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Nashville’s Kandace Springs Pays Homage To Her Heroines And Home Town

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The first notes out of the speakers come from a plucked double bass, six feet tall and warm as gingerbread. The voice that enters over the riff is similarly rich and mellow, like a woodwind, except it’s a woman. “No cares for me, I’m happy as I can be,” sings Kandace Springs, and to speak with her is to believe those lines from the 1950s jazz standard “Devil May Care” truly apply.

Because even amid the pandemic, the 32-year-old singer, songwriter and pianist bubbles with enthusiasm. She has a second career restoring cars and an international singing career to go back to soon.

Springs is a daughter of Music City. Her father is the dynamic, highly regarded R&B and session singer Scat Springs, and she saw the music world unfold through him and her music-loving mom. In her mid-teens, her folks steered her toward classes at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, where she learned repertoire and technique through its married founders Lori Mechem and Roger Spencer. That’s a regular thing at the NJW. What happened next was more extraordinary.

She lived for stretches in Los Angeles and New York, where, remarkably, she was coached by Prince and signed by Don Was to Blue Note Records, where she’s released three albums in five years. While that label’s epic history and Kandace’s artistic heart certainly revolve around jazz, she’s a singer and writer with a wide scope, a fresh outlook and some influential, top-tier colleagues and collaborators who inhabit overlapping worlds of soul, funk, hip-hop and pop. That bass on the opening track of that 2020 album The Women Who Raised Me, for example, is none other than Christian McBride, the multi-Grammy-winning host of NPR’s Jazz Night In America. Elsewhere on the album is a duet with Blue Note star Norah Jones.

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Springs’s voice balances the timbres of classic jazz and neo-soul, and the musical heroes she tributes on the latest album show the range of her influences. “Devil May Care” was borrowed from a formative Dianna Krall album she loved growing up. She covers Sade on “Pearls” and Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor,” while also interpreting more classic standards “Nearness of You” in honor of Carmen McCrae. She offers a slow and melancholy rendition of the Bonnie Raitt hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (the song that Don Was said nailed her Blue Note audition) and Nina Simone’s ferocious and lusty “I Put A Spell On You.”

The Norah Jones duo “Angel Eyes” is a nod to the iconic Ella Fitzgerald, and it’s important to note the sensitive mingling of keyboards here, because women who sing and play tend to be typecast as vocalists only, their chops often overlooked. In the session (which Springs describes as a thrill and a youthful dream fulfilled) Springs plays a Wurlitzer while Jones is on a Steinway grand. Because the piano is what gave Kandace her foundation in music, from ten years old on. It’s her songwriting muse and the instrument she calls “her soulmate.” She says, “It just sets out the perfect palette, or canvas, so to say, that I can paint on and I use my voice to marry it. And so I don't know how to explain that, but I see music in colors. When I play chords or even certain notes, I see a pattern, like a color pattern. And when I’m singing it's like becoming one with that. I'm (also) an artist, I draw, I sketch and create. I even paint cars and stuff like that. Music is very similar.

The final song on The Women Who Raised Me is the most difficult and moving of all, a cover of “Strange Fruit,” the graphic and heart-searing anti-lynching song written in the late 1930s by little-known Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. Springs leans into an original arrangement on her beloved Fender Rhodes electric piano, whose chiming tones descend into a tense distortion while she sings the great work in a hovering space between a hymn and a resigned sigh. It’s one of the most moving tracks I heard in 2020. 

As for the cars, it’s a passion from girlhood that’s grown into a freelance pursuit, from restoring and repairing automobiles to more recently vintage campers, which she picks up cheap and flips. “I figure it out as I go,” she says. “It’s refreshing because (campers) are a little more forgiving in a way than cars. I mean, you’ve got so many things that can go wrong - the timing, some kind of leak or rods and bearings, plugs, wires, all that stuff, versus just a trailer. Here's a trailer. Bam. Done. And the interior? It’s a trip to Home Depot. Let's do it. That's where I'm about to go right now, actually!”

In the Q&A here, we talk about her father’s impact on Nashville and herself, finding her voice at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, auditioning for Blue Note Records in Hollywood and getting a surprise DM from Prince.

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