Every so often a new singer emerges who’s able to assimilate multiple musical touchstones and still come off sounding remarkably fresh and unburdened by the past. Kandace Springs is one of those artists. The 27-year-old, Nashville-based singer, songwriter and pianist counts such stylists as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Norah Jones as her heroes, but as evidenced by her sparkling full-length Blue Note Records debut, Soul Eyes, Springs mimics none of them.
Instead Springs allows her comely alto to become a conduit that touches upon soul, jazz and pop while transforming those aforementioned influences into a personalized sound that reveals itself effortlessly. “The artists who have inspired me the most all sang so naturally,” Springs says. “That helped me find my own sound.”
Springs’ journey to discovering her uniqueness didn’t happen overnight. In fact, her 2014 self-titled debut EP had a decidedly contemporary R&B/hip-hop bent with production by Pop & Oak (Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Miguel). The EP was incredibly well-received and led to TV performances on Late Show With David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, as well as appearances at the Afropunk and Bonnaroo festivals.
As amazing an experience as that was, as Springs got ready to record her album she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t yet singing her true self. Conversations with her longtime producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers led to soul searching and rethinking her musical direction. Eventually Springs returned to a more spacious, organic sound that channels her earlier jazz influences as well as her Nashville upbringing.
Also during this period, Springs attracted the attention of Prince, who heard her makeover of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” on the website Okayplayer. The music icon invited her to perform with him at Paisley Park for the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain. “He encouraged me a lot before I recorded this new record, especially during the time in which I was trying to figure out my sound,” Springs says. “He told me that I needed to do what comes naturally to me. He was absolutely right.”
For Soul Eyes, Springs continued working closely with Rogers and Sturken, but they also recruited Grammy-winning producer Larry Klein (Lizz Wright, Melody Gardot, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock) to help the singer bring out her distinctive artistic traits. “Larry wanted me to be free in the studio,” Springs recalls. “I’ve been through a lot of other sessions in which the producer tries to take control of your sound. Larry was just like, ‘Go in and play what you feel.’ That ultimately led to the best outcome; he captured this record perfectly.”
Klein praises Springs as a “natural.” “In this era, in which flash and hunger for fame is often equated with talent, she’s that rare person who sings and plays because that is what she needs to do in life,” he says. “When I first heard Kandace, I was sold after hearing one song. Her smoky voice coupled with a sense of phrasing way beyond her years, and her angular way of accompanying herself on piano grabbed me right away.”
The eleven songs contained on Soul Eyes all feature Springs playing piano alongside an illustrious cast of musicians that includes trumpeter Terence Blanchard, guitarists Dean Parks and Jesse Harris, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, organist Pete Kuzma, bassist Dan Lutz, percussionist Pete Korpela.
Through much of Soul Eyes, Springs sings about romantic affairs of the heart, starting off with the effervescent, country-laden “Talk to Me,” penned by Harris, who also wrote the gentle, life-affirming “Neither Old Nor Young.” The ruminative “Place to Hide” is a song by Judie Tzuke that Rogers has kept in the back of his mind for some time just waiting for the perfect singer to deliver it. “Every time I play that song, the room goes silent,” Springs says.
It was Sturken who introduced Springs to Mal Waldron’s signature jazz classic, “Soul Eyes.” “When I first heard it, it blew my mind,” she enthuses. “That song means so much to me.” Klein suggested the mesmerizing makeovers of two Shelby Lynne songs (“Thought It Would Be Easier” and “Leavin’”) as well as War’s haunting funk classic, “The World Is a Ghetto.”
Springs co-wrote the melancholy ballad, “Fall Guy” with Rogers and Sturken, as well as the searching, observational mid-tempo gem “Novocaine Heart.” She co-wrote the smoldering, cinematic slow-burner “Too Good To Last”—which features a soaring trumpet solo by Blanchard—with celebrated songwriters Greg Wells and Lindy Robbins. Springs composed the gorgeous solo album closer “Rain Falling” by herself. Featuring just voice and piano, the song dates back more than a decade ago to Springs’ late-teens.
“This new record is just right where it should be,” attests Springs, who draws much of her inspiration from her father, Scat Springs, a respected session singer in Nashville. It was due to him that Springs grew up surrounded by music, and he encouraged her to take piano lessons after he watched her peck out melodies on the instrument when she was 10. Yet as a girl, she was equally interested in other creative outlets, especially visual art and, more unexpectedly, automobiles. “My dad gave me a Matchbox car, a Thunderbird or something like that, and my mom gave me a Barbie,” she says. “I drew a mustache on the Barbie and never played with it again, and I still have the Matchbox car.” (Her obsession with cars, which she collects, rebuilds, and resells, continues to this day.)
It wasn’t until later that a friend of her father’s sparked something deeper in the young musician by giving her Norah Jones’ 2002 Blue Note debut, Come Away With Me. “The last song on the record is ‘The Nearness of You’ and that song really inspired me to learn to play piano and sing. It was just so soulful, simple and stripped down. That really moved me and touched me. It's when I realized, ‘This is what I wanna do.’”
Springs did her own arrangement of “The Nearness of You” and performed it at a music camp in Nashville, which led to her gaining more professional gig experience in the city. An early demo Springs recorded caught the ears of Rogers and Sturken, who have written hits for the likes of Shakira, Christina Aguilera, and Kelly Clarkson, and are best known for discovering and signing Rihanna as a teenager. Rogers flew down to Nashville with an offer to sign Springs to their production company SRP. Still only 17 years old at the time, she and her family decided that it wasn’t the right time to pursue a recording career, instead taking a job at a downtown Nashville hotel where she valet parked cars by day and sang and played piano in the lounge at night.
A few years later, Springs was talking about going to automotive design school, but her mother suggested that she get back in touch with Rogers and Sturken. She instead moved to New York and started working seriously on new songs and demo recordings. She eventually landed an audition with Blue Note President Don Was at the Capitol Records Tower in Los Angeles, winning him over with a stunning performance of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (the original of which he had coincidentally produced). “That song is so soulful. When I first heard that song, it almost moved me to tears,” Springs says. “I wrote my own arrangement for it a few years before I played it for him.”
Now as Springs continues to develop as singer and songwriter in her own right, she’ll surely win over many other hearts. “I would like to be known as one of the younger people that are keeping jazz and soul alive and vibrant, “she says. “I love the realness of jazz and soul.”