An interview with singer/songwriter Spencer Day
by Gregg Shapiro
Photo by Reisig Taylor
Spencer Day, who came out as gay a few years ago, is that rare combination of both singer and songwriter. On his new disc The Mystery of You (Concord), Day has crafted a powerful and accessible song cycle about love and loss. Cooly crooned tunes such as the title cut, “Soul on Fire,” and “Shadow Man” wouldn’t sound out of place on the Mad Men soundtrack. But Day’s sensitive singer/songwriter side dawns brightly on “Love and War,” “I Don’t Want to Know,” and “I’m Going Home.” I spoke with Day shortly before the release of the album.
Gregg Shapiro: In the liner notes for your new CD The Mystery of You [Concord], you wrote that the past few years “have been a profound, strange, challenging, and wonderful time.”
Spencer Day: What that meant for me and my discovery, which is something I kind of already knew, is that change is not easy, and personal growth can be very painful. Also absolutely necessary. I think when I was younger, I had perfected the art of running from things. I think a lot of humans do that. You either find someone new to date, you find a new drug, or you find a religion. [Laughs] All of those things can be fine if used in the proper way. I think I had mastered the art of escapism without realizing it. What happened after this breakup, for me, is that in the past three years all of my old vices weren’t working any more. I have a lot of friends who said, “You have to go date someone new.” My psyche was like, “No, you’ve got to face some of the less pleasant parts of yourself [laughs] and actually work on them.” I was deeply depressed after this breakup, I was diagnosed bipolar, and I had a complete nervous breakdown. [Laughs] The reason I’m laughing about it now is that while it was so awful, it really was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It really snapped me to attention about how far off I was from truly loving myself. In a way, it inspired me and made me realize the potential of how much better things could get for me.
Has the man who is the subject of the songs on The Mystery of You heard the songs, and if so, what did he think of them?
I don’t think so. I would hope that he would take it as the compliment and love letter to that time and place that I intended for it to be. I certainly didn’t want it to be, “You’re a horrible person for breaking my heart” and pull a Taylor Swift [laughs] and drag someone else’s personal life through the mud.
One Taylor Swift is plenty. You play keyboards on more than half a dozen songs on the disc. Is that how you write your songs, on keyboards?
Traditionally I’ve written everything at the piano and have always come up with the melody first. This is the first time I started writing a few things on guitar. One of the reasons I want to do that is because I’m not a very good guitar player, and sometimes your limitations can be really good—they can force you to be creative and employ techniques and melodies and rhythms that you wouldn’t have otherwise done. You can’t really strum a piano. It was also the first time I was very involved in the arrangements of the songs. I got better during this time using Logic and ProTools, too. Some of the songs were built by putting the beat first and building from the ground up, starting with the groove, which for me was unusual. Lately I’ve been doing that more. It changes the way things are phrased, what the melodic and rhythmic components of the song are.
The songs on the disc have what sounds to me like a mid-1960s influence.
I appreciate that you can hear that kind of influence. A lot of the music that I’ve been in love with, such as the Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western music for the Roy Orbison tracks I was really into at the time, are very guitar-driven. The instrumentation that conjures up that time period, such as the baritone surf guitar, helps to tell someone that this music is reminiscent of this time and place. More so than piano, the guitar is the key to that for this record.
The song cycles on The Mystery of You tell the story of a relationship. Were there other song cycles that you looked to in creating this album, or did you choose to follow your muse?
I didn’t really look to any other song cycles, although I know that there certainly have been other ones done on the subject. I just wanted to document each stage of this relationship. I wanted it to be more of a discovery of what love means, what losing yourself means, and what reclaiming yourself after the love has died away means. It was more of a journey into my own psyche to understand what my relationship is to intimacy and love and loss, as opposed to just a series of songs about someone who broke my heart.
I recently interviewed singer Erin Boheme, and we talked about the duet you did with her on her latest CD. On your CD, you perform duets with Gaby Moreno on the songs “Love and War” and “I Don’t Want to Know.” What do you find appealing about duets?
I’ve realized that I’m not a person who needs to have the spotlight on me consistently. Personally, I prefer interacting and collaborating with other people, even if it’s just the musicians I’m playing with. I really like not feeling like I’m an island. One of the great things about doing a duet is that it snaps you into the moment. You have to be taking in this other person. A good duet partner helps you get into the moment and the story. In some ways you get to act as a character that you previously hadn’t thought of. It’s very much an acting piece all of a sudden. You’re creating a scene and they bring in a new context. Gaby and Erin are such beautiful singers. The Mormon choir kid in me still can’t get enough of harmonizing with people. [Laughs] I want to do it to every song on the radio and turn it into a hymn.
Do you think you have an album’s worth of EDM [electronic dance music] or country music tunes in you as well?
Yes to both of those. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to write on Music Row in Nashville in the last year. Some will hopefully be cut by other artists. That’s why I like the term singer/songwriter better than crooner because I feel like with singer/songwriter, it’s very open. Joni Mitchell can do a folk thing, then a jazz thing. [People have such a specific connotation with the term crooner] that it can kind of limit you. I’m such a fan of Zero 7, Air, and Danger Mouse. As a collaboration, I’d love to stretch myself and try out a completely different style that really takes me out of my comfort zone, but still feels authentic. At this moment in time, why the hell not? [Laughs]
How would you say that being gay comes into play in your music, if at all?
If you have the good fortune of being a gay role model, I think that’s great. But I would really rather be someone who is thought of as living my life in an authentic and transparent way. That’s what I feel is important. I feel like my art is better if I’m honest and true to myself. That’s a personal choice for everyone to make. It’s hard to acknowledge that in a lot of ways my career would probably be doing “better” if I had not come out when I did. There are still a lot of people for whom if you sing in a sexy or romantic way, they still want to envision themselves in a certain setting with you, I guess. I still get a lot of hate mail from people saying “I loved that song until I realized you were singing it to a guy.” That’s sad to me. Unless I have something specific to say in a song, I want it to be like an abstract painting where listeners can find themselves in it whatever way makes sense for them. I do feel I have a responsibility to take the punch line out of it. I think it’s a profound act of activism, in a way, to sing a song unapologetically and beautifully without a sense of irony. [Sings] “Someday he’ll come along/the man I love.” That’s one of the most beautiful standards ever, but I’m not going to change it to “the gal I love.” I wouldn’t do that if I was straight [laughs], because it just sounds stupid. Jeff Buckley, who was straight, covered “The Man Got Away” and just sang it as it was, because to him that made the most sense. When I think about singing such things, it really inspires me because it feels like I’m here for a purpose. I can be a part of bringing people together in unlikely ways.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.