Interview: Kandace Springs

The singer/songwriter simmers on her new album Soul Eyes
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“You’ll do best when you stick to who you are,” singer/songwriter and keyboardist Kandace Springs tells me via phone before a recording session in Los Angeles. “Most people know who they are deep down, but sometimes they don’t face it.”

Following the release of her new Blue Note album Soul Eyes this past June, Springs is riding high just being herself. Over the past few months, she’s won acclaim supporting jazz vocalist Gregory Porter and recently hit the road for a multi-city headlining tour of her own. And it all started with her cover of a well-known pop song.

“I auditioned for [Blue Note Records President] Don Was at Capitol Records back in 2013,” Springs recalls. “I sang and played the song ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me,’ which Bonnie Raitt made famous. After I finished, Don told me he had produced Bonnie’s version [from Raitt’s 1991 album Luck of the Draw], which I didn’t know. He then told me that mine was one of the best arrangements of the song he had ever heard. Don offered me a record deal right on the spot, which was awesome.”

The road from Springs’ signing to Blue Note Records to the release of her debut album was a long one. “I’ve played jazz my whole life,” Springs explains. “From the time I was 15, I was singing and playing and taking classes in Nashville at the Jazz Workshop. I was singing songs by Ella Fitzgerald and playing in bars and lounges at night to make a living. Jazz was always my thing, but I went with the flow and I made an EP for Blue Note that was more hip-hop based. But if you go back and see where I’ve played and if you watch my earlier videos, I’m playing songs like ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ ‘Angel Eyes’ and ‘Day Dream.’ So I was frustrated, but the person that ultimately changed things for me was Prince. I used to play for him sometimes, and I’d send him pieces. When he heard me play straight-ahead jazz, he said, ‘That’s you. You could be the Roberta Flack of your generation. You need to get rid of that hip-hop stuff. [She laughs.] In fact, Prince wanted to sign me at one point and make a record like that. I felt like, ‘I don’t care if I sell one album. I want to be me.’ So it took a little bit, but we talked to Don Was and we switched things up. That’s how we got back to the sound you’re hearing on this new LP.”

Many of the songs on Soul Eyes were written at different points during Springs’ musical development. “The last song on the album ‘Rain Falling’ I wrote when I was 16, and I’m 27 now. And there are a lot of songs I wrote pre-Blue Note as well. Later, [album producer] Larry Klein actually directed me to interpret songs by people like Shelby Lynne and War, too. The whole album was done live, and we pretty much used the first take on each song. That’s what makes the album feel organic. We did it like ‘old school’ guys used to record. We had Dean Parks on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Terence Blachard on trumpet, Pete Kuzma on keyboards, and Dan Lutz on bass. They were just incredible. And they had me singing and playing on a nice Yamaha C7, and on “Soul Eyes” I think was playing Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Steinway!”

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Springs is flexible when it comes to gear on the road and in the studio. “In terms of pianos, for me it all comes down to the tone, the touch, and the action,” she says. “I’m finishing up an endorsement deal with Yamaha right now. On the album, I also played a Rhodes customized by Retro Rentals in Los Angeles. I’m also planning on getting a Yamaha CP4 to travel with on the road. I like the action and the sounds on it. I used it on a radio tour of the UK and in Japan recently. At home I have a beautiful 6-foot Kimball grand piano, as well as a Korg electric upright that I played when I was growing up. I also have a little Casio Privia as well.”

Her tone turns decidedly more reflective when remembering her friend and mentor Prince, who passed away suddenly earlier in 2016. “Oh my God,” Springs remarks. “I didn’t believe it. We were on the road with Gregory Porter in the middle of England when I found out. I remember that I wore a purple jacket that he had given me on stage that night, and I sang ‘The Beautiful Ones.’ I had spoken to him literally two days before he passed away. It was right after he had that emergency plane landing after he played a show in Atlanta. I asked him, ‘Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘I’m fine. Thanks for the love.’ He had even sent me a picture of his new purple [Yamaha] piano. I was in my garage when I got his text saying, ‘Look what I just got!’ Prince had a custom Rhodes that he shipped to one of my shows in Nashville once. I played all of his pianos.”

Springs cites myriad artists and albums as pivotal musical influences. “Nina Simone was one of the first people my Dad had me listen to. And definitely Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. Just being a young girl and seeing her play had a big effect on me. Other albums that influenced me include Lauren Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauren Hill, The Best of Sade, and Eva Cassidy’s albums Songbird and Live at Blues Alley. Also Diana Krall’s When I Look in Your Eyes. For me personally, these are the things that really shook me up as an artist.”

And what advice does this rising star offer up to the next generation of artistic hopefuls? “Be true to who you are,” Springs says. “Or in the words of a great quote I read the other day, ‘Be yourself, because everyone else is taken!’”