Spencer Ludwig: Taking Life by the Horn, Part 3
Anybody who knows Spencer Ludwig, or who has read the first two installments of this column, has probably figured out by now that he likes to stay busy. But “busy” has a different connotation to a musician working on his major label debut studio album than it does to somebody working a 9-to-5. Spencer’s craft necessitates that he be an opportunist at all times, that he adapts and realigns his own creative energy at will in order to more perfectly capture the creative energy that the universe throws at him.
In other words, Spencer’s plan to host writing sessions all summer with a different songwriter every day, alternating weeks in Los Angeles and New York, has already been interrupted. He was supposed to fly back to New York after spending Father’s Day in LA, but he extended his trip. “Some really big sessions came up and because of that I ended up adjusting my schedule, and it was a great decision,” he says to me on the phone with an air of certain contentment.
Like I said, Spencer is busy these days, but he’s not trapped by his work. Far from it, in fact. He’s letting his work guide him and lead the way, jumping at opportunities to create in the here-and-now. If those opportunities happen to back up his already beyond hectic writing schedule, then so be it. He’ll just be busier.
“I’m working myself to death but I feel really good and healthy. I’ve been telling people this is a peak of my life right now,” he says. “I have more creative freedom than I’ve ever had, and this is the way I’ve always wanted to express myself.”
Spencer is cherishing his newfound freedom to operate by his own rules, as this summer is the first time in at least four years that he hasn’t had to tour relentlessly with the band that found him and gave him his start in the music industry, Capital Cities.
“Imagine one day you find a kazoo in your garage and decide, ‘I’ll just go out on the corner and start playing kazoo’. Then somebody hears you and goes, ‘you’re really good at that, can you come to our studio and play some kazoo on our songs?’ Next thing you know, you’re playing kazoo on every song. Then all of a sudden you’re on tour for the next four years and even you forgot that there were so many other things you wanted to do,” he analogizes about his experience with Capital Cities.
This summer marks the moment in which all of the work Spencer has put in with Capital Cities begins to manifest itself into a true creative peak. “I had to step away from this sort of freedom in order to really appreciate it, I guess,” he says thoughtfully. “People are really down to work, and there’s this amazing energy that is pulling me and everyone involved in the project forward.”
So yeah, if a consecutive week of LA writing sessions is the best way for Spencer to keep this creative energy flowing, then that’s exactly what he’ll do. Keep reading below to learn more about that energy, and the players involved.
Monday, June 22
Collaborators: Holy Child (Liz Nistico & Louie Diller)
Location: Holy Child’s home studio in Los Angeles
Spencer: “What’s interesting about these sessions is that most of them are due to relationships that I’ve made along the way. Of course there are sessions built around these really incredible people I’m being introduced to by the label and by my manager, but Holy Child is a personal one. I met them at SXSW 2013, which was an incredible SXSW for me. It was also the year I met RAC and Penguin Prison, and by ‘met’ I mean that everybody hung out for the whole week!
I went to Cal Arts with their drummer Martin Diller (Louie’s brother). Martin said, ‘Hey Spence, I’m here [at SXSW] do you want to hop on a song?’ I learned the trumpet part on Spotify while I was walking to the gig, which was at the Spotify House (laughs). I jumped on stage and played the horn line, and I’ve been friends with the band ever since.
Liz Nistico and I unintentionally wrote a duet. We were going back and forth with ideas, echoing each other’s melodies, so it only felt natural to proceed to write the song as a duet. I love her voice and loved the idea of making this song a duet. Great energy.
Holy Child are really innovative beat makers. They have a toy piano that’s the size of a chihuahua in their studio, and it sounds exactly like a sketchy little plastic toy piano should. I started playing it while Louie was making the track, and we ended up sampling what I was playing for the foundation of the beat. That’s just who they are. They’re experimental and willing to have fun, and their music is indicative of that. The song we wrote has a very positive and fun summer time vibe, for sure.”
Spencer on Holy Child’s recently released debut album, The Shape of Brat Pop to Come:
“For the people who read this, I hope that they come across that album. It’s really cool and innovative, and it doesn’t sound like anything else out there, it just sounds like Holy Child. It’s probably gonna blow up so… you should get on it first.”
Tuesday, June 23
Location: Brunswick Studios, Los Angeles
Spencer: “Josh Ocean is the one in the chair, and Aaron Childs is the guy behind me in the yellow hat. Josh is the singer/songwriter/producer of Ghost Beach, a killin’ band out of New York, and Aaron is also a singer/songwriter/producer, as well as a guitar player.
I met Josh through RAC when me and RAC played a show at the Fonda Theatre in LA and Josh was there. Him and Aaron met each other through a publishing company they’re both working with, so this session was really some ‘small world’ type of thing because I’ve known Aaron since my college days. I went to Cal Arts and he went to USC. Both of these guys are amazing, next level talents.
