Esperanza Spalding has been flying just under the radar for years now, especially for those who don’t follow jazz pop news (it’s not all about Norah Jones, people!), but recently experienced something of a breakout in her February performance on the PBS program Austin City Limits. The day after her performance, Spalding, became the second most-popular search term on Google and millions of PBS viewers were (I assume) smitten.
Spalding grew up in a single-parent home in Portland, Oregon and began teaching herself to play violin when she was four years old. Her prodigious talent led her to study at the Berklee College of Music when she was just 17 and become an instructor there when she was only 20. Now 25, Spalding has composed and recorded two album’s worth of gorgeous jazz pop, supported by a daunting tour schedule and mesmerizing live performances. Her voice is like an otherworldly dessert: syrupy and sweet, yet lighter than air, contrasting with the tones of her double bass, which she takes from its usual position as a support instrument to the forefront of the band. Spalding, who is of mixed race (African-American, Welsh, Native American and Hispanic), speaks Portugese and Spanish in addition to English and sometimes uses them in her songs, like in her version of “Cantora de Yala” on her first album Junjo, or this cover of Milton Nascimiento’s “Ponta de Areia” (album version here):
She’s appeared in ads for Banana Republic, a profile in the New Yorker, The Late Show with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live, onstage with Stevie Wonder and at the White House. Yes, that White House. As in, where the President lives. What hasn’t Spalding done? Have bad hair. Ever. Her hair is amazing and I want it.
Spalding has said that her most recent album Esperanza is “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of musical exploration and improvisation, referencing musicians like Me’shell Ndegeocello and Billy Drew as influences. Despite her talent and young age, Spalding said in a 2008 interview with NuSoul Magazine that she does not consider herself a prodigy:
“I am surrounded by prodigies everywhere I go, but because they are a little older than me, or not a female, or not on a major label, they are not acknowledged as such. It feels inappropriate to use that word to describe my musicianship… but somehow the word now is always associated with youth, and I don’t think it’s really fair. So, someone like me, who is good for the amount of time I have been playing but alright compared to a master, is called a prodigy. It literally cracks me up, but I can’t deny that it is mildly flattering.”
Check out this clip of her performing “Precious” on Letterman (at the end of it, he calls her “the coolest person we’ve ever had on the show”):
Love me or leave me, but please don’t deceive me
And say you love me how I am
You love the way I fit some ideal
Not the real woman you’ve yet to understand
You always wanted something more from my body
And said you needed something more from my loving
But all you got was me, and that’s all that I can be
I’m sorry if it let you down
But I’m not gonna sit around and waste my precious divine energy
Trying to explain and being ashamed of things you think are wrong with me