Photo: Holly Andres
How Esperanza Spalding Triangulated Music, Wellness & Scientific Inquiry On Her New Album 'SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB'
Esperanza Spalding brought John Coltrane's supernatural vision into material reality. The saxophone icon would have turned 95 this week, and Jazz Twitter lit up with shout-outs, quotes and photos of the saxophone icon gazing, oracle-style, into the middle distance. One of his most famous sayings, which recasts the axiom that "music heals," made the rounds.
"I would like to bring to people something like happiness," Coltrane once said, summing up his life's work. "I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I'd like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he'd be broke, I'd bring out a different song and immediately he'd receive all the money he needed."
"We use that quote on our website just to nod directly to that," the four-time GRAMMY winner and seven-time nominee tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom from a park in Paris. The bassist, singer/songwriter and composer is referring to her Songwrights Apothecary Lab, an affiliation of musicians and health practitioners that acts as a "half songwrighting workshop and half guided-research practice."
It's also the title of her new album: SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB, which was released today, Sept. 24, in a cycle of 12 "formwelas." Each has a distinct therapeutic purpose, like guiding the body through the ovulation process or calming an agitated mind when there's trouble at home. Granted, the record won't control the weather or fill your checking account, but these are pragmatic, real-world benefits. Most of all, it illustrates how helpful music really is.
While Spalding and her co-conspirators don't pretend to have all the answers on this subject, they're serious about what they do—and, as such, want their lab to be transparent, above-board and quackery-free. But scientific inquiry aside, "It has to be dope music," she says with a smile. "Many of the elements that are in the songs are there because they're beautiful to me."
GRAMMY.com caught up with Esperanza Spanding about the origin and intent of the Songwrights Apothecary Lab, how she coined "songwright" and "formwela," how this song cycle unspooled from the germ of an idea and the how music fuses the mystical and physical planes.
Esperanza Spalding. Photo: Samuel Prather
People who already know your music may be aware of the Songwrights Apothecary Lab, but how would you boil down the concept for a newcomer?
The Songwrights Apothecary Lab is very much what the title implies. We're songwriters who are playing the role of the apothecary.
We're stepping into that exploration as if we were apothecaries. But it's a lab because we don't have any training yet in that field. An apothecary is somebody who puts together different ingredients and the concoctions are composed, brewed, offered for different, specific needs of a person coming in for the apothecary.
That's what we're doing with our songs. We're learning from collaborating with and learning under the guidance of elders and colleagues who do have experience working with music as a medium for wellness, or supporting wellness. I avoid the word "healing" because it's such a weighted word.
But some of the council members—some of the guides, the people that we're working under the guidance of—come from the fields of therapy and psychology and neuroscience, so we're really hoping to be well-chaperoned as we take this adventure and explore this way of making music with a very specific intention—an intended effect.
I think of John Coltrane's quote about how if his friend was ill, he'd like to play a song that cures them; if they were broke, he'd play another and they'd receive the money they needed. It seems like you're trying to do that in a literal, almost nonmystical way—simply getting the best minds on the job.
That's funny: We use that quote on our website just to nod directly to that. I mean, the mystical is literal, you know? I guess it depends on your definition of "mystical" and "literal." Like, if a person has a need and the need is met through means that we would call "mystical," then it's also literal.
For so much of this exchange between the listener and the practitioner—the music practitioner—the efficacy revolves around sharing intention. It revolves around us agreeing to move toward the same outcome together.
If the song invites you to move your body in a way that's adjacent to dance, and we're both dancing and moving to the music, me as the performer as you and the listener, then we've both altered your physical state there, but it hinges on this agreement.
A theme that comes up a lot in conversation with our council members as our guides is clarifying the intended outcome. Clarifying what we're agreeing to do together in this song, or in this group improv, or in this group exploration. Which is really exciting!
I think, in general, music is a place that the mystical and literal meet because we still don't understand what the hell is happening. Even in these studies—there are thousands of studies about how music affects the body—most of the music wasn't created for the use that is being applied to the study.
