Cover Story: The Philosophy and Tools of Esperanza Spalding’s D+Evolution”
[This feature is the cover story of the 10th issue of She Shreds Magazine, published in April, 2016. Subscribe here and receive your copy of Issue 10 (while supplies last) and a full year of the best coverage of women guitarists and bassists!]
The Evolution of Devolution cannot be defined. It’s a feeling, an action, an interaction, a memory, an experience, an energy, a modality; it lives inside of us in the ways we interact and communicate, and even in what we choose to leave behind and keep to ourselves. This is the essence of Esperanza Spalding’s latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution.
Spalding is an improvisational sensation that became a household name in 2011, after winning the Grammy Award for Best New Artist over superstars such as Justin Bieber, Drake, and Florence and the Machine. She embodies the examination of self through an alter ego defined as Emily who came to the composer in a moment of clarity amidst tired routine. Emily can be seen as a guide into the exploration of possibilities—an evolving philosophy that navigates who we have been, who we are now, and who we can be.
Born and raised in Portland, OR, Spalding is a tenacious artist whose passion for music should not be underestimated; she picked up the violin and piano at just five years old and then discovered the bass after her single mother started taking jazz guitar lessons, which surrounded Spalding with composers, teachers, and peers who would introduce her to a career she’s been dedicated to ever since.
Although an acclaimed prodigy, virtuosic, and genius, these labels are secondary to Spalding who sees the true value in discovery through on-going study and enlightenment—a practice that has led her to finding and evolving what Emily’s D+Evolution means to herself and those who are listening.
How did you discover jazz?
Through the bass, I heard that music and that was what pushed me. I wanted to be able to do that shit, ‘cause it was like … amazing. It was like, aughhhhh [makes overwhelmed noise], it made me feel so good. I think I kind of got what was happening there, in terms of how they were using musical language and it was so soulful, but challenging. So when I heard that music I wanted to figure out whatever the fuck I had to do to be able to do that. And I had good friends and teachers that showed me ways to study. And then when you realize how far away it is … to be able to do that, you’re compelled to practice.
In what ways were you being pushed, by yourself and/or others?
Well, paying bills was always really helpful. The necessity factor should never be underestimated because when you’re supporting yourself you realize quickly, if I suck on this gig, I probably won’t be called back to play another gig; that’ll push you to do your part. Whatever it takes to get to that place may not have happened without the urgency of monetary necessity. Also, I wanted to impress people—because I’m an individualist and I like to be special and important and be seen as marvelous. I quickly realized that what I was doing was so weird and people were paying a lot of attention to me. I wanted the attention to be about being awesome, not just that it was a novelty. I just loved it so much—it feels like the most marvelous sensation when you’re in the midst of playing something beautiful. You’re compelled beyond reason, beyond any process of rational thinking. You just wanna do it. You just want to play make-believe in the trees with your friends in the park—it’s that same pure enthusiasm.
You were self-taught, but also you received lessons later on. What is that tug of war like?
Yeah, it’s an ongoing tug of war. When I was a kid I would do as much as I had the concentration for—attention span for [laughs]—and then mess around the rest of the time I was practicing. With teachers I felt intimidated by, I would probably practice more because I was afraid of being reprimanded and embarrassed in front of other students.
For the first few years it was self-study, and then I started studying with teachers. It’s always a combo of what teachers give you and you figuring out ways to get to what you personally want to find. The tug of war goes on and on and on in life until you seek out the tools that are going to help you get the result that you want in your music or art. But ultimately you have to have the self-reflection to see what is not helping you, and you can change course.
That’s something I struggle with all the time: I want to have my own voice and I don’t want to be taught that there are specific rules. But as a jazz player, or any classically trained musician, there seems to be set rules you need to follow.
If you just change the word “rules” to “tools,” it’s all groovy. That’s really all it is. Because even like my mom—she should be an editor, she’s such a motherfucker with the English language. It’s insane. And whenever I reach to her for help on something I have to write, her feedback is helpful because she knows the rules, but the way we’re applying it is as a tool to make my voice stronger. If you can actually gain a command of the tools, then it can make your personal shit that much more resonant and potent.
That’s how I’ve always seen study. It should never be something to hold you in, and maybe that is kind of the philosophy of improvised music—it’s all about having as much access to tools in order to do whatever the fuck you want. And it works. Or when it doesn’t work you’ve got enough under your toolbelt that you can quickly recover and turn it into something that works. The good news is that no matter how diligently or thoroughly or impersonally we follow “rules,” the self shines through no matter what. It’s impossible for it not to.
Let’s talk about Emily a little bit: how has she evolved musically, physically, and emotionally?
Oh my gosh … she’s evolved … she’s evolving and evolving. I understand now that Emily is the personification of an energy or modality. She personifies a way of interacting with the world, and I wasn’t able to get to that kind of distilled understanding of her until very recently. It’s nice to have that clarity so that moving forward, as the show changes, as the performance changes, I know what the essence of it is.
Do you feel like it’s an experimentation within all of your practices?
The goal of the project, of portraying this modality, is something independent of the technique that we use to bring it to fruition or to evolve it. Yes, all that I’ve learned as a jazz musician, as a student, as a human being, as a sister, as a daughter, as a partner, as a friend, as a band leader; all those things of course come into play because I want to apply techniques that I think will help me do my shit better. And Emily is a new idea. Emily is a new project and a new concept that we’re learning how to convey, and it is through a lot of experimentation. Experimenting for the sake of experimenting is really wonderful, and people pay money to come receive an experience, which is a performance. So, part of it is finding the right kind of context so that our experimentation is a part of the presentation and a part of the whole which is [laughs] very bad for [my] health.
