Precociously talented vocalist, pianist and songwriter Kandace Springs found her jazz feet and a ready audience with the release of Soul Eyes on Blue Note earlier this year. She spoke to Peter Quinn about acquiring her first instrument and the tutelage of heavyweights such as Prince, Don Was and Gregory Porter
Mentored by Prince, who was so taken by her cover of Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ that he flew her to Minneapolis to perform with him at the 30th anniversary celebration of Purple Rain. Offered a record deal by Blue Note’s President Don Was after hearing her perform just one song – an arrangement of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ (from Raitt’s 1991 album Luck of the Draw, which Was co-produced). Vocalist, pianist and songwriter Kandace Springs seems to be the very epitome of overnight success. And yet, as is so often the case, the reality is rather more complex.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, her father, Scat Springs, is a session singer who still holds a residency downtown. Springs vividly recalls the day that a piano suddenly appeared in the family home, an event which was to profoundly shape the course of her life.
“We had a friend who was being evicted from her apartment,” she tells me on the phone from the US, “and she had this old, old upright piano, like an heirloom. They were going to throw it out in the street, so she called my dad and said please, please can you keep this. He didn’t want to take it because it was so big, but a few days later I saw the piano in the house. I remember trying to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and my dad comes down and plays a ghetto version and I played it back real quick and he was like, ‘that ain’t normal!’”
As her father was close friends of the Nashville-based Wooten brothers, lessons with Regi Wooten soon followed. Then, at the age of 13, her musical path was sealed when a song from Norah Jones’s debut album Come Away With Me came on the radio.
“The last song on that record came on, the great jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’. I was like, oh my gosh. I stopped everything and said I’ve got to learn this song.” Springs bought the sheet music and ended up performing the song at a music camp in Nashville. “That was my debut – I was hooked after that. I thought, I want to make a living doing this.” After that, her father gave her more albums to check out: Diana Krall, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, who she cites as being one of her biggest influences.
An early demo caught the ears of Rogers and Sturken, writers for Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and others, best known for discovering and signing Rihanna. Aged just 17, Springs had the opportunity to ink a deal with their production company, SRP, but felt that she couldn’t commit at that point. Instead, she threw herself into work at a downtown Nashville hotel, valet-parking cars by day and playing piano in the lounge at night (Springs is a self-confessed gearhead).
Ripple dissolve to a few years later. Springs now found herself in New York, focusing once more on songwriting and demo recordings. Hooking up with Rogers and Sturken, a self-titled debut EP garnered critical acclaim and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and Letterman shows, but the R&B/hip hop direction her music had taken wasn’t sitting quite right with Springs. Following some soul searching, plus some invaluable advice from Prince to follow her own muse, she finally returned to the soul, jazz, pop sweet spot that had so captivated her on Come Away With Me.
That all-important audition with Mr Was then followed, and Springs became a Blue Note artist. But it’s been a long musical journey.
In addition to her smoky vocals and engaging piano playing, expressed almost as one musical thought with what album producer Larry Klein refers to as, “a sense of phrasing way beyond her years”, her distinguished debut album Soul Eyes is marked by her own distinctive compositional voice. Featuring the most beautiful trumpet solo by Terence Blanchard, Springs co-wrote the slow-burner ‘Too Good To Last’ with songwriters Greg Wells and Lindy Robbins, plus a brace of songs (‘Fall Guy’ and ‘Novocaine Heart’) with Rogers and Sturken. But it’s the entirely self-penned album closer, the almost conversational ‘Rain Falling’, which really captures your attention.
“I was 16 years old when I wrote that song. I just like that more poetic writing where it’s not just verse, chorus, back to the verse and into the bridge. I really like the song to tell a story,” she says. The imagery of water seems to thread its way through the album like a subliminal idťe fixe. Is this something she particularly responds to? “Actually, I do. No-one’s ever brought it up with me like that before, but I’m obsessed with water.” And will there be more of her own material, is there a back catalogue? “You better believe it,” she laughs.
Having performed across the UK earlier this year as support for Gregory Porter (“To play in front of his fans and see him up there was mind-blowing,” she tells me), Springs will doubtless win a whole host of new admirers when she plays her EFG London Jazz Festival debut at Rich Mix on Saturday 12 November.
Photo: Mathieu Bitton
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise magazine, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe