Interview: Grammy award-winning artist Esperanza Spalding discusses spontaneity, collaboration

Esperanza Spalding

The Englert Theatre — Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m.

Esperanza Spalding boasts a list of achievements that belie her age (she’ll be turning 32 just a week prior to her Iowa City tour stop). She’s won four Grammy Awards, including the first Best New Artist award to be bestowed upon a jazz performer. She was concertmaster of the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at 15, having started with the group at age five. She earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music and, once graduated, stayed on as one of the youngest instructors in the school’s history, at 20.

Esperanza Spalding
Photo via Esperanza Spalding

The most astounding thing about Spalding, though, isn’t the accomplishments of her youth. It’s her clear and present fire and drive; her passion for exploring and learning and creating the next new thing. She is not a woman ever likely to rest on her well-earned laurels.

Spalding’s latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution, is a wild dive into the world of alter-ego Emily (Spalding’s middle name). It’s high on concept and performance, but grounded in musicianship and laced through with philosophy. She brings the tour, and Emily, to the Englert Theatre on Oct. 25, at 8 p.m.; tickets are $25-55.

You play several different instruments, and I’m very curious — because you’ve had a lot of formal training, but many of those instruments are self-taught — when you teach yourself an instrument, do you generally follow that up with formal training, specifically on that instrument?

Actually, I don’t play that many instruments now. I dabbled in a lot of instruments when I was young — like, a lot of instruments; I just wanted to experiment with everything — so I took up the clarinet, I took up the oboe, and the this, the that, guitar, I went through a guitar phase, and piano. Often I would hear an instrument in orchestra arrangement, and think, “Hunh. I wanna make that sound!” But the only ones that I really dedicated real time to were violin and bass, and then voice. Those, I did start just naturally, without any supervised instruction — but right away, I went and found instruction. Of course. I didn’t know what the terms “amatuer” and “professional” meant, but I always wanted to be a great player. And the wise thing to do if you want to be a good player is get training. Of course.

Absolutely! How has that experience impacted your time as a teacher? Did the experience of having learned on your own to start out inform, in any way, the way that you taught your students?

I actually think now a lot of students start self-taught, because of YouTube. It’s really easy to find instruction, at least preliminary instruction, even advanced concepts and advanced techniques, which is beautiful. So actually, I think a lot of students are familiar with the idea of seeking out information and assimilating it on their own. So I feel like part of my job as a teacher is to help them organize it and apply it in ways that they can’t figure out on their own.

And that to me was the best part — my favorite teachers did that for me. I would come in with a basic level of understanding or preparation on something, and what they could give me are the specifics that apply to me as a player … I wouldn’t have known what I wasn’t doing or what I could be doing without someone with more experience being in the room with me, seeing what I was actually doing. So that is kind of my — not kind of, that’s my approach. I figure, students can go get the nuts and bolts. And if they want help with the nuts and bolts, I’m there for them, of course. But my thinking more centers around the application of the data that you have accumulated, like a computer simulator—application, and how to clarify for yourself what you’re looking for in the music, and then seek out the tools that you’re going to need to achieve it.

Maybe that’s informed because I grew up assuming that I would have to go start it on my own, and then when I could afford it, or when I could get the access, that I’d have a teacher.

So in some ways, teaching is as much if not more, knowing your student as knowing the material?

No, it’s both. It’s both. I don’t mean knowing like you have to get all enmeshed with each other and it becomes like you’re personally mentoring them. I just mean, anybody who’s ever — I’m sure, you: You’ve probably studied creative writing, or journalism, or a social science, and … you’ve done all your research, and you have at last your essay, or your thesis. And you bring it to your thesis advisor, you bring it to your teacher. And sitting with them, they’re able to show you the weaknesses in your argument, or how that paragraph is not very clear, and maybe you said that thing about three times, you could actually just make that one long sentence, you know.

It’s the feedback that you need as a developing creator. You just need real-time feedback with somebody who’s more experienced, who can hear your descriptions and what you say you’re trying to do, and help you see what you’re actually doing. If you have a goal beyond what you’re able to do in that room that day … then, the teacher, hopefully, if they’re good, can help you design a roadmap for yourself, of, “Now, what you’re going to do from the end of this lesson ‘til the next time I see you,” that the teacher — you believe and you trust — will get you closer to your objective.

And of course the objectives shift and change constantly, as they should — which is why it’s so great to have a teacher who has a lot of experience, because they can keep pace with you, and keep bumping the rope, chewing into you how you’re going to solve the equation. And I was thinking at the level of general musicianship and application of musicianship in the world. There’s a whole other infinite tier that has to do with technique, and sound production, and feel, and time … I am, of course, still developing as a teacher myself. But, generally, I feel like you have your whole life to develop this … you need a certain level to be able to communicate, but once you have that, it’s music-making and communicating first, and then you continue to refine the grammar.

Esperanza Spalding Illustration
Illustration by Rachel Jessen

You’ve been performing since you were young, in a variety of contexts, from chamber music to indie rock to blues bands—what is it about performing? What is it about the stage itself that seduces you?

Well, there’s no escape. You know? There’s nowhere to hide. Once the song starts, you’re in it. You can’t stop and replay that measure that you messed up. You discover ideas that you didn’t even know you had. You discover sounds, you discover possibilities when you’re making music with other musicians, when you’re cold-creating, that you would never find in the practice room, or necessarily in the studio.