Something that I’m personally challenged by is having all the tools and knowledge of what I’m classically trained to do, and then looking at my instrument with a fresh eye. Do you think that Emily came out of the need to do something new?
The way that this idea came to me was so unexpected. I was not looking for a project, I was tired [laughs]. I just wanted to show up and play and then be able to go home and just study. I didn’t know what was gonna happen next.
In the middle of that time off … I had visions—I wasn’t intoxicated or influenced by any substance, controlled or otherwise—and I saw these little vignettes and this character. And I knew that it was Emily, and my middle name is Emily. So, I started taking notes of the song titles and what I was imagining in that moment and what it looked like and what it felt like. There was this really clear image of a statue … this beautiful woman that was obviously a representation of me, and then all these people came up that appreciated her and they had water balloons in their hands. They started throwing, and the water balloons hit the statue and started washing away the gray, and underneath the gray was this vibrant freaky fun critter that walked away and began to crawl on the ground as a member of a larger community. Now I’m adding interpretation, that wasn’t my interpretation when I saw it. I think that theme of getting to the ground floor of your life is an important part of Emily.
I can see how that would emerge from my creative energy, wanting to express itself when I was in this non-conductive mode, and there are a lot of aspects of this project that I didn’t understand the meaning of until much later. I didn’t know why I needed to do it, or what she was about, or what D+Evolution really meant. I just knew that it was inspiration, and I trust that shit.
Specifically, as it relates to your question, I don’t feel very familiar with the electric bass at all. It’s not my primary instrument, and I knew immediately that there was gonna be electric bass on this project, so musically it’s not like I have to find something new in what I already know. Rather, it’s like I work for this person, I work for this character—Emily. But I never feel limited by mastery, ever. Every time I pick up my bass I’m like, “What the fuck? How do you do this?” Because it all feels new.
What are some tools that you’ve gained from this particular experience?
I did learn that brainstorming and clarifying the fruits of the brainstorm before you go into production is really helpful, like getting as clear as you can. You can change your mind as soon as you finish the fucking sentence, but taking the time to get really clear on your own story, even if it’s just a placeholder until you get to the real thing. However much you can get clear on ahead of time is really helpful, so the people who are working with you know how they can help.
On the bass playing tip, we get into this state, especially as hyperactive women, where we figure out how we can get so much done because we have to be responsible for so many things. We get this heightened ability to take care of a lot of stuff and make sure it’s happening and guide it there. And one of the great lessons of this project has been to take a step back and trust the momentum of the whole damn thing.
The trust is like, don’t rush … Literally, I tend to rush when I play bass, and I think it’s a reflection of that energy—you stir up so much force in the process. You’re responsible for a lot, but you’re not responsible for everything. So that’s a good thing to let happen, to let people lean into the space. In bass playing, I’ve been having a lot of epiphanies about sound and thickness of note, and tambor of note, and attack and function of bass in a musical context.
Why do you choose to play a five-string bass?
The only reason I started playing five-string was because the couple of times I’ve been given instruments, they were five-string. So, that’s what that’s about.
It doesn’t have to do with range or anything?
No. I didn’t seek it out. I’m still trying to figure out how to add into the equation always having that other string—it’s cool [laughs]. Something about those new insights about bass playing are so relevant to how I interact with other people in the world that are co-creating situations with me, like right now or on the train or whatever. We’re always co-creating a dynamic, and I have a tendency to be nervous if things don’t seem like they’re happening the way I think other people want them to be happening, or the way that I wish they would go. And as a bass player, I’m constantly reminded that it’s okay to be there. That’s a mode that’s totally fine, that’s beautiful and marvelous and it’s an important function of any situation, to be comfortable with just being there. It’s a different kind of compulsion, you offer a different kind of momentum when you’re present and stable and consistent. In my bass playing, in general, I’ve been getting more in touch with that concept, but in this situation where there’s less improvisation with the bass it heightens that awareness.
And it’s like, why do I need to play this note tonight, I already played it yesterday in the exact same way in the exact same place. As an improvising musician, I like to do it different every time and find new reasons to do it. So since we’re doing it the “same way,” I have to find new reasons. And so the consciousness around the bass playing is changing from night to night. With that awareness, it’s just a question of what is the tone gonna be, what’s the rhythmic energy, what’s the length gonna be? I don’t actually ask those questions, but I’m aware that those are options that, in the moment, I could play with what’s happening. So something about it not being improvised music is bringing attention to those kinds of questions and explorations from night to night, which is cool. I’ve never been in that situation before.
It’s really exciting. Because actually, life is much more like a jazz concert than people give it credit for—you never get to have the same conversation again.
Which goes back to social settings…
That’s what I’m talking about. You all are lovely people to interact with and I’m comfortable, but I’m a very shy person and I don’t do well in social settings. I usually don’t help contributing to the momentum of social settings, which is maybe why I’m so inspired by improvised music, because I am good at it there—it feels so good to be a part of communicating and co-creating with people.
In this project it’s just like, not what I’m used to. But something about [practicing Emily] is teaching me how to just spontaneously engage in the rest of my life. That’s her philosophy—it’s spontaneous engagement, asking questions, being present, trying on other people’s ideologies, and welcoming that without any preconceived notions, because she’s new here. She doesn’t know who anybody is, she just knows what it feels like to assume everything goes together. Experimenting with her worldview in the show and getting more in touch with what D+Evolution means, and what that mode of engaging with the world means—I feel it affecting how I live and how I talk with people. So it’s funny that the context that would seem more conducive to helping me be more spontaneous in social settings isn’t really happening in this project, and the inverse or the opposite end of the spectrum is helping those settings. That’s a cool phenomenon to observe.
Esperanza Spalding is currently on tour. Catch her in a city near you!