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For soulful jazz singer Kandace Springs, meeting Prince changed everything

Kandace Springs
Photo by Mathieu Bitton
On Jan. 18, 2016, her 27th birthday, Kandace Springs played Prince her new Blue Note album and he approved.

Artscape is on a short break and will return Tuesday, Nov. 14.

She has a smoky, supple alto and a disarming presence, open and approachable. Her first full-length album, “Soul Eyes,” came out on Blue Note, the legendary jazz label. Produced by Grammy winner Larry Klein, who has worked with Lizz Wright, Melody Gardot and Madeleine Peyroux, it has earned five-star reviews and comparisons to Norah Jones.

Nashville native Kandace Springs was well on her way to a different kind of music career – she had a debut EP produced by people who had worked with Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, and the Blue Note deal; she had been on TV with Letterman, Kimmel and Fallon and had sung at Bonnaroo – when something happened that changed everything.

She recorded a cover of “Stay with Me,” a hit song by Sam Smith, and premiered it on Okayplayer. Prince saw it and messaged her on Twitter. Would she like to come to Paisley Park and perform at the 30th anniversary of the release of “Purple Rain”? “I was crying happy tears and everything,” Springs said in a phone call in late October.

Her first conversation with Prince was by phone. “He wanted to do a call before I came out there, just to talk and get a feel for each other’s vibes. I was so nervous. When the call came in, I answered ‘HELLO!’ And he goes ‘hi.’ That was like … oh my God. But we ended up hitting it off and cracking jokes. When we met in person, we clicked really well. He has a big sense of humor.”

The “Purple Rain” concert was in June 2014. Springs spent a week in Minnesota, staying at the Country Inn, visiting Paisley Park daily and hanging out with Prince. They talked about her sound, and how she wasn’t quite sure where she should take it. She had been on a contemporary R&B/hip-hop path, but she felt most at home with jazz: Billie and Ella, Nina and Sarah. Prince told her to be herself. “Less is more, honestly,” she said. “That was something Prince stressed a lot as I got to know him.”

What surprised Springs most about Prince? “Just how down to earth he was. He liked to do things that normal people would do, but he’d have to limit himself because he couldn’t just walk on the mall. I stupidly, naively asked him once, ‘Why don’t we go to the jazz club tonight and see some band play?’ He’s like, ‘Girl, if I go there I’ll drag 400 people back with me.’ So he would rent out the movie theater. It would just be me and him and his band members. That was cool.”

After her first visit to Paisley Park, the two stayed in frequent touch by phone. Prince invited her back in January 2016. They went to the Dakota to see the band Living Colour. “That was the last place we went. They’d block off the stairs so you couldn’t see him.” On Jan. 18, her 27th birthday, she played him her new Blue Note album and he approved. “Soul Eyes” came out in June and she’s been on tour ever since. “I’ve been pretty much all over the world. Literally.” When we spoke, she was in the Netherlands.

Springs talks about jazz in terms of colors, complexity and emotion. She knows it’s not for everyone but has her own ideas about how to draw people in. “It’s like an acquired taste. I would introduce them to a more crossover, hybrid sound. Kind of like Norah [Jones] did on her first album. Then, after they appreciate that, their ear evolves more to the sound. Give them Oscar Peterson later. … My dad started with Nina Simone. Now she’s my goddess. Norah introduced me to jazz, and then she got me to Diana Krall, and Diana Krall took me in a little heavier, and then I got into Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn and Duke Ellington. And now it’s my world.”

“Soul Eyes” is an acoustic, pop-tinged recording with Springs at the piano. The title track is by Billie Holiday’s former pianist, Mal Waldron. There’s a song by War, “The World Is a Ghetto,” and one by Shelby Lynne, “Thought It Would Be Easier.” The final track, “Rain Falling,” is a sophisticated ballad Springs wrote when she was 16. Terence Blanchard lends his soaring trumpet to “Soul Eyes” and “Too Good Too Last,” another Springs original.

Her voice will grab you, and her timing, and the intimacy and spaciousness of her singing. Her second album for Blue Note comes out next March.

Four fun facts about Kandace Springs

  • Kandace is her real name. Her dad is Kenneth (he’s a session vocalist who goes by Scat); her mom is Kelly; her sisters are Kenya and Kimber. “We’re the K-K-K-K-K,” she said.
  • She also plays classical piano and usually throws a medley into her shows. “I play a lot of Chopin. Chopin’s my favorite. I’ll mix in Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Franz Liszt sometimes, and Beethoven, and a little Mozart.”
  • She’s obsessed with cars – buying them, selling them, and working on them. She currently owns a 2014 Corvette Stingray (“the 7-speed manual. It’s red. It has the side skirts, the front lip, the wicker spoiler”), a 1953 Chevy Bel Air two-door coupe, and a 1952 MG TD replica. “The D stands for Duchess. It looks like a Cruella de Vil kind of car.”
  • Something she’s dying to do: “I’m into racing. I’d like a Danica Patrick collab or something like that. To drive around the racetrack, or actually race. That would be awesome. Or go skydiving. I haven’t done that yet, girl.”

Kandace Springs will appear at the Dakota next Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m. She’ll be with her traveling trio of Dillon Treacy on drums and Jesse Bielenberg on bass. FMI and tickets ($35-40); 612-332-5299.

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