Esperanza Spalding Talks Recording an Album in 77 Hours, Sexism in Music & Nicki Minaj

Esperanza Spalding
Carmen Daneshmandi 

Esperanza Spalding

The time is 10:31 p.m. ET on Wednesday, September 13, 2017, and 2.3k people are tuned in to Facebook Live as Lalah Hathaway records a haunting, wordless melody for Esperanza Spalding’s new album Exposure. A scene that would usually last days or weeks and be witnessed only by assistants, engineers, and maybe a couple friends is instead put on display to the world for the hour or so it takes to complete.

The expedited pace comes thanks to Spalding’s self-imposed deadline: 77 hours to compose and record one new studio album. The livestream was to preserve authenticity, from both Spalding and her label (can’t cut a song if the whole world’s already heard it). 34 hours in, the studio is humming as friends like Robert Glasper trickled in, and her bandmates loitered in various studio lounges waiting for the vocal takes to wrap. Cameras in all corners of the studio capture the entire process, including the requisite snacks and naps. Online, reactions roll in to Hathaway’s always-impressive voice. “Yo, I’m so shook rn,” one reads. “There are no more words for how my soul is smiling,” reads another. “When’d you write this?” Glasper asks as he brings a piece of music to the piano. “This morning,” says Spalding, chuckling.

Following the conclusion of her livestream experiment, the renowned bassist, singer, and composer spoke with Billboard about the unorthodox process for recording her sixth studio album, which will be released by Concord this fall.

We’re speaking exactly a week after you started recording Exposure. How do you feel? Was the process exhausting or invigorating?

It was super-invigorating. I mean, my body is tired -- I think I lost like five pounds in there, burning so many brain calories. We didn't know what it was going to look like, but it was so clear to everyone that we were coming in to create. That took precedence over everything: fears, concerns, all of that. That was kind of the mission: to take all the extraneous factors away from the art of creation. And it happened. Now I’m in Philadelphia for work, I have writing to do for a gig coming up this weekend -- the momentum is still tumbling forward.

That's a pretty impressive schedule!

I mean, the mission isn't to be impressive, it's just...my job, you know? When a brain surgeon saves somebody's life or completes something they've failed at before, it's not like they take two weeks off from work to kick back and recover. That's your job! Your job is to perform. My job is to make and create, and it only works if I do it all the time. So this is what it is.

Once you have the momentum, you have to capitalize.

Use it and juice it. I assume we're talking about creative momentum here. There's nothing outside of you that’s propelling you forward -- if you set up the circumstances and decide on what your own stakes are, you create the momentum to move towards your mission. That's really all you need. We saw that with Exposure.

We had a lot of support: a studio, a film crew, assistants... but if all you're doing is creating, you don't need anything. You don't need any money, you don't need any tools, you don't need anybody to believe in you. You just start, with whatever resources you have. The act of creating is making something from nothing -- so you don't even need momentum. You can feel dead tired and uninspired, and still create. It's amazing.

That's a great way to put it. I've had people ask, "How do I become a writer?" and the answer is, more or less, you just have to do it.

Yep. There's no secret. Before you start, everyone says there's no secret and you're like, "Come on, you guys are holding out -- you're not telling us something." Then you start writing, and you're like, "Oh." The whole thing is just harder than you think it is. There's no secret, no shortcut. Once you accept that being a writer or a creator is just really hard and takes a lot of hours of slogging through crappy first drafts, you just keep producing, and then you turn around and it's done. That's the magic.

There were some people who suggested that recording your album Exposure in 77 hours might be a gimmick, which surprised me since it seemed like an escape from social media -- a concentrated amount of time to focus completely -- as much as an embrace of it. What was the main motivation for broadcasting the recording process for you?

For me it was about not hiding, and creating as my actual self -- the best that I could muster of my actual self. For that to mean anything, there had to be a real audience and it had to include strangers; people who hadn't already paid $50 to hear me perform. It needed a witness. Having a witness helps us know that the stakes are real, and that we really have to do this because people are watching. We can't be like, "Oh, I don't like this one, I'm going to stop." We have to keep going, because people believe in us, and they're waiting for us, and they're with us. It felt like we were all in it together.

The fact that anybody who was interested (or not interested) could watch this happen, was part of the healing of it. [In doing the livestream,] I'm not just making things for the people I presume already want them, and I actually have no way of knowing what the people watching want -- so what I make can't be catered to them. It was a way to have an exchange that was outside of the commodity-based economy. An opening to have a shared experience.

It's very similar to live performance in the sense that you have to keep going, because we're all there to have a forward-moving experience. It's hard to talk about what we all went through together -- if you saw it, you know.  The more I talk about it, the further I feel from it. It just seems small-minded to say that it's a gimmick, or a jazz thing. When I hear that, I think, no, you're just scared. There's actually a lot to be learned and taken away from this event.

I already know what it means to me, but I think there's more in there to be unpacked. I almost wish other artists and musicians would speak about it and to it, question it and challenge it. I've kind of said everything I can say about it by doing it, and speaking about it now feels cyclical and away from the point of the damn thing. The point of the damn thing was the thing.

Do you plan to perform this music live?

There will definitely be more performances. I like the music we wrote, and I didn't know if I would. But I really love it, so I want to play it some more.

Did you write anything for the album that surprised you?

