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“What do you need a song for?” That’s the question Esperanza Spalding addresses on her latest album, Songwrights Apothecary Lab (Concord). It’s also more than an album; the lab, as the project’s very detailed website states, is “half songwriting workshop, half guided research practice,” one that seeks to offer benefits to listeners based on specific situations.
How music can physically affect the listener is a concept the Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer began pursuing on her previous record, 12 Little Spells, but the scope here is both broader and more specific. “This is a project whose writing process really required a lot of intention clarifying, and then making decisions informed by that intention,” Spalding says on a Zoom call in late October. “Even though the albums I’ve done have an overarching theme, the music is created very intuitively by instinct. There’s not a lot of specific decision making based on an intention.”
Of course, music has long been used for therapeutic and spiritual purposes, but integrating that into the act of creation is where Spalding is charting a different course. The work of the lab included consultations with a “guiding council,” which included experts in music therapy, Eastern spiritual practices and neuroscience. Their insights helped guide Spalding and her lab collaborators in the act of creation. The 12 tracks, each called a “formwela,” are intended to address certain emotional states. “Formwela 1,” for example, stemmed from Spalding’s desire to create a song to soothe your nervous system while in a stressful social dynamic. The song’s undulating melody was inspired by a raga in South Indian Carnatic music that’s used to ease anxiety in the listener.
“The idea is that if you can’t play a song that soothes you, that this one is very easy to remember,” Spalding says. “So, you could hear it internally, and hearing it internally would fill you with the effect of this song. You wouldn’t even have to hear it."
[caption id="attachment_42164" align="alignleft" width="1280"] Photo courtesy Grammy.com[/caption]
Spalding notes that the album — and the project at large — is also informed by location. The modal repetitions of the first two formwelas, recorded in Wasco County, Oregon, take on a meditative atmosphere. The tracks created in Portland, Oregon (or “Portal Land,” as Spalding calls it), featuring vocal support from Corey King, are more stripped down, like a performance in your living room. The New York pieces incorporate a mix of musical styles, from chamber pop to free jazz. Guitarist Matthew Stevens, pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Francisco Mela and saxophone legend Wayne Shorter are among the musicians tasked with manifesting the ideas musically. Down the road, Spalding hopes to hold future labs in Paris and Bahia, Brazil.
“Place, and the people who live in that place, have a huge influence on the music that comes out of that place,” Spalding says. “You hear different things, you want different things, you think about different things, you listen for different things in different spaces.”
Spalding says she doesn’t know what the next iteration of the lab will look like. And while this seems like a new phase for a musician who has always refused to be pigeonholed, she says these instincts are as old as music itself.
“These questions, this way of trying to show up as a musician, feels super old,” she says. “Wanting to show up with something functional to meet a person where they need it — that’s like square one, just humans making music. It also feels simple. But maybe at this point in our culture, it takes all this kind of structure and concept to make us feel willing to even investigate our relationship to music itself, our relationship to music making for others, but I actually feel it’s very fundamental.” — John Frederick Moore