A conversation with Esperanza Spalding

By Dan Cava

October 2, 2016

If you haven’t heard of Esperanza Spalding, let’s play a quick game of “One Degree of Separation.” You’ve heard of Justin Bieber, right? Esperanza Spalding is the virtuoso singer/bassist/artist who beat out Justin Bieber in 2011 for “Best New Artist” at the Grammy’s. Beliebers were outraged, but every real music lover on Earth suddenly had another reason to believe in God. In her already astonishing career, Spalding has blown away audiences around the world (including POTUS. Twice.) and added another three Grammy awards to her increasingly crowded shelf.

We caught up with Esperanza about the beginnings of her love affair with the bass, the deep concepts behind her newest work, and her perspective on the recent unrest in Charlotte.

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CLTure: How’s it going?

Esperanza Spalding: It’s going good! How you doing?

CLTure: I am doing well! Where am I calling you, where are you right now?

Esperanza Spalding: I’m in New York City, in Brooklyn.

CLTure: Are you there for a gig, or is that where you live?

Esperanza Spalding: I spend so much time here, I do kinda live here. I really live in Oregon, just this year has been so New York centered, I’m hardly at home.

CLTure: I play bass, and I feel like everyone who does has a story about why they landed on bass in particular. Did you have a “moment?”

Esperanza Spalding: Yeah, I absolutely had a moment. I’m still having a moment.

CLTure: I feel the same way.

Esperanza Spalding: You know for whatever reason, you go through times where you get busy. Recently, it’s been performance, and I don’t get to put in the hours I want to on the bass. Every time I carve out the window and I get to go in the room with it, I have that same magical encounter. It reminds of why I decided to keep running with it in the first place.

CLTure: Wow.

Esperanza Spalding: Basically, I was a violist, singing and playing a bit, not out in the world, but for my own purposes. One day at my high school music room, there was…a bass. I guess they had purchased it, I really don’t know why that bass was in there. I went in that room, between classes or skipping classes, I don’t remember. And just started playing it, and the frequency captivated me. The sounds captivated. I mean, I was sold. Shortly thereafter my music teacher came to me and started laying out for me the fundamental fundamentals of what bass players do. “You know what the chord is and you outline it with individual notes. You connect the chord with your notes and you keep time.” I was sold, I just knew: this is my thing. I’m gonna be good at this.

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CLTure: I’ve always felt like with the bass, that you’re kind of the nucleus of the song. Because you’re connecting the drums and the other instruments. Everything has to go through you to get to the song.

Esperanza Spalding: Yeah! Yeah!

CLTure: I know you play upright and electric. Does either one feel more like home to you than the other one? Or is it just different expressions?

Esperanza Spalding: Well, let me see here. Physically, electric is definitely more friendly. It’s less strenuous. I’ve been playing acoustic [upright] longer, and I’ve put in the hours, so I feel freer in terms of what I can express. But if I don’t practice the acoustic, it goes away faster than the electric. Each of them have their own pros and cons, I use them in different ways.

CLTure: I heard in an interview that, when you were in that great scene at the end of the movie Miles Ahead, in that scenario, you were given an electric, but were kinda yearning for your acoustic.

Esperanza Spalding: That’s cool, too. Sometimes the limitations can be an advantage; then you’re not able to just do all your typical shit. You can’t just fall back on the stuff that, you know, “works.” You gotta reach for the new stuff. The last year I’ve been playing so much electric [on tour], and I’m much more comfortable.

CLTure: You mentioned that the limitation can be a gift. I wanted to ask you about that in terms of the album itself, Emily’s D+Evolution. Obviously in including Emily, your middle name, you put some kind of…I don’t know say “filter” but more like a prism through which you were going to experience this particular album. Were there things you told yourself you wouldn’t do? Apart from the liberation part, were there also boundaries you set for yourself?

