Music Interviews
11:35 pm
Sat March 17, 2012

Esperanza Spalding: Jazz As 'Radio Music'

Originally published on Sun March 18, 2012 1:03 pm

These are good times for Esperanza Spalding. The bass player, composer and vocalist was barely into her 20s when she released her debut album on a Spanish label in 2006. Her 2008 breakout record, Esperanza, topped Billboard's contemporary jazz chart. Not long after that, she was invited to play at the White House by President Obama.

Last year, she was the first jazz musician to be named Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards — much to the chagrin of Justin Bieber and legions of tweens. Spalding's latest album, Radio Music Society, comes out this week.

"The benefit of the radio is, something beyond your realm of knowledge can surprise you, can enter your realm of knowledge," Spalding tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. "Part of the premise of that stems from my concern about the accessibility of jazz, just how people can access it. If you don't already know about jazz music, how would you be exposed? How would get an opportunity to find out if it spoke to you? If you get exposed to it enough, you might find a taste for it."

Spalding created videos to accompany many of the songs on Radio Music Society. In the video for "Black Gold," she addresses the issue of what African-American children are learning in school.

"What we learn in school, and what's often spoken about, is so heavily connected with slavery or overcoming oppression," Spalding says. "I just thought that there's also something to be said for our connection with pre-colonial African culture. It's just a little offering to that dialogue of our identity."

Working with artists such as Prince, Patti Austin and Stevie Wonder, Spalding still connects with the lesser-known musicians with whom she has also worked.

"I'm always surrounded — all day, all night, every time I get involved in anything — by my peers, colleagues, mentors, these people that I live and breathe what they do," she says. "I live and breathe their teaching. I live and breathe their playing. ... It's not like you're pursuing something on your own."

"At steps along the way, you get opportunities that can really throw you into a level of notoriety that your peers may not have the same access to," Spalding adds. "I know many other musicians who aren't getting the attention that I'm getting, who have also worked with Stevie Wonder, played at the White House, opened for Prince, done all of these things."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

These are good times for Esperanza Spaulding. She was barely in her 20s when the bass player, composer and vocalist released her debut record on a Spanish label in 2006. Her breakout CD, "Esperanza," in 2008 topped Billboard's contemporary jazz chart. Not long after that, she was invited to play at the White House by President Obama. Last year, she was the first jazz musician to be named Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards, much to the chagrin of Justin Bieber and legions of tweens. Esperanza Spaulding's new CD is called "Radio Music Society," and it comes out on Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T HELP IT")

ESPERANZA SPAULDING: (Singing) Looking in my mirror, caught me by surprise. I can't help but see you, running often through my mind...

MARTIN: Esperanza Spaulding joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

SPAULDING: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, what a crazy couple of years, huh?

SPAULDING: Yeah. Every year feels very, you know, invigorating. A lot of things to do, not enough time. One of my heroes that I now have had the blessing to get to know is Wayne Shorter. And I think he's 79. And he gets up every morning and writes. His horn is sitting next to the table where he writes. And I see that, and it's a really good reminder and a testament to the fact that you have this partner that if you've been good to over the decades, it's always good to you, even if you're not out working and being famous. It's like the most giving, loving, satisfying partner, which is the art and the craft.

MARTIN: I want to get into the album a little bit and get into the music. The first song on the album is appropriately called "Radio Song." Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO SONG")

SPAULDING: (Singing) Right now, you're needed, strutting yourself through the hard times. Just before (unintelligible), so you tolerate your own.

MARTIN: So, do you have a radio in this Internet music age?

SPAULDING: Yeah, the car. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPAULDING: But most of the experiences I remember having radios were either at my house, in a car or walking with a Walkman. I just...

MARTIN: Are you old enough to have had a Walkman?

