The search for Esperanza Spalding’s answer: NPR

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There’s a question at the heart of Esperanza Spalding’s new album: why do you need a song?

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

ESPERANZA SPALDING: It’s such a simple question, and I feel like we have the capacity to answer it (laughs).

CHANG: Spalding is a Grammy-winning jazz singer and bassist. And to answer this seemingly simple question: why do you need a song? – she needed more than other musicians. So she basically created a whole lab, an interdisciplinary group of neuroscientists, psychologists, ethnomusicologists and more. She calls it the “Songwrights Apothecary Lab”.

SPALDING: We’re like shipwrights, you know? We build things. We build things that we want to be ships to transport people from point to point, from shore to shore or even across vast uncharted terrain.

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

CHANG: The result is an album of sound concoctions, each with a desired effect on the listener. Some are intended to relieve stress or to open the heart; others are a bit more practical.

SPALDING: Like, my mom, when I asked her why she needed a song recently, she said to me, I need a song to help me stick to my schedule.

CHANG: (Laughs).

SPALDING: So I wrote her this song that she could listen to every morning that was sort of structured as a reminder of what the week was going to be like to just keep her encouraged.

CHANGE: Incredible.

SPALDING: I don’t know if that’s the function of the song, but she has this song now that she wants to listen to at a certain time each morning. So it’s almost like she’s using this song as a raw material to change her relationship with this issue. And I think the music we’re planning to do in the lab is, like, scathing across that spectrum, you know? A very suggestive and a little abstract and poetic in its application – it is very specific. And what comes out of the lab is so much in response to the way the people in the lab and the guests who come to the lab answer this question: why do you need a song?

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

SPALDING: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Well, let’s talk about the music in particular – how, like, each of those tracks, you know, is set up with a particular function. Each of them has a specific quote, “intended use and effect” – those are your words – for the listener, right?

SPALDING: (Laughs) Those are my words. These are my words.

CHANG: For example, like, # 1 is, in quotes, “designed to memorize, then hear internally, as an aid in calming down during an acute stressful time at home.”

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “FORMWELA 1”)

SPALDING: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Can you tell me about that particular song? For example, how did you design the effect on the listener?

SPALDING: Absolutely. I mean, the desired effect – the guest effect, should I say. Well, I was stuck at home with my beloved family, which I love to bits, obviously, and I noticed things that – I hadn’t really been around them in a long time, since. long time.

CHANG: (Laughs).

SPALDING: So, you know, you get past that, like, yeah, it’s nice to see you, and you get into those times where it’s like, there’s no place to go. You’re just in, like, a crackle – you know, all that old family history stuff?

CHANG: Yeah.

SPALDING: It’s – it’s like everybody’s doing something that, you know, bothers the other person, and you can’t really get away from it. And there’s just that, like, ugh – this, like, stress frequency. And I was thinking like, eh, for those times, when I need to stay in the room and can’t go, it would be so cool if there was something I could activate internally so at least , like, in my vessel I’m comfortable or I feel like I’m full of a sound that – you know, it’s almost like, you know, if the vessel is full of water , there’s no room for the other water to come in, you know? There is no room for the other thing to pour.

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “FORMWELA 1”)

SPALDING: (Singing) In and around the walls of your heavy-minded palace. Suddenly, the air miraculously becomes clear. I cut your edge from the endless chalice. In the rushes the atmosphere of love.

CHANG: I mean, it’s just amazing to me how specific some of the functions of these individual tracks are, isn’t it? Like, there is also one that is meant to stabilize the heart during a new romance. Tell me about this track.

SPALDING: Oh, yeah. Well, eee (ph) …

CHANG: (Laughs).

SPALDING: I mean, you know, part of this track is from personal experience. And, I mean, I’m just going to say this – if you found yourself in the dynamic where you were like, uh-oh, I’m afraid I was out of orbit and being so in love with this new person that i just get sucked into the sun of their novelty and i’m burning with a crunchy, my hope is that in a moment like this you would be thinking about the song and thinking about the lyrics, which is that invitation to, in a way, diffuse this fear by admitting it.

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “FORMWELA 6”)

SPALDING: (singing) But gravity is still pulling its thread.

And it’s a song that I need, and I know a lot of people that need it, you know? And…

CHANG: Yeah. No, I totally identify with that feeling of feeling like you’re going to be sucked into someone’s sun.

SPALDING: And it’s hard to admit. It’s so silly. Like, a lot of us have endured this and been going through this, and I think there’s probably a song for everything in this world already. So really, one of the main invitations of this lab is to remind us of the resource that we have in music.

CHANG: Absolutely.

SPALDING: I mean, maybe it’s a bit self-referential or something, but I use these songs. I use these songs in my life. You know, I like it, it helps me (laughs). They help me. Other people’s songs help me too. But maybe I’m answering the question, why do I need a song, to try and write the song that we maybe don’t have yet for these very specific functions, you know?

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “FORMWELA 10”)

SPALDING: (Singing) I saw what I wanted and took it to myself, without the strings attached, like they’re supposed to be. I didn’t know how far certain feelings could go. You can really wreak havoc there in another’s soul.

CHANG: Do you see people putting these songs in certain situations that perfectly mimic the purpose you articulate for each of the tracks on this album or a similar purpose to what you describe for, you know, this particular track?

SPALDING: I think it’s going to be a fun jam because then it’s like we’re playing together. So it’s like we’re exploring together, right? And I also hope that, as with any music, any listener will use their own agency and their own creativity and put it when and where they need it, for whatever purpose, no matter how fair, like, that’s cool; I just wanna hear it, you know?

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “FORMWELA 10”)

SPALDING: (singing) Can you see it? When you taste it, can you be?

CHANG: So, do you feel like you’ve answered the question, why do you need a song?

SPALDING: Oh. I get more and more excited by the invitation, by this request, because every time I ask this, the answers lead to more openings, invitations, and potential experiences in the lab. So it’s almost like, now I know the question I’m asking, and it’s a really beautiful place to be.

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “FORMWELA 10”)

SPALDING: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding. His new album is called “Songwrights Apothecary Lab”.

Thank you very much for being with us today.

SPALDING: Thank you for being with me and inviting me to talk about this trip.

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “FORMWELA 3”)

SPALDING: (Singing) … Undead, unspoken and immutable.

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