Interview: Heidi Spencer

This interview was originally published in Issue #14, October 2010.

While fellow Milwaukeean Lissie is basking in critical acclaim following her startling debut Catching A Tiger, Heidi Spencer is just coming to terms with the limelight. She’s been playing music since she was 15, but now the 20-something singer-songwriter has been announced as Bella Union’s latest signing - what’s even more surprising? How long it’s taken for a label to snap her up. Her music is a stirring mixture of folk-tinged Americana; “I Slept in Cars” (available on her MySpace) is like all of her songs a slow burner, but one that packs a significantly emotional punch.

Spencer is set to join fellow country chanteuse Caitlin Rose when she tours the UK this Autumn, but for the moment she has more pressing matters to deal with, like talking to DrunkenWerewolf’s new boy Antonio Rowe about her bittersweet drawl, the idol that is Dolly Parton and a bunch of other serious topics:

When did you start writing music and what inspires you to play?

I started writing songs at about 15, when I found my Dad's guitar in the basement. At that time I sat in my bedroom with the doors closed and it was all trial and error, a lot of bad songs [were created]!

What inspired and still inspires me to play is pure addiction, and the satisfaction of completing a song […] it's hard for me to tell which half finished [songs] are good, if any, and which are bullshit, or which sound just like the others. It's hard to tell what they will or won’t become without hearing the instrumentation. Historically, my band don't hear or learn the songs until I’ve recorded them, and I need them to add their parts, then we do it live. I’m going into a new approach though, one where I actually bring the songs into practice. For the benefit of the DrunkenWerewolf readers who haven't heard of you yet, how would you describe your sound?

Probably - simple, emotionally driven, melodic, moody, Americana, folk-country with a strange sense of time signature, dream-drunk and songs for film.

Is there a genre you dislike being 'tagged' with?

All genres are sort of generic, but I understand why we have to have them, [it’s] a form of categorisation.

Who do you consider to be your peers?

I consider all people peers. Oh, this is a tough one. I just looked the word up in the dictionary, and the meaning I most connect with is: “something of equal worth or quality”. Maybe my peers are situational: in Grad school, the other filmmakers were my peers, but all of my friends are peers, other musicians are peers, neighbourhood passer-byers are peers - all types, ages and sexes.

Has your local Milwaukee scene had much of an effect on your writing?

I don't necessarily write about the goings on in Milwaukee. The songs are more from the head, and imaginary, and personal trials and tribulations, and they may or may not occur in Milwaukee.

Most of your songs have a slow tempo - was this deliberate?

My slow tempo drives my drummer mad! No, [it’s] not deliberate. I just tend to write slow songs, and I’m not a guitar virtuoso, I taught myself, so there are limitations. Even if we had a fast tempo song, I’d still be singing slowly. Someone just said that the other day; I often turn to my drummer while performing, if I think we're speeding, and I say, "Not too fast!" He always laughs later.

Your voice is lovely; it reminds me of Dolly Parton and Stevie Nicks - a bittersweet drawl. Are you a Dolly fan?

Thank you! Dolly is my childhood idol. I’m in love with "a bittersweet drawl". Can I change my sound description to that? I don't think I sound like her at all; it's weird, though, people have said that. I’m way too alto, and less pure than her voice. However, my Dad's family grew up in the Kentucky Mountains, near Tennessee - maybe it's the Appalachia.

Have you ever been to DollyWood?

Never. I drove past it once, and in a little mountain tourist store, I did buy a DollyWood coin - I’ve since lost it.

Has it always been Heidi Spencer and 'the Rare Birds'?

I named the band maybe four years ago - where it came from is so silly and almost embarrassing, that I’ll have to tell you later - but I named the band because the same musicians were playing on all of my records, even this new one.

Matt Hendricks (guitar) was the first person to ever play live with me, ten or eleven years ago. Everyone else told me it would be impossible to ever have people play with me because my meter was so messed up, and I really should take guitar/music lessons, but Matt had no problem. Years later, after I met Bill, and before making a second record, a mutual friend called David White put together a "Bill Curtis Appreciation Night". All the groups he had helped out and recorded with played that night, and Bill played live with me for the first time. We did two songs I think, “In the Drizzle” and “Witness”.

Anyway, eventually Bill, Matt and I played some shows, and then Renee started to sing with us, after I met her in Grad school. She sang on the second record and it was the next obvious thing to ask Dave if he wanted to [join]. We played with no band name for a while, then I asked a girl we now know and love named Jesse to play piano with us, as there was a real piano at the venue, and we should take advantage of it… She said yes. I [then] realised that five dedicated, loyal and kind musicians should probably have a name of their own, and along came "the Rare Birds."

