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ENJOY | The Green Life

Grow Your Own Herbs | Trendsetter: Esperanza Spalding | Let it Blow


Esperanza Spalding, musician and activist | Sandrine Lee/Courtesy of Montuno

For a jazz bassist to get nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy is unlikely nowadays. Even more improbable: for that musician to trump platinum names like Justin Bieber and Drake to win the thing. But in 2011, that's exactly what Esperanza Spalding did. One person who presumably wasn't shocked at the nod is Barack Obama, who in 2009 picked Spalding as the single American musician he was allowed to invite to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring him. Through all the recognition, the singer-songwriter remains deeply committed to a variety of causes—not least of which is environmentalism. Her most recent album, Radio Music Society (also Grammy-nominated), has a track called "Endangered Species," whose proceeds benefit Earthjustice and the Amazon Aid Foundation.

Q: How did you come to write a song about endangered species?

A: Actually, I only wrote the lyrics. The music was written in the '70s by Wayne Shorter and Joseph Vitarelli. I'm a good friend of Wayne Shorter's and a huge fan of his work, and I've always loved that song. I'm sure he had a big meaning in the title—he's very aware of the perils facing life on Earth. I asked him if it would be all right if I put lyrics to it. He said, OK, yeah, go ahead. Royalties can be very tricky, so the deal I made with him was that all the money we receive from downloads or record sales will go to environmental protection.

Q: Its lyrics seem to refer to humans as entitled adolescents and Earth as an injured but patient mother. Can you elaborate on that?

A: I read a book by Marlo Morgan called Mutant Message Down Under, about aboriginal elders who are still living in ancient ways that they've inherited over 30,000 years. Their perspective of dominant Western culture is one of adolescence. I've also heard my mom talk about that a lot, that idea of getting freedom and figuring out how to get away from the rules of your parents. So the song is an analogy of a kid who becomes a teenager and thinks, "Oh, now I can do whatever I want." And the mother is saying, "Ah-ah-ahhh, don't forget whose house you live in and who feeds your butt every night."

"It's easy to forget that we are as fragile as any other link in the ecosystem. It's easy to forget because we feel like masters of our world."
—Esperanza Spalding

Q: Do you have a favorite environmental song?

A: What's that Johnny Cash song? Where he's singing about where he used to go fish? ["Don't Go Near the Water."] It's so beautiful and potent.

Q: What's your favorite place outdoors?

A: There's a mountain near the Oregon coast called Neahkahnie. That meeting place of incredibly dramatic elements—the coastline, the big rock formation, the cliffs, the lush evergreen forests. That's a combination I always would seek out. Every weekend that I could get away as a teenager, I would drive myself there with my dog. It's a glorious place.

Q: Do you have a favorite object that has a connection to the environment?

A: My house is full of little rocks that I've picked up and said, "Yeah, wow, I'm going to remember this place." Now they're scattered around my house, and I don't remember what any of it means. They're just pretty rocks. It's a habit because my mom loves agates. So whenever I'm at the beach or anywhere and I see an agate, I pick it up. I always think that I'm going to one day deliver this massive collection of agates to my mom, but it never happens.

Q: Since your name means "hope," what are your hopes for the future, both for yourself and for the planet?

A: I want to have the guts to live within the guidelines of my one-seventh of a billionth of the resources of Earth—because I'm using much more than my share to live the lifestyle I live. I'm doing what so many people do, just sort of pretending that it's not as bad as it is. So I'd like to experiment. Maybe I can find a way of having a career in music and not living so far beyond my allotment of resources. I have friends who have studied alcohol and drug counseling. And there's always this point where an addict has to decide, "No matter what, I have to put not using first. I have to recognize this addiction for what it is, as an illness, and I have to put getting better before anything else. And once I'm ready to do that, the healing can start." —interview by Avital Andrews

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NEXT: Let It Blow

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