The Esperanza Spalding Experience

by
Kyran de Keijzer
-
September 25, 2017

Two weeks ago we witnessed history in the making as Esperanza Spalding exposed herself in front of millions writing a whole record from scratch. We’re no stranger to Esperanza Spalding’s work, in fact, we had the privilege of working with her on her last album “Emily’s D+Evolution” in 2016. The morning of Sept. 12, she started her 77 straight hour journey in the studio, bringing with her a few musicians but no pre-written songs. Over those roughly three days, she wrote, arranged and recorded a full-length album, “Exposure,” while streaming the experience live to a web audience. Her goal was to finish 10 songs, most with lyrics.

“I think of it creatively as a context where you give all that’s been cooking in their permission to come out at will,” she said last week over Mexican food near her home in Brooklyn. “I thought: I just need a break from framing. I’m tired of backing everything up and explaining why this character does this and that.

I foresee that creating before a live audience will add excitement and extra inspiration energy.  Knowing someone is watching and listening to what you’re making seems to conjure up a sort of “can’t fail” energy. The necessity to keep going because it’s live draws up another depth of creative facility that can’t be reached when you know you can try again tomorrow.

Having such limited time to write and record 10 songs will also force us to rely on improvisation and first instinct. Not allowing us time to judge, second guess, question, or alter the initial hits of inspiration that drive the creation of each song.

That means that the audience will get a record of the most potent, charged, fresh-from-the ethers-compositional, musical and lyrical content. Of course, they will be formed into songs, but they’ll carry the charge of the immediate, of the innately inspired artist’s co-creating in the room throughout the 3-day process.”

If the three-day live stream sounds like a bit of a gimmick, Ms. Spalding sees it as a way to cancel out the noise of promotion and profit-chasing that often surrounds the recording process.

In the past, she said, she has felt pressure from executives at Concord Music Group, her label, to change the choice of songs on an album, or to add a featured guest that will help her reach new audiences. (She has mostly resisted the suggestions.)

“You’re hard-pressed to find an artist, especially a commercial artist, who’s able to create without the constraints of being able to prove that what you’re making is going to earn ‘us’ money — us being the bank,” Esperanza said.

John Burk, the president of Concord Records, said, “We believe in Esperanza 100 percent” and called the live-stream project “bold,” adding that the label deserves to have some role in the recording process. “We view ourselves as partners; we’ll have a dialogue about things,” he said. “But it’s not our philosophy to try and force her to do things that don’t work for her creatively.”

But with “Exposure” Esperanza is seeking “an environment where those factors are taken out,” she said. “I somehow convinced the label to pay for this, and I’m eternally grateful for that. And they can’t do anything about what happens because the record is being made as we do this thing.”

Esperanza has recorded “Exposure” entirely in the allotted 77 hours. It will be mix and master in the following week and she expects to release the album by mid-Fall. Concord agreed to a limited release, and it came out on CD and vinyl — not digitally — which helps her sidestep demands to maximize her audience. A total of 7,777 physical albums were made available and were completely sold out on the final day of the live stream.

I might have become obvious to you already, the number 7 has been thrown around a lot. 77 hours live stream, exactly 7,777 physical albums sold!? Why the number 7? Esperanza explains that the number 7 represents completeness and perfection, not to mention the holy and somewhat religious numerology that’s been around the number 7 for ages.

Esperanza has said that she aimed only for the listeners who are game for a personal journey, offering a raw and less manicured glimpse at her creativity.

She is a natural-born protagonist who works in a language of big ideas and tiny details. Her incredible stamina, raw talent and drive were a treat to watch. Her tracks scattered and danced, changing harmonies often and wreathing themselves around her prolix vocals. In videos posted to Facebook, you can see her leading rehearsals with a bustling intensity, demonstrating knotty chord patterns with her voice, then on the keyboard, before quickly moving on to the next thing.

Esperanza came to national attention at the Grammys in 2011, where she unexpectedly beat out Justin Bieber for the best new artist award. Ever since she has held onto a jazz instrumentalist’s code while making songs that cut a gently experimental path between various forms of popular music. She has endeared herself to a broad audience while maintaining an identity as a musician’s musician.

In July she was named a professor at Harvard University, where she will teach composition and performance. An exhibition of visual art she curated is currently on view at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in Manhattan. She is working on an opera with the saxophonist Wayne Shorter based around the myth of Iphigenia.

In preparation for “Exposure,” she had been practicing composing quickly, which may mean more simply. She has found that when she limits her editing brain, she doesn’t venture as far from the initial source of inspiration — which also means self-censoring less.

“I might be wrong during ‘Exposure’ and fall flat on my face, but it’s because I believe my best stuff will come out in that context,” she said prior to the live stream.

It all relates to a philosophy of direct expression — one that Esperanza will bring to her new post at Harvard. She has been teaching in some fashion for over a decade, and she often tells students that in order to speak honestly in your own voice, you have to control the urge to plan everything out.

“Only play in response to what you just played — and if you lose your focus, then only play in response to that,” she tells students. This helps them focus on a conversational flow, maintaining contact with the energy of the moment rather than wandering through some calculated narrative. “They get in touch with what they already have going on. Which is a lot.

Esperanza didn’t just collaborate with music artists, she somehow found time to sketch these amazing drawings with Frank Gehry, the most with-it architect alive!? On top of teaching an online architecture class, the Pritzker winner and model train museum designer now has Facebook Live experience under his belt. Last week, Gehry did a one-hour jam session with Esperanza.

What kind of creative pow-wow was it? “Spontaneous.” “Without edit or revision. Esperanza supplied the music, Gehry responded with free-form sketching. And now, the results of the sweet collab—Gehry’s drawings and Spalding’s one-of-a-kind composition—are being auctioned off as a bundle, “never to be heard or seen again by the public.”

Below, a selection of Gehry’s output from that afternoon, some of which look vaguely architectural.

The auction will run until Thursday, September 21, with proceeds going toward Bienestar, an Oregon-based non-profit building affordable housing for low-income residents. The lot has an estimated value of $15,000; the current highest bid is $3,500.

Hosting such incredible raw talent in our studios has been inspiring, motivating and enlightening. Our engineers were tested under extreme conditions to give a performance of a lifetime and they succeeded. One screw up could’ve thrown the whole live stream of the track, but they kept their head cool.

It’s been a long week for Esperanza’s team, NRG’s team and her fans watching her every move live from Facebook. Fans from all around traveled to North Hollywood to congratulate Esperanza on her final day of recording with open arms. It was amazing to see the expression on Esperanza’s facial expression when walking out to such an impressive crowd as she was isolated from the world for 77hours straight.

We’d like to thank Esperanza for hosting this historical event in our studios and give a big shoutout to the team that made all of this possible. The live stream ran smoothly and was uninterrupted for 77hours straight. It was a memorable experience for our engineers, staff members and fans around the globe to watch her do what she does best, compose.

Should we do host more live stream sessions in the future? Who would you like to see create an album from scratch? Let us know!

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