'What Do You Need A Song For?': Esperanza Spalding's Search For The Answer

Sep 24, 2021
Originally published on September 27, 2021 1:37 pm

At the heart of Esperanza Spalding's new album, Songwrights Apothecary Lab (S.A.L.), is a question: "What do you need a song for?" In pursuit of answers, Spalding, a Grammy-winning jazz singer and bassist, assembled a team of more than just other musicians; she created a laboratory of sorts, gathering neuroscientists, psychologists, ethnomusicologists and more. "We are like shipwrights," Spalding says in an interview with NPR's Ailsa Chang. "We build things. We build things that we want to be vessels to ferry people from one point to another point. One shore to another shore. Or even through a vast, uncharted terrain."

Together, the group created a 12-track LP of sonic prescriptions: Each song, or Formwela, has, in Spaldings words, "an intended use and effect." Formwela 3, for example, is "for releasing the heaviness of a seemingly endless blue state." And Formwela 4 is "for tuning oneself to expect and receive attunement when speaking intimately to the heart's unarticulated needs," according to S.A.L. 's website.

"Really one of the primary invitations of this lab is for us to remember the resource that we have in music," Spalding says. "I use these songs in my life. You know, it helps me. They help me. Other people's songs help me too, but maybe I'm responding to the question, 'What do I need a song for?' [by] trying to write the songs that maybe we don't have yet for these very specific functions."

Listen to Ailsa Chang's interview with Esperanza Spalding in the audio player above, and stream Spalding's latest album below.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is one question at the heart of Esperanza Spalding's new album - what do you need a song for?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

CHANG: Spalding is a Grammy-winning jazz singer and bassist. And to answer this seemingly simple question - what do you need a song for? - she needed more than just other musicians. So she basically created a whole laboratory, a cross-disciplinary group of neuroscientists, psychologists, ethnomusicologists and more. She calls it the "Songwrights Apothecary Lab."

SPALDING: We are like shipwrights, you know? We build things. We build things that we want to be vessels to ferry people from one point to another point, one shore to another shore or even through a vast, you know, uncharted terrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: The result is an album of sonic concoctions, each with an intended effect on the listener. Some are for stress relief or opening the heart; others are a little more practical.

SPALDING: Like, my mother, when I asked her what she needed a song for recently, she was like, I need a song to help me keep on schedule.

CHANG: (Laughter).

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

CHANG: Amazing.

SPALDING: I don't know if it's the function of the song, but she has this song now that she wants to listen to at a certain time every morning. So it's almost like she's using that song as, like, the raw material to change her relationship to this issue. And I think the music that we're intending to make in the lab is, like, scathing through that spectrum, you know? A very suggestive and kind of abstract and poetic in its application - it's very specific. And what grows out of the lab is so much in response to the way that people in the lab and the guests coming into the lab respond to that question - what do you need a song for?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPALDING: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the music specifically - how, like, each of these tracks, you know, they're 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: (Laughter) They are my words. They are my words.

CHANG: For example, like, No. 1 is, quote, "designed for memorizing, then hearing internally, as an aid to self-soothe during an acute moment of stress in the home."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMWELA 1")

SPALDING: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Can you tell me about that song in particular? Like, how did you go about designing the effect on the listener?

SPALDING: Absolutely. I mean, the intended effect - the invited effect, I should say. Well, I was stuck at home with my beloved family, who I love to pieces, obviously, and noticed things that - I hadn't actually been around them for a long period of time, in a very long time.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SPALDING: So, you know, you get past that, like, yeah, it's nice to see you, and you get into these moments where it's like, there's no place to go. You're just in, like, a crackling - you know, all that old family history stuff?

CHANG: Yeah.

SPALDING: That - it's like everybody's kind of, like, doing the thing that, you know, bothers the other person, and you can't really escape. And there's just this, like, ugh - this, like, frequency of stress. And I was thinking like, huh, for these moments, when I need to stay in the room and I can't go, it'd be so cool if there was something I could activate internally so at least, like, within my vessel, I'm at ease or I feel like I'm full of a sound that - you know, it's almost like, you know, if the container is full of water, there's not room for the other water to get in, you know? There's not room for the other thing to pour in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMWELA 1")

SPALDING: (Singing) In and around the walls of your heavy minded palace. Suddenly the air goes miraculously clear. I'm cupping your brim of the never-ending chalice. In rushes love's atmosphere.

CHANG: I mean, it's just incredible to me how specific some of the functions for these individual tracks are, right? Like, there's also one that's intended to steady the heart during a new romance. Tell me about that track.

SPALDING: Ooh, yes. Well, eee (ph)...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SPALDING: I mean, you know, that track is partially from personal experience. And, I mean, I'll just say this - if you've found yourself in the dynamic where you were like, uh-oh, I'm worried about getting pulled out of orbit and being so enamored with this new person that I just get sucked into the sun of their newness and I burn to a crisp, my hope is that in a moment like that, you would think of the song and think of the lyrics, which are this invitation to, in a way, diffuse that fear by admitting it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMWELA 6")

SPALDING: (Singing) But gravity still pulls his thread.

And that's a song that I need, and I know a lot of folks who need it to, you know? And...

CHANG: Yeah. No, I totally relate to that feeling of feeling that you are going to be sucked into the sun of someone.

SPALDING: And it's hard to admit it. It's so silly. Like, many of us have endured that and gone through that, and I think that there's probably already a song for everything in this world. So really, one of the primary invitations of this lab is for us to remember the resource that we have in music.

CHANG: Absolutely.

SPALDING: I mean, maybe it's a little self-referential or something, but I use these songs. I use these songs in my life. You know, I - like, it helps me (laughter). They help me. Other people's songs help me, too. But maybe I'm responding to the question, what do I need a song for, of trying to write the song that maybe we don't have yet for these very specific functions, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMWELA 10")

SPALDING: (Singing) I saw what I wanted and took it for me, without the strings attached, like they're supposed to be. I didn't know how deep some feelings can go. You can really do some damage down there in the soul of another.

CHANG: Do you envision that people will put these songs on in certain situations that either perfectly replicate the purpose that you articulate for each of the tracks on this album or a purpose that is similar to what you describe for, you know, that particular track?

SPALDING: I think it will be a fun jam because then it's like we're playing together. Then it's like we're exploring together, right? And I also hope that, just like all music, any listener will use their own agency and creativity and put it on when and where they need it, for whatever purpose, even if it's just, like, this is cool; I just want to hear it, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMWELA 10")

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

CHANG: So do you feel that you have answered the question, what do you need a song for?

SPALDING: Ooh. I'm getting more and more excited by the invitation, by that ask, because every time I ask that, the responses lead to more openings, invitations and potential experiments in the lab. So it's almost like, now I know the question I'm asking, and that's a really beautiful place to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMWELA 10")

SPALDING: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding. Her new album is called "Songwrights Apothecary Lab."

Thank you so much for joining us today.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMWELA 3")

SPALDING: (Singing) ...Undead, unsaid and unchanging. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.