This just goes to show you that there's something happening in there the artist didn't intend to happen, but if it's used in a certain way, it has a very specific outcome. And we're not taking ourselves very seriously, which is why we use the word "apothecary." The apothecary is sort of the precursor to the chemist. The precursor to the doctor. They didn't know why coffee relieved your headache.
I think the apothecary is very exploratory. We can't claim to know exactly what we're doing or what exactly the effect is going to be, but we're showing up in this space with a desire for that kind of accountability. We want to be legible and hold ourselves to a high standard of investigation and experimentation.
With a healthy dose of humor and fun, it seems.
Yeah! Because at the end of the day, it's still got to be a good song. If you have to know what to do for it to work—or for you to enjoy it—then you're in trouble.
And also, maybe there's something about how it's a field or a role that I wish existed. I wish there was somebody where, if you're going through a struggle or issue with your boo or you need to study for an exam or you're struggling with some anxiety, that there was somebody in the town that could give you the music you needed to support you through that.
Part of it's maybe we're feeling the ache, or we're grieving the absence of something we don't have in our culture. It's kind of like playing dress-up, wishing that we had it. And then maybe we become that. I think there are people who do that without that nomenclature around it of a "healer."
But I definitely think there's a little grieving for something we don't have at the heart of the project.
What you're talking about is fairly broad, but still far more specific than "We just want to spread good vibes, man! Spread the love!" That's how people talk, but you seem more interested in "She's grieving for her little brother. How can we support her today?"
Yeah. I do think that most musicians I've ever known are writing from a place of need, or writing from a place of wanting to create for themselves a state that they prefer. Even if that's just catharsis or confession.
I think the biggest difference I'm noticing in the musicians and in the outcome here in the context of the lab is that we're holding ourselves accountable in a different way. We don't want any bulls*** in it. Once we step in, we want to show up as an ally—as a source of support for someone going through something.
It really strips away a whole milieu of concerns or senses of obligation to industry or taste or audiences. It strips away a layer of concern that doesn't really concern the purpose of bringing forth the best music we have to make.
It's been really beautiful to see what comes out of us musically when we're showing up in a room—in a lab—with the shared intention to offer something to another person we don't know. To support them through difficulty.
As I said, I think most musicians are doing that on some level, but it's easy for other, hindering motives to creep in and start meddling with that clear current that I think is innate to all people, and especially music makers. I think music makers are more in touch with that clear current we can share with each other and help each other feel better.
There are a lot of "wellness" hustlers out there in the world. I'm sure you take great pains to not be lumped in with them.
Right, right, right. That's why transparency is so important.
Also, I've always wondered how all these studies in music therapy apply in the domain where most people actually experience music, right? I've never had a music therapy session under that name, but I engage with music all the time.
There's all this knowledge and information about ways that music affects our psyche, spirit and relationships, so how is that information going to move out of the lab, and out of the clinic, and out of the dyad of the practitioner and the patient? Because most people don't receive music in the clinical context. We receive it casually—through these commercial vehicles. Streaming platforms or albums or whatever.
So, part of the longing—of the questions—is "How are we going to integrate parts of that massive field of knowledge? How are we going to integrate parts of that technology into our work, to enhance our work?"
It's incredible to think how many people around the world are studying music's effect on us. I'm sure advertisers are studying it, too, so we're probably always being subjected to the fruits of that research. My curiosity is just like, "Wow, what can performers and musicians and songwriters integrate to enhance the benefit to the listener since we're going to be making this music anyway?"
Or to work with it for specific needs. There's some research about how music affects postoperative nausea, which is really interesting. To think: Maybe somebody I know is struggling with postoperative nausea and there's music about the music that was used that helped experience less nausea and less vomiting.
It's like, "Cool! Can I integrate the elements of the music that was at work there into the music I'm making?" So, the person who maybe doesn't want to listen to that style of music—who wants to listen to my style of music—can receive the musical benefit of that intervention.
