Talking music and bravery with jazz great Esperanza Spalding
Believe it or not, the world of jazz music has never been more exciting. Just listen to Esperanza Spalding, the 31-year-old bassist, singer/songwriter, and first jazz artist in Grammy history to win the Best New Artist award (which she won in 2011), and it’s pretty clear that the genre has plenty of new and exciting avenues left to explore.
This month, Spalding released her fifth studio album, Emily’s D+ Evolution, which sees her come face-to-face with a more playful and daring part of herself (complete with a fun wardrobe change). The album has also been seeing mega critical success: Rolling Stone gave it four out of five stars, Pitchfork put it in its best new music category.
We caught up with Esperanza about her latest musical offering, plus what it means to embrace fear in order to reach new heights.
HelloGiggles (HG): The new album is really wonderful. I know that Emily, the album’s namesake, represents a sort of alter ego for you and I was wondering what the biggest differences are between you and Emily personality-wise?
Esperanza Spalding (ES): Actually, I don’t see her as alter ego. I see her as the embodiment of an energy. She’s an embodiment of a way of engaging with the world and because I think everyone has the inner capacity to engage in that way — my middle name is Emily — really, she represents a function. She represents a mode that you can plug into as you interact with people and your environment. So, that’s how I see her. She’s a lot like me, except she’s the distilled embodiment of that mode of interacting.
HG: Seeing the photos of the “two” of you together, I know that in the past you’ve worn your hair in an afro and Emily has braids and wears colorful glasses. In what ways is her style different from Esperanza’s style?
ES: She’s figuring out how we do things here, so her way of getting dressed is reaching out to the left from the spontaneous and intuitive, and reaching out to the right for the intentional and the highfalutin. She is also a very grounding force that can still the flailing and the spinning that we all experience between what we’re feeling, and what we’re supposed to be knowing, or supposed to be doing, and what we want, and what our guts are telling us; what we’re actually experiencing versus how we should be experiencing something. My afro needed to be receiving grounding energy, so I twisted it down. Instead of soaking up the stuff from above me and all around me, it’s really focused on soaking up the grounded energy. [Emily is] a very rooted being, and that’s part of why the hair goes down in twists.
HG: I know that you tried a lot of these songs on tour before you put them together for an album. What along the way was really inspiring to you when you were developing Emily’s D+ Evolution?
ES: Terror and the trust of terror. Necessity. I thought this was really important for me to do. I believed in it and it was calling me and I was terrified of it. I was sure it wouldn’t work and every time we went out, I was like, holy fuck. Those were all good ingredients for growth and to make something great. So, I don’t feel like I’m in the great part yet in terms of performance, but I trust that process where you believe in something, you give it care, you give it time, you give it your best, you’ll be scared as shit, and you keep going.
HG: The album really feels like a balance between two forces. It’s exuberant, but also a little tinged with sadness. What emotions were you feeling while you were recording?
ES: The emotions were: let’s explore. Let’s try to actually have an adventure and look at everything with an adventurous spirit without analyzing and categorizing what we find. As we know, adventure can sometimes be sad and disappointing and scary and exhilarating. It’s not all finding hidden treasure.
HG: I know for a lot of young women, it can be really hard to, basically, lean into that fear and embrace the adventure. How can we get over that?
ES: You want to know something? All people do that. Men do that and women do that. I’ll say this: often when we realize that we’re actually running away from what’s most important to us, we’ll come up with a rationalization to tell ourselves that what we settled for is somehow better. So, we might use a theory of what progress means or what success means to back up our own rationalizations. Don’t get it twisted. Men and women do it all the time, and in our little guts we know that what we’ve done is not really what resonates with us.
I would say, perhaps, women are allowed to be more in touch with their guts. Culturally, it’s more okay for women to be emotional and express how they’re feeling and explore how they’re feeling. What does this mean to me and how did I get here? Men are encouraged to man up and keep going. So, maybe what we’re observing, and I’m just guessing from what I’ve observed, perhaps what we’re talking about with women is that we’re more in touch with our feelings and we notice that we’ve copped out and it hurts and we feel the hurt. And we go, “Oh my God, what am I doing? How did I get here?” And then from that point it can feel even scarier to readjust and go back and figure out how to do what we actually want to do, what we know we need to do. But we don’t have to beat ourselves up and say, women do this more often than men. I think that’s untrue. Actually, I think that the fact that we feel it more is a blessing. That’s one of the benefits of the skewed way that women and men are taught to deal with their emotions. We really do feel it and I think we should harness that and say, “Guys, this is what I’m feeling, and no this is not the direction I want to go.”
