Esperanza Spalding to livestream recording of new album

Singer Esperanza Spalding will write, arrange and record songs for Exposure over about three days while livestreaming the experience.
Singer Esperanza Spalding will write, arrange and record songs for Exposure over about three days while livestreaming the experience.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • For her next album, which she announced on Wednesday, Esperanza Spalding is heading straight to the creative source.

Starting on the morning of Sept 12, she will spend 77 straight hours in a studio, bringing with her a few musicians, but no pre-written songs.

Over those roughly three days, she will write, arrange and record a full-length album, Exposure, while streaming the experience live to a Web audience. She is aiming to finish 10 songs, most with lyrics.

"I think of it creatively as a context where you give all that's been cooking in there permission to come out at will," Spalding, 32, 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."

She came to national attention at the Grammys in 2011, where she unexpectedly beat Justin Bieber to 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.

If the three-day livestream sounds like a bit of a gimmick, she 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," she said.

Mr John Burk, president of Concord Records, said the label deserves to have some role in the recording process. "We view ourselves as partners. We'll have 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, Spalding 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."

She will record Exposure entirely in the allotted 77 hours. She will mix and master it in the weeks after the livestream takes place and she expects to release the album by mid-autumn.

Concord agreed to a limited release and it will come out only on CD and vinyl - not digitally - which helps her sidestep demands to maximise her audience. (A total of 7,777 physical albums will be sold.)

She says she is aiming only for the listeners who are game for a personal journey, offering a raw and less manicured glimpse of her creativity.

She is a natural-born protagonist who works in a language of big ideas and tiny details. Her tunes scatter and dance, 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.

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

In preparation for Exposure, she has been practising composing quickly, which may mean more simply. She has found that when she limits her editing brain, she does not 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.

It all relates to a philosophy of direct expression - one that she will bring to her new post at Harvard.

She has been teaching in some fashion for more than a decade and she often tells students that to speak honestly in one's own voice, one has 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."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2017, with the headline 'Esperanza Spalding to livestream recording of new album'. Print Edition | Subscribe