This week, the electrifying Esperanza Spalding tells Shirley why she rejects the myth of overnight success and how people’s perceptions of Veruca Salt’s character in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory are misguided.
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything. A few years ago, I was backstage at an award show in Anaheim, California. The room was completely empty except for this extraordinarily beautiful woman sitting on a chair in the far corner with her back to the room. Now I thought it was a little strange. She was wearing a pair of headphones, had her eyes shut, seemed completely lost in her own world. But rather than emitting bad, sort of unwelcoming vibes, there was instead something really powerful and sort of magic emanating from her body.
Shirley: As the green room began to fill up, Esperanza Spalding pulled off her headphones, spun around to face the room, and then broke into this beautiful, absolutely dazzling, winning smile, and we were all completely disarmed. I was floored right there, transfixed. Esperanza Spalding defies categorization. She's released seven records, including 2016's ground-breaking Emily's D+ Evolution, won four Grammys and is a member of Harvard's music faculty. I'm Shirley Manson, and this is The Jump.
Shirley: Now to fill whoever might be listening to date in with who you are and what you are, you were basically a child prodigy. I mean, you're a bit of a musical genius. Is that fair to say?
Shirley: I know you don't call yourself a musical genius.
Esperanza: No, I don't. And I feel like I have to clarify the word "prodigy" because I started in music education very young. I saw Yo-Yo Ma play when I was five on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and I said, "I want to do that." Right away, my mother found programs for me to enter into. I was around a lot of other little children who were also learning string instruments.
Esperanza: I feel like sometimes with, particularly, musicians of color and blues musicians and jazz musicians, there's this desire to say, "Oh, they're a prodigy. It just came out of them. It just happened that way," and there's a lot of work. It didn't just happen. I didn't stand out among my peers is what I'm trying to say when I was a kid.
Shirley: In your mind.
Esperanza: No, in anybody's mind. I was just an average five-year-old violin player, then a six-year-old, then a seven, then the eight. I needed the music more than other kids, I think because I grew up in chaos. I think I ended up doing it more than the other kids were practicing. Not because I was a prodigy, I just needed it more. And that kind of led to this passionate affair with the music which bears that kind of fruit of extraordinary results, and I put in an extraordinary time, too.
Shirley: Yeah. Okay. Fair.
Esperanza: Also, I am sure, because I don't like exercise, and I don't like pain, I'm sure that I wouldn't have put in all that time if I didn't really need it. So as much as it was putting in the work and pushing harder than other kids were, at the same time it was saving my life, basically. Saving my sanity.
Shirley: Do you feel the music still does that now?
Esperanza: Hell yeah. Hell yeah, it does.
Shirley: In the same way or in a different way? Because I mean, you're so accomplished. You really are. I take what you're saying on board that you don't consider yourself a prodigy, and I understand what the implications of that mean. I take that on board, but you have had an extraordinary career for someone still so young. I mean, you're only 34?
Shirley: You're incredibly young, still.
Esperanza: Yeah, I feel that way.
Shirley: And you've had this incredibly accomplished career.
Esperanza: Yeah. That's why I had to change my bio because, accomplishment, to me that sounds like something is done.
Shirley: Oh, I like it.
Esperanza: None of it feels done to me.
Shirley: Well, I hope not.
Esperanza: Yeah. Even the things that already happened, it's like, "No, I don't want to pin on that."
Shirley: You still hungry?
Esperanza: I mean, it's like opening doors. To me, a project, when you manifest an idea, you're opening a door and saying, "Oh, there's something through this door. Check out what I saw." To me, accomplishing it feels like, "Okay, you can see it. Now we're going to close the door."
Shirley: Now that's fair.
Esperanza: To me, it's like that was an exploration that didn't ever finish. I just decided to open another door. Also, there's such an obsession in our culture with accomplishing things as being the signifiers of somebody's merit. I'm fortunate to have a lot of musical friends who nobody knows exist, and they have no "public-facing accomplishments." Also, just to get real, it's ugly to say, but it helps if you're hot.