Preference has so much to do with the efficacy of music, which is part of why I'm excited about the potential to identify elements of music that do create specific effects in the body and integrate those elements within your sound and your style. Whoever you are as a musician.
Questions have come up in the lab of how much of what's at work here is just being cared for. Of how much of what's at work here is just getting that little extra attention and intervention of someone bringing music to you when you're ailing, and how much of this has to do with music in general, just as a vibrational phenomenon. How it has a multi-purpose beneficial effect on the body.
These aren't questions we're pretending we're going to answer in the lab, but they're questions we keep present, you know what I mean? Just so we don't get ahead of ourselves.
Esperanza Spalding. Photo: Jati Lindsay
I love this quote from Grant Jones from the student researchers in the lab: He warns against abstracting ourselves from our own knowing. Part of the reason that sometimes we refresh our familiarity with these questions—with these kinds of conundrums—is so that we don't think that the only way to make beneficial music is by integrating proofs from scientific studying.
That's not it. That's not it. Just being a musician and having the life experience and the accumulated practice of making music for different effects—even if they weren't "salutary" effects—that is a training.
We do have the deep, intuitive knowing that if the secret ingredient remains invisible and fugitive—if it's being looked at through the lens of scientific inquiry—we want to remind ourselves to do what Grant Jones says and not abstract ourselves from our own knowing. I love that.
To dig into the album a little bit, tell me how that first seed—that first "Formwela"—came to be, and where that word comes from.
Well, they're formulas in the sense that they're made with pretty specific ingredients and elements, you know? They're put together in a way to support an intended outcome or shift an experience.
Also, they are formed, you know? The reason we have a -ght in the word "songwright" is because we're building something. We're building a thing of substance with the songs out of building materials, using ingredients, using la. It's a form that we sing. It's a form-we-la. It's kind of a double entendre, I guess.
"Formwela 1"—I remember in August 2020, after a lot of exploring through the summer, that the first inaugural cohort of Songwrights Apothecary Lab songwriters and council members [convened]. That was kind of a trial run, I guess. That was about just about learning what we were even [Chuckles] pretending to do.
I remember that came because I was wondering if, in all of this wanting to offer people songs for a specific outcome, what if you don't have access to a device? What if you need this song but you're nowhere near a thing [to play it back on] and it would be problematic if you started singing?
So, I started doing research about the effect on the body from just hearing the song internally. For "Formwela 1," the idea is that you use it through ovulation, which means hearing it for yourself internally.
That was the seed for "Formwela 1," and then it got grown. In August, I was like, "Damn. I think what I would like to do is to make music for people who are stuck at home right now, like I was stuck at home." I thought there were so many dimensions to being at home, I guess.
It's not like there's one thing about it that's difficult. It came as a feeling for it—those three aspects of being stuck at home that I wanted to focus on with the first three songs publicly offered out of the lab.
You could play "Formwela 4" for yourself anytime, too, but if you're in a place where you can't play the music and there's a very stressful dynamic at the house, you can turn on the song in your own head.
How would you explain how the music unspools through the different movements?
Well, the idea is that the first three Formwelas are a suite, I guess. But "Formwela 1" was growing out of that specific intention. "Formwela 2" is about: You could discreetly play that song as atmosphere, as "background music" in an environment that was kind of tense.
The elements that are in that song are specifically about reducing anxiety and tension in the body and mind. The idea is that if you find yourself in a very intense situation, you can turn it on in the back and it might offer some soothing to everybody who's in the room—if nothing else, to yourself.
And then "Formwela 3" is about support to reground yourself after you've just made it through a tough dynamic in the house. That's more about coming back to your center—coming back to yourself. Like "Whew!" Remembering that it's passed and you can reground, recenter, refresh your sense of wellness and togetherness and oxygenation. Deep breathing, deep presence, and move on to whatever's next.
