I first encountered Esperanza Spalding much like the rest of the world did: at the Grammy Awards in 2011. She had some stiff competition against my future boyfriends —Drake and Justin Bieber — and then-favorite bands Florence + the Machine and Mumford & Sons. It seemed like everyone thought one of the others would win, but it was the underdog (to pop fans, at least) Spalding who took the trophy home and also became the first jazz artist to do so in that category.
Considering of all those acts now, it's wild to think of how much of they've changed: Drake went from "that kid off Degrassi" to everyone's favorite rapper; Bieber became pop's EDM bad boy; Mumford & Sons went electric; Florence went from baroque to blues. Now Spalding is ready to also unleash a new side of her, and her name is Emily. Always an innovator who has continuously found ways to liven up jazz and bossa nova, Spalding as Emily is more playful, putting performance first and letting it guide the music.
For her upcoming album Emily's D+Evolution, out March 4, the already-legendary jazz bassist is exploring a folkier and more theatrical new persona and singing the whimsical new collection of tunes from Emily's perspective. Spalding spoke with Lenny about what it means to let Emily and her "creative lava" out of her musical mountain and why she's ready to share this side of her with the world.
Brittany Spanos: This album really brings to mind Sixties Joni Mitchell. Your vocal quality on reminds me of Joni on Ladies of the Canyon and Clouds. Was she an inspiration for the album?
Esperanza Spalding: Joni Mitchell has been a major source of inspiration in my life, I think that's great that you hear that in the music. Joni Mitchell is a profound example of so many things. Particularly one of them is individuality and really exploring what she hears, not worrying about what category it falls into. I know everything has to have a category once it's put onto iTunes. Her music is very hard to characterize because it doesn't want to be.
The main inspiration for the album was the emergence of Emily, of course. To get into another spirit space while writing and creating has been a really incredible experience. Since nobody knows her, I felt really uninhibited to go for things musically and lyrically and vocally. Then I tried to capture the essence of what I understood this character or this being wanted to be expressed through me. If you were an actor preparing for a role, I think you would be able to observe and speak out examples of the kinds of quality that you knew were part of a character you were playing. You'd really want to allow that character to feel comfortable in its skin, almost like a skin you're making for it.
BS: I know that you went back to a lot of your childhood interests for this album. What did you love as a kid and how does that play out on this album?
ES: When I was kid, I was keen on acting. I really had a taste for it in the sense that I wanted to do it. I don't know if I was good at it or not, but I wanted to do it. I liked to move my body. I tried it in the different dance classes. I wasn't really good at any of those either, but I loved it.
I loved to stage these little experiences and performances for my family and friends. I would make invitations and then set up a science fair and make activities. People would go through the house and then they'd do all these things at each station. At the end there would be a surprise performance of whatever. Maybe it would just be a dance routine to TLC's "Waterfalls," which we definitely did.
What I feel now — as a grownup — from that initial love as a child is [that the experience is] not just "Here watch me do this song." [You're] creating a context to walk somebody through an idea or a place. Those aspects of my creativity or my curiosity as a creator never got fully developed over the years. Generally, this project is the playing ground I would say, of which I can study those and hone those qualities in those waves of performance. It's an incentive to really dig into that kind of expression and figure out how I'm going to do it now as a grownup.
While the songs aren't about my childhood, I do think Emily has a childlike view of many subjects. Her perspective hasn't yet been instilled with a cultural dogma.
BS: Sometimes the beauty of being a child is that when you're not good at things, you still love them and have fun. You move without the inhibition of thinking about them and as you get older, the fact that you weren't special at that thing you loved means you cannot or won't pursue it. Was a lack of inhibition an element of Emily for you?
ES: I think there's a point where you make a decision [even] if you're not sure how it's going to go. You're not sure if people are going to laugh at you or if this is going to be dumb, or if it's going to be great, or once you get it if you'd really want it. I think there's a point where you have to say "Fuck it. I want to do this. I have to do this. It's the truth right now."