HG: That being the case, what women do you look up to who have really followed their guts?
ES: My accountant is really inspiring to me. I’m not going to lie because I see her at work every day, and I hear her philosophy regularly, and she is no-nonsense. She works her butt off, and she knows how to run her shit, and she’s real with everyone that she meets. She’s real with me, she’s real with all her clients, she’s real with her husband. She’s real with herself, most importantly. I know I’m supposed to say a famous person, but I think we all know some woman in our midst and I actually feel like I have more to learn from my accountant, who I can interact with on the daily and ask how she does what she does, then from a dead, historical figure that I can read about. I mean, art always speaks across generations, thank God, so when I read a great writer or hear a musician or read a play from a woman who has passed before me I’m certainly moved, but I think part of what is so important to learn is how to organize our lives around our gifts and our talents and our dreams. I actually look to women like my accountant and other professional and non-professional woman friends who are doing it right.
HG: You’ve also been pretty outspoken on beauty as a privilege, and feeling that it’s easier for more traditionally beautiful people to move up in the world of music. That got me thinking about this idea that people who have beauty on their side feel more confident and are more likely to pursue their dreams. What are you thoughts on that?
ES: That’s a tricky question. I feel like most of the people I know who are extremely beautiful are incredibly insecure. They’re not any more insecure than anyone else, they’re just insecure about different things. The danger of constantly feeling affirmed based on how you appear, I think you begin to question if there’s value in what’s underneath the surface. In our culture beauty has been treated as privilege, but it’s not an inherent benefit. It doesn’t necessarily help you excel at the things that are important to you. If what’s important to you is being a beautiful icon and appreciated for how you look, then it will definitely help you. If you have other motives, it may not necessarily be a help, but if you want what you’re working on to make its way into popular culture, yes, being beautiful can be a great benefit. Although, I have to say, just like a D+ grade, if you feel like you’re already a little bit behind in the way that you’re moving, you’re that much more inspired to work harder. That is a greater privilege, feeling compelled to work hard, than assuming you’re going to get what you want.
HG: Turning back to the album, what did you do on Emily’s D+ that you hadn’t done before?
ES: I felt like I didn’t have to prove that I could play or sing. I believed in the songs and I believed that they were getting better the more we played them and the more that I worked with them. I didn’t really think that this was going to be an album that was embraced by the jazz community and it actually kind of has been, which is a nice surprise. With this album, I felt like I didn’t have to back up my identity as a consummate jazz musician, which was really nice. I kind of got over that thing of people are always going to give me bullshit and think that I can’t play because I’m a woman and think it’s just hype and I thought, “Well, that’s their problem. I’m not going to worry about showing that I know the music and I can play the music because it’s for me.” I really just let that go and said, I’m just going to do it the way that I hear it right now and trust that it’ll reach the people who want it.
HG: Did you find yourself going back to the drawing board when developing the songs or did they come out more fully formed? How was the self-editing process for you?
ES: It’s ongoing. To the point where I re-recorded the album once. Some of the songs on the record, like “Judas,” are pretty much exactly what I first wrote. Now, something like “Unconditional Love,” we only found the way to express the song — I basically had the lyrics and basically had the melody and the form — the day we got into the studio because we were playing it a different way for many times and it wasn’t working. We found this thing in the studio, and we cut it, and that ended up working. It’s constant revision, thank goodness.
HG: When you get stuck on something, how do you help yourself creatively reset?
ES: Sleep. Sleep is good. I’m a very high-strung person. My mom says I idle at a high rotation. Usually, I find that the creative reset/breakthrough happens when I haven’t looked at something. I put a lot of time and energy into it and then I set it down. Then I come back and ask the same question, or the same question a different way, and that usually seems to be when the sun peeps through. But there’s also something to be said about sticking on it and keeping your eyeballs on it and your attention on it and kind of making yourself stick with it and incubate that egg, keep it warm. It’ll always hatch.
HG: Besides really embracing your own philosophies on music, what other musicians are inspiring you lately?
ES: I haven’t checked out her music enough and I’m going to, but I’ve just been on an exploration of Azealia Banks. She’s so fun and I think she has a really important energy and spirit right now. It’s from her life and her real-life experiences. They don’t seem to be conjured up in a test tube. Also, recently, I’ve been into that new Bjork record. I’ve been really into Barry Harris, who’s an elder statesmen in the jazz world. He’s got a beautiful philosophy of the music and the theory behind the music and I’ve been really on the tip of him recently. And I couldn’t’ believe that most recent Massive Attack video with [Gone Girl actress] Rosamund Pike. Mmm, made my heart sing.
Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+ Evolution is available now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.