It’s the afternoon of Thursday, June 4th, and Warner Bros. recording artist Spencer Ludwig is standing in downtown Austin, TX, preparing to kick off the 21st edition of the Summer X Games with a trumpet rendition of the National Anthem.
“Warner Bros. recording artist.”
That is the way that Ludwig is officially introduced prior to his X Games performance. Ludwig, who’s donning a simple-yet-sleek getup of black boots, black jeans, white t-shirt, and white leather jacket, has the sun to his back, the U.S. military color guard standing faithfully next to him, a row of tricked out motorcycles behind him, and jets capable of breaking the speed of sound whirring overhead. The stage is his, and the newly signed singer/songwriter/trumpeter is reveling in the moment.
“The feeling I had right before I started playing was, ‘wow, I’m about to have the most insane summer!’ It just felt like this is a moment where I can stop, play this really epic song, and pause everything,” says Ludwig about the X Games performance.
The 24-year-old Los Angeles-born musician of Filipino descent is right to take a moment to breathe, as he is embarking on a singular mission this summer: work with as many songwriters as possible from the beginning of June to the end of August. Ludwig is a workaholic who is deeply in tune with the betterment of his craft, something that I quickly realized while interviewing him for an artist spotlight back in early March.
This summer, he’ll be taking weekends off in order to play shows when possible, spend time with his girlfriend, and get some much-needed rest. Each weekday will consist of a day-long session with a different songwriter, alternating weeks between his native Los Angeles and his new home, New York City. That’s five different writers a week, for three months, with the intent of getting in the studio in September to record his forthcoming Warner Bros. debut solo album.
Although Ludwig is young, he is far from green. He has been playing trumpet for the indie pop band Capital Cities since 2011, and his tenure with the band has taken him and his horn to sold out stadiums and arenas across the world.
Now, as of April, Ludwig is a solo artist standing on his own two feet, and no longer just a trumpet player.
“[The X Games] was the first time I had ever been introduced that way. That was really cool. I’m kind of getting used to the whole thing. People are referring to me as singer/songwriter/trumpeter and that’s making me really happy because it’s the truth, and it’s how I want to be identified,” says Ludwig.
Indeed, the lane that Ludwig is attempting to occupy has been empty for quite some time now. “Here’s a guy who’s going to sing and play trumpet, and nobody in the world has anybody on their roster like that. He’s the first singing trumpet player since Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker who’s going to make a mark in pop music. Period,” Ludwig says.
He may be comparing himself to two of the greatest innovators in the history of music, but he is not wrong, and the comparison does not come from a place of ego, but rather from a genuine desire to create timeless music. Besides, whoever said that singing trumpeters need necessarily restrict themselves to the realm of jazz? Ludwig has a different goal in mind, and an idol who’s influence probably surpasses that of Armstrong’s and Baker’s combined:
“I’m trying to create a timeless funk record. ‘Classic’ would be a good word too. To me, it’s about having strong melodies and really strong, great lyrics. I’m taking inspiration from all the music I first loved, and it starts and ends with Michael Jackson… and MJ is in the middle too,” says Ludwig with a laugh.
Although he is far too ambitious to attempt to simply duplicate Thriller, it is the energy of that record — specifically of “P.Y.T.,” Ludwig’s self-proclaimed “bible” — that his debut album needs to capture.
“I push my songs to have that feeling of perfection; not in the sense of music theory perfection, but energy and feeling perfection. ‘P.Y.T.’ feels good, and I’m just trying to understand how in the hell does it feel so good?”
And that, in a nutshell, is the goal of Spencer’s summer.
Indeed, it is the very reason for the sheer number of, and diversity of writers he is working with. As he transitions from being a trumpet player in a band, to a well-rounded solo artist who does it all, Ludwig is finding out who he really is as a musician in the process.
Each writer Ludwig works with this summer will push a different side of his musicality to the forefront, and come recording time in September, he will know what that energy and feeling he is trying to capture is.
I will be writing weekly segments on Spencer Ludwig’s progress, as well as documenting each writing session, from now until the end of August. This column allows Spencer to detail the making of his debut album in his own words and in his own way, as he describes his learning curve on a weekly basis. Hopefully these segments will not only capture the intricacies of creating a major label album, but also the inspiration and collaboration that drives an artist to be great. The experience is about life turning into music, turning back into life, and so on.
Without further ado, I present to you the first installment of Spencer Ludwig: Taking Life by the Horn.
Monday, June 1st
Writers: Nick Paul and Ross Pryce of St. Lucia.
Location: Paul’s apartment in Brooklyn.
Spencer: “Nick and Ross are good friends of mine that I met on the road. Both of them have a very, very deep knowledge of jazz. That’s one thing I’m really trying to showcase in my record: sophisticated harmony. It comes from understanding jazz and gospel. Michael Jackson songs are simple, but the harmony is sophisticated. It’s so lush and emotional. Working with jazz musicians can take a pop song to the next level. What you have to be careful of is to make sure that it doesn’t go too far jazz. Nick, Ross and I were really able to experiment with harmony and melody, and what we came up with was super funky and lush.”
