Esperanza Spalding on Her Alter Ego and Being Inspired 'By Stuff People in Suits Don't Give a Shit About'

Tawni Bannister
Esperanza Spalding photographed on Jan. 19, 2016 at the The Blue Room at the Ides Rooftop in Williamsburg, BK. 

"I just want to say, if you're going crazy, take a break," says Esperanza Spalding. The Oregon-based jazz singer-bassist sits at Beverly Hills' Avalon Hotel, lit from behind by a window that opens onto a small courtyard. Her hair teased out to her shoulders, she's wearing a wild orange coat and gold glasses. Standing out is nothing new for the 31-year-old, but she seems extra radiant after taking two years off from a rapid, Grammy-stacking rise. "I felt overwhelmed by stuff that wasn't satisfying me," she says, "things I was supposed to do for my career. I stopped and said, 'Let me get back to the basics.' I had no plans for the future -- until I heard the knock on the door from Emily."

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Emily is what Spalding was called as a kid; it's her middle name. But she talks as if it's a totally different person: "I'm the instrument Emily's ­playing," she says. Whether ­alter ego or ­nickname, "Emily" is the protagonist on Spalding's fifth LP, Emily's D+Evolution (out March 4 on Concord), a concept album centered on not just a new ­identity but a new sound: experimental rock, filled with noisy guitars and manic ­singing. "I wouldn't call it 'prog,' but you can," she says. "Somebody got mad and said it sounds like acid jazz -- I don't care."

"It's so tempting to say Espe has that Miles Davis attitude, but she's her own person," jazz legend and close friend Wayne Shorter tells Billboard (the two are composing an opera together). "She won't allow herself to be pinned or put in a corner."

Emily's D+Evolution is a shocking departure from the stately jazz that, in 2011, scored Spalding a best new artist Grammy -- and, because she beat out Justin Bieber, a tsunami of online hate. Incredulous tweens made her a trending topic on Twitter and vandalized her Wikipedia page, which at one point read that she should "die in a hole." The win seems all the more incredible ­considering the other ­nominees: Drake, Florence & The Machine and Mumford & Sons. But those names may as well hail from another galaxy. Sure, since then Spalding has picked up three more Grammys and co-hosted a ­workshop with Michelle Obama. But in her spare time she reads books on ­surrealism, watches YouTube ­interviews with avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett and listens to '60s rock weirdos The Shaggs. "They make me so happy. It's like, 'Hell yeah, man, this is something true!' That's so rare," she says."Ugh -- I'm getting tears in my eyes. I get so excited about real shit. But a lot of stuff that means the world to me musically, people in suits don't give a shit about."

Spalding does identify with modern-day stars like Kendrick Lamar who "keep digging" into ­challenging music that puts expression before riches or fame. (On To Pimp a Butterfly: "Damn straight, Mr. Lamar! Be yourself.") She sees the closest analog to her new music, however, in the old sounds of psych-blues band Cream -- "three jazz nerds who wanted to be loud and feel free," she says. Her current group is also a power trio (she used to front a 12-piece), but they're building an elaborate, wacked-out stage show, possibly involving puppets, in order to illustrate the world of Emily.

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"She's like a fairy," says Spalding. "She doesn't take herself seriously. This isn't her job. She didn't come here to make albums, do shows, to 'be somebody' -- that's my prerogative as Esperanza. I'm working for Emily, making the right ­circumstances for her to feel free to come out and play."

 

On D+Evolution, Esperanza-as-Emily is naïve -- "She's new here," says Spalding -- but blunt, calling things as she sees them in her lyrics, which confront a complex snarl of issues surrounding faith, gender, race and class. It's no coincidence that Spalding (back when she was actually called Emily) had it tough growing up under a single mom in Portland's gang-thick King neighborhood. Her family once moved into a friend's attic when money got tight. "There's nothing wrong with struggle. Anytime I look back at a difficult phase of my life and see what grew out of it -- the creative survival tactics -- I think that the good is way better than the bad."

Fortunately, her talent was always there. At 4, Spalding reproduced Beethoven by ear on her ­mother's piano. After seeing Yo-Yo Ma on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, she taught herself violin and, by 5, was playing it in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. She eventually scored a full ride to Berklee College of Music, where she wound up teaching at 20. For her second album, 2008's Esperanza, she sang in English, Spanish and Portuguese. In 2011 and 2012, between ­jamming with Milton Nascimento and Prince and ­making cameos on albums by Janelle Monáe and Bruno Mars, Spalding was Billboard's top-selling ­contemporary-jazz albums artist. But of course, as a young woman in the genre -- a perpetual "jazz darling" -- it came with baggage.

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"It's just men's egos," she says. "There's a guy I used to pay to work with me who'd call me 'kiddo.' I said, 'There's nothing that justifies you expressing that to me, your boss.' " An older player was flabbergasted that Spalding could keep up ­during a session. "He doesn't have a place to put me in his world, so he offers the nicest thing he knows: 'Wow, you're more than just a pretty face -- you ­actually worked!' I appreciate the opportunity to ruffle his surface."

When career stress caught up with her after 2012's Radio Music Society, she hunkered down in the lilac-painted room she keeps in her older brother's home west of Portland (she also has an apartment in Brooklyn), a perfect place to ­reconnect with her childhood. A year off became two, enough time "to engage in creative dialogue with the unexpected" -- a bit of Shorter-bestowed wisdom she quotes often. While she admits some of D+Evolution may be subconscious push-back against expectations, the real inspiration was the muse she had shut out, who had been there all along: her ­"reconciling force," Emily. "Your sanity is harder to get back than money or contacts," says Spalding. "You are the magic. You are the art. You can't lose that."

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of Billboard.