"There Are No Flaws in Art": Esperanza Spalding Shares Her D+Evolution

Esperanza Spalding embraces her alter ego and moves beyond her jazz roots with 'Emily’s D+Evolution.' She sat down with us to talk about art and making changes.
February 22, 2016, 4:24pm

Photo by Holly Andres, courtesy of Esperanza Spalding

On the cover of Emily__’__s D+Evolution, the title character, Emily, looks aloof as she stands in all white by a multicolored rocky hill, backed by dead trees and cloudy skies. In real life, Esperanza Spalding, the Grammy-winning artist, meets me in her oversized sweater at Prospect Heights’ Milk Bar. Emily chills in what roughly looks like Houses of the Holy’s neighborhood; Spalding is eating toast. But the two are connected: Spalding explains she’s the instrument Emily expresses herself through.

Although Spalding was called Emily as a kid, she speaks about the central figure of her fifth album as if Emily were another person rather than an inner self. And the way Emily expresses herself is a sharp departure from Spalding’s previous self-presentation. In Emily__’__s D+Evolution, there’s more psychedelic rock, distortion, and experimentation than on the previous albums. Its spontaneity, thought, is held together by Spalding’s trademark tenderness. D+Evolution’s looseness could be considered an expression of Emily, who gets the final say in the album closer: “Don’t care how / I want it now.”

As the title suggests, evolution is one of the album’s big themes. It’s also been a theme in Spalding’s career: She progressed beyond the expectations of jazz classicists to make music that incorporates bits of R&B, Latin flavors, and notes of soul. The distinction that introduced her to much of the world—beating Justin Bieber and Drake for the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy, making her the first jazz artist ever to win the award—is on its way to becoming a footnote five years later as Spalding’s music continues to take new turns. Around the end of 2013, Spalding found herself unhappy and decided to leave her management and record label, essentially hitting the reset button on the career she’d developed since Radio Music Society.

Emily__’__s D+Evolution, out March 4, isn’t a straightforward “I’m back!” proclamation but rather a comforting trip into a more bohemian world. And, like her other work, it’s glued together by her effortless charisma and virtuoso musicianship. Since she didn’t come to the café to perform a bass solo, I get the charisma. Sitting at the bar table by the storefront window, Spalding uses lots of body language. Sometimes she spreads her arms in a hugging motion, as if she’s physically gathering the heady ideas she’s trying to express. Sometimes she pauses mid-sentence and looks briefly at the window, as if her melanin is gathering the midday winter sunlight, before continuing her thought. Her meandering conversational style can make it hard to keep track of the many interests she alludes to—from the subversiveness of The Shaggs to reading James Baldwin—but her high-tempo conversational voice and gestures make her enthusiasm infectious. You can imagine the shared optimism in that room when Spalding showed up at a New York gig in October 2014, hair pressed and champagne glass in hand, and broke the news to her band: “OK guys, I want you to meet Emily.”

Noisey: Why is it D+Evolution as opposed to De-evolution?
Esperanza Spalding: Because it’s D+Evolution. It’s not de-evolution or solely evolution. The idea is D+Evolution. It’s a function or a capacity or a state that allows opposing aspects of ourselves to reconcile and conjoin and co-contribute to our growth. So the “+” is the joining of de-evolution and evolution. That’s too long to say: Emily__’__s De-Evolution and Evolution. So D+Evolution captures it specifically. And you can also look at it as not A+Evolution, but you’re at a D+, so you have to evolve. Many people on the planet can identify with that: That you do not fully understand, that you have not been given information, that you haven’t had the chance to study or learn or accumulate the right set of skills to go on to the next level. But we’re growing and life is happening in front of us, and you have to evolve whether or not you feel you’re prepared.
Photo by Holly Andres, courtesy of Esperanza Spalding

It****s been said the best way to stay creative is to remain a bit outside your comfort zone. Was it like that for you in this album?
Ha! I’m always outside of my comfort zone, so it doesn’t even matter. I mean, I don’t even sleep at night, so even at my bed I’m not that comfortable I guess. I’ve always just felt uncomfortable in general—just usually saying the wrong thing, or I’m not schooled in the narrative or the colloquialisms of the group I’m with, or wearing the right thing… I have dreams where I’m with friends—other musicians—and everybody gets on the stage and we’re all just jamming. Then somebody gets up and sings a song that everybody knows, and the audience is like, “Woo!” Then it’s my turn and I’m like, “I don’t know any songs.”

