INTERVIEW: Why Esperanza Spalding is an Environmentalist
For a jazz bassist to get nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy is unlikely nowadays. Even more improbable is for that musician to trump platinum names like Justin Bieber and Drake to win the thing. But in 2011, that's exactly what Esperanza Spalding did.
One person who presumably wasn't shocked at the nod is Barack Obama, who in 2009 picked Spalding as the single American musician he was allowed to invite to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring him. Through all the recognition, the singer-songwriter remains deeply committed to a variety of causes—not least of which is environmentalism.
Her most recent album, Radio Music Society (also Grammy-winning), has a track called "Endangered Species," whose proceeds benefit Earthjustice and the Amazon Aid Foundation. We caught up with her to learn a bit about her creative process, and why environmental issues are dear to her heart.
How did you come to write a song about endangered species?
Actually, I only wrote the lyrics. The music was written in the '70s by Wayne Shorter and Joseph Vitarelli. I'm a good friend of Wayne Shorter's and a huge fan of his work, and I've always loved that song. I'm sure he had a big meaning in the title—he's very aware of the perils facing life on Earth. I asked him if it would be all right if I put lyrics to it. He said, OK, yeah, go ahead. Royalties can be very tricky, so the deal I made with him was that all the money we receive from downloads or record sales will go to environmental protection.
Its lyrics seem to refer to humans as entitled adolescents and the earth as an injured but patient mother. Can you elaborate on that?
I read a book by Marlo Morgan called Mutant Message Down Under, about aboriginal elders who are still living in ancient ways that they've inherited over 30,000 years. Their perspective of dominant Western culture is one of adolescence. I've also heard my mom talk about that a lot, that idea of getting freedom and figuring out how to get away from the rules of your parents. So the song is an analogy of a kid who becomes a teenager and thinks, "Oh, now I can do whatever I want." And the mother is saying, "Ah-ah-ahhh, don't forget whose house you live in and who feeds your butt every night."
That sort of false independence can go to your head and you can do really self-destructive things, as we know, in our adolescent years we do. It’s easy to forget that we are as fragile as any other link in the ecosystem. It’s easy to forget because we feel sort of like masters of our world. We have shown our dominance over nature and we forget the very real and absolute dependence on Mother Nature.
Does the song’s melody speak to the issue at hand? If so, how?
The arrangement does. On my recording of it, Lalah Hathaway is the voice of Mother Earth. Her voice is so rich and full. It’s a duet, and I’m the voice of the canary in the gold mine. The main voice of the song is of this bird who’s hopelessly chirping away at people, trying to say, “What are you doing?” Honestly, though, the process of arranging and music making is sort of abstract, very visceral and intuitive, so working on this piece of music for this particular mission, I had the subject clearly in my mind and I asked creativity to guide me in the decision-making.
Do you have a favorite environmental song?
What's that Johnny Cash song? Where he's singing about where he used to go fish? ["Don't Go Near the Water."] It's so beautiful and potent that he would write a song like that and sing it. The true environmental activist can surprise you. They can show up in the most unexpected places.
What’s your favorite place outdoors?
There's a mountain near the Oregon coast called Neahkahnie. That meeting place of incredibly dramatic elements—the coastline, the big rock formation, the cliffs, the lush evergreen forests. That's a combination I always would seek out. Every weekend that I could get away as a teenager, I would drive myself there with my dog. It's a glorious place.
Do you have a favorite object that has a connection to the environment?
My house is full of little rocks that I've picked up and said, "Yeah, wow, I'm going to remember this place." Now they're scattered around my house, and I don't remember what any of it means. They're just pretty rocks. It's a habit because my mom loves agates, those rocks which, when you pick them up, you can see light through them. So whenever I'm at the beach or anywhere and I see an agate, I pick it up. I always think that I'm going to one day deliver this massive collection of agates to my mom, but it never happens. My mom has this profound connection with nature, and I think I inherited a lot of the awe and reverence for the natural world from her. When I see agates, it reminds me of the experience of being in nature with my mom. And trusting it because an adult said it was OK to be in awe.
Besides your mom, who or what influenced your thinking about environmental issues?
