about Spencer Day
In the three years since the release of his debut recording Vagabond, vocalist-songwriter-pianist Spencer Day has spent some time in the uncomfortable places where light and clarity disappear into the mysteries of uncertainty. He survived the journey, and he’s come back with a story to tell and a wiser perspective about himself and the world. That story – rooted in his own experience, yet filled with revelations and truths that are universal to any human being who has ever put his or her heart at risk – is captured in the 13 tracks of The Mystery of You, his new album set for release March 12, 2013 on Concord Records (international release dates may vary).
Filled with stylistic nuances that range from smoky noir to Latin jazz to surf guitar to Middle Eastern and Asian melodies, The Mystery of You tracks the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes harrowing arc of a romantic relationship from passionate beginning to painful demise to enlightened aftermath. More than just a survivor’s tale, the album is Day’s affirmation to anyone within the sound of his voice that navigating the human experience is an ongoing balancing act.
“It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with in my adult life, but it’s also been a huge opportunity for growth,” Day says of the ill-fated relationship and the music that emerged from it. “Each of these songs represents a different phase in that growth process. Along the way, I really started trying to understand my own psychology.”
Self-exploration is nothing new to Day, who recalls a troubled childhood in a conservative town in Utah, and a volatile home life resulting from his parents’ troubled marriage. His primary means of escape were music and movies. He grew up listening to a wide cross-section of composers, including Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon and Paul Simon. And the classic MGM musicals in the local theater – the only options available in his G-rated hometown – eventually left their mark on his creative sensibilities.
He didn’t start performing in public until age 21, mostly singing standards in piano bars and retirement homes. “I was probably three or four years into that when I realized that that wasn’t totally satisfying to me,” he recalls. “I realized that I needed to write as well.” That’s when things got into high gear.
His 2004 debut album, Introducing Spencer Day, was primarily a collection of standards, but the title track from Movie of Your Life, released the following year, won the San Francisco Academy of Art University’s 2005 competition for best original song. The resulting video was selected by Dolby Laboratories as a demonstration video for the global launch of the Dolby 7.1 system.
Day performed at the 2007 San Francisco Jazz Festival, and has been a recurring headliner in a number of high-profile Bay Area clubs, including Yoshi’s, the Plush Room, the Great American Music Hall and the Herbst Theatre. On the opposite coast, he has earned raves for performances at the Town Hall, Joe’s Pub and the Canal Room in New York City , and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. He has also appeared at both the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Tanglewood Jazz Festival.
Vagabond, released in 2009, was a musical hybrid that drew from the Great American Songbook, but also maintained an alternate aesthetic that sidestepped easy categorization by borrowing from influences like Burt Bacharach, Roy Orbison and Dusty Springfield.
But while The Mystery of You also draws from a range of sources, the result is a much more personal tale. The story opens with the noir-ish title track. Filled with the unlikely combination of James Bond guitar riffs, Middle Eastern strings and Motown drum fills, the track explores the intrigue that comes with the early stages of getting to know someone. “The goal was to constantly surprise the listener’s ear with new sounds,” says Day. “And at the same time, it’s this classic torch song that talks about love like a crime scene.”
The minimally produced “Love and War” is an acknowledgment of vulnerability. “This is the moment when you realize that you may already be in too deep, and there’s a very real potential to be hurt,” says Day. “This track comes after three uptempo, fully-produced tracks, so given the subject matter, it seemed like the right moment to bring the production down a little bit.”
Further into the set, the symphonic “Soul on Fire” chronicles the head-over-heels tumble that takes place at the early stage of every relationship. “This was a chance to write in this unapologetically dramatic way, with a string arrangement and a great ‘60s nuance,” he says. “The strings ultimately build to a frenzy and capture the passion that’s so common early on.”
In the quiet and poignant “I Don’t Want To Know,” vocalist Gabi Moreno makes one of several appearances on the record to share the lyrics with Day. “This represents the turning point in the relationship, the moment when you realize that the end is actually here but you just don’t want to acknowledge it,” says Day. “There’s a jazz piano solo in the outro, along with an electronic drum loop. The goal was to create a slow and steady build, something that would enable the track to gain momentum as it sails into the distance.”
“The Answer” pays homage to Roy Orbison, a longtime favorite of Day’s – and perhaps the most gifted writer of heartache songs in the last six decades of pop music. “That’s basically the moment when you’ve packed everything in your car and you’re driving away, hoping that someday the reasons why it all came to an end will be clear.”
And somehow they are, eventually. “Somewhere on the Other Side” is built on the hope that if you can get through the hard part, things do get better. “I wrote that in the depths of despair,” says Day. “It’s almost like an early American Quaker spiritual. I was just trying to remind myself that if I could make it through this, there would be a sacred place that I could get to on the other side.”
He finds that place in “I’m Going Home,” which Day refers to as a song about gratitude. “It’s about returning home – not necessarily a physical place, but more a matter of redeveloping a relationship with yourself. This was an opportunity to combine an electric piano with an acoustic piano solo I recorded in L.A. It really works in this minimalist Brian Eno kind of way. There are some strange but interesting textures that pop up and catch your ears.”
In the end, Day sees The Mystery of You as an effort to chronicle a relationship in much the same way as an abstract painting would. “It’s going to be a different experience for everyone, and different tracks will resonate differently with each listener,” he says. “But I think the goal is to let people find themselves somewhere within the music, and find something in common with the experiences that inspired the writing of the music. I think the goal of any artist should be to take a situation that’s personal and draw out those things that are universal.”
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