Now… I call them that because it's so rare for all six of us to play, and there are some other Rare Birds who play on the records.

Was the addition of a backing band more of a conscious decision than an organic one?

It was a truly organic experience. One by one we built that band… The other players on the records, too, they are also sort of Rare Birds, but those six are the originals.

Your lyrics are quite introspective and heart-wrenched. Which topic do you find the easiest to write about?

Being lost and confused, depressed, wishful thinking and sorting through my head - this is probably very typical.

For you, when is the best time to write?

Late afternoon into the evening, or the middle or the night often till the sun is coming up. That habit started 11 years ago, after coming home from bartending. It's hard to sleep when you get off work, so I’d stay up all night.

Who influences you as a musician?

I know this sounds weird, but I have to go back to my formative years of writing, and the actual direct influences were Joni Mitchell and Edie Brickell. Those were influences on melody attached to lyrics, and poetic writing. People that may have been influential without realising it are Dolly Parton, Tracy Chapman, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, if I go back through all the tapes and records, the style is completely the same as it is now - slow, emotional, acoustic song writing, but I think the songs themselves got much better.

Why have they had such a profound effect on you?

Maybe it was my age, when I really got into writing. Those people just struck a chord with me, and there is never a way to understand why we are so taken by some things, and not by others.

Are there any new artists you like at the moment?

Brand new? I feel bad, but I don't discover new music. I listen to mix CDs given to me by a few friends, and I love the songs, but I can't retain their names. Right now I'm back on the Amalia Rodrigues train, but she’s deceased!

You've recently signed to Bella Union - how did that come about?

A series of events, so strangely timed that it may not have turned out this way had some other things not happened exactly as they did. […] About seven years ago I met Stephanie Dosen when she lived in Milwaukee for a short time. Years later she introduced my music to Simon [Raymonde, co-founder of Bella Union], who then wrote, and a couple of years after that, here we are. I'm very lucky!

You've recorded your past albums with drummer/producer Bill Curtis. What's he like to work with?

I can't say enough about Bill, I'm convinced he's the only reason I have any records [out] at all.

I met Bill at a Milwaukee show - he was recording the other bands [playing]: Mahogany Throttle, The Danglers and Murder in the Red Barn. It was a historic night for all of us. Bill came up to me awkwardly, and asked if I wanted him to record me too, and I awkwardly said sure. He was unhappy and frustrated with the recording; he wanted to try it again… I went to his apartment thinking I was going to do what I always did, pay him for an hour to record the songs back to back. I was actually an experiment for his microphones and preamps. A year later, we had Matches and Valentines.

Bill generates the most positive, generous, high-energy situations. He’s both patient and overworked. In the beginning our friendship was based on conversations about timing and synchronicities that we didn’t have control over, and overall creative agreements. We mostly record and mix in his apartment. He calls it shipRec as a joke!

Is the collaboration on-going?

We hope so. When I finish a few more songs, we may start the process again in winter.

Have any of your past albums been given a UK release?

Nope. The first two albums were self-released, pretty much just in my city.

Do you have any plans to release a record soon?

I think for early next year.

If you could be signed to any record label other than Bella Union, which would you choose?

I never thought I'd be signed to a label, so I never pursued investigating which labels do what. Because of how amazing this experience has been, with all the good things and music and people Bella Union have opened me up to - I'm going with Bella Union, or no label at all.

It's been announced that you're going to support DrunkenWerewolf favourite Caitlin Rose this September in London. Do you agree that you follow a similar direction?

I'd have to meet Caitlin before answering that. I learned something a few years ago - I asked to open for someone I felt I had a similar direction to, musically. He was quite inspiring, and I listened to his songs all the time. So I opened for him, here in Milwaukee, and he wasn't as expected, and I think that's part of what a similar direction is. Does that make sense? Never meet your idols. Never expect connection. Never expect parallel lines. Never expect anything. But I can hope.

Who else have you toured with in the past? Who would you like to tour with?

I haven't been on an official tour, travelling with and playing with the same band. I've been stuck. I’d like to tour with anyone kind and willing.

Do you enjoy performing live or recording in the studio more?

I get pre-stage jitters bad, but once I'm into the third song, I'm happy and when it's over, it's exhilaration, like I got through something. Recording takes too long. I like the immediate satisfaction [of playing live] more, but when the record is complete, mastered, and out... Well, there is a huge sense of accomplishment. It’s a tough one, but I’ll go with performing.

- Antonio Rowe

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