This isn’t very dramatic but when I was a teenager, I did a lot of stuff with United Way. They hired me to work for the summer in Portland’s Forest Park. We were trying to save the park from ivy. I guess that was the first time I realized how much we could hurt a beautiful place and not even realize it’s happening. Obviously, when you see images of contaminated water or land that was once fertile completely degraded because of overfarming—it’s obvious, it’s dramatic. But when you look at a green place, it all looks green. I learned that there are plant species that are invasive. Ivy was brought over on the hulls of ships when they docked in Oregon. And because it’s not from here, nothing eats it and the winters are so mild that it doesn’t die back. It’s a parasite—it sucks nutrients from its host and from the ground. So it’ll climb all over a tree and take all the water and nutrients from around it and eventually pull the weakened tree down, and it covers the forest floor so nothing else can grow. It’s horrible. I was 14 and that had a really big impact on me, just experiencing that as one little individual, there’s no way I alone can remove all this stuff.” We worked for eight hours a day and would only clear a quarter of an acre. So that was when it became real that we can have a tremendous impact by just not caring about these beautiful places. Like, this is how easy it is to happen and this is how hard it is to undo.
Since your name means “hope,” what are your hopes for the future, both for yourself and for the planet?
That’s a really important question. I want to have the guts to live within the guidelines of my one-seventh of a billionth of the resources of Earth—because I'm using much more than my share to live the lifestyle I live. And I’m not settled about it. But I'm doing what so many people do, just sort of pretending that it's not as bad as it is. So I'd like to experiment. Maybe I can find a way of having a career in music and not living so far beyond my allotment of resources. I have friends who have studied alcohol and drug counseling, and there's always this point where an addict has to decide, "No matter what, I have to put not using first. I have to recognize this addiction for what it is, as an illness, and I have to put getting better before anything else. And once I'm ready to do that, the healing can start."
It really is, because if we could look from the outside at what we’re doing to ourselves, it would be as insane as someone with severe alcoholism drinking himself to death. And it’s as hard to kick because our cultural identity is so deeply linked with our consuming patterns. The question boils down to, “What do I have to do to get better?” and really making a decision and going, “Well, I may fail. I may slip up and drink again. And I’m going to try again tomorrow to do better.” When someone who is recovering goes into a relapse, it’s not about chastising them. You just go, OK, what happened and so how do I do better again? It’s the art of practicing getting better. Practicing healing our patterns and our behavior patterns, ultimately for the longevity of our health as a part of this big organism we get to call our home. That’s what I want to challenge myself, and be brave enough, to do. But it’s hard.
Why did you decide to partner with Earthjustice? What does your campaign with them look like?
Trip van Noppen, the president of the organization, reached out to me via email one day. I follow the work that they do and sign the petitions they put out. I guess he recognized my name, so he emailed me and said, “Hey, I’d love to sit and chat with you the next time you’re in the Bay Area.” So we sat, and I was telling him about this about this experiment I wanted to do, where I wanted to bring the presence of an organization I believe in with me when I’m on the road. Meaning, when I go out to sign CDs, information about the work they do is on the table, we have a banner for them, things we sell do fundraising for them, and I can speak from the stage a little bit about their cause. I said, “I’d love to partner with you and do this on tour.” So I incorporate their logo into my merchandise, my artwork matches the theme of their work, and I generally find find a way to work the message into my set, just as a way to be another voice for them out there. I figure every night I’m standing in front of 500 to 1,000 people and I thought that could be something that concertgoers wouldn’t mind and that might even appreciate.
With Earthjustice, what I really dig is that they’re using the law. Not everybody considers themselves an environmentalist but I think we all have faith in the law of the land. So going in and using the laws that are existing—saying, hey, on behalf of the protection of the people that the laws are meant to protect, and the spaces they’re meant to protect, this is illegal. All they’re doing is basically trying to enforce the law.
When you say you try to fold their message into your music, what do you mean by that?
Well, I wouldn’t ever elect myself to stand up and make a speech about something. People come to hear music. And I assume that people who go to my concerts have already given me the benefit of the doubt, and the luxury, of expressing things in my own way.
So do you improvise? What’s the technical way of doing that?
