Jukebox Jury: Esperanza Spalding on Writing an Opera and Doris Day’s Street Cred
The Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist also talks about Joni Mitchell and why she recorded her acclaimed 'Emily’s D+Evolution' LP twice
On first listen, the final song on Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution feels very familiar, but that sense of comfort gets warped into something more sinister and frenetic. It turns out to be the song that the bratty rich kid Veruca Salt sings in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Gene Wilder’s eccentric confectioner won’t sell her a goose that lays golden eggs: “I Want It Now.” Spalding’s version doesn’t have that same saccharine petulance; instead, it’s more of a mission statement about all the things she has coming to her (“I want the whole world / I want to lock it all up in my pocket / Give it to me now”). Unlike with Veruca, it makes the listener root for her. Esperanza Spalding deserves that golden goose.
Coming into the public eye after beating out heavily favored commercial darlings Justin Bieber and Mumford and Sons for the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy, the 31-year-old bassist released Emily’s D+Evolution this past March, a soulful, dynamic record featuring her bombastic and brash alter ego, the titular Emily, at the helm. Also fresh off scoring and starring in a new short film, Spalding is about to embark on a European tour later this month. Even with all that going on, Spalding recently made time to sit down with SPIN at a Brooklyn café to discuss music — specifically songs by some of her collaborators, artists she’s cited as influences, and some acts we thought she might have unique insight into. To find out how Spalding ended up recording Emily’s D+Evolution twice in its entirety, and why Courtney Barnett reminds her of Chance the Rapper, check out our discussion below.
1. Weather Report, “Elegant People”
I actually love this song. And you can tell Wayne [Shorter, saxophone player for Weather Report] wrote this one, wrote the skeleton on it.
You’ve been talking for a while about how you’re writing an opera with Wayne Shorter.
I don’t know if we can make it, because he wants to do dance. We want operatic and non-operatic singers. The conductor is Wayne’s champion, he’s been with him before in London and everywhere else. I’ve been thinking about it for more than a year — the research for the story and characters and digging out how to tell it. Just thinking about how this project should feel and why we’re really doing it. Draft after draft, it’s a lot of doing with not a lot to show. It’s a while before you get anything you can use.
I can’t even imagine.
I’m sure it’ll go through many imperfect states of performance. I’ve been reading a lot of W.H. Auden. I really love his librettos. I love the one about Paul… Bundy? What’s the one about the guy with the big blue ox?
Paul Bunyan! That helps me with my progress, just to see how the English language unfolds poetically in that form. I don’t know what to call it myself, so I’m just using it as reference. Just to have the maxed-out wordiness that I can fit into a line. I’ve been listening to this opera that’s interesting because all the material in the libretto is from transcriptions of conversations. When I heard it for the first time, I was like, “What the f**k is this? This is some dry s**t.” But it’s done in a genius way, of course, like found objects: found language. All relating to the subject matter. Really you can do anything, you just have to make something beautiful and have it feel good when it’s coming in.
2. Joni Mitchell & Charles Mingus, “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines”
I dig this. This is actually the first thing of [Joni Mitchell’s] I heard. I came to her late in life. Well, I’d heard her, but I didn’t know that it was her. Stuff like “Both Sides, Now,” I didn’t register it. This was the thing that made me stop and go, “Wow, who’s this?” Actually, it was on a Wayne Shorter compilation of his live stuff, I think that’s him going “bah-dah” on the sax. She’s such a great keyboard player, and the lyrics, too.
What’s also crazy is that Jaco Pastorius played bass and did the horn arrangements on this.
Well, he wrote for big band. You ever heard that birthday concert record [1981’s The Birthday Concert]?
Oh my God! That s**t is so soulful. He introduces his mom from the audience and everything. They get into the funkiest, soulful-est big-band s**t in the world. Big band is not my preferred medium, but he’s one of the ones that I really love.
3. Doris Day, “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”
Another one of my favorites. She has a really special voice, I really like her as a vocalist. She almost had, like, a street thing about her.
A street thing?
Yes, her tone and phrasing… White ladies don’t sing like that. Like, it wasn’t something she put on to be soulful, or jazzy. She had this soulful edge in her tone, that’s why I’ve been checking her out, just to study her production.
I was reading an interview and someone asked if you liked Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and all these other jazz singers, and you said, “Yeah and I also really like Doris Day.” Do you get tired of people asking you about the jazz standards, and nothing else?
Oh, no. That’s great s**t. Sarah Vaughan is great. I just haven’t checked out… like, I haven’t studied Ella Fitzgerald. It’s all very familiar to me. I don’t feel like listening to Ella Fitzgerald is going to expand what I do. Those tones, those sounds, scatting, I can get there without checking it out. Sarah Vaughan doesn’t help me because I could never do the things she does with her voice. She has a totally different kind of face and voice and teeth and life than me. I listen to her as a celebration of singing. So, maybe I was just saying who I was actually checking out. I’m not sure when that interview was, but Doris Day is a motherf**ker.
She does things with her voice that are really groovy and soulful. When I hear a singer and it’s warm, and there’s color, and there’s depth, it interests me and I want to find out more. I think, in a way that’s what’s so… magnetic about Björk’s voice. We’re not used to that color. There’s a lot of technique and impressiveness that doesn’t have a big facility. It’s rare that you hear that color and texture and timbre, and that’s stuff you can’t get taught by a teacher. You can’t work on it, you just hear the s**t and do it.
