Before the 2011 Grammy Awards ceremony, Esperanza Spalding was virtually off the mainstream radar. That's not to say that her rise to fame has been an overnight sensation. Spalding has been pursuing music since she was five years old, giving her 22 years of experience and counting. Her story is not of a rapid rise to the top, but rather a life immersed in music and study. "It takes a lot of time and focus, and any kid who's in a music program will tell you, it's a hell of a lot of fun along the way too," Spalding told Playback
Though 22 years is certainly a long time to pursue a craft, Spalding has managed to accomplish more than most within that period of time. After finishing high school early, Spalding enrolled in the music program at Portland State University before transferring across the country to the Berklee College of Music, where she would later become one of the youngest instructors in the history of the school at age 20. Spalding has played with jazz legends, performed for President Obama on numerous occasions, and just last year added a Best New Artist Grammy to her list of accolades.
Fresh off the release of her new album, Radio Music Society, Spalding spoke with Playback about her education and her love of a good challenge.
You started your studies at a young age. What really drove your education in music?
The process of music is a combination of all kinds of factors, and it's different for everybody. For me, [it was] a lot of music programs, a lot of great teachers, a lot of great colleagues and peers and friends and mentors, just living and breathing this stuff. You know [they say], "it takes a village to raise a child." That's so cliché now, but in music, it's really true. It's many years of applying and experimenting and learning, and then you just become more and more proficient like with a language. The more you use it, the more you're able to say. I'm still studying with my teachers. All of those things combined [have made me] proficient enough to say what I want to say right now. And for things that I will want to say and share in the future, what I know now is not enough, so that's why I keep studying.
Your new album, Radio Music Society,was released this month. What went into making the album?
It's funny how things work because I had this idea, the premise of Radio Music Society, which is putting jazz music on the radio, or how do you present jazz music "through the radio." That was our guiding question, our thesis I suppose. We unpackaged the music in the studio, and I unpackaged the arrangements with that in mind. Given, most of the music was done, so that idea also grew out of looking at the music and trying to figure out, "Well how can I justify putting out this completely different kind of stuff?"
I found that the album was very openand anybody could get into it, even if they think they don't like jazz music. What artists outside of the jazz realm really inspire your work?
Oh, everybody. I consider myself a jazz player, but any jazz player in the world will tell you that they listen to everything. I like to listen to a lot of folk music, and I've been into some Mozart because I've been working on the "Requiem." Of course, I love Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, and The Beatles, and everybody that everybody loves. I just discovered this band called The Bird and the Bee. I used to really love Tori Amos. I remember hearing her and Sting on the radio, and just thinking like, "Wow, this is so cool that this is popular!" I always felt like a weirdo because I liked TBone Motta and France Gall, and I was into a lot of the oldies. So I remember with Sting and Tori Amos on the radio, it just seemed like, "Oh, there's room for everybody!" I was surprised that everybody digged them.
You mentioned that when you were making this album you saw it as a challenge to interpret the music in a different way, and to have a smaller ensemble on tour. Do you find that doing things you've never done before helps you to continue to grow as a musician?
Absolutely. I'm reading this book right now by Steven Pressfield, and he says that the thing that you're most afraid of is a tool. It's like a compass that points due north so you always know which direction to go. Like when you're practicing, you focus on the things that are terribly uncomfortable and sound awful. You don't practice the things that you're good at. It's not just about pursuing things that you're scared of, it's also about accumulating knowledge so that you can apply it. Accumulating knowledge isn't worth anything if you can't apply it. In my situation, I'm really fortunate because I can actually create a situation that will challenge me. When I play with other people, of course, those are situations that challenge me, but in my own band, it's creating the dynamics that I'll feel uncomfortable in so that I have to rise to the occasion.
You seem to face those challenges with a lot of excitement.
Yesterday I was talking to Wayne Shorter on the phone, and he was saying, "If you're talking about it and it's too easy to talk about it, something's wrong." He's like, "I like to struggle when I'm trying to speak, I like to struggle when I play. I want to hear some trainwrecks!" What I understand in that is leaping into that "Wow! What's going on?" feeling and just figuring out how to swim. It's fun! It can be really nerve-wracking and your ego can get bashed up rather royally, but you always come out of it stronger. You're a better swimmer. Because you're not going to drown, it's not life or death, so even if it feels like you're drowning, you're not going to die and you just realize all of a sudden, "Oh, even if I'm treading water, I made it somewhere, and now I'm a better swimmer."
Do you have any advice for students who are pursuing music right now?
Yeah, practice. All my advice would just be find really great teachers, do your best to apply what they're teaching you, and practice a lot. Just like Coltrane said to Dewey Redman, "Just play your horn, man." There's no secret.