Esperanza Spalding Interview
By Nokware Knight
July 30, 2008
Pinpointed as a musical talent since her early teens, the now 23 year-old Esperanza Spalding has grown from talented Portland-based pupil to college music professor and young emerging artist in little more than 8 years. Despite great buzz and early success, Spalding remains perhaps a little too humble about her accomplishments and the praise that has befallen her over the years. Yet her persona runs the other extreme, demonstrating an opinionated, positive, free-spirited, and creative energy that displays itself in her music, lyrics, conversations with media, and general persona. Spaulding’s passion for her craft, life experiences, and mature, open-minded outlook allows her to come across as an untamed artist, a socially aware and inter-culturally adept citizen, and polished professional at the same time. Whether in jazz, popular music, or addressing social stigmas, Spalding comes across as having as strong influence on others by simply remaining true to herself while embracing what the rest of the world has to offer.
Nu-Soul: Compare your new album, Esperanza, with your previous album, Junjo. What has changed and what has stayed the same?
Esperanza: Well, these two records are completely different projects. What I mean is, my objective with Junjo was to showcase the sound of that trio specifically. So, all of the music was catered to the musicians, and the dynamic that existed between us.
Esperanza is really me attempting to catch my sound as an artist and as a leader. So I chose musicians that would best bring out all of the colors necessary to effectively what I am going for musically right now. And, I feel like Esperanza is a portrait of myself and my approach.
Nu-Soul: Many of us have heard the story about how you got into playing the double bass. But you are also credited for writing nine of the twelve songs on your new album, “She Got To You” being the most impressive song lyrically. Where did the writing skills come from and do you plan on further developing that talent?
Esperanza: Oh yes. I plan on further developing everything! It’s funny, I get asked questions like that and I’m thinking, well, what else would I do? Nothing? At heart I am a jazz musician, well, actually, what I was going to say about my commitment to continual evolution is not limited to jazz musicians. But, essentially, this project and every part of it, is step one in what I plan on being a long interesting journey.
But, to answer your question about lyric writing, I started writing lyrics when I was about 15 or 16 for a group I sang and played in called “Noise For Pretend”. The group would compose a song, and then say, “Esperanza, can you write lyrics for this?” I had never done it before, so I just started thinking of sounds in words that would compliment the melody, and I would just write about any old subject. Cars, chalk, prostitutes, airplanes, anything. Back then, I felt a lot more free and creative when writing, because I didn’t feel I had to write about love.
Now, that I’ve done an album with plenty of songs directly about love, I definitely want to move back into more diverse subjects. And, of course improve and expand my skills as a lyricist. Songwriting in the sense of writing music, I have been doing since I was 5 or 6 according to my mother.
Nu-Soul: Which song on Esperanza hits closest to home for you?
Esperanza: “I Adore You” That really feels like me, that and “Mela”, hit closest for me musically, and “Precious” hits home for me the most lyrically.
Nu-Soul: Did you have any formal vocal training?
Esperanza: Hmmm. not really. I did take a couple of private lessons with a woman named Anne Peckham. That really helped me learn how to prepare my voice for alot of singing, and how not to ruin the instrument. Outside of that, none worth mentioning. But, I have learned a lot from singing in the shower.
Nu-Soul: When was the first time you heard your talents associated with the word prodigy?
Esperanza: Oh man, I don’t know actually. That is pretty recent. And, it cracks me up. I am surrounded by prodigies everywhere I go, but because they are a little older than me, or not a female, or not on a major label, they are not acknowledged as such. It feels in-appropriate to use that word to describe my musicianship, when there are so many people out there WAY deeper than me! I mean, you want a prodigy, check out some of Billy Drew’s work. That to me is prodigal, but, somehow the word now is always associated with youth, and I don’t think it’s really fair. So, someone like me who is good for the amount of time I have been playing, but alright compared to a master, is called a prodigy. It literally cracks me up, but I can’t deny that it is mildly flattering.
Nu-Soul: In your interview with Jazzwise Magazine, you explained that you feel that much of today’s popular music has an increasingly manufactured feel, jazz included. In any genre, how does one identify when they are listening to real, unadulterated music from the heart backed by raw thoughts, emotions, and viewpoints?
