"We always are pleasantly surprised at what we have in us.": Esperanza Spalding talks about making an album in 77 hours

Training like a marathoner, Spalding is going through her paces, so far she's written single songs in 77 minutes

Published August 22, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

Esperanza Spalding   (Getty/Mychal Watts)
Esperanza Spalding (Getty/Mychal Watts)

Esperanza Spalding has never shied away from a challenge. Among her latest gambits: In 2016, the jazz bassist/vocalist released "Emily's D+Evolution," a Tony Visconti-co-produced concept album that doubles as an excursion through jazz, funk, rock, soul, the blues and everything in between.

Spalding is upping the ante even more next month: Starting on September 12, she plans to write, record and refine a new album, "Exposure," completely from scratch over the course of just 77 hours. For good measure, the creation is going to be streamed live on Facebook.

Spalding — who was also recently named a professor of practice in Harvard University's Music Department, meaning she'll teach during the spring semester — checked in with Salon earlier this week, fresh off a week-long tribute honoring the late Geri Allen at NYC's Village Vanguard, to discuss her creative process and why she chose to make "Exposure" this way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Spalding particularly sparks to the idea that being able to "recalibrate your creative being," one way of looking at this sonic experiment, is a valuable thing for artists to do.

I am so intrigued by the fact you're making a record in 77 hours. I love that.

[Laughs.] Good. I hope I will feel that way — the way you feel — on the other side of it.

The idea of having a finite amount time to write and record — is that liberating or terrifying to you?

[Muses out loud.] Is it liberating or terrifying? Is it liberating or terrifying? I don't think either of those words is quite right to describe my feeling about it. It's focusing. I feel like it forces me to hyper-concentrate on creating and on moving the creations forward. And because I'm in that hyper-concentrated state, I feel much bigger. I feel like I have access to more. It's like I'm reaching wider for the sake of finding anything and everything I can in the allotted time.

It's an odd phenomenon, but it's one that I keep experiencing as I practice creating in this way. And it has to be real. There's no way to manufacture that sensation. The stakes have to be real. Now that I've had a little taste of that, I want it. [Laughs.] I want it more and more and more. So I'm upping the stakes. The further I get into this experiment of this crazy mode of creation, I keep upping the stakes to get a deeper fix of that experience. [Laughs.]

What is your latest stakes-upper that you've done?

"Exposure" is the marathon. So I'm not going to run too many marathons before the real day, just like a responsible marathon runner. I'm working up to that level; I'm working up to that high-stakes situation. The most recent one would be, over this weekend, I gave myself two 70-minute blocks on Saturday and Sunday to compose this song.

This is really very lame — I'm sorry I'm even saying this, this is, like, so arty-farty, fucking navel-gazing shit — but I got myself in trouble the way that I started the composition. It was way too much going on. But I said "You know, this could happen during 'Exposure.' I have to use this. I have to finish this tomorrow in 70 minutes." The angst felt real during those 70 minutes, even though nobody else knew that it was happening. That's as close I can get before "Exposure" to the stakes being real. But that felt very intense, and it felt very intimidating to try to unpackage and develop what seemed like more than I could actually handle.

Is there any challenge for you in terms of turning off your editing brain? When I'm writing, my biggest challenge is I get stuck on something, and I keep going and pick at it.

Wow. Yeah. [Sighs.] And! And! Sometimes [it's] the inverse, where you get stuck on something that you really like. [Laughs.] It's like, "Ooh, a sentence! I nailed it!" [Laughs.] That happens too.

Fortunately now, just recently, at this point in my life, I've been through enough big projects to know that what you think is crappy as you're writing it, and what you think is great as you're writing it, [are] usually not that crappy or that great when you go back for revision. I have learned to not trust my in-creation perspective, because it's skewed.

That being said, of course, still when I'm writing or composing or even practicing or recording or whatever, I'll think something came out, and I'll go like, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, I could do that better." But right now — just now, just this year — I've been through it enough times to know that it's okay if that piece is stupid. It's okay if that little passage is just totally lame, because it had to get out to make room for the revision, which is perfect.

