“Growing up Mormon, MGM musicals were some of the only movies I was allowed to watch on TV,” says singer songwriter Spencer Day, recalling his childhood in Utah and Arizona. “As a kid who was living in a very troubled family and must have known inside that I was gay, I loved that old fashioned image of Los Angeles and Hollywood. It seemed to represent a world that was very far away from everything I knew.”
“When I was five years old, I would draw pictures of the Hollywood sign and hang them on the walls of my room,” remembers Day, who will play a pair of special shows at Feinstein’s to celebrate the upcoming release of his fifth album—the LA-centric
Eventually, Day made his way to LA, but before moving there in 2012, Day, now 38 spent seven years living in San Francisco and several more in New York. Here in the Bay Area, Day scratched together a living working odd jobs and playing piano bars. Eventually, he graduated on to his first major bookings, at nightclubs including The Plush Room and Bruno’s.
An early break came in 2003, when he appeared on television’s Star Search. Lance Bass, then a judge on the program, praised Day’s ability to make an emotional connection with the audience. He went on to build a loyal fan base here, ultimately being invited to headline the San Francisco Jazz Festival and attracting the attention of record labels.
In conjunction with the release of his first major label album, Vagabond (2009, Concord), Day made New York his home base throughout several busy years of national and international touring, fueled by the album’s radio single “Til You Come To Me.” Vagabond was a fixture on the Billboard jazz charts for 47 weeks, peaking at Number 11. But by 2012, Day’s New York period had run its course—his first serious relationship fell apart and he was diagnosed as having bipolar depression.
Traumatic as they were, these crises—and the new level of introspection they generated in Day—inspired the deeply personal, almost therapeutic songs featured on his next album, The Mystery of You, which won him a new contract with the label. “It was a very weird time,” Day remembers. “For me, because of what was going on in my life, but also for everyone trying to make a living as a musician. Nobody had figured out how to deal with digital distribution yet. Record companies were collapsing. I moved out to LA to stay closer to my label and work with them to promote myself.”
Early on, Day’s relocation to West Hollywood seemed a good choice. “I got booked on The Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which got me some great exposure,” he says. But the LA scene curdled quickly for him. “The LA I’d imagined as a child was all about the glamour and color and beautiful weather. And it was tied to an idea about reaching the height of your creative goals.” “
But for me,” says Day—pinpointing a major difference between himself and many of his new accquaintances on the LA up-and-comers’ social circuit—”it was never about being famous. I love writing and recording and performing music, but I was never interested in being famous.”
“Everyone around you in LA says that’s what you should want; to walk red carpets and get people to notice you. For three years in Hollywood, I was trying to go to all the right parties, make the right connections, always schmoozing—it was exhausting.”
“I would go, because I thought I should. But I was never really clear on what was supposed to happen. I’d sometimes find myself standing around talking to people who I thought were really horrible, going to events where stars were going to be. The idea was that if you kept going, eventually, the photographers would start to think you were important enough to take your picture. So maybe you’d show up on Entertainment Tonight.”
“I was with all these people clawing away, lights flashing in their faces and I realized, this isn’t a party, this is work. It’s about maintaining or elevating your status. I was spending alot of time at events that didn’t feed my soul.”
Soon enough, after he finished promoting The Mystery of You—an album borne of one set of disappointments—Day began the process of composing songs based on another. “I decided I’d do my version of a classic concept. An album about living in LA, signed to a record label, trying to work the fame machine. The Eagles have done it. Randy Newman. Joni Mitchell.” Not bad company to be in.
“I wrote about these experiences at the Chateau Marmont, parties in the hills, struggles to believe in the best in people even when they’re disappointing you.” The result is Angel City, finally ready to be released only now, three years after Day left LA for San Diego. There’s been one interim album, Daybreak, but this one, like The Mystery of You, is a record that cuts to the bone.
As with all of Day’s original work, Angel City —which he financed via IndieGogo after parting ways with Concord—is hard to describe in a nutshell. It’s got jazz elements, well suited to the breathiness of his vocal delivery, but also has touches of Burt Bacharach, Dusty Springfield and other artists a moody Mad Men vibe. There’s a smoky, mid-century modernism to Day’s work that calls to mind consummate sonic revivalists like K.D. Lang—who Day openly admires as both a musician and an out mainstream artists—and San Francisco’s own Chris Isaak.
One major difference this go-round is Angel City’s arrangements: “I’ve always tried to avoid having a horn section and any big band sound to try to be different than other so-called crooners, like Michael Buble,” Day explains. “But this time, I said lets just go with full, lush balls-to-the wall orchestration.”
That he could afford that big sound is a tribute to Day’s remarkably loyal fans, who appreciate the very uniqueness of his music that has made ongoing radio play a challenge. “The money I was able to raise from my fans,” he says, gratefully, “Gave me more of a production budget for this album than I had for any of my projects for record labels.”
Day, who will have a horn section at his Feinstein’s shows says that living in San Diego has led to a growing interest in Mexican music, and that he’s already working on new compositions with a Latin brass element.
Another town, another sound. And yet another chapter begins for Spencer Day.