At 6:55 p.m., Kandace Springs and her two sidemen amble onto the sprawling stage of Amelie Arena in Tampa, Florida. They receive a sprinkling of faint applause from the scattering of people in the audience, most of whom are unfamiliar with Springs and seemingly in no hurry to get to know her. Such is life for an up-and-coming artist opening for co-headliners Hall & Oates and Train.
Clad in a form-fitting, royal blue mini-dress, her massive mane of hair glowing in the stage lights, Springs sits at her keyboard and teases out a few warm-up runs. Then she begins to sing. Even echoing around the large hall, her voice — sultry and unhurried — makes a striking impression. She sounds like Roberta Flack — with more power; like Norah Jones — with more soul; like Diana Krall — with more range. There are shades of Nina Simone, Shirley Horn, Erykah Badu and Sade.
Springs is equally at ease with gospel melisma and jazz vocalese, but she uses these conceits sparingly, tastefully. Mostly she immerses herself into the songs, be it ballads such as Shelby Lynne’s sleek “I Thought it Would Be Easier” and Mal Waldron’s 1957 classic “Soul Eyes”; R&B warhorses like “The World Is a Ghetto” and “People Make the World Go Round”; or a few pop-soul originals.
Springs’ late friend and booster, Prince, once said her voice “could melt snow.” Part of her job tonight is to melt hearts and earn new fans. She has 25 minutes to make her case.
She shortens tunes to include more titles. Her faithful version of the Bonnie Raitt tearjerker “I Can’t Make You Love Me” earns warm applause. Steadily the crowd grows more attentive, the chatter dies down. She slinks into her closer, Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Lowering her voice to a sensual hush, she draws in the audience, conjuring an intimate moment in a cavernous room. At song’s end, the crowd response amps up to include cheers and whistles.
“My name is Kandace Springs,” she tells them. “Kandace with a K.” Then she strides off the stage, smiling, waving. A job well done. Converts won.
Three hours earlier, Springs sat on a generic black couch in a cramped dressing room outfitted with a Coke machine. Dressed in a black tank top, rolled-up sweatpants and black Converse high-tops, she sits with her elbows on her knees, exuding a coiled athletic energy. A spray of freckles on her cheeks adds a degree of quirkiness to her beauty. She laughs easily and often, says “thank you” a lot.
Springs is one of those Blue Note Records artists — her new album for the label, set for release in September, is titled Indigo — who’s not categorically a jazz musician. But she’s most certainly jazz-ish. “I heard for the longest time, ‘You’re too young to be doing jazz; nobody listens to jazz anymore,’” she says. “I guess that makes some kind of sense, but jazz is in my heart.”
Springs is a bona fide triple threat: a gifted singer comfortable in an array of styles, a budding songwriter, and a formidable pianist who can channel Oscar Peterson, her favorite, and play classical pieces by ear. Her playing informs her singing. “I absorbed influences but I never consciously worked to develop a singing style,” she says. “It comes out organically. There’s certain notes on the piano that trigger emotions in me — tones and chords that move me. I collect all of those. I feel the lyrics, but I relate more to the music.”
She comes from strong musical stock. Her grandfather, Kenny Springs, fronted a ’60s party band called The Scat Cats that worked around Nashville and cut a few sides for Columbia. Her father Ken — known as Scat — was a long-time session singer who performed backing vocals for country and soul stars in Music City and led his own band until suffering a stroke last year. “She got the music from me and her good looks from her mama,” says Scat, referring to his ex-wife Kelly.
Kandace grew up in Antioch, Tennessee, about an hour’s drive from Nashville, in a neighborhood she calls “kind of ghetto.” She has two younger sisters: Kenya, now 23, and Kimber, 24.
Kandace’s natural talent emerged early. When she was around 9, Scat showed her how to play the doleful arpeggios of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the family’s old upright piano. “A couple days later, I was watching football and frying some bologna, and I heard her picking it out,” he recalls. “I asked her, ‘Do you wanna take piano lessons, baby girl?’”
She did. Scat called on his friend Regi Wooten, brother of bass ace Victor Wooten. “Regi showed me this thing with suspended chords,” Kandace says, then sings a bluesy line. “I said, ‘What’s this?’ He said, ‘This is jazz.’”
Springs was a reluctant singer, maybe because “My dad would get the three of us girls in the living room and have us sing this little gospel thing. It went, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ over and over,” she says, singing the phrase and laughing. “We hated it. We’d cry. Then as I got a little older, I started enjoying it.”
Scat presciently told his eldest daughter, “One of these days you’ll be known more for your singing than your playing.”
He’d bring her along to the studio, sometimes having her add vocals on a jingle session. He inundated her with the legends: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Flack, Luther Vandross, Bill Evans, Art Tatum and even Fats Waller. It was quite an education. “I’m so old-school,” she says with a laugh. When Springs and her creative team decided to cut the Stylistics’ 1972 hit “People Make the World Go Round” for Indigo, she already knew the tune intimately. Her rangy, nuanced performance on the smolderingly funky remake is a master class in honoring a classic song while rendering it anew.
At age 13, Springs had a powerful musical awakening. “I heard Norah Jones’ first album, along with Eva Cassidy and Diana Krall, and that’s what made me seriously want to sing,” she recalls.
In her mid-teens, Springs sat down at the piano and wrote a song called “Rain Falling.” A decade later, she recorded it — just her at the piano — for her debut album on Blue Note, 2016’s Soul Eyes. It sounds like a timeless standard. Around that time, father and daughter made an album together that was never released. It included a ballad they co-wrote, “Simple Things.” That song closes Indigo, with Scat joining Kandace in a touching duet backed only by her electric piano. It, too, sounds like a standard.