There’s something about standing in front of someone who’s listening, and continuing, you know? Doing what you prepared in a context that you couldn’t prepare for, because you don’t know how it’s going to go — you don’t know what the audience is going to be like, you don’t know how your band members are going to be playing that night. You could feel very secure in your preparations, and then, when you get out on stage, you have to surrender to what’s actually happening. It’s really delicious to discover either that you suck that day, and that all that you’ve prepared either was not applicable, or it’s just not coming out — or, on the other hand, discover, “Oh my goodness! I just know what I’ve prepared for,” and finding connectivity in the bass lines, or the melody, in the delivery, or the sound of your voice, or the sound of the band, or the ensemble, that you never knew were possible.

There’s something extra that happens when you’re on stage, and there’s real risking, like I said. You can’t stop, you have to keep going, and finding how to keep the energy and beauty alive … and also, I feel now, especially on this project, looking for the challenge of creating complicity with the audience about the experience that we show them on stage, that Emily is having on stage. That’s a really big challenge, and it’s so challenging that, when it happens, it’s like — creatively it’s probably like giving birth. It’s so hard … Then, when I’m up on a stage, and I can just tell that people, some people at least, really heard that line, and maybe I even heard it for the first time, and I understand that we have a moment of complicity there, and they really hear what I’m talking about, and they identify, and we’re connected — we both live this now — it’s the richest experience. It’s so beautiful.

It’s probably totally narcissistic. I remember hearing this definition that the difference between the psychotic — the insane — and the artist is that artists need for you to understand their psychosis, but the truly insane [don’t] need you to understand their psychosis. Artists aren’t satisfied until they know that you know what they went through. That’s probably part of it. But again, you know, like some priest once said, the most private things are the most universal. That’s part of the job, I think, of art, is to express what a non-quote-unquote-artist hasn’t figured out how to express yet — but when they hear you say it, it’s like a relief, and it’s release, because they get to look at their own experience, and acknowledge it, and have a reconciling with their own experience, that it’s validated. I hope that that’s part of the experience of the audience member who comes to experience this project.

On the flip side of that, your debut album [Junjo] is a decade old now, and I’m curious how your relationship to recording has changed in the past ten years.

This last record was the first record that I organized. I don’t like being responsible for too many details, I never have — so, next time around, I’m definitely going to get some help, when it comes time to set up the logistics of making the record. But the good thing about that — I made this record when I was between labels, and agents, and managers, so I had left my other manager and my other agent, and I had fulfilled the obligations to my label … but, I just did it, without an endgame in mind. So I just called the space that I wanted to work with, and I called the engineer that I wanted, and my friend … got me a cheaper rate … and I just went in with the musicians and the music and we just did the damn thing and made it sound good.

And then afterwards, with the help of my manager who I then found, I found a great mix engineer, and then I realized that I would need someone to help me dress it sonically, meaning like filters and effects, and reverbs and etc., etc. And that person wound up being [longtime David Bowie collaborator] Tony Visconti. I sought him out and tracked him down, and he got excited about it. And it was the first time that it really felt like it came from — nah, not the first time, all the records came from me, but something about this not being part of anybody else’s agenda, I thought, allowed the art to come out untarnished by the rush of a deadline, or the added stress of other people being with you, and having to fight their agendas or resist the encroachment of other people’s concepts of what a record should be or how it should sound.

It happened outside of the influence or energy of anybody else’s agenda, and I think it was a really good thing on this record. I don’t know that that can actually happen again, but the mode of making it, which is all about the art first, then figure out what it does next, was really refreshing, and I’m sure I’m going to make a record like that again. And actually, the first record we made, Junjo, I mean none of us thought anyone would ever hear it. No offense to Pablo [Valero] at the record label [Ayva Musica], but really — I was in college, I had just graduated college, and started playing at a free jazz piano festival, I was just playing duo with friends, and we made this record. And it was just like, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I liked playing with these guys, and we had some music and we made this record. And then later, I met my manager, and this became like a calling card for the beginning of my quote-unquote-career. So, that record, probably, was the first time that I made a body of work having no concept that people were going to hear it, or when and how and why. And then Emily’s D+Evolution was the next one, and they were kind of the two things that nicely marked the beginning and end of a phase of my life, for sure.

So what’s the next phase then for you?

I don’t know yet. But, I do know that my next project, I’m going to be revolving my life around writing the libretto to this opera that Wayne [Shorter, acclaimed jazz saxophonist] is writing, and I know that I’m going to be making a lot of music, a lot of collaborative music, and projects — like little mini projects. Because I like to be in a room and make things with people in real time. That’s my favorite part of the creative process. So, I’m going to be spending less time on the drawn out, blah blah blah conversations, technical, delivery, ad campaigns, etc., etc., etc. for a while, and just make great stuff and release it, and let the art do what it wants. I know that that’s happening. And the themes that have come up in Emily’s D+Evolution, I’m not going to beat them to death, but they’re really important to me, and the way I want to live in this world and navigate my life, and I know that they will continue to inform the work that I do. I don’t in all the ways how yet, but I know that they will. So I know that’s what’s next also.

Genevieve Trainor gets wrapped up in music. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 208.

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