SPAULDING: Yeah, of course, of course. The mix tapes was the name of the game. And recording songs off the radio, you know, and then, like, missing the beginning and running out of tape before it ended. So, the trust that somewhere in that dial you were going to find that magic. That thing, yeah. Something that was just right and right on time and, like, just what you needed to hear. Just the other day I was stuck in traffic in L.A. and then I turned, you know, seeking through and I don't like most of the stuff that's come out. And then Carole King came on, you know, and I just happened to get to the station right as she was starting the song. And that, you know, made all the difference in the world, to have that accompanying my stressful traffic moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO SONG")

SPAULDING: (Singing) That you can't help singing along, even though you never heard it, you keep singing along. This song will give you (unintelligible), plays within your spirits, going to (unintelligible) to you. This song's the one, I...

The benefit of being with a radio is something totally beyond your realm of knowledge can surprise you. And part of the premise of that stems from my concern about the accessibility of jazz. If you don't already know about jazz, and specifically you're not already a fan, you know, how would you get an opportunity to find out if it spoke to you. But if you get exposed to it enough, you might find a taste for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SPAULDING: (Singing) (unintelligible) the song and I (unintelligible) much motions just go to either side and go outside in front of the (unintelligible). I (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: You mentioned Wayne Shorter earlier. You can definitely hear a little bit of Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder. There's a little Joni Mitchell happening. Was that intentional? You wanted to give a nod to people who've been influential in your music?

SPAULDING: Well, I wish I was that awesome of a composer that I could sit down and write a Wayne Shorter-esque piece. I mean, particularly Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter, I've listened to them so much but I hope elements of their music, you know, seeps into how I hear. You know, but maybe also those are like the common denominators for us. There are many influences in music, and if those are truly influences, that's where you and I connect.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's up, guy?

MARTIN: You've also made a music video for each of the 12 songs on "Radio Music Society." And they're available when you purchase the album. And there's a song in particular I want to talk about. It's called "Black Gold." And there is this scene. There's an African-American father and his two young kids, his two sons. And he's asking them about what they learned in school.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Yeah, today, we learned about Africa and tomorrow we're going to learn about Rome.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wait, wow. So, one day for Africa, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: I guess.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, what did you learn?

SPAULDING: What we learn in school and what's often spoken about is so heavily connected with slavery and overcoming oppression. I just thought there's also something to be said for our connection with pre-colonial African culture. So, it's just a little offering to that dialogue of our identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK GOLD")

SPAULDING: (Singing) Hold your head as high as you can, (unintelligible). Life sometimes is cold and cruel, baby, no one else will tell you but we (unintelligible) to you. You are black gold, black gold, black gold. You are black gold...

MARTIN: I want to close by asking you about the people who've been influential in your music, in your career - and there have been a lot. You've worked with Prince, you've gotten tips from Patti Austin, the teachers that you've worked with growing up in Portland, Stevie Wonder we've talked about. What has been the best advice that anyone has given you, not musically but just kind of about how to navigate your life through this, how to navigate a career?

SPAULDING: You know, I'm always surrounded all day and all night, and every time I get involved in anything, by my peers, my colleagues, my mentors, these people that I live and breathe what they do. I live and breathe their teaching. I live and breathe their playing. So, just to really clarify, you know, it's not like you're pursuing something on your own. You know, you're going to have my success and these people come in and help. At steps along the way, you get opportunities that can really throw you into a level of notoriety that your peers may not have the same access to. I know many other musicians who aren't getting the attention I'm getting that have also worked with Stevie Wonder and have also played at the White House and have also opened for Prince and have also done all these things. So, just to be clear, I really want to break down the myth of the solo career.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

SPAULDING: But some pieces of advice, especially for young artists - even if people are looking at you right now in your early stages - it's really important to remember that it's all a process. So, you'd have to run into the wall and fall and trip and ruin things and make awful mistakes, because that's the joy of making art. You get to look back and realize that, oh, I learned and now I know how to do that.

MARTIN: Esperanza Spaulding. Her new CD is called "Radio Music Society." It comes out Tuesday. She joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for talking with us, Esperanza.

SPAULDING: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MARTIN: You can hear Esperanza Spaulding's new album in its entirety at NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.