And in this case, with "Exposure," we don't leave anything in we don't like. We just have to keep moving so that we get the 10 songs written, or we get the first sketches written, and then we can keep refining it and arranging it or editing it through the course of the hours. I'm sure on day three, we'll listen back to something that we thought was done and hear a way that we could improve that sentence, improve that melody or whatever. And it's okay. The advantage of the time crunch is we're forced to turn the editor off.

Well, there is [also] the ingrained editor, which is the part of us that is familiar with form, harmonic progression and melody, and has an ear for what we like, right? And [for] what's beautiful, that's guiding us to choose that note versus another [one]. But, beyond that, the editor that stops us and says "Hold on a second. That's not good enough," that editor will have to take a backseat and actually step in later in the real role of an editor, which is to help us refine what we created in an uninhibited way.

That's such an interesting process.

Yeah. I mean, shit, we'll see what happens. [Laughs.] It all feels really good now. I'm just really aware that it could be really lame. The concept is cool, but what we get out of it [could be] kind of meh. I don't care about the concept in and of itself unless it actually propels us to make greater work. So far, in the last year or so, I've experienced this mode of creating as a catalyst [that] expands my creative options or my compositional options, or compositional choices, however you want to describe it. So that's why I believe in the process.

But I also know that as a beginner, which I am with this practice, there are limits. I'm new to this creative method as well. So my one fear is that, being so new to this way of creating, away from the studio [will] almost, like, make it to the limit of what this method can do for us right now. [Laughs.] But that's why there are other records. That's why it's just a moment in time. And so it's a step.

It's a step in the direction of exploring this way of creating. I really, really believe in it, particularly in a time in our creative lives. I shared this experience with the fellow musicians but we feel really oversaturated. We can watch all of our gurus on YouTube. We can read all the books; we can transcribe all the solos; we can transcribe all the songs; we can study all the compositions. There's so much data crammed in our brains, it can be hard to sort through it and create a linear function out of all of the material that we've accumulated.

I don't really identify as creating with mental prowess. I identify creating more intuitively. So, for me, this method is the way that I can create a linear, concise logic tool expression out of that overflowing coffer of data, this musical data, conceptual data, compositional data.

I feel that. As a music fan, it's difficult even trying to figure out, "What do I want to listen to today?" There's just so much out there and so much to absorb. It's like whiplash. I can imagine for someone who is making music, it's a similar process.

[Whistles.] [Pauses.] The appeal, for me, of inviting a different faculty to participate in the creative process—like, a faculty beyond intellectual logic, or intention, or method, or pedagogy, even. Like, inviting almost an unknown faculty of the creative process, of our creative minds, of the part of us that intentionally creates. Inviting a faculty that's not brain-based to run the show and run the process. [Laughs.]

In that way, and to answer your first question, it is very liberating. Because you can turn the leader upstairs off, let it take a vacation. And almost like let a different selector come in and create collages out of everything that upstairs leader has accumulated. It is liberating. Kind of a relief, actually.

And for me, anyway — and I think for the few people who have joined me in some of the explorations [Laughs.] — we always are pleasantly surprised at what we have in us. What we have to say, that we didn't know we had absorbed by osmosis, by that whiplash-style osmosis that you were talking about. Or just accumulating so much data, not even realizing that we're absorbing most of it, right? And discovering what is near the surface in our psyche, our feelings, and having this direct outlet for it to get organized into something beautiful that we can then reflect on.

When did you firmly decide that you wanted to do the record? How long has this been in your brain as a kernel of an idea?

[Pause.] I've been looking for some sort of event, performance-based activity, that I could invite fellow creatives into and non quote-unquote creators — or people who don't officially identify as artists or creators — into where we would be forced or challenged or invited to let go and spontaneously create.

I've been working with a woman named Sanam Petri. She's a creative director who usually works with big brands. Originally, we were speaking, and trying to figure out something we could do that would be a direct synopsis of what I'm about artistically. And then I started to feel a little limited by thinking about that event . . . it almost felt like a PR stunt. But the part of it that I dug, that I believed in, was this invitation to spontaneously create.

