“I don’t like putting on makeup and having my picture taken,” says the diminutive, photogenic bassist with the double-wide, gap-toothed smile and exploding Afro. “But I do love what it does, like making it more likely we can fill a venue. And I’m grateful.”
Raised in Portland, Ore., and catapulted from student to professor at Boston’s Berklee College right after she graduated, the 27-year-old approaches music with supple technique and an open mind. Her new album laces soulful funk and pop with the moving parts of jazz.
The opener, “Radio Song,” sets the tone, conjuring the ecstasy of singing along with a new hit on the car radio, even before you know all the words. That sense of discovery imbues the album, as Spalding tumbles forward, often on electric bass, navigating the unexpected twists and turns of her arrangements for horns, synthesizers and, on one song, an African lute. Spalding’s songs spill out in long, talky lines.
“I usually write a melody first,” she says. “When I’m writing, I don’t know the words. Writing for me is very painstaking. It doesn’t just flow.”
“Radio Song” has a nice hook — appropriately enough, since its subject is the catchy part of a tune you can’t help singing along with. “Crowned and Kissed,” a sensual, up-tempo romance with a horn fanfare, also has an irresistible repeated figure. But some of Spalding’s songs meander and are carried by the energy and drive of her playing.
”?’Where’s the hook?’ — that’s what the label asked, too!” she says, laughing. “I don’t think about a hook. If it happens, cool. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to barge into what is already existing and cram a hook into it. It’s got to happen naturally.”
Spalding’s rejection of artifice reflects her jazz background, but the social engagement of her lyrics sets her apart from the too-often-rarefied world of her jazz brothers and sisters. On “Black Gold,” she advises a young African American to take pride in himself, even when assaulted by negative messages.
Spalding, who is part Latino, says she felt a lot of “positive reinforcement” growing up, but that it’s often missing for boys.
“There needs to be a positive guidance for boys, when they become teens,” she says. “For white men, too. To try to instill a sense — ’I’m of value, just because I am.’?”
On “Land of the Free,” Spalding sings about Cornelius Dupree, a man held 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. “Endangered Species” (premiered on Earth Day) decries environmental degradation. Spalding makes a point of mentioning she will be wearing a different “sustainable” (eco-friendly) gown every night on her tour.
Her relentlessly positive outlook — some would call it naively idealistic, but it’s undeniably refreshing — draws people to her, often for reasons she finds difficult to understand.
“Some night when we’ve just played our asses off, someone will come up and say, ’Man, your arms are so sexy.’ I try to be nice. But it makes me feel like I’m a spectacle.”
But such are the wages of fame.
“I just hope people are able to perceive what we’re putting out there — so much beauty to share, with loving, sincere, truthful intention in every note we’re playing,” she says. “That’s what you’re paying for.”