Spencer Ludwig: Taking Life by the Horn, Part 4
The first three parts of JamFeed’s exclusive series, ‘Spencer Ludwig: Taking Life by the Horn’, can be found here.
If you’ll recall from the last edition of Taking Life by the Horn, Spencer Ludwig was feeling pretty good about his tiresome summer adventure writing songs for his upcoming Warner Bros. debut album:
“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.”
Unfortunately all men are mortal, a tough lesson that Spencer was reminded of shortly after speaking those very words. “I’m just now getting over a pretty intense virus that had me bed-ridden the past couple days. I worked myself sick, man. Really sick,” he lamented to me exactly a week after the first quote.
But alas, perhaps a bit of bed rest and a three-day stint on antibiotics are exactly what is needed from time-to-time when somebody like Spencer is truly taking life by the horn. One cannot survive off of spirit and passion alone.
On the day that I spoke with him he was roughly four hours away from catching a flight to Spain for a two-week stay in Europe… virus and all. The first week will be spent on a lightning round tour with Capital Cities — just in case anybody had any doubts that Spencer is still performing with the band amidst the creation of his solo album.
“We’re playing two dates in Spain and one in Serbia for the week, then I go from Serbia to London for a week of writing sessions and fly back to Los Angeles the following Sunday. I have a session that Monday,” he says with a strained voice. I can tell that he’s still pretty exhausted, and after hearing news of his upcoming international travels I say something stupid like “that’s dope, I can’t wait to see the pictures,” and proceed to cut the small talk.
The man has work to do, so it’s clearly time to handle business. Here is part four of Spencer Ludwig: Taking Life by the Horn.
(By the way, I would be remiss to exclude a link to this wonderful New York Times piece on Spencer’s love for cooking, his trusted wooden spoon, and the cookbook that his mother made for him. It’s a short read, check it out.)
Monday, June 29
Location: Spencer’s home studio in LA
Spencer: “LP is another one of my friends who I was able to reach out to for this solo album opportunity. She was very excited for me and supportive of me. She’s an incredible songwriter with a background writing songs for really big artists. She has an incredible record out right now called Forever For Now, with another one on the way. I met her at The Sayers Club in Los Angeles. It’s a speakeasy… well, it was more so at the time, but now it’s a whole bunch of things.
There was this thing on Thursday nights called Sessions, founded by an LA music legend named Jason Scoppa. He’s really great at seeking out talent and showcasing it. Capital Cities had played there once, and after that I started going back regularly because it’s in the Hollywood neighborhood I lived in back when I lived in Hollywood Hills.
Anyways, they used to do this thing where a house band would play for an hour or two and they would feature a different singer on each different song. I would always look at Jason to see when he nodded, because that meant that it was my time to go on. I would just take his lead for when to bust out with a trumpet solo. LP was one of the singers there, and one night Jason nodded during her song. So we met each other while performing together! I don’t even remember what song it was but we’ve been friends ever since.
LP and I have such a great friendship that we can talk about anything and just let ideas fly. She was running late for our session so I ended up working on a beat before she arrived. But the thing with her is, working with her is so quick. She’s so confident and so good at what she does that we really click. She has a knack for both melody and lyrics. We literally knocked out a full song in three hours because the vibes were just flowing and the beat was strong because I had worked on it beforehand. She makes up a song so freaking quickly, it’s just unbelievable. And she makes it really fun! I believe in everything I work on with LP, and we’re definitely going to do more work together.
Her being late to the session was a blessing in disguise. It gave me the chance to experiment with beat making in a different way. I made the whole song out of trumpet, bass, and drums. For most of my songs I’m thinking about the division of trumpet and vocals and how I should be able to perform what I’m writing live. I decided to think differently about this song, like, “okay, who cares, let me use the trumpet as a tool to create the texture,” and it worked. It sounds more like a hip-hop sample or something, and it’ll be mixed that way too.”
Tuesday, June 30
Collaborators: Sam Sugarman, Matt Powell, and The Belle Brigade’s Ethan Gruska
Location: Brunswick Studios
Spencer: “Sam, Matt, Ethan and I decided to write another one (editor’s note: Spencer had previously worked with this ensemble of writers earlier this summer). It’s always a good idea to write a new one than to perfect the old one. You’re almost always going to write a better song. It seems like a big task to start fresh versus perfecting something old, but I find that you should almost always write one from scratch because you’ll always get a new little surprise. It’s challenged by the one you wrote previously because the new one has to be better or more innovative in some way.
