Sep 142020

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Dozens (hundreds?) of young artists fell for the 2015 song of the year, Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” and posted their own version of the hit on social media. But only one of them found herself taking a call from Prince, who saw enough talent and originality in her post to want to hear more. That was just one early “lift-off” moment in the career of singer, song-writer, pianist, and Blue Note recording artist Kandace Springs.

The calls to collaborate kept coming, from artists in diverse genres, locations, and generations: Ghostface Killah, Daryl Hall, Black Violin, and David Sanborn in the U.S., Aqualung and Metropole Orkest in Europe. (We highlighted her Metropole Orkest hook-up in our Charles Mingus celebration back in April.) Springs’ vocal stylings are varied enough, and her roots are deep enough, to deal with all of it: her work reveals clear hip-hop, soul, and R&B influences, but classical music and straight-ahead jazz are her true loves. Her life-long hometown of Nashville may be synonymous with country music, but that’s one form Springs hasn’t taken on. Yet.

To record her third and most recent release, The Women Who Raised Me, Springs made some calls and extended some invitations of her own. Among the many who RSVP’d was Norah Jones, who Springs has called her “ultimate influence.” Jones agreed to contribute a lead vocal on the album. Other guests signing on included powerhouse instrumentalists like Christian McBride and Chris Potter, to name just two.

But here’s the notable thing for Cover Me readers: The Women Who Raised Me is all covers. It pays tribute to the female vocalists who inspired Springs in her youth. Clearly she had some great music around the house growing up, which she credits to her father, Scat Springs, a soul singer and session musician in Nashville. (Taking lessons at a young age from the great Victor Wooten probably didn’t hurt either.) The guest stars mentioned earlier add dimension, but they don’t steal the focus from Springs’ vocals. Similarly, Springs doesn’t overpower the songs, or try to top her idols, who are, after all, the most notable voices in the jazz tradition (Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae), or standouts from outside the jazz mainstream (Roberta Flack, Sade, and Lauryn Hill).

Unfortunately, The Women Who Raised Me landed in March 2020, right when the pandemic hit. However, the album is well-timed in a different way: the BLM movement has shifted awareness to artists and songs that Springs was drawn to celebrate on this album. We are talking especially about Nina Simone (who seems overlooked by younger generations, Springs has said) and Billie Holiday. Lady Day is represented here with “Strange Fruit,” her iconic 1939 protest about lynching in the American south. By directing attention to the earliest Black female artists to sing truth to power, The Women Who Raised Me feels like a recording for its time in a way that Springs could not have predicted.

The album isn’t devoted solely to Black artists—Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is in the line-up, for example—nor is it entirely retrospective in spirit. With covers of active artists like Lauryn Hill, and the involvement of Jones and the rising star Elena Pinderhughes—the album reads as contemporary and forward-looking as any other 2020 release thus far.

With what seems like the entire music industry already embracing Kandace Springs, it’s probably just a matter of time before she gets more love from general audiences. Here are some choice covers to help the spread the word.

Kandace Springs–The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Roberta Flack cover)

We’ll start off with Springs in delicate and soulful mode. She covered Roberta Flack’s 1971 smash hit on her 2018 album Indigo. In this European TV broadcast, Springs is on acoustic piano and working solo. It’s the perfect presentation for this vulnerable and heartfelt piece, written by Ewan MacColl and winner of the song of the year Grammy award for Flack. A year later, Flack won song of the year honors yet again for “Killing Me Softly”–another song Springs has covered, on her most recent album.

Kandace Springs–I Put a Spell on You (Nina Simone / Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover)

The Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original is so spellbinding, so over the top, that it’s hard for any more conventional treatment to withstand the comparison. But Nina Simone is no conventional performer, and that’s who Springs is covering here. Both Simone and Springs are classically-trained pianists who share an inclusive approach to music: Simone felt free to move from a classical piece to a jazz standard to a Bee Gees cover, and Springs has the same fluidity. The classical piano opening to Springs’ version is not just a palate-cleansing move, but a way to invoke Simone.

Kandace Springs–People Make the World Go Round (The Stylistics cover)

Springs’ take on the Stylistics hit from 1971 is smooth and funky, loose and tight at the same time. She’s sitting in with David Sanborn’s killer band (that’s Steely Dan’s Jon Herington on guitar), and the mood seems relaxed yet energetic. They are cooking up Philadelphia soul, so how could it not feel good?

The guiding spirit here is Sanborn, a man with a gift for finding talents on the rise and pairing them up with more seasoned pros. His ’80s late night television show Night Music took little known artists like The Pixies, Sonic Youth, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and set them in the same context as, say, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Al Green, and Leonard Cohen. Today Sanborn is up to similar hijinks again, with his “Sanborn Sessions” YouTube series. Guess who he featured on the debut episode?

Kandace Springs–I Can’t Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt cover)

The story goes that Don Was, head of the Blue Note label, signed Kandace Springs after hearing just one song at her audition for the company: that song was her cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” What Springs didn’t know is that Don Was co-produced the original with Raitt. Maybe he appreciated her decision to drop the instrumental verse that starts the original and launch right in with the vocals. Curiously, Springs withheld this cover from her first few albums. Her version was worth the wait. Although many prominent vocalists have been drawn to this song—George Michael and Adele among them—you have to wonder if Springs has a personal connection to it: the songwriters are Nashville-based country music songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. (The take we are sharing here is a home recording, not the studio release.)

Kandace Springs–Stay With Me (Sam Smith cover)

We’ll circle back to the song we mentioned at the outset: the Kandace Springs interpretation of “Stay with Me.” Yes it caught Prince’s attention, but Springs didn’t need the help of The Purple One to get a foothold in the industry–Capitol Records/Blue Note was already working her. They produced this video by way of introduction to a great new talent and cover artist.

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