Esperanza Spalding: No, no boundaries, no parameters. But you said it just right when you said the word “prism,” because what does a prism do? It takes that something that is always in light that’s invisible to the naked eye and it breaks it up, it breaks it open. That’s the perfect metaphor to describe what this project has been. It’s the same person, it’s the same spirit, it’s the same mind, the same creative motivation, the same heart. This project functions like a prism. To show the colors that were always there, but just weren’t visible. Emily has a life. In the performance world, she’s a complete being. My job with my collaborators was just to get to know her, to figure what she’s about. She’s already there, and D+Evolution is terminology to describe what already exists. Rather than building something, than making a name for it, we discovered a name for something we didn’t know existed, and then it was a process of talking about it and sharing it.

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Emily’s D+Evolution is the fifth studio album Esperanza Spalding released on March 4, 2016.

CLTure: In the D+Evolution naming, it looks there’s a bunch of things in there. There’s evolution, there’s de-evolution, there’s the D+ that connects, which is a like grade. Tell me about that.

Esperanza Spalding: Yeah, oh man, there’s a lot to all that. D+Evolution: the way that I say that, the way that I write that, the way that I think about that: devolution and evolution as complimentary forces. What keeps our planet in this perfect orbit around the sun, it’s a combination of gravity and centrifugal force. It’s not like sometime one is acting, and sometimes the other one is acting. They are two functions that are happening simultaneously, and that keeps us in this perfect position to thrive and grow and for life to develop and expand and blossom in all its countless variations. There’s evolutions that builds, that leads to more complicated structure and advanced versions. There’s a sense of evolution as a bettering, a refining. As human beings, we want to become more noble and more clear and concise.

And then there’s a function of devolution, a deconstructing force, when structures that have established their modes in living start to crumble apart. Something that once was highly organized and well-tuned starts to decay and break down. The primal nature, our carnal instincts evade our evolved minds, our civilized minds. Two functions that are constant in us as beings: the devolving of our life and our identity and the plans that we make, and the evolving. When we allow those to work in harmony, we find the most creative solutions and transformations of ourselves to meet the reality that actually finds us. I find it hard to accept that, that’s always going to be a breaking down as much as there’s a building up. I feel like embracing that and inviting it and welcoming it and playing with those is an important of being engaged with reality, rather than imposing our version on it.

CLTure: You talked a little about push and pull, and there’s something I definitely wanted to ask you. You’re coming to Charlotte, and we’re really excited to have you.  It’s an interesting time right now for Charlotte. Are you aware of what’s going on?

Esperanza Spalding: Oh! “Interesting” is an…

CLTure: An understatement, yeah.

Esperanza Spalding: Yeah! Yeah, I am aware of what’s happening in Charlotte.

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Courtesy of the artist

CLTure: Do you have anything you would like say to the city?

Esperanza Spalding: I don’t feel like I have a right to make any assessment on what people are living because I don’t live there. I can’t even imagine what the families of that man [Keith Lamont Scott] are experiencing. The cops who shot him are also suffering, grappling with the questions of how that happened and how that life was taken. It’s a really challenging situation. All I would offer is that, anger is important. It’s important part of the process, for us to be in touch with our true anger. I would just offer that our mission right now on the planet is to work together. Our mission is to learn how to come together and find out how we can creatively transform the true challenges that we face. Not put bandaids on them, not play the blame game, not lash out and cause more suffering when we’re hurting. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t get out on the streets and allow themselves to be angry, allow themselves that catharsis of working through the true anger that is inevitable in a situation like this. More than ever we need to apply our compassion, our creative solutions, our problem solving skills. This is a systemic and deep-ceded cultural problem that we need to deal with together. It’s okay that we don’t know, that you in Charlotte don’t know, that I in New York don’t know what the best thing to do is. It’s okay. I would just offer a reminder that when we come at the problem with compassion, with creativity, with the intentions of healing and solving, not with retribution. Justice, yes. Revenge, no. Healing is truly possibly and transformation is truly possible.  My prayers are with everybody involved.

CLTure: Thank you for that. Thanks so much for your time.

Esperanza Spalding: Thank you so much.

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