Dual Musical Personalities

Esperanza Spalding

Many times I am actually writing a post for weeks before it is published. I’m listening to the music of the featured artist, reviewing interviews and quotes, and reading biographical information. The work is always a little easier when I feature a familiar artist. This week definitely is an easy post to write, because I chose to feature the dynamic, very talented Esperanza Spalding. I tried to think of a few ways to introduce Esperanza to those of you reading who might not be familiar with her music. After reviewing an interview with Bill Maher, I think I found a good fact about her that is an excellent starting point of introduction. In the 53rd 2011 Grammy Awards, Spalding won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, beating Justin Bieber, Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons, and Drake. The thing that made the impressive win stand out more was the response from Justin Bieber fans. They felt that because Bieber was more popular than Spalding and should have won the award. Perhaps they forgot the Grammy is an honor awarded by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) of the United States to recognize outstanding achievement in the mainly English-language music industry. It is not a popularity contest.

There are many more interesting facts about Esperanza Spalding. One thing that intrigued me most is she models her career on those of Madonna and Ornette Coleman. Wow! The music from both artists seems to come from opposite places. That’s why I chose the title, “Dual Musical Personalities”. If we look at Spalding’s background, we might understand how she arrived at such a diverse musical place.

Esperanza Emily Spalding was born October 18, 1984 in Portland, Oregon. She was raised in the King, Alberta neighborhood in Northeast Portland which at that time was at its height of gang violence. Spalding has an interest in the music of other cultures, including that of Brazil, commenting: “With Portuguese songs, the phrasing of the melody is intrinsically linked with the language, and it’s beautiful.”  Spalding’s mother took note of her musical proclivity when Spalding was able to reproduce Beethoven by ear on the family’s piano.

By the time Spalding was five, she had taught herself to play the violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Spalding stayed with the group until she was 15, and left as concertmaster. Spalding began performing live in clubs in Portland, Oregon, as a teenager, securing her first gig at 15 in a blues club, when she could play only one line on bass. One of the seasoned musicians with which she played that first night invited her to join the band’s rehearsals “so she could actually learn something,” and her rehearsals soon grew into regular performances spanning almost a year. According to Spalding, it was a chance for her to stretch as a musician, reaching and growing beyond her experience. Her early contact with these “phenomenal resources,” as she calls the musicians who played with her, fostered her sense of rhythm and helped nurture her interest in her instrument. When she was 15 or 16 years old, she started writing lyrics for music for the local indie rock/pop group Noise for Pretend, touching on any topic that came to mind. Although she had taken a few private voice lessons, which taught her how to project her voice, her primary singing experience had come from “singing in the shower,” she said, before she started performing vocals for Noise for Pretend. Her desire to perform live evolved naturally out of the compositional process, when she would sing and play simultaneously to see how melody and voice fit together, but she acknowledges that performing both roles can be challenging. In a 2008 interview, she said, “What can be difficult is being a singer, in the sense that you are engaged with the audience, and really responsible for emoting, and getting into the lyrics, melody, etc., and being an effective bassist/band leader.”

Spalding left high school at 16, and after completing her GED, enrolled in a music scholarship in the music program at Portland State University, where she remembers being “the youngest bass player in the program.” Although she lacked the training of her fellow students, she feels that her teachers nevertheless recognized her talent. She decided to apply to Berklee College of Music on the encouragement of her bass teacher, and did well enough in her audition to receive a full scholarship.

It was during her last years at Berklee that I took notice of Spalding. Of course, because she was a young woman playing a musical instrument only men traditionally master, Esperanza Spalding stood out even more as her proclivity on the double bass became clear. Almost immediately after graduation from college later the same year, Spalding was hired by Berklee College of Music, becoming one of the youngest instructors in the institution’s history, at age 20. As a teacher, Spalding tries to help her students focus their practice through a practice journal, which can help them recognize their strengths and what they need to pursue.

Her debut album, Junjo, was released on April 18, 2006, and on March 4, 2016, she released her fifth studio album, Emily’s D+Evolution on Concord Records. In between, Esperanza Spalding has won four Grammys and a host of other awards and accolades. Her current album has already passed the test of many in the music industry and press. Marcus J. Moore of Pitchfork Media praised the album, stating, “The lyrics are elusive at first, darting behind fast-moving songs and delivered in impressionistic, conversational bursts that recall the delivery of Joni Mitchell. But the fearless generosity behind them communicates itself loud and clear, and it’s a spirit that animates the entire album. With it, Spalding has once again redefined an already singular career, dictating a vision entirely on her own terms”

On the album, Spalding sings through the alter ego of Emily, which is her middle name. In an interview, Spalding stated that Emily “is a spirit, or a being, or an aspect who I met, or became aware of. I recognize that my job…is to be her arms and ears and voice and body”. As I listen to the album, I hear various musical personalities. All of the jazz, R&B, Pop and other genres of music wrapped into one excellent package. Yes, at thirty-one years old, Spalding’s best work may still be ahead. Scary indeed!

  • photo by Holly Andres

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