A Utah-born balladeer with incredible talent, Spencer Day is thrilled to be returning to his birthplace Oct. 16, for a much-anticipated concert. In his new album Vagabond, to be released Sep. 8 through Concord Jazz, Day explores his “wanderlust and endless search for a place to call home.” The mostly self-taught pianist/jazz singer, Day, in just a few short years, has grown from doing a “few gigs in dive bars and retirement homes” to tours in London and Tokyo.
You have a very mature, eloquent baritone voice for your age, as if you’ve been singing since you were very young. When did you realize your talent?
My mother was a classically trained opera singer. I didn’t start to truly realize my talent until I was in my early 20’s but music was always around me and her passion for it lit the first spark inside me. My siblings and I all sang a little, whether it was church hymns or at various family functions. Being an unhappy and defiant teenager, I suppose I didn’t want to give my mom the satisfaction of seeing me follow a path she had wanted to pursue herself. Now that I am a professional musician, she couldn’t be more thrilled.
Then, when did you realize you wanted to be a recording artist, and was there a specific shift in your life that helped you come to that desire/need?
My first paying gigs were really happy accidents. I was a terribly clumsy waiter and my singing resulted in fewer incidents where food wound up in customers laps. So when I stumbled into my first few gigs at dive bars and retirement homes, I thought, “Well, this beat’s waiting tables.” The thing was, I never thought somebody like me could actually make it as a singer/songwriter. I never allowed myself to dream that big. It’s only in the last 4 or 5 years that I finally accepted that music was my calling. I may never be incredibly successful or famous but this is what I was put on earth to do. This realization drastically transformed my relationship to my art and my confidence as a performer. Everything changed after that.
Your most recent album Vagabond is sort of a tribute to your growing pains, if you will. Give us a brief overview of those growing pains, as interpreted in a just a few of the songs on the album.
Well, I particularly admire artists who let the audience in on their creative and emotional process. I don’t have all the answers and I’ve never pretended to. Instead I try to invite the listener to join me as I ponder what life and love really mean. Vagabond is a musical attempt to explore my own psyche and better understand my wanderlust and my endless search for a place to call home. The songs I have written since then are reflective of the self discoveries I made during the writing and recording of Vagabond.
You have said that “all those old MGM musicals” were a primary influence. Which ones?
There are so many! I love South Pacific, but only the love songs, and “Bali Hai” especially. The war part of the story didn’t interest me at all. On the Town first started my fascination with New York and I loved when Fred Astair danced on the ceiling in Royal Wedding. But Singing In The Rain, especially the dance sequence with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, was my all time favorite.
You wrote the score for, and starred in, a musical called Someday Love. Tell us a little about the show and your experiences on those two sides of the production?
Ever since I was little I wanted to write for the stage as well as perform on one. I would never have dared to tell anyone that since I never dreamed it was possible. I love writing music that takes people somewhere, and writing for the stage is one of the most magical ways to do that. Once I realized that singing is acting, making the transition from one to the other has been more natural than I thought it would be. Now that I’m living in New York I’m thrilled to not only write for the stage but to hopefully sing and act on one as well.
You were born in Utah but raised in Arizona. Have you had close family ties to Utah since you left?
Yes. My uncle and aunt and their families live in Utah and I love them and hope to visit them more in the future. Due to an unhappy childhood and my parents’ traumatic divorce, I think I unconsciously avoided returning to Utah throughout my young adult life. Coming back to perform at these shows makes this even more important as a homecoming.
I read in an article that the song “Arizona Blue” was written for your younger brother — do you mind elaborating on that?
Sure! Well we both love Arizona but also felt that we had to leave it at some point. I started humming the melody for that song late at night on a long road trip headed for California. He was sleeping and I’ve always thought of it as a lullaby, even though he’s all grown up. He doesn’t seem to mind.
What’s on the horizon for you, professionally and/or personally?
Well, apart from working on several different musical theatre projects and co-writes, I’m really excited that my fall tour schedule includes visiting exciting cities like London and Tokyo. I still can’t believe I get to travel to such amazing cities and get paid for it!
Tell us one thing about yourself (quirky, serious, funny, etc.) that most people likely don’t already know?
Hmmmm, well I’m an Art Deco fanatic and I used to be a pretty good swing dancer. I got out of practice but just started doing the Lindy Hop here in New York and I almost forgot how much fun it was. Although I am obviously inspired by the jazz age, you might be surprised by how eclectic my music collection is. If you put my iPod on shuffle you might find yourself listening to Chet Baker, The Arcade Fire, Debussy, The Rolling Stones, Jeff Buckley and Judy Garland back-to-back. I just love good music!
Spencer Day plays the Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. Broadway on Oct. 16, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $29.50–32.50, 801-355-ARTS or arttix.org.