How I Get It Done: Esperanza Spalding, Jazz Prodigy and Touring Musician

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Illustration: Rebecca Clarke

Esperanza Spalding is a bassist and vocalist whose most recent album is called Emily’s D+Evolutionshe was the recipient of the Young Artist Award at Americans for the Arts’ 2016 National Arts Awards, and has also won four Grammy awards. Currently, she’s on a monthlong tour to promote her new album, but even on the road, she tries to chant in the morning and at night as a meditative practice. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On what one day in the life of a touring musician with a new stage show looks like:
After many delayed flights, we arrived in Augusta, Georgia, at 7:30 p.m. We went straight to the rehearsal space, which was a big hollowed-out dance hall, and we went until midnight. We were running through all the blocking in the show and realized that maybe we couldn’t use the props the next day because there were a couple of deficiencies. We all went back to the hotel and agreed to meet at one o’clock the next day.

I got up the next morning, about eight or so, and had a little breakfast and I chanted and I stretched. And then sat down for a couple of hours with pen and paper, going through all the music and the blocking and figuring out how we might restructure the show without props. We got together at 1 p.m., the three vocalists and I, and we developed an alternative, and we went to sound check at four. That usually involves everyone getting high on coffee for a second to survive this next barreling through of time and energy from 4 p.m. until about 10 p.m., which is usually when the show ends.

During sound check, we run musical moments that are a little funny; we run lighting. Then we go back, get dinner, “put our faces on” (as they say), and put the wardrobe on. I do a vocal warmup usually a couple of hours before the show–so, 6:30 or so–and then a bass warm-up, and then I run through my own notes of what I need to remember in the show. Once the lights go up, there’s no stopping, so anything we’re not sure about, we just have to trust it.

Before I go to bed I try to make notes on things that didn’t work and things that did work, and I start typing them up for everybody to have. I grab a quick bite, come back to the hotel, probably by 11 p.m. I chant, I brush my teeth like a good girl, and then go to bed and get ready to do it again the next day.

On how she got into chanting as a meditative practice, and why she can’t go without it now:
We went to Christian church when I was young, but I grew up with the kind of mom who would get out the Bible and do a critical analysis of what we had been taught in Bible study. I always had this underlying aversion to any kind of organized religion, mainly because I can’t get down with the premise that people who don’t believe what you believe are somehow less holy or inferior.

I was really shocked, actually, to be so drawn to this chanting. It’s a chanting of nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which was developed by this Buddhist reformist in the 13th century. I find the practice and the philosophy around the practice really helpful to me. I like the underlying premise that everybody, even the worst of the worst and the best of the best, is completely equal in their potential to do good or to do bad. I take the time twice a day to chant. And I find it really centering; it really helps me regroup. And it helps me see my own responsibility. So if I’m grappling with something, like, oh, why doesn’t so-and-so just get their act together, and it’s somebody else’s fault, and they’re not doing their job right, that’s when I chant. I feel fortified and refreshed. I do it for as long as I have, which is usually 10 to 15 minutes. Some people do it for hours a day. Sometimes, if I’m really going through the fire, I’ll do it for 20 minutes.

On having the audience be her greatest teacher:
The greatest teacher in the performance equation is the audience. I will feel the moments where a certain line really lands. There are also a lot of adjustments made thanks to the feedback from the audience. Sometimes we realize that we’re trying too hard on this song — let’s just rock out; we don’t need to be all, like, heavy and intense.

Of course the audience has the power to impact my mood. I mean, they know they have the power. It’s a really fragile agreement actually. You paid your hard-earned cash to come in here and watch me. And you know I’m up here completely exposed and vulnerable to your acceptance or rejection of my heart and soul and belief. You have to be willing to stand there naked and trust that your audience is going to be courteous and not take advantage of the power they have to just break your hurt and hurt your feelings and say that sucks, even if it did. When I feel like it just didn’t stick and people didn’t like it or didn’t get it, it’s heartbreaking. But that’s so critical. You have to experience the truth of what did and didn’t work to know what to do next to make it better. Like one of my favorite teachers always said, The truth only hurts if you’re not going to do anything about it.

On how and when she finds the time to practice on tour:
On this tour, most of the creative juice is being put into show development. I do some random jazz gigs in between the touring of this project. I take my bass with me and I do practice it, and I practice voice. The next big project that I’m working on is language-based, more than music-based, so I’m spending a lot of time just practicing poetic writing and learning about dialogue and how to communicate through that medium. Musical opportunities always happen, and as long as my chops are together and I’ve been furthering my harmonic concepts, I know I’ll be okay in the music making. Even though we’re playing the same songs every night and there’s less improvisation, the more I practice electric bass and my voice, the more I find in this show and the freer I am in it to communicate on all levels. And when inspiration strikes, I make a voice memo of it on my iPhone.

On the three different journals she takes with her everywhere:
I have a journal for business insights, I have a journal for personal insights, and I have a journal for lyrical/poetic content insight. So if I see a strong metaphor or hear a good line, or think of a nice turn of phrase or something, I’ll put it in the poetic-content book. It sounds very clichéd — I’m sorry — but the real project is life, you know, and sometimes a scene in the music will land in a level of my life that’s not my “musical life,” and that’s what goes in my personal journal. How I interact with my management team, or how I interact with my accountant, whatever, that goes in my business journal. I keep those journals because the discovery that happens through the creative process often yields information that you can apply to anything. When I make something or I discover something in my life as a bass player, it can actually allegorically apply to how I’ve been dealing with my agent. And I try to practice all of those techniques and ideas across the board. And I feel like they reenforce — by osmosis — the other tiers of my life.

On the particularly whimsical reason why her life can be stressful:
Sometimes I feel like the little girl in The Golden Compass: She doesn’t have any good reason for being able to read that compass, but she just knows things. I always remember the part in the book when she can’t read it anymore and she realizes that it’s possible to read it, but she has to now figure out what everybody else had to do the long way. That process of understanding something so clearly and being able to give all the right answers and discover these truths without knowing how you got there, and then having to go back and work through all the steps to back it up — to me, that feels like the creative process. And when you’re in that phase when you can’t explain why yet, it’s really challenging to lead a group of left-brain people who are great at doing rational, thorough, accumulative, step-based, empirical evidence-based work.

Beyond just the stress of traveling and being tired and not eating right and navigating a lot of unexpected circumstances day by day, I really think that the emotional, spiritual exhaustion is feeling as vulnerable as that little kid that knows something to be true but can’t explain why. Holding on to the magic of inspiration in that moment, and then somehow finding a way to back it up with all the empirical, logistical detail is really exhausting and it can be really stressful.

Switching between those two modes, of being that completely open, available, intuitive communicator and also being the studious, pragmatic, logistical, empirical business leader or team leader, it’s really challenging. And of course unless you’re somebody who’s gone through that creative experience of taking your intuition and somehow turning it into a finished project, I’m sure it’s really exhausting, too, for the people on my team to just deal with me when I’m in that creative mode. So, it’s stressful — it’s stressful, but for good reason.