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.