I used to see Aaron play in college and think to myself, ‘damn, I hope some day I can play music with him’. His music is so similar to what my end goal is, very much a Prince/Michael Jackson vibe. He looks like a freakin’ rock star. He’s like 7 feet tall and 120 pounds — I don’t think those are the exact measurements but not far off! (laughs)
All three of us are very much on the same page musically, and I’m very excited to do more with them. They prepared something that was right on the nose of the sound I was going for. We all collaborated on the top line (the main melody) and the lyrics, so that helped the session move really quickly. I’m just about doing what’s best for the song. In this situation all it needed was melody and lyrics because the instrumental was really strong.”
Wednesday, June 24
Location: Jake’s studio in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles
Spencer: “Jake Sinclair has a really nice studio in Silver Lake. It’s a proper studio. He’s very good friends with Morgan Kibby who is the singer/songwriter/keyboardist for M83. Jake was like, ‘you know what? My friend Morgan is an incredible lyricist and songwriter and I think she’d be a great person to bring into the session if you don’t mind’. I was absolutely down.
Three is a great number for songwriting. Everyone has different strengths, and having someone with me who is specifically focused on lyrics helps me because otherwise it’s all on me to write lyrics and I like to bounce ideas off somebody in every aspect, musically and lyrically. It’s the only way you can get new ideas.
This was by far my favorite lyrical session I’ve had yet. It was the first time I wrote lyrics before melody. The instrumental was created early on, then we sat down for about 30 minutes and came up with a concept for having a wild night in Los Angeles; one of those nights that keeps going and going. We came up with a list of phrases with strong imagery and constructed the melody using the words from this two-page list. It was a really great exercise for me, and a trick that I decided to adopt. I have Morgan and Jake to thank for it.
This song is the most vivid, visceral song with the most incredible imagery of probably any song I’ve made. It tells this incredible story with all of these beautiful ways of describing the scene. For example, we were looking up pictures of LA nightlife and we found a painting on Google of a lion that was painted blue, so we brought that into the song and referred to it as a neon lion. We described hanging Christmas lights in between buildings as ‘zig-zagging zebra fire’. Things like that. I was reminded more so than ever of the power of imagery. I always end up writing about personal things, which is fine for the record, but it’s also cool to have some really fun imagery.”
Thursday, June 25
Collaborator: Kuk Harrell
Location: Brunswick Studios, Los Angeles
Spencer: “Getting a session with Kuk Harrell is very difficult because he’s the world’s number one vocal producer. He produces vocals for massive albums, like Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Chris Brown, Celine Dion, Usher, everybody. He’s won Grammys.
I found him when I was looking at the background credits for a Beyonce song. I want to write with people who’ve written for Beyonce because I love her music. I was specifically looking up a couple songs and it turns out Kuk co-wrote ‘Single Ladies’ so I was like, ‘I gotta get in with this guy!’
He told me that we could start from scratch if I wanted to, but his strength is top lining (melody), so I was like, ‘oh man, I better have a really strong instrumental for him’. When I wrote a song with the St. Lucia guys we had focused only on the instrumental, and I had been saving it for the right person to collaborate with on the melody. I decided that the instrumental would be perfect for Kuk, and I was right. He was stoked! We created a really strong melody for that song.
Across the board the feedback has been very positive so far, no matter how big or small somebody I’m working with is. It’s a very equal playing field with songwriting because there’s no one person who can write a hit song by themselves. No matter what, it’s going to take both of us, so we’re automatically equal.”
Friday, June 26
Collaborator: Luke O’Malley
Location: Spencer’s home studio in NYC
Spencer: “I flew back to New York on Thursday night so that I could wrap up what Luke and I had started (covered in part one). We took the song to the next level and it’s just a testament to what can and will happen with more time. Every day I’m coming up with a new song, and I pretty much know at the end of the day whether it has the potential to be great or not. I knew that the one I wrote with Luke had that potential, so it was good to get that follow-up session in there.
I have songs I’ve spent eight hours on, and I know when I spend a month on them they will be everything I want them to be and more. Tightening up melody, tightening up lyrics, adding layers, figuring out arrangement, figuring out the texture of the sounds. You’re trying your best to paint the picture of the end goal with each demo, and the clearer you can make that idea, the better chance that song has to be picked for the record.
Trumpet will be on every song on my album. They won’t all necessarily have solos, but trumpet is something that I naturally hear that makes my music unique. I always hear trumpet parts in my head, whether it’s a hook, background part, or solo. There will be lots of trumpet on the record, as there should be. And mostly in ways that will be able to translate in a live playing situation. That’s what I’m really pushing for: the dynamic of trumpet in the record to reflect how it can be performed live.”