Dressed head to toe in Oregon vintage—embroidered tangerine pants, a hand-woven fringe necklace—Esperanza Spalding, 32, sits comfortably inside Big Orange Sheep, a tricked-out recording studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She’s here to record songs for “Esperanza Spalding Selects,” an exhibition she’s curating at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (now on view through Jan. 8, 2018). Consider the project a prelude to her new album, which she’ll be switching gears to soon. (The release is slated for next spring.) Tentatively titled Walls, it uses her unorthodox blend of funk, hip-hop, samba, and soul as a vehicle to explore social transformation and the breaking of barriers. “We can’t just ride on what we thought was working. We have to see the available alarms, which are calling out the true desires inside of us—the inventory we take for granted, our identity and civic engagement,” she says, in the same rhythmic cadence that pervades her lyrics. “Everything has to be explored for the sake of growth and change, which is inevitable.”
The theme is a natural one for Spalding. She was raised during the 1980s and ’90s by a single mother in a section of Northeast Portland—“up in the cut,” as she calls it—plagued by gang violence and high crime rates, long before the rise of hipsterdom remade the city’s image. Before she ever shared a stage with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, or performed at the White House, she was running with street punks and playing in garage bands at local bars. Now, her artistic evolution is being recognized beyond the boundaries of music. Her Cooper Hewitt show is itself proof of that. But the Grammy Award–winner hasn’t lost her edge, and neither has the town that paved her path to stardom.
Spalding has fond memories of downtown’s Central Library. “[Growing up], I liked to think of myself as a philosopher. I would go and read anything that seemed heady, like metaphysics, history, or [books on] different forms of governance. I couldn’t absorb it all—I just knew I wanted to be like those thinkers,” she says. The Georgian-style building, designed by architect Albert E. Doyle in 1913, retains its character, buttressed by marble columns, a grand staircase, and dramatically high ceilings. “The top floor has these beautiful skylights and massive art books,” Spalding says.
Even in the digital age, Spalding still has love for the independently owned Everyday Music on Burnside Street. “I was home-schooled for a few years before high school and my mom worked multiple jobs, so I was sort of left to my own devices. I spent a lot of time coming here because I could listen to anything,” she says. The warehouse-style record store peddles its massive inventory to a clientele that stays loyal thanks to its anti-chain appeal: There are no fancy lattes or custom-fit sofas, just endless stacks of CDs and records, with a separate room devoted exclusively to jazz and classical music.
Spalding’s singular style has Portland vintage written all over it. But when she wants to mix in contemporary pieces, she heads to the offbeat Stand Up Comedy, a multibrand concept store on Southwest Broadway. “Their style is unexpected in a subtle way,” she says. “I like the kind of clothes where somebody else might not notice why it’s clever, but when I wear it, I know that it is.”
“After I left home, I rented a room from a former music teacher. He had a dog named Sam. I would take Sam and drive my little Honda Accord to Garden Home Park. There was never anybody there. I would sit on the banks of the creek, and play my acoustic guitar,” she says of the eight-acre park in Southwest Portland. “It’s a hippy fairyland, but I like that shit!” For Spalding, the park was more than a place to hang out—it was her very own rehearsal studio. “It was a solid way to spend an afternoon, with Sam, and the trees, and my tape recorder. I wrote a lot of songs there.”
If you ask the folks who frequent the Newmark Theatre, Spalding is considered a hometown hero. The 880-seat contemporary concert venue, in Portland’s Centers for the Arts, was designed to emulate the Edwardian-style music halls of Europe. “I’m most proud of a performance I did here with the Spring Quartet,” says Spalding of her band’s 2014 show with veteran jazz players Jack DeJohnette (drums), Joe Lovano (saxophone), and Leo Genovese (piano). The group went on to play at New York’s Lincoln Center and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris the following year.
Coffee Time is straight out of a Portlandia episode. It’s the kind of place where you can order a hemp latte and a mug of dual-origin espresso to go with your vegan pastries, and hunker down in the dark back-room den and play chess for endless hours. It’s also a favorite haunt of musicians and local artists, whose works are displayed in the lobby. “My [older] friends from the Portland State University School of Music and I would go there and drink coffee all night. It made me feel grown-up. We’d talk all night long, because we didn’t want to go home and be by ourselves,” Spalding says. “We were feral children.”