Esperanza Spalding on What the Americans for the Arts' Young Artist Award Means to Her

Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Esperanza Spalding arrives at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 10, 2013 in Los Angeles. 

The work Esperanza Spalding has put into her latest project, Emily's D+Evolution, makes the Young Artist Award she's getting Monday (Oct. 17) night at the Americans for the Arts' National Arts Awards that much more special.

"I've had my nose down in the tree hollow working this project out," Spalding tells Billboard. "The last two years have been really challenging. To get this project off the ground, figure out what it was, who wants to hear it, how it can work in the live performance context...all of it. So it's helpful to get those little affirmations that you're getting what you're going for. When you realize people are paying attention to your work and appreciating it, it's a big boost, of course, for any creator. So I feel grateful."

She's particularly stoked that Sting will be part of her award presentation. "That's insane, man," Spalding gushes. "I can't believe Sting is coming. That's insane. It doesn't even seem like I'm in the realm that he'd even notice, y'know?"

Spalding will be one of six AFTA National Arts Awards recipients on Monday at Cipriani's in New York City. Tony Bennett will receive the Carolyn Clark Powers Lifetime Achievement Award, while multimedia artist Doug Aitken is getting the Outstanding Contributions to the Arts Award. The Arts Education Award will go to the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, Roselyne Chroman Swig of San Francisco will take home the Philanthropy in the Arts Award, and the Legacy Award will be presented to Susan and David Goode. 

Spalding may be receiving the Young Artist Award, but she's racked up creative achievements that would merit an entire lifetime achievement prize for any artist. During the 10 years since her first solo album, Junjo, came out, Spalding has released four others and seven collaborative albums and won four Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist in 2011. But Spalding, of course, says her focus remains moving forward rather than looking back and celebrating the past.

"Accomplish -- that word doesn't stick with me," she explains. "There's no, 'Oh yeah, we accomplished this. Yah!' You always are generally reaching for ideas far beyond your current ability, so there's this constant kind of reaching and adjusting, reaching and modifying, modifying and reaching. The work is living. The work of art is my life and it's forever a working in progress, and that's what satisfies me and makes me want to do stuff."

What Spalding is doing right now is bringing the cycle for the ambitions Emily's D+Evolution, co-produced by longtime David Bowie cohort Tony Visconti, to a close. She'll be on tour in the U.S. through Oct. 30. And she's been pleased with the way the album has evolved and grown since its release in March. 

"Even though the songs are the same songs every night, the improvising spirit is really present here, so the music is very different and what happens in the show is different from night to night," Spalding says. "The songs are there, the lyrics are there, the forms are there, but they change from night to night to accompany and complement the modifications that take place within the show. I'm constantly working with ways the narrative can succinctly be drawn together so it feels inviting and people aren't working too hard to figure out what's going on. It's an evolving process, literally." And Spalding is planning to document that evolution for some sort of release in the not too distant future.

"This is the last tour, so I'm bring out a friend of mine, a great video artist, to capture this last iteration," Spalding says. "I definitely want to have a document 'cause it's come so far in the last two years, evolved and devolved and I think know it's saying what I always hoped it could. And I'm sure by the end of this run we're going to find the staging that is the icing on the cake, that seals the deal. I definitely want to capture that." 


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