“That session was hosted at Nick’s apartment. I’m finding myself exploring NYC and LA in all of these different environments that I’ve never been in before. I’m going to home studios, fancy studios, sometimes I’m in a bedroom, sometimes I’m in a top of the line studio. As far as I’m concerned all we need is a mic, keyboard, and laptop to get the demo done. Different environments and instruments inspire different demos.”
Tuesday, June 2nd
Writer: Luke O’Malley.
Location: Spencer’s apartment in NYC.
Spencer: “Luke O’Malley is an amazing songwriter but his strength is guitar. You probably know of him as the white guy in The Roots. He plays with them off-and-on. He’s worked with Mary J. Blige, Mark Ronson, Aloe Blacc, Andrew Wyatt, just a long line of greats. All these writers have long lists of accomplishments, which is great. It’s just cool. The greatest thing is that everyone I’m working with is a normal person who loves to make music and there’s no ego.”
“It’s like, ‘hey, we’re here to write a song and we want to write your best song. It’s in both of our best interests to write your best song, so let’s make it happen’. It’s not like, ‘I want to write the average song in the middle of your record. No. We’re here today to write your number one song’. And I love that because it challenges every other song that I’ve written. If the goal is to write my number one song every day, then it gives me an album of singles, hopefully.”
Spencer then took Wednesday, June 3rd off to fly to Austin for the X Games, where he performed on Thursday, June 5th.
Friday, June 5th
Spencer: “I did a DJ set in Chicago that night at Studio Paris Nightclub with DJ Mr. Best. Sometimes I DJ and play the trumpet and other times I just play the trumpet alongside DJs like Mr. Best. I think that DJ sets are really fun, and it’s a really nice break for me. I’m writing pop songs and DJ sets allow me to have fun and improvise. What I do is improvise trumpet over the music. It’s a nice way to hear some of my favorite music, and also to just let loose. It’s funny because I’m so fixated on melodies when I’m songwriting, and that’s really influencing my style of playing trumpet now because I’m constantly thinking about melodies.”
Monday, June 8th — Wednesday, June 10th
Writer: Gregg Alexander.
Location: Spencer’s apartment in NYC.
Spencer: “Gregg Alexander is best known for being the front man of a band called New Radicals, who had a huge international hit in 1998 called ‘You Get What You Give‘. He went on to write some really big songs, like ‘Game of Love‘ for Santana and Michelle Branch. The list goes on-and-on.”
“I was working with a much more experienced person who has had a lot of success writing huge, huge hits. And it was an honor to have him in my apartment. We spent three days together. I got to know somebody who’s had an incredible career, who’s brilliant and has a really unique way of writing songs. What was most unique was that after we created the instrumental, we started making up melodies for the songs that we were recording our ideas on an iPad for. After the first ten minutes [Gregg] stopped and was like, ‘let’s go back and listen to everything we came up with’. I’m used to crafting the ideas as I go, but he said that the first ten minutes is the most instinctual, and all the gold is in there. So we spent an hour listening to our ideas and picking out the best ones that we first came up with, and then we organized them in a way that ended up being the top line for our song.”
“The song is great. [Gregg] actually lives in London, and I’ll be there for a week later this summer, so we’re going to try to work together again.”
Thursday, June 11th
Writer: Ben Antelis
Location: Spencer’s apartment in NYC.
Spencer: “I met Ben when I went to see a friend play about a year ago at this place called Rockwood, a small bar/venue on the lower east side of New York. He was drumming, we exchanged information, followed each other on social media, and always kept in touch. We tried to connect but it never really worked out. When this record deal came to me, he sent me a demo like, ‘yeah man, I also write songs. Let me know if you want to do some songwriting’. I thought the demo was pretty cool so I hit him up.”
“Ben is 29, he’s young, and he’s a hustler. In my experience as an instrumentalist, if you link with another instrumentalist who really knows how to play their instrument, then you’re going to make good music together. At the end of the day Ben and I realized that we’re compatible to be good friends… writing a song is a very intimate situation. You get personal and talk about personal experiences. There can’t be any hesitancy there, you can’t have a filter. You have to be willing to talk about what you want to talk about.”
Friday, June 12th
Writer: Penguin Prison
Location: Penguin Prison’s studio in NYC.
Spencer: “I’ve been a huge fan of Penguin Prison’s music for a long time. I got connected with him via RAC. RAC is a big part of my world and I love that guy. After [RAC] introduced us, Penguin Prison has had me onstage a few times to perform [his and RAC’s] song ‘Hollywood‘. I’m a huge fan of that song, as well as PP’s production, songwriting, and voice. His sound is unbelievable and he does everything himself, he’s one of the most well-rounded musicians out there.”
“He has a killer studio with really cool vintage synths. We made a really fun jam. It was very jammy because we’re both able to play many instruments, so once we got the drum groove down we just picked up different instruments and jammed over it. Once we found a really cool vibe we were like, ‘alright, let’s track that!’ I tracked the piano, he was playing guitar, and it kinda felt like we were with a live band. Then I started doing some percussion with my mouth and he was like, ‘track that too!’ So we tracked that too, added some effects to it, and suddenly we had this really cool bouncy, summer-time cruise beat. Then we started singing a bunch of melodies, listened back for the best ones, and started crafting words around the vibe of the song. It was freakin’ awesome and I really hope that song makes the record.”