If you want to be yourself, or if you want to feel like your whole self, you have to do it, whether it's dressing a certain way or having your hair a certain way, of changing jobs, or telling your lover that you got to go, or to pursue to a career in nursing. You know when it's that important. You know when it's that important to you.
It definitely did feel like if I'm the mountain and Emily's the lava. She was trying to tell me sometimes lava is necessary and good and it needs to erupt and it needs to do what it does. Sometimes it might burn something away, or the next year it might be nourishment for seeds. Or it might become the island of Hawaii or Iceland.
That's also part of the motto, I would say, of Emily. That's part of what she comes to say: "It is okay to explore this." Creativity is a magic ingredient you can find to harness whatever it is that's bursting out of you. You can't push that back inside. The energy is there. Creativity is the tool that we all are endowed with. It's like a muscle that you can practice. That lava has to come out. The question is what do you do with it?
BS: Who Emily is to you, and when did you start to feel the creative lava of Emily emerging within you?
ES: I started thinking about this probably in October of 2013. October 17th to be exact. I was playing bass with people on other people's projects. Privately, I don't think I realized that I was kind of frustrated. The music was incredible and rich and nourishing, and I was learning so much, practicing a lot and getting stretched. There was some other aspect that was frustrated.
I thought that it was just luck that allowed me to be a band leader. I didn't know that it really was coming out of this need to have my own project or say my own things or whatever. Anyway, this is all hindsight analysis of course. At the time I just couldn't sleep one night. It was between two gigs on this tour with another band. I saw this person performing. Not like a hallucination but like a waking dream, where you are just picturing it in your mind's eye. I heard this sound and I saw the people moving in the stage. I thought, "Oh that sounds cool." I liked the energy of the music. I liked the shape of the melodies. I knew the person in the middle was me, and it wasn't like I was seeing somebody else.
I just thought, "Oh, that's right. That's Emily." I just put Emily what as a placeholder there. That was her name. I was hearing a lot of sketches in this vein of this kind of performance that I was imagining. I just recorded them, this real crude melody with me tapping on the computer to the rhythm. I wrote down every idea that kept coming up because I couldn't sleep and the night rolled on.
I needed to express. I needed to be Emily. It really does feel like another character that is expressing itself through me. It's really refreshing asking "Emily." Well, what are you about then? The answer coming back is like, "I move." It's really been a great journey to offer my services so to speak to this character and music that wants to be, or the project that wants to be expressed through her.
BS: Were there any difficult moments in creating through the eyes of Emily?
ES: It was difficult all the time. It's difficult right now. Even talking to you about her and thinking like "This must sound so stupid." It's always difficult. Some nights we're performing and it feels like "Okay we're doing it!" We're doing what this is about. We're actually achieving something good. We're making good music and this makes sense. This character or this project is really humming, all the parts are working.
Sometimes it's difficult, and I take a personal hit or I feel like I get a personal sting. Sometimes musicians come to see the show and say they're not impressed musically. It's like this pang of "Oh God, they are not feeling this or maybe wondering 'Why would Esperanza [do this]?'" You don't want to feel like you're betraying somebody's invested belief, time and energy in you.
On the other hand, I never signed any contracts, fortunately, with anybody of what I was going to do or not do. That's just some bullshit ego stuff of wanting to be liked all the time. I like to be liked. With this, there's a lot of false starts where people go like, "Huh? Why?" I guess that's difficult when you're doing something for the first time and there are not very many affirmations along the way. You just keep going because it's important to you.
This comes back to maybe what I did wrong when I was kid. I didn't get the support so I stopped. I think we can all maybe experience that at any point. It's like when you want to try something difficult or change a habit in your lifestyle in your daily routine. The first four weeks, you get no results. There may not be any affirmation that it's worth the extra effort or the difficulty or the shifts. Practice makes you keep going, right? That's the only difficult part about this project.
Brittany Spanos is a Staff Writer for Rolling Stone who writes about boy bands too much. She contributes to Rookie when she can and tweets about her boyfriends Drake and Justin Bieber at @ohheybrittany.