Esperanza: Well, I guess it’s one of those things, “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you!” I mean, ultimately, real unadulterated music doesn’t exist outside of the person or circumstance deeming it so. That is something a listener has to decide for them self. I have witnessed people just writhing with joy while listening to music that to me sounded fake and empty. And, I have been the over-eager listener, sharing something I think is fresher than a newborn baby with the friends, only to have them look at me bewildered and concerned…”Are you serious? You think this is killing?!”
All that I can say that might apply universally, is that when a musician has been molded to fit a pre-fabricated marketing scheme, and the musician doesn’t bother or isn’t allowed to put any of their own personality into it, most people feel a difference. They wont get goose bumps I’m betting. And, you know the funny part about manufactured artists, is that we tend to scrutinize the artist, instead of asking, who went to the trouble to market this, if there is no strong artistic content? Who was it that decided market value would overshadow the quality of the art? And, I think when that energy - someone promoting music not for the music but for the possible funds or reputation enhancement - has contaminated any project, the listener senses it…
Nu-Soul: What sources can the general public tap into today to get that experience?
Esperanza: I think word of mouth is the best source. You know, listen to what friends are raving about. And, take the time to check it out. When you do find an artist that moves you, find out what music moves them and go buy some of that music. And, of course, taking the time to see live shows. Many times I have heard recordings of an artist, and thought, “Hm, okay, nice but, not mind-blowing like everyone says.” Yet, when I see them live it’s a whole other experience. Many musicians are MUCH stronger and more engaging live. (I think I can count myself in that demographic!)
Nu-Soul: Who are you listening to now?
Esperanza: Well, I just was given a HUGE bag full of CDs, and so I am working my way through all these records! But, the last couple that REALLY got me goose-bumpy from that bag were: Aguas-Iguais by Rosanna and Zelia, Some Skunk Funk by Randy Brecker, Casa de Villa by Guinga, The Ray Bryant Trio featuring Carmen McRae, and Perceptual by Brian Blade, Soulsinger by Ledisi.
Nu-Soul: What is your favorite place to perform?
Esperanza: I don’t have a favorite as of yet. But, I like performing in laid back places, you know, anything that’s not stuffy. Where folks will hoot and holler and get involved with the music.
Nu-Soul: Why the double bass, as opposed to the saxophone, violin, trumpet, or any other instrument?
Esperanza: Well, I didn’t really choose the bass, nor did I expect it to take me anywhere as I started studying it. I played many other instruments, well dabbled at them, but the bass had it’s own arc and it unfolded a path for me that I just kept following. I don’t know why or how, but my evolution on bass actually occurred quite naturally and un-expectedly. What would I do with any other instrument? That is kind of how I feel. The bass and I just resonate.
Nu-Soul: Your attractive features, warm and sincere personality, and background really do make you an intriguing choice as spokesperson for any cause. Do you see yourself in public-facing endeavors such as modeling or as a voice for a non-profit group in the future?
Nu-Soul: Who would you love to meet that you already haven’t?
Esperanza: Barack Obama, Ivan Van Sertima, Freddie Hubbard, Mos Def, Henry David Thoreau (that probably wont happen, but, I hope we meet in the after-life, he’s my favorite!)
Nu-Soul: After accomplishing so much at such a young age, what drives you? Do you simply enjoy making music or do you have any particular milestones you want to reach?
Esperanza: Well, I really don’t feel like I have accomplished anything terribly noteworthy. I mean, particularly for a jazz bassist, which I still think of myself as. You know, on the journey to becoming a master of your craft (which is where I like to think of myself) the milestones, as an outside observer would see them, don’t define your work, your legacy does. And, everything that makes up that legacy, the live shows, the records, your reputation on and off the stage, collaborations, what you’ve contributed of the dictionary of style and sound, these are the things that combined represent your “accomplishment” as an artist. So, pursuing all aspects of my creative self, and continually living each moment that will ultimately contribute to my legacy is what drives me.