Spencer: tales of love and heartbreak in The Big Apple
The streets of New York City runs through Spencer.’s debut album, ‘Are U Down?’. You might not hear cars honking, steam rising from the road or the rattle of the subway, but it’s there: the romance, the anxiety and the towering pressure of a cut-throat city. Much of the album was written back at his folks’ place in Rochester in upstate New York, but the connection between the singer and the place he now calls home never wavers.
“For the first year I lived here, I felt very anxious about people and definitely felt the intimidation you feel about a big city,” he tells NME via Zoom. “You’d come here to do something and if that doesn’t work out then that adds more pressure. I felt my footing the most coming back after quarantine and a lot of my friends have come into their stride.”
Though his album is much about love and an on-off relationship, it’s framed by all the sounds of his new neighbourhood in Brooklyn. There’s woozy indie (‘Drop’), gritty funk (‘After The Show’), shimmering pop (‘Lonely As I Ever Was’) as he nods to the creative history that he’s learning from, as well as the one wants to forge with his burgeoning contemporary comrades.
As he releases his much-anticipated debut album on 4AD [Pixies, The National], he reflects on the emotions of moving back home, his musical origins and his love for FKA Twigs.
Tell us about the origins of this album…
“I was stuck in Rochester with my parents – that’s also the place I started making beats and singing for the first time – so I had the most amount of creativity there and less distractions as there can be in New York City. It felt like the most pure and honest way to make something as there wasn’t anything influencing me, I just walked in every day to make music. I didn’t anticipate all the songs I was making in March 2020 to be an album because a lot of them are sonically a bit all over the place, but in context I think they make a lot of sense.”
When did you start considering that these songs would make up ‘Are U Down?’
“I was in Rochester for four months and I came back to New York in July and I’d shown people the song and had about five or six songs by that point, and started noticing the lyrical themes of being quarantined and feeling isolated – I only really noticed that after the fact. That was the cool thing about the songs; it took on different meanings at different points of the process.
It was encouraging seeing people’s faces and their reactions. I definitely remained in the style of music that I make – I always try and do that – but I try to approach it with different ideas. Some of the songs don’t necessarily make sense to be the next step or go with the songs that I already have, so there were a lot of positive reactions to the newer sounds and influences.”
Who were some of those influences?
“It’s hard to see how things manifest themselves into the music until the album is out and way after. As an artist you try and make something that’s where you want to be and also where you are at the same time, both creatively and skills-wise, so you can close that gap a bit, before it gets wider again.
But ‘LP1’ by FKA twigs definitely has been a big influence for me my whole career. I remember running around New York and being the same age as her when she made that, it was cool to hear about love and relationships from that perspective. Her writing and pen is so unique. The beats are super interesting and I was inspired by the electronic pieces and all the producers that went into that album. I was a bit younger when it came out, so I didn’t get to appreciate it in the same way as I do now.
How did you come into making music?
I have two brothers and they were watching some Kendrick Lamar freestyling videos, so I started making beats with YouTube and GarageBand and making beats for them to freestyle over. Eventually they gave up freestyling and then downloaded FL Studio and kept making the beats – it was always something that I could get really excited about. There’s a cool music scene and bunch of rappers in Rochester that I was super into at the time. But it was mainly for me and my brothers, I never really worked with anyone else, it was just something I did as a passion.
I played piano at an early age, then picked up trumpet, but the bass was the instrument I connected to the most. It’s the most freeing instrument I had to learn. But I think it’s important to have that combination of homegrown learning and something more formal. The educational training gives me an understanding of what I can or can’t do, or what it takes to get somewhere. I don’t feel completely lost when there’s an instrument that I don’t feel completely lost when there’s a gap in something I don’t play. I want to learn how to play the flute next, I just need to get my hands on one…
And how did the move to the city change your creativity?
“I’m still trying to figure that out! It’s more about relationships and meeting people which is always worth writing about. The first year when I moved here, I made maybe like 2 songs, and you just get so busy and distracted and it can be quite hard to catch up with yourself. That’s why I was glad to be at my parents house during quarantine as it just helped slow down. But it constantly informs what I do, especially all the artists that live in the neighbourhood. None of us work together, but everyone is very pushed by each other in a way.”
How’ve you found trying to break out as an emerging artist in the last couple of years?
“I’ve been waiting months to put out this album. I’ve had to be yelling on the internet to try and get people to listen to this album, but everyone else is doing the same thing and it’s becoming very crowded. You’re just locked into this cycle of having to promote yourself and that sucks because there’s no other way to feed yourself to do that. The dream would be to not have to use anything or any platform at all, but it’s so entwined with the way you make money as an artist these days. I feel annoyed for having to do that, but that’s the reality.”
Spencer.’s debt album ‘Are U Down?’ is out now via 4AD
Words: Thomas Smith and Sophie Williams