Art stands on art’s shoulders. It’s counterintuitive but true: originality is not born in a vacuum. We can push through and create something that’s new and ours only after hearing, imitating, and then absorbing the best that’s come before us.
“I spent a lot of years being too proud to sing other people’s stuff. It had to be mine,” Shoshana Bean says, then pauses. “I don’t feel that way so much anymore.” It’s a vulnerable admission that gives way to a beautiful twist: after opening herself up to others’ greatness, Bean has succeeded in recording and writing Spectrum, a triumphant album that combines big band, jazz, and pop treatments of standards, modern favorites, and Bean-penned gems to create a sound that is dramatically, holistically, Bean’s.
“My heart is all over it, and I want people to feel that,” Bean says of Spectrum. “Whether it provides clarity, healing, an emotional release, inspiration––whatever it is they need it for, I hope it fills that.” She’s in a good space for reflection. Back in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, for the holidays, Bean is taking a break from the life she built in Los Angeles after leaving New York City, where audiences first fell in love with her. She captivated on Broadway in a dazzling array of productions and roles including the original cast of Hairspray and as the first actress to take over the role of Elphaba from Idina Menzel in Wicked.
Bean craved more. She began recording her own music in 2008, and the three albums she’s released––Superhero (2008), O’Farrell Street (2013), and Shadows to Light (2014)––topped R&B and blues charts in the U.S. and U.K.
Wielding once-in-a-generation vocals, Bean has emerged as a singer’s singer. Her voice is an awe-inspiring instrument, trained to handle eight shows a week on stage but also innately pure. Peers and young performers such as Ariana Grande and Ledisi point to Bean, whose heart-pounding vocal runs are matched by an all-too-rare gift for storytelling. An in-demand vocal arranger––Jennifer Lopez’s American Idol performance of “I Luh Ya Papi” is a prime recent example––Bean has also proven herself a trusted ally in a world best known for cut-throat competitiveness. “No one was there when I was coming up to warn me, prepare me, help me,” Bean says. “We all need each other. Plus, I refuse to keep my mouth shut. For example, there is a lot of shame in having vocal issues. For some reason, athletes are praised for overexerting themselves. They get injured, and we say, ‘Oh, what a hero!’ A singer gets hurt vocally, and she’s weak. I’ve made a point of opening my mouth about it, which is why I think people feel comfortable coming to me.”
When it came time to record a new album, Bean struggled with direction. Then, an encounter with an old Streisand performance delivered an epiphany. “She’s in this black dress, and it’s just her and the mic,” Bean describes. “She’s interpreting the song––a cover, of course––and it hit me: no women are doing that anymore. No one is just standing down center and singing, trusting the music, letting that be enough.”
Bean approached her friend Dave Cook with the idea for a standards album––songs that have helped shape the artist Bean has become––and he was immediately on board to produce, with one stipulation: it should draw from big band. “A big band covers album? I guess I knew at some point I’d do one, but I thought it’d be much later,” Bean says with signature honesty. “I was raised on that. It was my grandmother’s bag, but then she got pregnant and married and didn’t follow her career. Part of me felt like it was my duty to fulfill what she would have done.”
Spectrum’s 18-instrument orchestra nods to big band as it pushes elsewhere. Dirty funk, winking jazz, and bold pop come together to give Bean’s voice the sui generis partner its always deserved.
The idea of singing an album of covers after releasing three albums of original songs Bean had written herself––an output and creative exercise she values––made her uncomfortable. “So I thought, ‘Okay, we don’t have to have originals on here. But if I can write something good enough to stand next to these monster songs, we’ll put them on there.’” Bean ended up writing not just one, but three brand new nuggets that don’t just hold their own among the giants––they’re standouts.
Spectrum kicks off with “I Wanna be Around,” the heartbroken Sinatra classic to which Bean has always been partial. The track swings and soars, sounding exhilaratingly fresh in Bean’s care, delighting in the relatable wish to watch the heartbreaker get what’s coming to them.
The trio of originals follows: Gritty “Strange Thunder” pulses with defiant, horn-led funk, while “All to Me” cushions Bean’s confessional lyrics with room-shushing piano. “Remember the Day” features a masterful hook and a jaw-dropping vocal performance. Out-of-the-box selections including “Stay” and “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the latter of which features Grace Potter, are breaths of fresh air. “I don’t choose a song that I don’t already completely understand and get lit up by,” Bean says. “There is no, ‘Hey, we got to get to know each other, you and me.’ It’s like, ‘I already know you because I feel like I should have written you.” In Bean’s hands, Aretha Franklin classic “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” dabbles in moody rock––a risk that pays off in a big way.
Haunting album closer “How Deep is the Ocean” almost didn’t happen. Bean fought for the song, which Cook argued had been overdone. “I’m glad I fought for it, because I think it’s one of the most beautiful points on the record, only because it’s so vulnerable,” Bean says. “We did it in one take. I sobbed the entire way through, because we were in that magical studio at EastWest where Sinatra recorded so much. Legendary things have happened there. And the song reminds me of my grandma, who is a huge influence on this entire project. It’s not tuned or edited––it’s just me, crying through the whole performance.”
Bean’s entire life has been building to this moment––this album––that finally captures every part of who she is. “It’s not Sinatra, it’s not Streisand, it’s not Franklin, but it has shades of all of that, because all of them are in me,” she says. “It’s not a jazz record, but it’s not a pop record. It’s something of its own. I’m so proud of that.”