Kandace Springs became a musician when she was ten years old, after listening to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. She played the piano, but she loved singing most. When her professional recording career began nearly fifteen years later, the record label executives she met told her to stick with r&b, which was mainstream and safely marketable. And so she did.
But for her debut full-length, the now-27-year-old Nashville native wanted to go rogue, back in the direction of her jazz and soul roots. She was torn about going against the grain until an idol, no stranger to trailblazing himself, gave her the confidence she needed.
Springs met Prince after he heard Springs cover Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and invited her to Paisley Park to play at the Purple Rain thirtieth anniversary party. From that night until his death in April, he was Springs’s most influential fan and trusted advisor. “I was stupidly told that jazz doesn’t sell anymore,” Springs says. “[Prince] ultimately gave me my fire to go back to jazz. That’s who I am. I don’t care if no one likes it.”
Her fears about rejection were quieted not just by her fans’ embrace of her new style on Soul Eyes, released this June, but by masters of the genre who noticed and encouraged her. One was Terence Blanchard, who thought jazz would be a more freeing genre for the young musician. “People like Kandace, who are very expressive and don’t fit into an r&b box, realize that there is room [for them] in the world of jazz.” Blanchard says that shifting her style allowed more room for Springs’s “animated” and “very soulful” voice to flourish. Blanchard appears on two songs on Soul Eyes, complementing Springs’s stirring alto with his deep wails.
Save for her raw, funk-infused arrangement of War’s “The World Is a Ghetto,” the album is minimally produced but still decadent – less is more, Prince warned her. “That’s what my father always said, too, but he’s my dad so I was like, ‘Eh,’ ” laughs Springs. “But when Prince starts telling me that, I’m like, ‘You know what? He’s got a point.’ ”
Bells and whistles aren’t Springs’s jam, either. She says the album is a response to over-worked music that clutters the intent and quality of the artistry. “Yesterday I was listening to Luther Vandross and I was crying. It’s so emotional. And Nina Simone — when you hear that voice, you know it’s [her]. She is so raw.” she says.
To strike this balance of minimal production but high production value, Springs worked with a team of seasoned featured artists and writers, including Grammy winner Larry Klein, who produced the project. “We avoided anything that had the feeling of ‘production’ at all, in an effort to center the entire album around her voice and piano playing,” says Klein, who has produced albums for Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell. “It’s so easy to make ornately produced albums in this time; it’s rare to hear records that communicate in a simpler way.”
The album closer, “Rain Falling,” which Springs wrote at age sixteen, is perhaps the barest of all, inspired by the melodies of George Shearing’s esoteric 1950s recording of “I’ll Never Be the Same.” “I was obsessed with playing that song,” Springs says of Shearing’s arrangement of the jazz standard. “Jazz greats wrote poetically, but the lyrics aren’t overly sophisticated. They get the point across.” Springs follows suit, her vocals unfettered by restraint or inhibition.
Blanchard, whose goal on this collaboration was to enhance her sound “without getting in the way” reflected on his tenure in film scoring. “When I’ve worked on bad movies there is nothing that will help,” he says. But, “when you score a great movie, the music kind of writes itself.” That’s how he describes working with Springs. “She is a great talent, and she has something to say.”
Kandace Springs performs August 3 at Le Poisson Rouge. Click here for tickets and more info.