. I ended up parting ways with my management shortly after.
Do you think your ambitions have changed in that time?
I have very different goals now to when I was 21 when getting signed felt like everything. And the music industry has changed. You can do so much by yourself now. If you put the control in somebody else’s hands, they can do it but they’re not going to do it with the same passion that you will.
Something else that led me to this point is that two years ago I developed a cyst on my vocal cord. It’s irreversible without surgery, but if you catch it quickly the recovery is quite minimal. So I told everybody I’m not doing any gigs, I’m not touring, I’m not doing anything for three months while I go through the rehabilitation phase. But I’d just said yes to a tour which was going to be in four months. When I went to my first session with my rehab coach he asked me what my goal was, and I said to be tour ready in three months! I was adamant I really wanted to do it, so we came up with a plan to make that happen. After the tour, I went on to have more coaching with an amazing coach called Kim Chandler. After a week with her, she gave me the all clear and then lockdown happened!
How do you think these experiences have influenced who you are today?
I’ve had to say no to so many projects and so many collaborations because it didn’t align with my sound. There’s an element of freedom when you’re independent, so if you’re writing a song, it doesn’t need to be in a certain genre or appeal to a million people. It can just appeal to a hundred people. A hundred people that actually care about the music. It’s really liberating.
And then going through coaching made me realise how important music is. It has 100% been my therapy. Through surgery, through lockdown, it’s been something that I can throw my energy into.
How’s lockdown been for you?
I won’t lie, it was stressful at first! I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills if I wasn’t performing. But I’ve created some of my nicest work in lockdown, as I’ve had the time and space to dedicate to it. The only thing I’m missing is being in a room with musicians and the experience of being on a stage and interacting with an audience. I really feed off other people so a lot of my songs have been about other people’s experiences, not necessarily my own. So that’s what I’ve loved about facilitating, just seeing ideas come to life right in front of your eyes.
Finally, tell us a bit about how music facilitation became a part of your life.
I got to the point where my music was going well, but I wanted to give something back. I wanted to be part of somebody else’s journey. So that’s why I got back in touch with Brighter Sound and applied for the facilitation traineeship. I got the job a couple of weeks before lockdown, so it was put on hold for a bit. But of course we found a way of doing it… we jumped on Zoom! I’ve actually never facilitated in real life yet but I’ve learnt so much already. I just love that each project is really different and we get to see the participants grow. Grow in confidence, grow in belief, grow in ability.
Going forward I want to continue to develop as a facilitator and also put out music that is a true reflection of who I am.
Thanks to Chesqua for speaking to us!