The Can’t-Fail Energy of Esperanza Spalding

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Esperanza Spalding’s new album is titled Exposure.

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

So originally I thought, “I’m just going to go in the studio with Karriem Riggins, just Karriem and me, and he’ll have his drums and all his tools and his toys and I’ll have a bass and a voice and a piano just for composing and that’s it. We’ll lock ourselves in there for three days and we’ll live-stream it so we’ll also have evidence of we can’t cheat, we can’t hide. Whatever comes out, the world, or whoever’s watching, will know what came out.”

This “blank page” approach is very different, I imagine, than what you did on Emily’s D+Evolution, which involved a lot of musical architecture.

Definitely. The simplest way I can describe it is just, “Be yourself and create as yourself.” And you don’t have to be able to describe it or frame it or prep it. So really we were putting a parameter for us to just go in and be ourselves, and that was the art. We’re stating the claim that that is the art of this project.

And the whole thing evolved from the idea of just you and Karriem playing together?

Yes, but then he wasn’t available. I called him and he said, “I’m not into that. I don’t want to be on camera figuring my shit out.” He finally came around to it but he got called for a tour with Diana Krall, which is fine. But I’ve always wanted to be exposed as the producer that I am and I was a little scared of that. So this kind of forced my exposure as a producer.

How did it work with continuous live-streaming for that long? Was the camera on you while you were sleeping?

No. I enlisted Matthew, Justin and Ray to produce themselves during the night shift. They would come in at 5 p.m. and I had nished writ- ing around that time. Then I would play them all the sketches for that day, and then I would go to sleep by 8 or 9 p.m. And they would play on their parts overnight.

So you worked in shifts.

Yes, and then I’d get up in the morning, keep writing and playing. Part of this was about encouraging audience members or fans or non-fans to buy into the idea of creation versus performance. And that was really a winning revelation of this project, to find out that people were really willing to buy into that idea, literally.

Some of the online comments showed that people really felt involved in the process as the live stream was going on. They felt like they were participating.

Well, they were. It wouldn’t have worked without them. It only works with a witness and it only works by us responding to their observations. They had to be there. But it had to be live-streamed for us to find what we found and for the stakes to be real.

Because, yes, it’s more about creation than performance, but we’re performing the act of creation, and what is a performance without an audience? So what they felt was correct ... not just because they were observing what was happening minute to minute, but them staying up or not staying up or tuning in for a few minutes once over the course of three days really is what made that project what it was.

Were you aware of their feedback as you were performing?

Not the first day. But there was a TV screen in the lounge and I had the Facebook feed up on it so any time I took a break from the studio I could see what people were talking about. It was great.

Did that influence the musical direction in any way?

Probably. I can’t point to anything specifically but ... yeah, absolutely. The same way that when you’re on the stage there’s like an empathic link between the performer and the audience. You start energetically responding to the shifts in the audience.

Even though I couldn’t feel their presence viscerally, I felt it energetically and it came through their comments: “We’re here! We’re watching! We’re with you!” Or, “I like that melody. ... Why did you take that melody out?” I felt their participation for sure.

What about lyrics? Were you improving lyrics as well?

We didn’t go in with anything. We started from zero. Sometimes I think all songwriters experience this. ... f you’re a person who tends to go with melody first, while we write melody we’re just putting a few tent-pole words through the song. And often those words imply what the song is about, finally. And that process rang true during Exposure, too. It might be mumbles and then one little word would pop out, and that word would reveal the potential for a theme and I would just keep digging and hashing out the lyric and it would emerge. To have this self-imposed notion that we’re going to create this much content in such a short period of time, you’re kind of scraping the edges of your brain to get fresh data out.

I was certainly surprised by the content of a lot of the songs. They were about issues that I wasn’t consciously aware I was thinking about. One of them had to do with buying property in the United States. I’ve always sort of questioned as the descendants of settlers or colonized people, where do I fit into that narrative of purchasing property on colonized land? Like it doesn’t settle right in my system. For economic reasons, I get it—having something to hand on to my family. But I discovered in “Colonial Fire” more of how I actually think about that. And I think that was a beautiful revelation for all of us, of hearing what we really had to say when we really didn’t have time to think or change what was coming out of us intuitively.

A total green-light session.

Yeah, which often sessions are. We didn’t have anything to lean on. There wasn’t anything that we practiced. Like, I’d tell the musicians, “All right, bring me something from scratch ... you have two hours.” So it felt like we all were reaching for information that we hadn’t ever used before, even though it was in us. And I think it was revealing.

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