Yeah, all of it. I practiced this mode of writing -- obviously we didn't write any of the songs that happened during Exposure -- but I realized the night before I went in the studio that I hadn't actually finished one song fast enough to get 10 done in three days. I got really nervous, and felt like I'd made this promise that I couldn't live up to. So really, as each one came, I was surprised that we’d actually done it.

In interviews leading up to the album, you used a few different sports metaphors. To me, it seemed like you were departing from the idea of being a musician training to perform (as all musicians do) to being a musician training to compose.

That's it. The energy of being in shape, but not knowing what we’re going to be responding to (while still understanding the mission as a team) -- I bet any athletes out there who are also musicians (or vice versa) would understand that sentiment. You step in, and you're prepared -- you've got your plays -- but you don't know what's going to happen! The muscles are all primed to move in an infinite combination of ways, and you depend on your creative brain operating in real time to come up with solutions and to make it entertaining! It's not about flawless execution, it's about the game of it. It's supposed to be fun.

Obviously beating Justin Bieber and Drake for the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011 is pretty far in the rearview for you at this point -- how do you see your connection to popular culture now?

I mean, I care about the act of making sounds and the creativity that goes into it. I enjoy hearing what people come up with, even when it's within a very established sonic aesthetic. I'm not an avid music consumer in any direction, including "less" "commercial" "forms" of "music" [Laughs.] I like to imagine that even if the culture-consuming populace-at-large doesn't like what I do or cheer for it sonically, that there's a certain appreciation for the fact that I'm doing it.

The whole Grammy thing will just exist in history as an anomaly. I got a couple more Grammys after that... I made good records, but part of me thinks that they were just trying to make [the first win] not look so random [Laughs.]

Are there pop artists you listen to?

It's no surprise that I thought that last Childish Gambino record was ingenious. I like the Mars Volta. LCD Soundsystem -- I heard them at a museum in Portugal, and I was like, "Word? These guys are glorious, where have I been?" That's what jazz will do to you: you spend so much time transcribing... in the amount of time it takes for a jazz musician to transcribe ten seconds worth of a solo, most people have listened to three albums. It's ridiculous. That's the downside of being a student of that pedagogy.

I think Nicki Minaj is a champion of our time, I really do. It's exciting to imagine, in 40 or 50 or 60 years, when students will be analyzing her business acumen and how she created personas and sounds... just her use of language. She's such a bright star that I think the genius of her approach is overlooked. I just always assume that powerful black women are never fully seen for what they're actually doing. People appreciate the results but not the method.

At some point when I'm at Harvard, I'll probably do a paper on her. I hope I get to interview her and learn more about her tactics. What I hear is a fucking tactical motherfucker. Like, a genius. I really admire her. She is so deep. She's a boss, she knows exactly what she's doing, and I really love her. I'm looking forward to when she has a couple kids and is just chilling at home on a weekend, and I'll go interview her for my research paper.

Sort of in the same vein, I got to see you perform with Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington a couple years ago -- an all-woman band. What you guys played hit me in a way I wasn't expecting, and the energy was just really unique. Is that something you felt at all with that band? Is playing with exclusively women different at all for you?

There's no energetic boundary. That is different. It came up peripherally in conversation with Geri, but mostly speaking for myself: We didn't realize that we always hold this boundary around our bodies, and our language, and the way that we greet our bandmates, and the topics that we'll delve into -- all because on some level we're conscious of not triggering or feeding a sexual dynamic, a traditional, conditioned relational dynamic. We’d all worked with, grown up with, and studied with men from a generation that saw all women as potential objects for sex, or just generally as subordinates -- whether they were conscious of it or not.

Playing with Geri and Terri, there was the distinct feeling of something falling away. Energetically, emotionally, and physically, we would go anywhere with each other. We just felt 1000 percent free, and open, and heard, and received, and I think that expresses itself in the music somehow. I don't know how -- it would be interesting to see a brain scan, if there are any actual differences in our process for communicating [laughs]. I think we all were pleasantly surprised to discover what it feels like to just be completely uninhibited. It was really refreshing.

It actually made me aware of how much, in a lot of contexts, I am sort of...bracing. I got so used to it I didn't realize I was doing it, until I played with them and went, "Oooooh OK.”

And also, even though all three of us have very different personalities, as women in this music we'd experienced a very similar path. It can be really lonely to be a young woman in the music industry. We all had gone through a lot -- Geri more than Terri, and Terri more than me -- and when we played, there was this understanding of a common experience that we'd all lived. Never spoken of. But I think you could feel that, and I think that's something special to Geri, Terri, and me -- not necessarily any three women playing together.

In an interview with Larry Wilmore last year, he asked if you’d choose to end sexism forever, even if it meant you had to shave your head and give up music. He seemed surprised that you said yes. How do you see sexism in music and beyond actually ending?

I think it's less about sexism, and more about transforming the ideology that people are tools. Women in power in the music industry can be just as exploitative of other women and their sexuality as a man can -- if the mission of exploiting them is to make a dollar. It's our shared responsibility to stop using people, and to stop assuming that ther e's any type of person that it's ok for us to use or treat as less than.

I'm excited to hear more and more people speak to that level of deprogramming instead of just, "Let's make sure women can get the jobs men hold." That's great and important, let's absolutely share the burdens of this economy, but as important is remembering that more broadly inequality is our shared responsibility. As [German philosopher] Erich Fromm would say, it’s about treating people as ends, not as means.