At 31, I guess I’m OK with that. It’s not that I think that it’s an important function to chase it or strive to feel comfortable or out of my comfort zone. It’s just that the type of things that I get inspired to do is just beyond my grasp. Because in the process of developing it, you have to reach. And I like to reach.

I****ve been thinking that some of the great artists make the abstract into shared experiences. Do you feel that way?
Because it’s not abstract. Some writer who was a priest also wrote to—what do you call the members of the Catholic church?

The clergy? The congregation?
Anyway, there was this guy really going through it, and he felt that he just isolated himself from his family and community by this act that he saw as completely an anomaly—a singularity. A priest says, “You know, don’t beat yourself up, and know that the most private secretive things are the most universal.” So whatever you can draw out of your innermost being that may seem bizarre or unique or shameful. It’s like resting in the faith that we are all the same species, ultimately.

Have you been inspired by any recent music?
I’m sure, probably in ways I don’t know. I thought Janelle Monae's Electric Lady was one of the greatest pieces of work offered to the world in recent history. It’s fucking brilliant. I discovered MF DOOM. Well, he existed before, but I’ve just discovered him. And Sia performing “Chandeliers” the way she did on the Ellen Degeneres show and her telling everybody that, see, people are hungry for some different shit no matter what you might think.

Did you think anything of Kendrick Lamar**s record? It**s pretty polarizing.
By who?

Some think it promotes black respectability politics. I don**t agree; it**s good but it has flaws.
It doesn’t have any have flaws. None of art does, fuck that. And if they do, you don’t know what they are. Only he does. I just went to see this play last night, and for the first half of it, I was like this could all just be random. I have no idea what was happening. I don’t know what was happening. I don’t know who’s what. I don’t know where this is happening. I don’t know who they’re talking about. Why am I saying this? Well, maybe my analyzer was getting caught up on the flaws, but it’s really because it was more than I can receive all at once. I’m not saying that’s why you think it has flaws, but afterwards by the end, I think I was moved. I think I even understand why the director let the audience be confused for 45 minutes.

The mission of art is not to give you a bridge that will never fall, that’s structurally perfect and sound, and all the math is done. That’s stuff there for the reason that the mathematicians and the chemists have explained to the engineers and it’s absolutely perfect. That’s the function of science and engineering. Art has a different function, and one of the primary functions is connectivity and communication. And when connectivity and communication and a rest has happened where you stop and have an experience that you weren’t going to have before, art has done its job. There are no flaws in art because art is a process.

Photo by Holly Andres, courtesy of Esperanza Spalding

What is Emily trying to say in this album?
She’s not trying to do shit. She just is her. I work for her. She’s from a realm that is not from this world where D+Evolution is. D+Evolution is not something you strive for. It’s not something you come from. It’s a realm where everything is that way. So when she comes to this realm and looks at everything we’re talking about, she’s like, “Huh? Because where I come from, this looks like this to me. That looks like that to me.” In the live performance, she’s fresh into this realm. She’s new. All she knows is that, the world to her is D+Evolution and she’s here to be loud about it and sing about it, because it’s what she knows and loves.

And she has an experience in this realm of what we live in today and our dynamics and our acceptance of keeping the intrinsically linked aspect of ourselves at opposing ends of our identity and of our life and of our community structures: the carnal, the primal, the polished, the cerebral, the sophisticated. So she looks at it, doesn’t really get it, learns about both, and learns about how they got to be so far away from each other. But doesn’t operate in any way that doesn’t strive to reconcile those, because that’s who she is—that’s what she knows.

Evolution is a big theme in this album. How do you personally relate to it?
Especially in the period that this project was developed, I had no idea about what was I going to do. I didn’t have a manager or a label or an agent or anything. I was just walking foot by foot knowing that the only thing you could do is keep walking. And I felt completely unprepared and non-equipped for everything that I knew had to happen. I felt like D+ for sure, partly because I hadn’t been paying attention when I had a manager and I had the resources around me. I just really wasn’t paying attention and took it for granted… But time ticks and you can’t stop that.

How did the band react when you introduced Emily?
Well, it wasn’t like I was someone else that they had to call Emily instead of Esperanza. We developed our music together. Then, when we got on stage, I hadn’t developed her as a character yet. It was just me with different hair and glasses, and we were just playing.

Brian Josephs is a writer living in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.