One day I was siting at this restaurant near my house. I was looking out the window, and I just thought, you know, I don't want to create a narrative. I just want to make some shit. I want to let whatever there is to make get made, show whatever there is to show, and then figure out what it's about, after the fact. [Laughs.] I don't want to have to sell this to people first before I can make it. That's what's exhausting to me.

I thought, "Well, how can I do that?" You could almost set up the premise so you let people know, "I don't know what I'm going to do, but it's going to be the realest shit that I can do." And, like, "I'm responsible for what happens, but you can't say I didn't give you what I said I was going to give you." [Laughs.] I guess we have to go in there with nothing and just let it out and see what happens.

And I was looking at how I'm placed in the quote-unquote narrative and feeling like it's really inaccurate. It's not comprehensive. And I thought, "Well, if I did this, there would be no confusion." It's clearly me, full integrity, doing what I do as myself and showing what it is. And I thought that would be very cathartic to make, as a creator. [Laughs.] That's where the idea was born.

I wrote it down really fast, and it was like the first day of my period, so it all about like "Fuck it, write it all out, blahhhh!" Then I called some people — I called Sanam and I was like "All right. Look, this is what I'm going to do. Will you help me do this?" And she was like, "Whoa, that's the shit." I called my PR person. I was like "No, I have to do this. Can you help me explain why it's important? Can you just help me?" She was like, yeah.

Then came the whole thing of getting the label to . . . [Laughs.] [Pauses.] Hmm. What am I getting the label to do? To get down with this as a creative endeavor versus an economic endeavor. After many weeks of long conversations, they believe in me, and they said "Okay." [Laughs.]

So it wasn't quite as simple as "This is what I'm going to do, deal with it." I still had to explain it to everybody. But at least I didn't have to explain the art. [Laughs.]

That's true — it hasn't been created yet. So you're off the hook.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It will speak for itself — finally.

When you're a little kid, and you are just starting to either learn how to draw or express yourself or play music, that's you as a primal person. You're figuring out yourself. As you were talking, that's what it reminded me of.

And that discovery, when you're a kid, of what you want to draw. Even that is fun. You see what you draw. You see what you've got in there. I love that you brought in the word primal. That word, when you said it, really resonates with the level of our being that we want to [get] to while we're creating. It feels like the advantage of that word is that the primal part of us hasn't been conditioned by the practicalities of this world that we live right this minute — specifically, all the dynamics around art as a commodity, and art needing to temper itself with economic viability.

It's really hard, as a creator, to actually siphon those concerns out of the creative process. So part of the mission and size of this project is to basically explain the parameters [and] get everybody onboard with the parameters, so that we go in [and] we can be completely unfettered as we create. Because we've already sold the record, right? We've already explained what we're doing, so when we go in, what we're creating is not to be sold or to appeal to urban radio or whatever.

We've already agreed that we have permissions to create whatever happens. If this works, and we do sell all the records and we do at least break even, I think it'll be a really beautiful success story of how through the commercial label world, you can create context for art to happen free from the confines of economic viability.

And that's why I love that you're streaming all this on Facebook too. But then the record is only to be released physically. That's permanence. I have a lot of conversations with people about streaming and digital versus having a record or a CD, and I like that you're making this and there is an artifact from that. After all of this is said and done, someone can hold it in their hand.

I want it to feel tangible, because creation is the process of making something from nothing. That's what happening during the 77 hours. I don't want it to feel like we made something from nothing, but then all you get is nothing, like, an intangible. Not that sound isn't tangible, but for most of us, it feels that way.

So part of it is the idea that we have literally gone in tabula rasa — blank, blank — we've conjured the content. We make this creation from nothing. And then you get to hold the creation in your hands, that you may or may not have actually witnessed it happen, but if you want to watch you can watch it get conjured kind of from the ether, and concentrated into this album that endures. You can put it above your record player, which I love to do — I love to look at the album that I'm playing, it's so satisfying. And, hopefully, it'll be the music that you'll actually want to listen to. [Laughs.]

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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