When Esperanza Spalding heard a knock at her door, she had the choice to welcome the uninvited guest or keep her locked out. “It wasn’t that much of a choice,” Spalding says. “Just a yes or no.” Spalding chose yes. The visitor was her alter ego, Emily, and the inspiration for her latest album Emily's D+Evolution. “I didn’t know what to expect from her,” she says, “but she resonated with me. She was the personification of an energy I could harness. She was a means to engage with new people and new situations in a very free and uninhibited way."
Emily's D+Evolution sees Spalding redefine herself and her music by embodying someone else. When she performs the album on stage, she tries to become Emily – though not always successfully. Spalding’s initial discovery of Emily was a strictly visual and sonic sensation. But the more she’s explored her alter ego, the more she’s felt Emily physical presence. She now actively searches for it. Looking back at past performances, Spalding will recognize moments when she “snaps back into what Esperanza would do” and makes a conscious effort to “push further into Emily at that point in the song” the next time she performs.
And the duality of the performance is not just limited to Spalding. “Before shows the band and I talk about what dynamics we want to hold between Emily’s character and other characters,” she says. “We don’t practice them but we try to prepare.” Though the music itself isn’t improvised, the musicians' personae are.
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By embodying Emily, Spalding is able to explore expressions she’d usually shy away from. Despite winning four Grammy Awards, sharing the stage with Stevie Wonder, and performing for President Obama at the Novel Peace Prize ceremonies, Spalding admits she’s endlessly uneasy. “Everything is uncomfortable,” she says. "I’m always uncomfortable. But I’m used to it by now though so it’s OK. It comes with the territory… I’m always in a state of striving and trying to find a way to make something do what you’ve imagined it can do."
Embodying Emily is no different, but the act serves as a conduit for Spalding, so she can access a higher plane. Her alter ego is an opposition to her self – challenging and playing with her sense of discomfort. The act is uneasy but Spalding says trust makes it viable: "I trust what we prepared and our relationship and I trust the process. If we keep digging at the discomfort, we’ll become better and stronger in the process. The discomfort may not feel good in my body but it serves a function. In improvising, you’re always trying to push that membrane of your comfort level, hoping to pierce through it and discover something. Because what’s comfortable is not always what’s best.”
8 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $52 to $82 via arshtcenter.org.