Shirley: It does help if you're hot.
Esperanza: I mean, sorry. We still are in a commodity-based art economy, and it sells.
Shirley: But, look, you haven't always known what you know now, correct?
Esperanza: No. I don't even know what I am talking about.
Shirley: When you started out as a young woman in the music industry, how did you see yourself?
Esperanza: I thought I was everybody's little girl.
Shirley: Did you think you were hot then?
Esperanza: I didn't. I was so naïve. I thought all these people were my dad. I thought everybody was my dad and my uncle, and I thought that they believed in me and wanted me to win. That is a rude awakening for me. Has been a rude awakening like, "Whoa, I'm a product." There are so few people out here who can see through the appearance of a pretty lady with the talent that's an anomaly. There are so few people who can see through, who choose to see through or have the capacity to listen through to what I'm actually doing and are my ally because they believe in what I'm doing or what I'm striving for.
Esperanza: I'll tell you, I grew up, for better for sure, it was just a rude awakening when I left Portland, in this culture of this is for everybody. The fact that we're grown-ups and know this means that we have to teach it to the kids. The way that I grew up in music, they were all called community music programs. There was the community recreation band, the cultural recreation band. The word was "community music," and I could go over to my bass teacher's house and just hang there all afternoon with his wife and kids and listen to records. It was a lesson, but it was just living, and you could go jam on Saturday because they recognize that jazz music at that time was a mentor-disciple relationship.
Shirley: Sure. So, when did this change for you?
Esperanza: When I left Portland.
Shirley: Where did you go?
Esperanza: I went to Boston. I went to Berklee College of Music. There was nowhere to go in Portland. It's not like you're going to have some big lucrative career, so the people in that music, they just loved it with a passion. And that was visceral and infectious.
Shirley: Incredible, yeah.
Esperanza: The professional musician thing was a late revelation. I left home when I was 15, and I had bills to pay. I remember I worked at ... Oh, my god, I worked as a secretary at this market research firm. Somebody at my work realized I liked jazz, and he was like, "Oh, my god, I love jazz too." If you can believe this, it wasn't creepy. He found out there was another lady at work who liked jazz. We all went over to his house with tapes, blank tapes. He just wanted to share his record collection because he was so excited that somebody else loved the music. So this was the world-view I left Portland with.
Esperanza: Then I got to Berklee and it was like, "Okay, you have 30 minutes. This is how much this lesson costs. Oh, if you want to go study with this guy, it's $100. You have to take the train out and don't be five minutes late because it's a 50-minute lesson, and it's $100, and if you miss it, you still pay." All of a sudden, it was like this commodity. I'm looking at all these, sorry to be crude, but I have to say it, European Americans whose parents and uncles and daddies did not give up their lives for this f-ing music ... I'm getting emotional.Talking about, "Give me $100 to find out what I know."
Esperanza: This is not a religion in the sense of preaching, but the commitment that it took, the sacrifice that it took, the living, the courage that it took for the music to emerge out of the fucking cesspool of segregation, basically, in America, and the systematic dehumanization of people of color or anybody who tracks as other, it's the fruit of that.
Esperanza: Here I am walking to this institution where someone is looking at me with a price tag on my head, either for how much I'm going to earn for them in the school or how much I could earn from them out in the profession. So that awakening of realizing that this new sort of world of men and women, mostly men, who were kind of attracted to me, it wasn't for community reasons. It was lucrative. That took me many years to recognize, and when I did, I stopped everything, and that's when Emily's D+ Evolution happened. It was like a reckoning. I was like, "Whoa, y'all got me out here earning. You don't know what I do." People ask me, "Who wrote that?" I would be like, "I think that if at this point you don't know that I wrote my songs that you were involved in every step of the way, I don't think I can walk you into this. I don't think I can walk you into what's going on here."
