Having a conversation with jazz musician Esperanza Spalding is not unlike listening to her improvise. She comes up with something that sounds good, and then she reforms that statement and improves upon it.
“This tour is like the last dot on a circle before you get back to the top,” she says, before quickly reconsidering. “Actually, think of it like a spiral: It started small and now it’s wider and a bit more expansive.”
Music fans not familiar with Spalding may remember her for winning the “Best New Artist” Grammy over Justin Bieber in 2011. Of that honor, she dismissively says, “That Shooting star has fizzled on the horizon. I mean the shooting star of that particular event, not me as a shooting star. I’m more like an element that will be around in different forms forever.”
Spalding’s current tour is a retrospective of sorts, but let’s not call it that.
“It’s a word I don’t want to use because that sounds silly. I’m only 29,” she says. “But it is, so to speak, a little bit of that. We’re doing material from the first four albums. We’re doing our favorites, my favorites and hopefully the listeners’ favorites, a lot of them I haven’t played in a long time.”
This “greatest hits” approach is not because the singer and bass player is out of ideas. Quite the contrary: When she speaks of the widening spiral, what she seems to hint at is that after this tour ends, she’ll be spinning in an entirely different direction — a direction that includes a new character she’s calling Emily.
“I had a dream the day before my birthday, where I heard 10 sketches, and I saw this character and I realized it was me,” she says. “This sounds really freaky deaky, but it’s true — and it scared the bejesus out of me, so I guess that means that’s what I’m supposed to do. Because usually when something seems freaky and impossible that’s when it gets really good, so that’s what we’re doing. “
Are you there, Emily? It’s me, Esperanza
When speaking of her new character, Spalding is excited, but cagey.
“The way that Athena was born from the mind of Zeus — not that I’m a god, I’m just using that to explain the process of how this woman is coming into the world. Emily is a being that comes from my mind,” she says.
When asked if she’s recorded any of this new material, she will only allow a “maybe.” So are we talking something in the tradition of David Bowie becoming Ziggy Stardust and Beyonce becoming Sasha Fierce?
“I don’t know,” she says. “I think sometimes you have to pretend, to be yourself. I just look at it as it’s as much me as Esperanza, and I’m just excited to open up her kennel and let her out.”