From the first second of Kandace Springs‘ new album — as those warm, hand-plucked bass notes fill the air — you know you’ve arrived at something different. And once she starts singing, well, it’s pretty clear The Women Who Raised Me exists apart from the normal rules that govern space, time, and talent. While 2018’s Indigo LP foundthe Nashville singer-pianist using modern production to bend sound into new genre forms in collaboration with Karriem Riggins, this set adheres sonically to jazz while Springs travels back and forth across a near-century of music. While the feel is as rich and complex as our host’s voice, the concept is simple. Springs covers the women who inspired her while she was growing up, putting her own spin on songs associated with a dozen of the greatest female vocalists of all-time: Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Astrud Gilberto, Lauryn Hill, Billie Holiday, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Carmen McRae, Bonnie Raitt, Sade, Nina Simone, and Dusty Springfield.
“This is an album I’ve been wanting to make forever,” says Springs. “It really expresses my love for all of these singers and gratitude for what they gave me. Each taught me something different and all of those lessons combined to make me who I am now. In a way, all I’m trying to do every day is live up to the examples they set. My dream is that people will listen to my album and then want to go learn more about all of these great women. If that happens, then I’ve done my job.”
Of course, you’ll want to spend some quality time with The Women Who Raised Me first. While the project was personal — practically a calling — for Springs, it’s also an intimate showcase for her abilities. Produced by Larry Klein — who also produced Springs’ 2016 album Soul Eyes — the album captures Springs in the studio with a spare but able band who all have ties to the artists honored here: guitarist Steve Cardenas (Norah Jones), bassist Scott Colley (Carmen McRae), and drummer Clarence Penn (Diana Krall). They played live, underscoring the power of Springs’ voice and hands, as well as her gift for moving between singers’ intonations and legacies while staying herself — as her heroines would want it. Heroes too. “Prince liked when I played all this stuff,” Springs recalls. “He’d go, ‘That’s you right there.”
But long before the Minneapolis giant saw Springs on YouTube and invited her to jam at Paisley Park in 2014 — the year she’d sign to Blue Note with an audition of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (track six) — there was Norah. When Springs was a gifted preteen pianist with no plans to sing, her father, Nashville session singer Scat Springs, slid her a copy of Jones’ Come Away With Me. She put the CD on while doing chores, and, “When ‘The Nearness of You’ came on I froze,” Springs says. “I was like, ‘That is what I want to do!'” So of course that song made it onto The Women Who Raised Me. But also, the actual Norah Jones did too. They trade smoke-ringed verses on Ella Fitzgerald’s “Angel Eyes” as Jones’ Steinway dances with Springs’ Wurly.
“I didn’t even know what to think,” says Springs of recording with her first musical love. Wildly, it only happened because they ran into each other at the Nashville airport. They traded numbers, and later met at Jones’ Brooklyn apartment to test out Ella songs. “It’s something I relive every so often, like, ‘Lord, I can’t believe she’s sitting right there.’ It was nerve-racking. I was like, ‘Get it together, Kandace, let’s do this!’ And we just kinda made up the arrangement as we went.”
Jones isn’t the only guest. It’s Christian McBride’s bass that kicks off the LP, in fact, on Springs’ swinging cover of “Devil May Care” by Diana Krall. That one was also part of her dad’s informal chops-building curriculum after he brought home a secondhand upright piano when she was 10. Springs was instantly drawn to Krall’s elegant playing and unfussy singing. Scat turned her onto Nina Simone too, eventually. “I didn’t like her voice at first,” Springs admits. “It seemed strange, but it was so unique and haunting that I kept coming back.” Before long, she was as inspired by Nina’s spirit as her art. In honor of their shared love for classical, Springs incorporates Moonlight Sonata into her rousing version of “I Put a Spell on You,” as David Sanborn blows fiery alto sax.
Of course, with an album called The Women Who Raised Me, we’d be remiss not to talk about Springs’ mother, Kelly. While Dad arranged for her to learn from pros like the Wooten brothers, Mom actually drove young Kandace to and from those lessons in the family van while tuned into the local easy listening station. That’s where she first heard Dusty Springfield (Springs’ rendition of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” is rich with heartache and drama) and, many times over, the aforementioned Bonnie Raitt hit. She learned the latter in her late teens, while she was working at a local hotel. “I’d park cars during the day,” says Springs, “then change clothes, go upstairs to the lounge, and perform in the evening. I always got a lot of tips playing Bonnie.”
At that point, Springs’ career was calling. She’d been offered a production deal by Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken of SRP (who discovered Rihanna), but Scat was wary. As Springs began to consider other paths, it was her mom who encouraged her not to quit music, and even snuck into Scat’s phone to get Rogers’ contact. That partnership brought Springs to New York and Blue Note, but before she left home, each of these women had shown her something vital: Astrud Gilberto with her “tone that’s so airy and pure” (“Gentle Rain”). Carmen McRae, whose “sense of harmony is deeper than any other jazz singer’s” (“Solitude”). Sade’s uncanny ability to transmit powerful emotion (“Pearls”). Lauryn Hill’s vocal textures and “diva queen” independence (“Ex-Factor”).
But even as those mighty influences are felt — and players like trumpeter Avishai Cohen; flutist Elena Pinderhughes, and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter pop in — The Women Who Raised Me remains unmistakably Springs’ vision. That fact becomes especially clear during closing couplet. First, Springs and her band strike up a mellow groove with their take on Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” But as the song nears its end, we’re treated to a gigantic unfurling psychedelic finale, which sets the stage for the next song’s necessary minimalism. The closing number is one that truly cannot be followed: “Strange Fruit.” For this, it’s just Springs and her trusty Rhodes, crying out all of that pain and beauty, reminding us of the mortal danger inherent in forgetting our past.
Springs learned much from Billie’s example — “I grew up in the South and I can’t even imagine the courage it took for her to sing that song in the ’30s,” she says — but her main takeaway is as basic as it is bone-deep: “That nothing is more important than singing from the heart.” End of the day, that’s exactly what Springs did here. The Women Who Raised Me is a raw and real audio love-letter between her and her idols. The rest of us are just lucky she let us listen in.