Shirley: Well, this is an incredible segue because on this show we are wanting to examine these pivotal moments in musicians' careers. I know you were contacted earlier about choosing a song to represent this moment, and you've picked a really peculiar choice for numerous reasons. You've picked I Want It Now which is sung by Veruca Salt on the movie Willy Wonka, correct?
Esperanza: It is.
Shirley: And is a cover version?
Esperanza: It is my cover.
Shirley: I need you to explain to me-
Esperanza: I got you.
Shirley: All right. I knew you would.
Esperanza: I want to give it to you all right now. That's the point of that song.
Shirley: I love it. Could you just say that one more time?
Esperanza: That's the part. I want to give it to you. I want it now, and I want to share it. This is the last song on Emily's D+ Evolution. It's the last song for a reason, but we'll get there.
Shirley: And, of course, Emily's D+ Evolution was your album released in 2016, right, where you sort of speak on and sing through the voice of the character Emily?
Esperanza: Yeah, exactly. Just to connect it to the pivot point, when I decided to stop doing everything, I didn't know what I was going to do. I just knew this is not a life that I want. I'm not enjoying what most of my day is spent doing. I came here into music to play, practice, study and make beautiful things. When I decided I'm going to stop everything that's not one of those four pillars ... I'm just going to go to those four pillars. I left my manager, I left my agent, everybody was mad at me. No more touring. I bought a Volkswagen Beetle. I was just like, "I don't know what's going on. I just need to play. I need to play with people, and I need to write, and I don't know." One day, we finished this gig, and I remember I went home to my apartment in Austin. I'm lying there, and I just saw this character. I heard this whole album of music. I don't want to act like I heard the whole album incompletion, but I heard the sound. I saw how she moved. I saw her hair. I saw her coat. I saw her glasses, and I knew that it was Emily. I knew that this had something to do with that spirit, that untethered, joyous, F-it spirit that lived inside of me that I had actually been repressing slightly to win at what I was being offered by these people who saw me as a commodity. Because I didn't realize I was just a commodity. Maybe somewhere there's some love and humanistic compassion-
Shirley: No. Let me be clear. There is none in the music industry.
Esperanza: Yeah, because as soon as you step away from the dollar sign, they ain't trying to deal with you at all.
Shirley: They're disinterested.
Esperanza: Emily just erupts, and I pressed my hair the next day. I pulled my glasses out. I wore glasses when I was a kid. When people call me Emily, that's my middle name, I wore glasses.
Shirley: You were wearing glasses when we met.
Esperanza: Yeah, exactly. So in the course of Emily, it's like I found my wings again. I found my writing hands again. I found it all again. The last thing that I wrote, I didn't know it was going to be the arrangement of I Want It Now. All that music, if you took the melody of I Want It Now out, that was a song that I wrote called Tituba.
MUSIC - I WANT IT NOW (ES VERSION) *
Esperanza: The whole arrangement, if you took the melody of the song away, the song is Tituba. She was a witch doctor in The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play. I remember reading it, she's only mentioned in passing, and I remember thinking, "Who is Tituba? Who was she?" Because she's this kind of initiation point that a lot of the ladies who were accused of being witches apparently were in the woods with her doing something. She's this African woman who knows Voodoo and maybe converted the innocent white girls to witchcraft. So I'm like, "Who's Tituba?" That music is Tituba.
MUSIC - I WANT IT NOW (ES VERSION) *
Shirley: But why did you gravitate towards the lyrical content of I Want It Now? Which seems to me totally at odds with how I see you.
Esperanza: She's connected to Veruca Salt because she's just a product of her environment. She didn't ask to be like that.
Shirley: She's a brat.
Esperanza: She didn't ask to be like that. To me, she's embodying all the qualities that she learned from the patriarchy. She's the obtuse embodiment of what her father's belief system is, but when she plays it out, she's a bad girl. When she plays it out, she's a brat. But how did her dad have all that money? How did her dad have the means to hire a whole world of people to open all the tickets? That was what I was having a revelation about.