In this case, there’s no chords. It’s just bass, drums, and vocals. We were feeling a very percussive vibe. It was kind of the opposite of my session with LP the previous day. I was hitting the side of a chair in a latin percussive influenced style, so we recorded that. Then I took a champagne bottle and started playing that in a way that fit with the rest of the beat, and we recorded that too. We threw in some other interesting sounds.
I brought in the trick that I learned from Morgan Kibby (of M83) regarding the lyrical process through use of imagery. I decided to show my friends this new trick and it paid off! We Google image searched the word ‘vacation’ (laughs), and we wrote a bunch of lyrics inspired by the images we found. We ended up with a really sick vacation-influenced song.”
Spencer on his love for percussion, and how it sparked his interest in making music:
“I have always wanted to be a drummer. One of the biggest moments in my life was when my mom made me sell my paintball gun in middle school, because I bought a drum set with the money. That was the moment when I really got into music. I was kind of messing around with saxophone at the time, but when I got that drum set I spent every hour of my free time playing the drums. It was way more fun to practice drums than saxophone because they don’t squeak and sound like a duck. For a 13-year-old kid to be able to just hit stuff and make tons of noise is such a great outlet.
I really enjoy programming drums. I’m very particular about how drums sound, and the velocity of the hi-hats and snares and kicks. I try to program drums to feel and sound live, and I have a good understanding of what I like in a live drummer. The whole point of this record is to make a live-feeling record, so when it comes to the final version I intend on having a mixture of digital and live drums.”
Wednesday, July 1
Collaborator: Anthony Starble
Location: Spencer’s home studio in LA
Spencer: “Anthony Starble has the potential to be as great as Sam Smith. Seriously. I know that’s a very bold statement, but I just don’t think enough people have heard or know of Anthony Starble. You have to check out his YouTube channel and follow him on Instagram. He posts the craziest videos of him singing in a way that’s like, ‘How is this voice real and on planet Earth?’ He has insane control and a crazy range. He can separate notes with his voice with the same control that a piano player can on the keys. His voice is that in-tune.
I went to Cal Arts with him but I didn’t really know him that well in college. We took an African music class together, but he really started coming into my awareness on social media. He was posting things that I just connected with, and I would be like, ‘Oh, Anthony, the guy I went to school with, I had no idea he’s this good!’ (laughs) So I started paying attention and when he played a show in New York a couple of years ago I went to go see him. I really wanted to help this guy, and started thinking about who I could connect him with that I know.
Anthony is really good at writing power ballads. I’ve been sitting on a very personal piano ballad for awhile, and I thought that he would be the perfect person to finish it. I was 100 percent correct. I’m not really sure that anybody else could’ve understood it the same way. He’s also a master vocalist, specifically in gospel and R&B, so he brought that out in the song and created a monster power ballad that only has piano and vocals. I don’t intend on writing any more songs like it, but I can imagine playing it at a live show the same way: just piano and vocals.
Thursday, July 2
Collaborators: Ethan & Barbara Gruska of The Belle Brigade
Location: Ethan’s home studio in LA
Spencer: “I finally got the chance to write with the full Belle Brigade! These two people are two of the most talented people on the planet. They’re the grandchildren of John Williams (the composer behind the scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, the first three Harry Potters, and countless others), but that’s just a fun fact. They come from a musical family, but they really do have unreal talent themselves.
When I get together with The Belle Brigade it’s just like old friends reunited. I’ve been a fan of Barbara’s for a long time (she’s six years older than Ethan), and Ethan and I have been great friends since middle school. Growing up, we would go see Barbara perform at the same places where I would end up performing at. Barbara has always been in a circle of really cool bands in LA. A lot of my writing sessions this summer are with that circle, which includes Inara George, Marcel Camargo, Alex Lilly, the list goes on and on. In my opinion, it’s one of the most talented songwriting groups in the city.
In the picture for this session we’re doing a clap routine, kind of like how you see kids clapping on the playground. Something about the beat gave me the imagery of kids doing this routine, and Barbara decided to record it. So the whole beat was created with the layered-in after school clap routine. That’s what inspired the song. The playground clap.