And, of course, like I said before, it has to be dope music. Many of the elements that are in the songs are there because they're beautiful to me—because I like how they sound.
What can you tell me about some of your collaborators here, like Ganavya and Corey King?
Corey King is like a musical brother. I've been working with him since [2012's] Radio Music Society. I know him from New York through a mutual friend called Igmar Thomas, who has a big band called Revive. Corey played in that big band. We just became friends. He's an amazing musician in his own right, as I'm sure you know.
During Radio Music Society, I learned he could sing. Then, I invited him to be part of [2016's] Emily's D+Evolution and that's where I learned about his musicianship as a songwriter himself. We've always just wanted to do something together. We became very close through touring and know a lot about each other's history and family. I learned he's a person who's open to that kind of exploring.
So, I was in Seattle, he was in Portland. I was like "Would you like to collaborate in this lab?" and he was like "Yes! I'm down for the research part, too. I'm down for the exploration."
Ganavya, we actually met at Harvard. She is a presence everywhere she goes, obviously, so I knew about her as a musician. She's a student there in a program I teach in. Then, she became a teaching fellow through one of my courses. Through that, I started to learn about her history—her background in psychology and collective singing.
There's a public example of a human being who embodies the "mystical" and "literal" because she's carrying so much experiential knowledge from a spiritual perspective of how music is used to support people through very specific ailments or difficult situations or faciliatory situations. But she also has a background in psychology, which is in the realm of the "literal"—though, clearly, we're still mysteries to each other.
So, musically, we have an incredible connection. And then we have a very deep connection just in terms of our passion for study, you know? She's such an impeccable researcher. She has such ethics and such thoroughness that she's an incredible person to work with because she won't let me skim over the surface of something.
For instance, she's the person who pointed out that any study that uses a short-term measurement of cortisol levels—you can't put too much weight in it because short-term shifts in cortisol levels are not something that's actually possible to track.
To know for sure that whatever you want to measure as the element that may be tracking cortisol levels—you can't tell if the person was just thinking of a memory that made them happy. It could be [that] rather than the musical intervention. She's just really thorough. And, again, a profound musician in her own right.
And I just want to say about both of them: Yes, we're in this lab, and yes, we want to know about the technical stuff. But personally, part of the reason I reached out to them is that I find their voices really healing. It soothes me, and I don't even know how to define that further. I don't need to define that further.
I just know that when I hear Corey King sing, I feel yummy inside. And when I hear Ganavya sing, I feel soothed, and I feel yummy inside. In the spirit of this lab, they're beings I want to invite in to amplify their voice out—in collaboration with my sound, obviously. That's a no-brainer, you know? You don't need to go study 50 experiments to know that's a good idea.
Before we jump off, give me a specific memory in your life where music provided a specific, therapeutic purpose—where it got you out of a jam.
Whew! That happens a lot. Let me think. [Ponders for several beats.]
There's one coming up. I'm thinking of when you're doing a drive that's too long and you really shouldn't still be driving, but there's some reason you have to keep driving. Like, there's a gig. Of course, the right thing to do is pull over and sleep, but there are times we're in the grind culture. We're in the grind mentality, like: I can't stop!
If I put on "Native Dancer" by Wayne Shorter and Milton Nascimento, I'm awake. I'm awake. It's like coffee. I'm energized. I have to sing along. Maybe it's oxygenating my brain because I'm breathing deep, because I'm sighing, because I love the music so much.
Exactly! We know this. We do this all the time. We know how to do this for ourselves.
There was an era in Italy when many painters started collaborating with architects and engineers and started enhancing the accuracy of perspective and started to find these techniques to make the two-dimensional medium appear 3D. It's not to diminish what painters were doing before, and it's not to say that was some pivot point and everything after that was better.
But something happened. Something happened when they started collaborating with intention, with those other technologies. For us, maybe it's no more than that. We have a sense that this medium can be augmented by this kind of collaboration with technicians and practitioners from these other fields, and we want to discover what emerges.