To certain circles, Esperanza Spalding is the coolest jazz singer to walk the planet. A genre-bending composer, bassist and vocalist, she was the underdog who beat out Drake and Justin Bieber to score the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy Award. Not only was the Grammy stage the first time most had even heard of her, it also marked the first (and still only) time any jazz artist had won in that category.
That night, the veritable music prodigy, who had her start playing the violin at age five in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, leapt from obscurity, finding a fan in President Barack Obama, who would repeatedly invite her to perform at White House functions.
With seven collaborative and five solo albums to her name, the 32-year-old continues to break music conventions, releasing music that is contemporary in vibe yet rooted in jazz history. Her 2016 album, Emily’s D+Evolution, pushed conversations even further, introducing an alter-ego Emily (also her middle name) who threw an auditory curveball that channelled at times the likes of Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Shostakovich.
You play many instruments. You’re a singer, performer, poet, artist, and mix genres… It takes paragraphs for others to describe what you do. How would you describe yourself though?
I don’t necessarily describe myself. I’m the least interesting person I know. You know, I spend more time thinking about who I’m studying, or how I’m going to make the next project work, or who I should be transcribing, or what patterns I can use to practice the scale, whatever. I mean, I spend enough time thinking about myself because my work is so related to my own creative ideas, so I don’t know. I mean, I make things, and I play songs, and I improvise a lot, but that’s not all that I do. You said it — all the stuff you said is right. It’s a lot of stuff. It’s also not a lot of stuff. I just make stuff, you know. That’s what I do. I’m a song maker.
What were you like as a kid who made music her world?
I think I was psychotic. I really do. I think I had like an anti-social disorder. I was really crazy and I had a lot of behaviour problems. I drove my mum crazy. But I found music — thank God, thank Lord, thank world, thank whoever, anybody! I found music, and that was my home. That was my community, that was my extended family, that was my job, that was my school, my friend, and my confidante — everything. And it’s really music that opened me up to developing as a person. Honestly, I wasn’t good at interacting with people. And I think whatever it was about the environment I was in as a kid, I was attracted enough to the music that I kept coming back, and I kept being challenged, and I kept connecting, and I’m so profoundly grateful. That’s what I was like, and I played music a lot — I spent a lot of time just making up songs, and as they say, doodling on the instruments, because it was fun.
With so much going on in the world — divisive politics, refugee crisis, terror, poverty, etc —what role does music or art have?
I think one of the many things that music does, is heal. It allows people a place and a relief from their suffering, from their emotional baggage; their mental baggage. It’s not a substitute, obviously, for comprehensive therapy and mental healthcare — there’s such a global taboo around the idea of mental health — but I think because our emotional well-being is so intrinsically linked to our mental health and well-being, music can have a positive effect on our mental state. That’s one great, great gift that music brings to humanity.
And of course, no matter how much money you have, or how little money you have, everybody has access to music — it’s in your throat, it’s in your mouth. You can sing, and you can sing with each other. You can listen to the radio, you can go to a concert. Everybody can access music. I think that’s one of the many ways it has a place in our humanity, because so many people are just dealing with the day-to-day battle of surviving, or what they’re feeling on the inside. And honestly, music can be a relief. It can make you want to get up, it can make you want to go to work, it can help you get over pain, it can help you experience your own pain, and realise that somebody else in the world has suffered that too. It’s really a profoundly healing tool.
Since we recently marked International Women’s Day, who are some of the inspiring women that you’ve met recently?
All day, every day — my mum, my sister-in-law, my accountant…Actually, let me be more specific. So, the other day I met a biologist and a lawyer, who are dedicating their lives to preserving biological diversity on this planet. They work for an organisation called the Center For Biological Diversity, and I went with them to visit my state capital here in Oregon. And I was honestly so impressed with these women’s lives, with their commitment and perseverance against seemingly insurmountable odds. I was so in awe, I think I hardly spoke. I was just like, ‘You women are so badass’, you know?
Also, mums, grandma’s, neighbours, caretakers — women who might not make it in the headlines for extraordinary feats. They are like the heroes of this planet, who day-by-day, without being celebrated publicly are dedicating their lives to bettering the lives of others. I mean, think about it. The quiet warriors; quiet heroes, all around. That’s why I mentioned my mom and my sister-in-law first.
What was your last meaningful conversation about?
This morning in the car with my brother, we talked about investing in space travel when there are fundamental issues on this planet we’ve yet to solve — like, hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation and lack of education. We were just talking, not with any point, just saying that it’s odd that we can find so much money to do things like space exploration, but it seems really hard just to get every girl, even in my home state of Oregon, to go to school. I mean, I’m into space travel too, don’t get me wrong. It just seems like maybe we could take a little quarter of that budget and help everybody travel further in their lives on the planet.
What have you been busy with lately?
I’m working on a project right now. It’s about what happens when after the apocalypse some people find a sound that stops bullets and breaks walls. And it neutralises hate. So it’s about what happens to these characters when they discover this sound, and how they use it and what happens.
What can the audience look forward to at your Singapore International Jazz Festival performance? Will Emily take the stage too?
No, Emily is not joining us this time. She has erupted out into the ethers, so she won’t be present. I’m actually planning on doing a simple set. I haven’t done much strip-down music in a long time, so it’s going to be more improvisation-based, and more just about singing and playing. And with the tunes we’re doing – of course they’re tunes from my records, but we’re also doing a couple of lesser known standards and arrangements that are kind of simplified.
Esperanza Spalding performs on April 1, 2017, during the Singapore International Jazz Festival; sing-jazz.com