The Kandace/Scat project found its way to the New York production team of Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, best-known for discovering Rihanna in Barbados. They offered Kandace, then 15, a development deal, but Dad turned it down, feeling it was too much too soon.
Nonetheless, the word was out. “When you’re that beautiful and talented, they come around,” Scat says.
The innocent enthusiasm of Springs’ formative years would soon give way to career struggles. In March 2012, she was about to sign with producer David Foster and the Verve label when music-industry powerhouse L.A. Reid swooped in and invited her to his office. She performed “The Nearness of You” (Norah-style) and Oscar Peterson’s “Chicago Blues.” Reid signed her to Epic Records on the spot, determined to make her a pop star.
It marked the start of a frustrating two years that, at times, made Springs miserable. Not wanting to make waves, she spent countless hours in studios singing other writers’ songs over hip-hop-style tracks. “They wouldn’t even let me play [keyboards],” she recalls, then describes her low point: “I was in a session in L.A., and the producer was trying to get me to scream this piece. And I’m like, ‘My voice really can’t get there; it’s not how I sing.’ He kept after me. My manager — he’s not my manager any more — took me out in the hall and goes off on me: ‘You’re not trying. You better start trying!’ I almost started crying I was so frustrated. You don’t know how many times I wanted to say ‘fuck you’ to them.”
When the Epic deal fell apart with no releases to show for it, Sturken and Rogers reentered the picture and pitched Springs to Blue Note. The label set her up in Capitol Studio A in Hollywood with Nat King Cole’s old Steinway piano, sans microphone. About a half-dozen executives, including label president Don Was, sat in a row of chairs nearby. One of the songs she performed was Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Don Was knew the song well.
“She claims she had no knowledge that I had produced that record,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t know — I’ll take her at her word, I guess. It really wasn’t necessary to close the deal. I was just knocked out by the whole thing. You can tell when someone’s for real in the first 10 seconds, that they mean it, that they have the capability to dig deep inside and tell some truth.”
Being on Blue Note did not provide Springs with instant salvation. Labelmate Robert Glasper had just moved a quarter-million units of Black Radio, an album that blended jazz and hip-hop. “At that point, from a marketing standpoint, it seemed like a road that could be traveled by most everybody, certainly by Kandace,” Was says. In 2014, Blue Note released Kandace Springs, a four-song EP produced by Sturken and Rogers. Meant as an appetizer for a full-length album, the thickly produced hodgepodge of funk, jazz and hip-hop was widely ignored. “If I go back and listen to it now, it’s got its moments, but there was a bit of … misplaced premeditation,” Was says with a laugh before adding, “I think we all lost sight of who Kandace was, but to everyone’s credit, we all recognized it was not the way to go.”
Springs recalls the situation in more dramatic fashion: “I love cars. It’s neck-and-neck — cars and music — for me. At that point, I hadn’t been making much of a living off of music, but I was making a killing buying cars, fixing them up and selling them. I was on the phone with my management — I remember I was working on a car at the time — and told them, ‘I’m not enjoying making this music. I’d rather just stay here in Nashville and work on cars. I’d rather sell one album and be doing the music I love than this bullshit.’ They were like, ‘No, no, no, no — don’t do that. We’ll put our foot down and talk to the label.’”
It was around this time that Prince entered the picture. He became a fan after seeing a video of Springs’ ad hoc version of the Sam Smith hit “Stay With Me.” The reclusive and impulsive superstar summoned Springs to his Paisley Park complex in Minneapolis to perform with him in a concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain. That night Prince gave her a custom-made leather jacket. A friendship ensued, one that came with career advice. “He would repeatedly say, ‘You can be the Roberta Flack of your generation if you keep the music genuine,’” Springs recalls. “He told me to stay away from the hip-hop-type stuff; it didn’t suit me. He said to stick to my voice and the songs, with minimal production.”
Thinking along the same lines, Blue Note brought in producer Larry Klein — known for a loose approach that allows artists to be their best selves — to oversee Soul Eyes. Using veteran studio musicians such as guitarist Dean Parks and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, they cut the tracks live, with Kandace singing and playing keyboards simultaneously. “It’s pretty simple,” she says. “When I do both, it comes out so much better.”
While Springs has enjoyed a degree of commercial success overseas, she has yet to experience a clear-cut breakthrough in the States. Perhaps Indigo will do the trick. Perhaps not. For now, Was can live with uncertainty. “Second-guessing the marketplace, looking at sales data, that would be a fatal mistake,” he says. “We’ll let her be the best Kandace she can be and support her over a long period of time. I love Kandace Springs and want to work with her the rest of my life.”
Moving forward, Springs plans to further tap into her jazz sensibilities. She and her circle of advisors have discussed a project of Duke Ellington favorites. She cut a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” for Indigo, but left it in the vault. “We felt it was a little too sophisticated compared to the rest of the album,” she says. “But it’s a really good version, and it will see the light of day.”
How far Springs travels down the jazz path remains to be seen. At this point, her career could go in many directions. Her pop-star potential — despite the woes she’s already experienced — isn’t bound to go away anytime soon. Because of that, and all the cooks in the kitchen that accompany such a strategy, she may still struggle to control and master her own destiny. In any event, it seems clear that for an artist as talented as Springs, the future will likely be full of light.