I wrote two stories this month about two artists—Carrie Underwood and Esperanza Spalding—strong women from two very different backgrounds and two very different places in the music industry. They are roughly the same age, and they each won their first Grammy Award as Best New Artist, Underwood in 2007 and Spalding in 2011. They’ve each won a few more since. That’s where the similarities end. How their respective careers have played out since couldn’t be more different.
And yet, in putting together these stories, researching backgrounds and then conducting interviews, I started to think about how each had gone about seizing control of their artistic pursuits and their approach to music making. Each had come to the realization at different points in their lives, and each had gone about it in their own way. But here they are, each at a point of transition and exploration in already solid careers, and they’re doing what they want to do. Each story is inspiring.
Underwood, featured on this month’s cover, wasn’t really planning on a music career when she seemingly came out of nowhere and won Season 4 of American Idol, put out a record and won a Grammy all within 12 months. That year was a “whirlwind,” she says now, but on her second record she started to pay more attention, learn from those around her and feel more comfortable offering her opinion. She observed, and she learned a bit more about who she wanted to be as an artist and as a person. That was the double-Grammy-winning Carnival Ride in 2007.
Related: The Complete Carrie Underwood by Tom Kenny, Jan. 4, 2018
Since then, Underwood has kept learning a little more on each project, soaking up the knowledge of those she collaborates with. She has sold more than 60 million records and charted 26 Number One hits. She writes much of her own material, and she has gone multi-format as the opener for Sunday Night Football and the 11-year co-host of the CMA Awards. She is the type of artist people think of when they think of a Big Star.
The September 2018 release of Cry Pretty marked Underwood’s debut as her own producer, perhaps more meaningful to the artist than all the accolades. It’s a highly personal album, conceived and created during a period of transition in her life. And she produced it, along with co-producer David Garcia. She loved the process. She loved making music in a highly collaborative way. My guess is that she’ll do it again.
Spalding, meanwhile, was a child prodigy on many instruments in Portland, Ore., planning to pursue cello before settling on bass. She went to a local music academy, earned a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and was touring with big name artists as a freshman. While still in her 20s, she performed at the Nobel ceremonies in Oslo at Barack Obama’s request when he received his Nobel Peace Prize. When she received her Best New Artist award in 2011, it was largely considered a huge “surprise.” But not to those in the know.
She is all about jazz, world beat, hip hop, theater, performance art, poetry, healing and sound. She is an academic and she is a dynamic performer. In 2017 she wrote, recorded and released an album, Exposure, during a 77-hour marathon streamed live on Facebook. Her highly acclaimed 2018 release, 12 Little Spells, follows up on her exploration of reiki, with each track forming a sonic, musical connection to a specific body part. Mix caught up with her at the Palace of Fine Arts on opening night of her 12-stop, “12 Little Spells” tour. It was mesmerizing.
Taking control of one’s career and growing, changing direction or declaring an outright disruption is not unique to artists. You don’t have to be onstage or be a superstar. It happens to everybody, in every field of work. If you want to have a career, and not just a job, then taking control is part of the process.
Of course, then I started thinking about my two daughters. I’ve mentioned them before in this space. Molly is 28, a midwife in Toronto, finding her way and settling in to a new clinic in Milton. Jesse is happy working in museums, and by the time you read this will be back in San Francisco setting up exhibits at SFO. It’s a real treat as a father to watch them take control of their own futures.
If they can develop, in their own way, the confidence and vision of Carrie Underwood and Esperanza Spalding, well I will be an even prouder papa.