Our call began with the disconnection of a first interviewer and ended with the arrival of another; Ms. Spalding’s line was booked. She’s a 29-year-old vocalist and bassist, a four-time Grammy Award-winning musician, and has four albums fashionably tucked under her belt. Even after peeling through YouTube interviews and replaying the beloved tracks of Esperanza and Radio Music Society, I was hardly prepared for the relaxed nature and warmth that she transmitted over the phone.

I spoke with Esperanza Spalding on a Wednesday afternoon and for 15 brief minutes followed her thread as she wove together various professions, travels, and approaches into the intricate quilt that is her music.

Samantha: So, you’re preparing for a two-week tour in October, during which you’ll perform at Berklee College, your alma mater. What do you hope to bring back to the student-filled audience, and what are you excited about?

Esperanza Spalding: Oh, I hadn’t really thought about it like that! I mean, for every gig, you want to bring as much as you can possibly transmit that particular night, you know? I don’t think many people that I went to school with are going to be there, so it’s not like you’re playing for people that you grew up with. It’s interesting to go back to a place that you grew up in—and grew up doesn’t have to be where your family raised you, it could be a place like college—and feel the difference in yourself. College is a really transitional time of life, and a lot of growing happens there. You feel how you’ve changed and how the place is the same. So I’m interested just to feel what it’s like to make music there. I’ve played on that stage before—never with my own band—always with somebody else’s. So I guess it’ll be interesting to feel the difference of coming back on the stage as a different person. I’ve grown so much and moved all around the planet, learned things and heard things I’d never heard before.

SF: And you’ll be coming back with Leo Genovese and Lyndon Rochelle, both of whom also graduated from Berklee.

ES: Yes, we all met at Berklee, so that’s pretty cool. They were in my first band. I’ve grown so much with these two musicians. While it’s not about it being a Berklee event, it is beautiful that our music has come ‘round this circle. This concert is like some sort of marker on a really big circle. We’re coming back to share what’s happened to us musically since we left the school.

SF: Have you found a way to incorporate all of those changes and collected experiences into the music you’ll be sharing on this tour?

ES: Well, the good news is you don’t have to think about that. I mean, like Quincy Jones says, “You can never play more or less than what you are.” So even if you think, “I’m gonna go play the five songs I wrote while I was here, the same way I did it before,” you can’t play it the same way because you’re a different person. And music is one of those mediums, because of vibration and because of the physicality of it, that really transmits where you’re at as an individual. We’re always playing just what we are.

SF: Okay, so there’s only a certain amount of a performance you have control over. Your own being and essence aren’t included in that, so why worry about staying authentic? You might be telling someone else’s story, but because you’re the storyteller, a part of you accompanies your every word. Even if you spend time creating a specific image, that creation says something about who you are because of the things that fascinate you.

ES: Exactly.

SF: You’ve previously listed Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter as two of your inspirations. When emulating artists, how do you balance imitation with engagement in your own personal story and performance?

ES: You’ve got to have a reason for doing it. I once heard Joe Lovano say something really cool. He wasn’t particularly directing it to me, but together we were listening to “Someday My Prince Will Come” in the same sort of original arrangement, even quoting the solo, and Joe said, “Man, you’ve got to have a reason for playing it.” You’ve got to have a reason and know your reason for doing everything. Music is like acting. It’s just like when you go into a room in a scene and you’re supposed to be crying. You may not be specifically crying because you just found out your dog died, but you may have a real life relationship to an event like that, which allows you to fully experience the pretend context in a real way. You’re not pretending to be sad, you are allowing the reality of the pretend situation to affect you and to affect it. And that’s what we try to do when we interpret a song. It’s not to emulate how it’s been done greatly by someone whom we admire—I don’t really believe in that. I believe in having a reason and bringing it from your own life, like you would interpret a great writer’s mind, if you were an actor.

SF: So, in the same way that two people can’t walk the same road, no two musicians or actors can play the same part—because everyone brings different life experiences to the stage, and that’s where true performers can start to play.

ES: Absolutely, absolutely.

But then again, even directly trying to emulate something, that says something about you. So you can’t escape it! You can’t escape revealing yourself, even if you tried. Even if you mastered every little intonation and inflection in cover or imitation, even if you can become this other character and you really do the arrangement and you nail it, well that’s very revealing of what your motives are in performing. There’s really no way to hide that part of you. If it really is important to you to hold onto your own voice, if that’s what you focus on, that’s exactly what you’ll find.

SF: And passion is nothing to hide anyway.

ES: Ding-dong!

SF: Well, what about creating sounds of instruments? As a vocalist you’ve explored countless routes of singing and scatting, and the scat portions often seem to imitate a trumpet or a piano melody. What has your experience been like as you imitate an instrument and play alongside horns and strings that often mimic the human voice? How do you soak in all of the sound?

ES: Well that’s interesting! I would think about it as absorbing vocabulary. And vocabulary doesn’t just mean phrases. It can be timbres or tones or inflections or the quality of the sound— those can be a part of the vocabulary, too. So when I study other instruments I’m not thinking, “Hmmmm, I’m going to use this sound in that song,” but what I am interested in is the depth of timbre, let’s say, of a tenor. If I transcribe a Sonny Rollins solo, I do find it very interesting to try to find, physically, things I can do to try to get that quality in my own voice and hold onto it. It’s more like absorbing tools that I might want to use later if the circumstance seems to call for it. Or if it seems to run through my brain at that particular time.

SF: So, you’re studying what’s been discovered before.

ES: Yes! Musicians are kind of like scientists. You’re not going to try and start from scratch. I mean, that’s cool and everything, and that might have it’s own function—you might come to some totally new discoveries. But I think you’re most likely to try and study many other scientists to see how they got to their conclusions. You come up with a hypothesis and then you try to see what you can do to get there. You might try to see what other people did along another similar lines of thinking or reasoning—though I wouldn’t use the word reason when it comes to music. More like emulation—you just keep exploring. And along the way, you’re showing your work, which is the life of a musician. Our hypothesis is always changing. It’s like this constant noise of ideas, and you kind of pick and choose what you think you have the capacity to do justice to. And the stuff you don’t have the capacity for yet, that becomes your scientific research. You study everything that you like, to see how they did it, where it came from, and then you follow. It’s like each one sets you off on this little journey and adventure. I think musicians live lifetimes full of hypothesizing, exploring, and experimenting. And unlike other scientists, for better or for worse, they’re experimenting because they have to live, and because they don’t have research grants. You are literally exposing, for everyone under the sun to see where you’re at. And you just hope that you keep growing, and that what you do keeps touching people.

SF: If you had to describe your music without using any genres or any labels, how do you think you would describe it?

ES: A shelf of little bottles, where each one said, “Try me.”

For a little taste of her timeless pipes, be sure to catch the Thank You October tour in Boston this Friday night. Esperanza Spalding plays the Berklee Performance Center on October 3rd. Get your tickets here.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.