by Molly Larson
The SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB album is the culmination of three periods of reflection, collaboration, and contemplation led by Esperanza Spalding and her cohorts in a project of the same name. Esperanza Spalding (also known as Irma Nejando or i.e.) is a renowned vocalist, bass player, and artist of many genres and directions – notably jazz and classical. She has been awarded six Grammy Awards for her albums and compositions; in 2011, she beat out Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence & The Machine, and Mumford & Sons for Best New Artist for an extremely well deserved underdog victory.
SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB (SAL) is composed of 12 songs, or Formwelas, that investigate human resiliency and the healing nature of music. Songwriting is usually an experience of private reflection that elicits different subjective effects in each listener. The SAL project turns this private, implicit process into an explicit collaboration between musicians and listeners. It is not a work that is meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each Formwela has an explicit purpose that it was written to serve; these descriptions are not included with the album on streaming platforms, so to truly understand each piece, listeners should read the synopses on the project’s website.
The first three Formwelas were created in Wasco County, Oregon during the very beginning of the pandemic. During this time, Spalding returned to her home state and found herself fostering deep connections with the land and people. These first three compositions are very gentle and contemplative. Their “ingredients,” or the researched intention behind each musical component, are stated explicitly – an in-depth explanation of the songwriting process that listeners seldom see presented so directly. From this period, “Formwela 3” has the most to hold onto in the framework of a traditional song and features a sax line by jazz giant Wayne Shorter – a mentor and frequent collaborator of Spalding.
The next iteration of the lab (Formwelas 4, 5, and 6) was composed in Portland, Oregon as a partnership with Corey King. Spalding writes on her website that she and King found a common desire “for a song to enhance [their] ability to communicate what is most difficult to say between intimate loved ones.” Collaborator Rob Lewis coined these compositions “the practice of saying.” “Formwela 6” is a standout on the album. It features warm vocal harmonies and a foundation of repetitive arpeggios that reinforce the feeling of comfort and reflection.
The final iteration of the lab (Formwelas 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 13) was created over 12 days in Lower Manhattan, NYC. “Formwela 7” is a departure from the gentle nature of most of the project – it features a loud and chaotic section between sparser instrumentation and lyrics investigating hearing as an act of labor. “Formwela 10” is another standout. It explores the consequences of romantic patterns. The vocal patterns of this song are most similar to Spalding’s previous works, and they are echoed by the guitar and piano to push each line forward into the next.
The project is saturated with intention in every line, word, and note. As it was created as a tool and soundtrack for reflection, it feels spiritual and incredibly important. The intricacies the Formwelas explore cover many intimate pieces of thought and relationships, allowing any listener to find meaning within the project. If one were to stumble across the album on Spotify without knowing the deeper intricacies, they could still appreciate the beauty and musicianship of the compositions. But the project’s true significance lies in the very practice it was created out of – deep, intentional reflection.
Esperanza Spalding will be performing in the ensemble at the premiere of Iphigenia, the Jazz/Classical Opera she co-wrote with jazz giant Wayne Shorter, here in Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre November 12-13 (student tickets are only $20).