The Can’t-Fail Energy of Esperanza Spalding


Esperanza Spalding’s new album is titled Exposure.

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

Matt communicated to me and other people on the scene that he wouldn’t have done that; he wouldn’t have played that typically. But because there wasn’t time to obsess over “that’s the coolest thing or the best thing I can do,” he had to lay something down and then he’d hear it back and respond to it. Sometimes when you’re chasing for the best thing you can miss what already happened that was just right. And that was actually an unexpected element of this session—we heard lyrics, we heard melodies, we heard patterns emerge out of us that we didn’t know were there.

In all 77 hours did you generate a lot of raw material?

Not really. It all got built onto each song sketch. There isn’t any extraneous sonic material. Once the tunes are finished, we’re not touching any of it, we’re just mixing it. So what we did for 77 hours was make a record from top to bottom.

So when I say we built onto the structure, [I mean that] once I got a sketch, I would lay down my parts to a click [track]. So everything that happened got built onto the same armature. So there’s no editing. We fit whatever we wanted into that click track of the song itself. There’s one take of every song. It was all just, “You have 20 minutes to do the vocals on this, you have 30 minutes to lay down the guitar track,” and that’s it.

The clock was literally running.

Yeah, we had a big nice red clock up there. The advantage of this mode is it forces us to accept everything—ugly, good, bad, wonderful, revelatory, mediocre. It enables this kind of deep letting go. Two thousand people just saw you do a really stupid melody and you have to let it go. You just keep letting stupid things come out to get to the best nugget that you can get to in that moment.

I read that 1.4 million people were tuning into the sessions. And yet, you chose to only release a limited edition, just 7,777 copies of Exposure.

Yeah, I didn’t want to do the whole dog-and-pony show around the release. I wasn’t even planning to do any press afterwards. I just wanted to create an experience that brings a lot of people together for it—we witness it and participate in it and it’s done.

What makes it special, in a way, is that only us were there. You can’t watch the live stream anymore; it’s gone. So for those of us who were there, we all experienced something that only happened once. And now it’s gone. The limited copies is an extension of that idea. I don’t need to convince everybody in the world to buy this record. I just want to make it available to the people who want evidence that they were a part of that.

I imagine it’s already sold out.

I think we were half-sold out by the time the live stream started, and we sold out in the middle of Day 2. So the records are already gone.

This whole project is like the difference between art and commerce.

There’s always multiple interests operating when you’re dealing with art as a commodity. Because we all have bills to pay. ... So I don’t know if this project is about placing art in contrast with commerce. I do know that it was an experiment of directly connecting with the people who actually support my livelihood and having a trust exchange, basically, where it’s like, “Hey, I’m inviting you into this space to experience this art I make,” and I’m trusting that down the road they’ll do something for me. They don’t have to.

This project is about the contrast of a commodity-based economy versus a gift-based economy. So instead of convincing people or trying to pull out of them their dollars and their attention, I’m saying, “I’m going to give this to you first and it’s a gift.”

Isn’t that like a love relationship?

Yeah, that’s a nice way to look at it. So in a gift-based economy the idea is I’ll trust at some point somebody who’s a part of this community will send that energy back in a gifting way. It may not come directly to me, though I have a feeling that it will. Because there’s a sense of connection that’s formed.

Are you on to the next project already?

Yeah, I have written some new stuff for a musical theatrical piece that will be performed in the round this spring. Now I have to gure out how to get that funded. And with Wayne Shorter, our hero and fearless leader, there’s an opera that he’s writing and I just delivered the first draft of the libretto. He wanted to write an opera based on the Greek myth of Iphigenia, one of the few female heroines whose story doesn’t end in a tragedy. For the past three-and-some-change years we’ve been working on getting the presenting part ready and the commission part ready. It’s finally coming together ... . We’ll premiere it in fall 2019.

George Clinton once said in an interview: “The secret is in the striving, not the arriving.”

Arriving’s pretty nice, too. I like discovering the result of an experiment. I don’t think it’s all about the search. Yes, search is necessary, but what do you do with what you nd? That’s the big question. In my adventures, I am going for something. I may not make it, but I want to fucking arrive at that thing that we just spent two years and who knows how many thousands of dollars trying to develop. Absolutely. I want a finished poem, I want a finished song. The search is the means to get to the end.

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