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Esperanza Spalding: Not your average girl

FINDING HERSELF: Singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding [PIC CREDIT: Photo credit: Holly Andres]

COMPARING THE creative trajectories of jazz singer-bassist Esperanza Spalding and pop star Justin Bieber would appear slightly odd to most.

But the two musicians are forever linked by 2011’s best new artist Grammy Award, when Spalding’s surprising win caused shocked Bieber fans to inundate her with a tsunami of online hate and even death threats.

The irony of this ‘overnight’ fame is that Spalding never craved mainstream validation in the first place. She had already secured herself as an understated enchanting singer, savvy composer and charismatic bandleader with three solo albums under her belt.

A bandstand-levitating bassist, Spalding has performed everywhere from the Oscars to the White House, cementing her place as a top-rate jazz star for the 21st century. Though her career appeared to be going from strength to strength, a couple of years ago, she decided to take a step back.

“If you’re going crazy, take a break,” the musician says after taking two years off from a rapid, Grammy-stacking rise. “I felt overwhelmed by stuff that wasn’t satisfying me.”

Spalding pursued study of her first instrument, the violin, at a time when most children her age were just learning to read. Aged five, she was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon in her hometown of Portland. By the time she exited the group at 15 as a concertmaster, she was composing and playing acoustic bass professionally with local bands.

The latter became the instrument most central to her work: she joined her first band, Noise for Pretend, as a bassist and vocalist the same year she left the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Following the group’s run, Spalding became one of the youngest bassists at Portland State University. When that didn’t fit, she moved to and graduated from Berklee College of Music. Upon graduation at 20, Spalding became the prestigious school’s youngest-ever instructor.

Maintaining her lifelong passion for new sounds and uncharted territory, the versatile Spalding has collaborated with musicians from different styles and genres including Prince, Corinne Bailey Rae, Bruno Mars, Wayne Shorter and Janelle Monáe.

“I abso-freaking-lutely thrive when I’m performing live,” she says.

“I don’t even think it’s possible to describe how it feels. It’s like birth or death or sex or something. It’s something that you’re inside of that you’re moving through. Even when you’re hyper-conscious and self-conscious and think of all the details, you still can’t describe the totality of the experience. I don’t know why I love it, I just keep coming back to it.”
The US artist has now re-emerged from her hiatus with new rock/funk hybrid album, Emily’s D+Evolution (pronounced D-plus evolution).

Emily’s D+Evolution is a shocking departure from the stately jazz that won the bass player her 2011 Best Newcomer gong.

The record is a fresh artistic vision for the four-time Grammy-winner, a daring tapestry of music, vibrant imagery and performance art co-produced by Spalding and Tony Visconti.

There is, of course, another key collaborator: Emily. But it’s difficult to say who or what Emily is exactly.

Emily is what Spalding was called as a child; 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.

So is Emily an alter ego, similar to Nicki Minaj’s Roman Zolanski and Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and Yoncé?

“I wouldn’t say that, but I’m sure lots of other people would say that,” Spalding says.

“It’s my middle name, so she comes from me.”

When pushed to explain who exactly Emily is, the Portland-native says: “I do distinguish and feel her as a being that has knocked on my door to be let into my life. And the way that I let her into my life is through this music and through the performance.

“I think she came to open me up. She is aspects that I was missing – elements that I needed that she delivered to me.”
It seems to be a year of change for Spalding. Not only has she shifted in her musical exploration, but she’s temporarily swapped her trademark Afro for long braids, wide-rimmed glassed and ornate outfits.

Is the 31-year-old having an identity crisis?

“Am I confused about my identity? Always and forever!

“Everyone on this green earth is struggling with identity in some sort of way,” asserts the singer, who will be performing at this year’s Love Supreme Jazz Festival.

“Now you walk out and you’re confronted or invited into hundreds of world views. So you’re drawn into this cloud of uncertainty where hundreds of different perspectives are vying for the place of superiority.

“I think that it’s a myth, the idea that any one world view or identity can give you the sense of self, and I never believe any of them. All of that is phony. The people who think they know who they are are just really good actors who have learned all the right words and the right behaviour.”

She adds: “I think that identity shines through and I never thought I should try and hide from my identity.

Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding is out now. For more information, visit: esperanzaspalding.com

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