The whole show really heavily centers on improvisation, and it’s different every night, depending on what I’m picking up, or what the band’s picking up, whatever that means. Since that cause is something that’s definitely in my heart and my mind, I fold it in. Maybe before “Endangered Species,” or maybe somewhere else—but musically, there’s a lot of content there, a lot of metaphors and analogies and melodies that can be unpackaged from the basic theme of the work they’re doing. I certainly find creative fuel from the work they’re doing. I’m from Oregon and grew up feeling a deep connection with nature, with wild spaces, so what it represents to me is very visceral and very emotionally and spiritually real. So I try to convey a big truth that’s personal to me in a way that everyone can connect with.
You performed “What a Wonderful World” at the Oscars. Why that song?
I had nothing to do with that except for singing it. I don’t even know how the hell I ended up there, to be honest. I went to L.A. to do something completely different with the Oscars. I was just going to arrange as sort of this composite band of known and semi-known people and play in the rhythm section of the orchestra. And last minute, I don’t know why, they just said, “Oh! Well maybe Esperanza can sing this!” And I said OK. So, yeah. But I love that song. And I’ve loved that song my whole life. The challenge was, why the hell am I up here singing this for an honorarium thing. So that was really, um, I don’t know what to say. I learned a lot about that song, I guess. I think there’s a correlation between acting and performing, where you have to believe what it is you’re doing. Sometimes behind a song, you search for a character to deliver it. And of course, it has to come from within you. So though I didn’t choose the song, it was a very curious experience of exploring it further.
How did it feel to perform in the White House and at the Nobel ceremony?
I don’t know. When we were walking from the White House entrance, we went through security and walked down by the kitchen, past this wall that had a big, black mark on it. Like someone had thrown a burning log against it. A big, long, dark mark. And the security person says, “This is from when the White House was burned down.” They left this wall like this. They didn’t clean it or remodel it. When you see that, you go, “What?” It’s like, “Whoa, history’s real.” That’s actually what made me feel like I was standing in a historic place where a lot of crucial history had gone down—to see evidence of an event that had happened there was almost mythological.
And then to stand in this room in the White House and see artists and creators that I admire making up the audience… as if they’re our dignitaries. I mean, the president too, but I didn’t know the president. That was his first two months in office. But I was impressed seeing Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon and Tony Bennett and Spike Lee and Stevie Wonder. These people that are the movers and the shakers, the great minds of our era in the realm of the arts. That was very powerful, that the president and his administration would create this particular ceremony to honor artists in the White House, as if he were honoring dignitaries. That, to me, was poetic and poignant and I was just totally tripped out. I was very moved and intimidated and excited to be around these people.
And similar with the Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t identify with the idea of a king and queen, so that put me off a bit, having to bow to the king of Norway before having to bow to the president of my country. And then to look out into the room and see the diversity. And then I recognized that he chose someone who’s associated with jazz to represent the music of our country. I’m not very patriotic but that made me feel kind of patriotic.
I’m intrigued by your pristine image. How do you toe the line of being such an admired celebrity and ending up in the New Yorker but not the tabloids?
Well, I don’t make celebrity-person music. I don’t know if it would work anyway. It’s a tossup of who becomes a celebrity. I don’t attract a large enough base of appreciators—we don’t go play arenas and my music’s not on the radio and it’s not on MTV or in commercials or in the movies. So I don’t know. Like a lot of genres, it has to do with what a person’s pursuing in the music. Sometimes, by fluke, things can naturally just pick each other up, and someone who’s playing a type of music that wouldn’t generally be seen as mainstream gets noticed. It happens. Also, the way the music industry works these days, if you’re not actively pursuing stardom, it doesn’t just happen. There are so many gatekeepers.
Anything more you want to add?
The truth is, I’ll be grateful for the organizations that I’m involved with to receive some love and support and funds from me talking about them. But I sort of feel like I’m not the best candidate for being interviewed about environmental activism because I feel like quietly, without any spotlight on their name, there are much more potent movers and shakers out in the world doing profound work with really pragmatic, tangible results. So I feel a little bit bashful, I guess, about blathering about what I’m doing when all I’m really doing is saying, “Hey man, there are some people doing really awesome work out there, you should support them.”
--interview by Avital Andrews / photo: Sandrine Lee, courtesy of Montuno