Smartists: Esperanza Spalding

Smartists: Meet Esperanza Spalding

Musician Esperanza Spalding would rather handwrite me a letter. She admits this while fiddling with her mic that’s causing loud static in my phone receiver. I tease her, “Shouldn’t one of the best performing musicians of our time know how to use a mic?” She laughs, but this conundrum unintentionally gets at the heart of her newest project, Emily’s D+Evolution, due out in March 2016. Spalding’s funky, electric, political album, and it’s main character, Emily, contemplate a question at the center of life in the 21st century: how do we reconcile our primal nature with our cultural society?

Spalding grew up in Portland, OR, as a sickly kid who spent a lot of time home alone overdubbing harmonies on a tape player. “When my mom came home [from work] I’d show her everything that I’d done…she [encouraged music] as play,” she says.

Her first “taste” of what later became adoration of the acoustic bass and improvisational music came from an afternoon of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In one particular episode, Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach piece on the cello. “I was five and I had never seen or heard a live acoustic instrument being played,” she said, “I was just tripped out… I was completely captivated and I knew I wanted to do it.”

So she did, working her way through Berkelee School of Music, putting out recording projects, and eventually going on to win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011. She’s even garnered several high honors, like playing at the White House for President Obama. The accolades have by no means capped or flattened her creative journey though, as she continues to extend herself into new realms, more challenging and interesting than ever.

This project is her most experimental and conceptual to date, and it all started as a vague inkling of a character: Emily. Over the past year, she’s explored Emily, a character named for Spalding’s middle name, and the philosophy of D+Evolution.  Spalding said, “Since she doesn’t have an independent body, I’m offering my songwriting skills, my musicianship, my voice and my ability to manifest things in the physical realm. I’m lending all of those things to her sound and her character.”


Emily’s D+Evolution is more than a recording project, it’s an awakening of her inner child. It’s an audio portrait stretching Spalding beyond music and into storytelling through acting, staging, and movement. As a consequence, the project won’t be fully actualized until she takes the album (with its performance aspect) on tour. “I realize that a lot of what Emily’s here to do is to explore modes of expressions that I was curious about as a child… [as a kid] I would lie about everything and somehow keep the [identities] organized so people would believe the identities… I loved acting and creating little worlds to invite people into,” she said.

The process of creating Emily’s D+Evolution has further clarified authentic self for Esperanza, who is humble, self-aware, and well-spoken, despite admitting to feeling like “this floating head in the dark” most of the time. She stays grounded through hard work and friendship.

“Maybe the scariest and hardest thing to do is to forge ahead when you have no idea what’s going to happen and the only anchors that I know of are work and friendship. The work is beautiful because you hold the reins—if… you did a bad job, you always know that you can work on it. You always know you can do the research and put in the time and it’s absolutely going to get better. Friends on the other hand, equally important, are amazing because they see you in a way that you can’t see yourself. And often, are able to fill in the blank of what you’re not seeing that may be in your way, or another perspective that gives you a hand,” Spalding says.

Emily’s D+Evolution has been a friend to Spalding, as well as an immense amount of work. She is currently collaborating with director Will Weigler to perfect the performance aspect, set to go on the road in 2016. She is so close to bringing this ambitious art piece to fruition and her enthusiasm is palpable.

“It’s almost like everything that I think about in my life that’s important to me, Emily’s looking at those issues through the prism of D+Evolution… Emily has struck on an idea that is really resonant right now… where is it okay to embrace our instincts and what we are as humans? How do we balance that with being a developed, civilized member of a community? I think there’s a lot of juice there, [but] I’ll only be satisfied if I can show it. That’s my main wish for this project is that we can show it and that it is rich, as rich as it can be.”

Here’s your first look at Emily’s D+Evolution in Spalding’s video for “Good Lava,” that recently premiered on NPR:

For more information on Esperanza Spalding, her new album, and her upcoming tour, visit her website.

All photos by Holly Andres.

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