Shirley: But did you connect with this?
Esperanza: Yeah. I connected with it, of course.
Shirley: As being symptomatic of this environment in which you'd found yourself in?
Esperanza: It's something that we're all products ... We've all been programmed by consumerist patriarchy. You can't help it.
Shirley: Sure. But you were releasing yourself from this role?
Esperanza: I was trying to. And also, kind of reckoning with the fact that the things that I was angry about, about my own tendencies or behavior or attachments, are things that I had kind of been shamed into being self-conscious about. I just always thought about Veruca Salt because that was my favorite song in the movie, but then I was like, "I'm not supposed to like her because she's a brat." And then I was like, "Actually, hold on a second. That's always how it goes. She's eight." What is she eight, nine years old?
Shirley: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, she's a baby.
Esperanza: She's merely embodying the values of the world that produced her. But we never question the dad. I don't like "brats" either, but in another way, I was like, "Why the hell can't she have it all?" I want it all, too. Everybody in this story is here for the same reason. They're all trying to get that fucking chocolate factory, but how come she's the one that's greedy? She gets flushed. She's spoiled. She's rotten. I was just obsessed with the song that I had written, Tituba, and I kind of heard that maybe the melody to I Want It Now was going to go in there, and then I realized that actually, Emily is this eruptive, all-consuming, all-exploding energy, but it's not exploitative.
Esperanza: Emily didn't come to erupt and just burn everybody and then go away, and she won. It's more like erupting something open so there's more space to play. I changed the lyrics in the original song like, "I want to wear it like braids in my hair, and I do want to share it," because I do want to ... It's not about things like, "I want to do this for me, and then I get the factory." It's like, "Yo, let's all just have fun and have everything, but everybody can have everything." I'll be the first one to step out and say that's what I want, and then let's all have it.
Esperanza: Also, the thing about braids in her hair, because Emily had braids in her hair ... Emily's D+ Evolution record up to the song I Want It Now, is its thing. To me, I Want It Now was like the compass pointing where I was going to go next. To me, it was like this is what Emily opened up. I Want It Now, it's my announcement of where I'm headed. I do feel like, even for me as a reminder, that's some wild shit in that arrangement. To me, it was a reminder. I have access. I want to keep leaning into this area of composition arranging exploration. So, Emily was definitely an entity that came and went, but that was the parting gift that she left for me as Esperanza to remember where I want to head and how I can live.
Shirley: Where did you head?
Esperanza: Well, definitely to more exploratory creating. Creating in a zone of living in danger and just leaping off in the direction of what I see is possible and I want, but bringing everybody with me. As we leap, we create anti-gravity together.
MUSIC - I WANT IT NOW (ES VERSION) *
Shirley: I love you, Esperanza Spalding. I really do. Thank you so much for your generosity. You're so willing to just get into it, and I love you for that.
Esperanza: Oh, I love you too. Thank you for inviting me.
Shirley: No, it's my absolute pleasure. I know it's embarrassing when another musician stands opposite you and tells you ... I just think you're a real precious jewel in the music industry, and you do your own thing, and you're beholden to nobody. You've really carved your own musical space for yourself which is incredibly inspiring to watch.
Esperanza: I will receive that from you.
Shirley: Are you receiving it?
Esperanza: I am receiving it because-
Shirley: I haven't even finished yet.
MUSIC - I WANT IT NOW (ES VERSION) *
Shirley: Next week on The Jump, Courtney Love.
Courtney Love: In the last few years, I've wondered if I have anything to say anymore, and that's a really gnarly place to be. I'm 54. Do I have anything to say? And then I'm listening to Nina Simone, and like, "Well, she had something to say."
Shirley: The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts.
Introducing The Jump, a new podcast from Mailchimp. Available wherever you get your podcasts.
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