Björk’s also a big fan of Joni Mitchell’s later stuff.
Who’s not? I mean, show me anyone in the world who’s not. Have you ever met anyone who’s not? I would just walk away, leave the check.
She said she has a theory about why everyone in Iceland has similar sounding music. They would only get some records shipped over in the ‘70s, so instead of listening to Blue and Court and Spark, they’d be listening to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus.
That just proves my theory that it’s not advantageous for creators to have access to everything. It’s really a blessing to cling to the music that’s found you, like a life raft, and use it as your bible to get that access to the Immaculate. To make that sound.
4. Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator”
I like this. Who is this?
I love it! It’s so awesome, it’s fun.
I mostly picked it because it’s called “Elevator Operator” and you have a song called “Elevate or Operate.”
Wow. I need to write this one down.
Speaking of fitting the English language into as many different shapes as you can.
Amen. Yeah, there’s something [great about] when you have something to say, and every part of what you’re saying contributes to the story, but [it doesn’t feel] wordy. It’s like “Five Years.” And also, I knew Chance the Rapper peripherally, and then recently I wanted to start listening more to his work. To me, what makes me like a rapper is if I feel like their rhythm and articulation is such that it’s, like, buoyant. He has that, on that song “Angels” especially. [Barnett] has it, too. The intention of the articulation is so refined that it doesn’t feel wordy, and that’s where that talent comes in. Like I was talking about before: “Five Years,” in someone else’s hands, that song could feel jumbled.
5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Fire”
You ever think about how much sound they’re making just as three people? It’s so intense. That must have been really disheartening to be a guitar player at that time and to hear Jimi Hendrix. “F**k, what am I going to do with the rest of my life now?” He’s playing all of the guitar, there’s no guitar left. That’s it! There’s this video of him playing in this band, and the two singers have these choreographed dance routines and s**t, and the band is doing their thing and he’s just in the back killing it. He can’t even rein it in, maybe it was just so boring for him that he just started to do tricks to entertain himself. It’s so much.
I know you like Mitch Mitchell a lot — I don’t know if there’s a better drum track for him than this one.
He’s crazy everywhere. Yes, Mitch Mitchell’s amazing, and I believe, because of [watching] some in-studio recordings of Mr. Hendrix and the band, I think he was a teacher in a lot of ways. Lots of “Hey, check this out,” and “Don’t do that, do this.” Some people you play with show you how to do your best s**t, they bring out what you have going on, and they sense that. That trio was like that.
6. David Bowie, “Blackstar”
Oh yeah, I know this one. My favorite part in this song is when he says, “I’m a star star.” I don’t know, it kills me every time. How do you know to be like, “F**k it, that’s what I mean.” I guess you just know you put it in there exactly where it’s supposed to go. Is this “Lazarus” or “Blackstar?”
Yeah. There’s a bunch of my homies on this. Well, a bunch of guys I know. They’re magical people.
You worked with Tony Visconti on this new record, right? What did he bring to the table?
[Singing along:] “I’m a star star, I’m not a porn star.” Well, we had already recorded the music, and I was like, “We need a partner that knows about instrumental music,” and I was talking to some friends and they said, “Who’s your favorite producer?” And at the time, one of my favorite records, sonically, was [2013’s] The Next Day. The sound of that record is so special, the whole album is so intimate, but in your face, somehow. So I look on the back and see that the producer is Tony Visconti, so I looked him up online and went “Oh s**t.”
He did almost all the Bowie records.
He did all that s**t. And he’s a bass player! So we went to his studio, and — I’m getting to the answer to your question — I was scared because, other than the band, no one had heard this music. After a while, you can’t tell if the s**t sucks or not. So we played him a song in the studio, and I can’t tell what he’s receiving. Then he just says, “I love it, I want to work on this.”
I think what he did, at that point in time, was let us know that it worked outside of the band. I trusted his ear, so I could trust my instincts on this project. He did so much that I don’t even know how to describe in terms of putting this kind of reverb on the drums, and this kind of effect on my voice, stuff like that. He has this sonic palette that I could have never, ever guided. He wasn’t so much involved in the making of the music, but I didn’t need him for that.
You wanted him for how the music is received and heard.
How it would sound on the album, and by sound I mean the world you step into sonically. Then, we toured it for a year [before putting it out] and the whole s**t changed, so I said, “No, we have to get on record the s**t we’re playing now, because this is really the music.” So at the end of last year, I brought the band in the studio and we cut the record again. [Producer] Rich Costey mixed all those sessions. So the record is half Tony’s sonic creation and half Rich Costey.
So you recorded everything twice and then combined cuts from both sessions?
Yes. Well, A) all that work was needed and B) we had problems in the studio. My vision was to create this world in the studio and it was this crazy jungle, gold and white everywhere, just craziness. I brought an audience in the control room, and we played the album top to bottom as a show because Emily is all about, like, “F**kin’ do it!” I realized in the live shows that it was an integral part of the music, so we tried to capture it in the studio. But then I guess there were technical problems and we lost a lot of it, but we could use a lot of it too, so half the songs are those [sessions]. “Rest in Pleasure,” “Good Lava,” “Funk the Fear.” The next record, that’s how I’m doing it, whatever it is. It’s gonna be live, with an audience, top to bottom. That needs to be done.