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."