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'What Do You Need A Song For?': Esperanza Spalding's Search For The Answer

Esperanza Spalding, performing at the Newport Jazz Festival on Aug. 5, 2017 in Newport, R.I.
Douglas Mason
Getty Images
Esperanza Spalding, performing at the Newport Jazz Festival on Aug. 5, 2017 in Newport, R.I.

At the heart of Esperanza Spalding's new album, Songwrights Apothecary Lab (S.A.L.), is a question: "What do you need a song for?" In pursuit of answers, Spalding, a Grammy-winning jazz singer and bassist, assembled a team of more than just other musicians; she created a laboratory of sorts, gathering neuroscientists, psychologists, ethnomusicologists and more. "We are like shipwrights," Spalding says in an interview with NPR's Ailsa Chang. "We build things. We build things that we want to be vessels to ferry people from one point to another point. One shore to another shore. Or even through a vast, uncharted terrain."

Together, the group created a 12-track LP of sonic prescriptions: Each song, or Formwela, has, in Spaldings words, "an intended use and effect." Formwela 3, for example, is "for releasing the heaviness of a seemingly endless blue state." And Formwela 4 is "for tuning oneself to expect and receive attunement when speaking intimately to the heart's unarticulated needs," according to S.A.L. 's website.

"Really one of the primary invitations of this lab is for us to remember the resource that we have in music," Spalding says. "I use these songs in my life. You know, it helps me. They help me. Other people's songs help me too, but maybe I'm responding to the question, 'What do I need a song for?' [by] trying to write the songs that maybe we don't have yet for these very specific functions."

Listen to Ailsa Chang's interview with Esperanza Spalding in the audio player above, and stream Spalding's latest album below.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.