Milwaukee's Heidi Spencer steps into the spotlight
The singer-songwriter on getting signed, stage fright, and loving Dolly Parton
Here's one thing Milwaukee musicians don't seem to need when it comes to getting record deals: media coverage. Similar to how garage-pop group Jaill was virtually ignored locally for years before signing with Sub Pop in 2009, singer-songwriter Heidi Spencer parlayed a career playing under-the-radar gigs in area bars into a deal earlier this year with celebrated indie label Bella Union, known for working with acts such as Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Beach House, and Radiohead's Phil Selway. Now, with Spencer poised to make a big splash with her third record, Under Streetlight Glow (due out sometime early next year), those outside of her small circle of local fans are scrambling to play catch-up with Spencer's beautifully sad and quietly heart-wrenching songs. Before she performs July 17 at Cactus Club as part of WMSE's Radio Summercamp, The A.V. Club met up with Spencer to talk about getting signed, the mix of anxiety and exhilaration she feels onstage, and the greatness of Dolly Parton.
The A.V. Club: What are your feelings about getting signed? Are you surprised at all that it happened at this point in your life?
Heidi Spencer: Well, I’m not that young. I believed that something could happen but I didn’t know how to pursue it, so I’ve just been like, here, in Milwaukee, thinking. We started going off by ourselves. Went to New York a couple of times, and Nashville. I mean, I’ve made things happen. It’s not like I did nothing. And I know that a lot of people—not in the city—want my new record. I know that, because I’ve done the work. I just don’t think people know that I’ve been working that publicly. I didn’t expect this to happen. And no, I didn’t shop my record. That doesn’t even make sense. I don’t know how to do that. I’ve just heard that term, “shop the record.” I don’t know. It’s kind of a miracle. I know that it is.
AVC: You’ve been making music for many years, but you’re not necessarily known for playing a lot of shows around town. Do you like performing?
HS: I get extremely nervous. It doesn’t matter how big or little a show is, if I know everyone or don’t know everyone, hands down, outta town, high stress, low stress, it doesn’t matter. I have major anxiety. But I’ve become a pretty good performer. People tell me I’ve gotten better. And actually I think I learned a lot from watching Lisa Gatewood, because she’s one of my best friends and she’s a lot younger than me. She’s a pretty intimate performer. Her songs are probably sadder than mine. My songs aren’t even that sad, actually.
AVC: What? Your songs seem pretty sad to me.
HS: Not my new songs. My new songs are not. The new record is not sad, I don’t think. It’s totally not a sad record. I won’t say it’s happy. Like, the first one’s devastating, the second one’s pretty sad—this one’s a step up, you know?
AVC: A step up to what?
HS: Moody. I should say moody. But Lisa Gatewood is hilarious between songs and I’m really shy. And that’s why I wasn’t a very good performer for a long time, because I didn’t talk. But I guess grad school helped me because I had to teach. I was terrible at first. It took me a whole semester, but I got better at talking in front of people. It’s really only in the past three or four years that I got better.
AVC: Do you enjoy performing now?
HS: Totally! Oh yeah, I don’t think we would do it if I didn’t. It’s not like I’m getting loaded off of these shows. So you have to get something out of it. As soon as I’m done I’m, like, exhilarated. Then I really kick into gear. I’m like, “That was awesome!” But once we start touring, that’s when I’m really going to like it. Because I used to travel all over the country, not for touring, just for my own survival. And I am incredibly stimulated when I get to different places. I’m pretty good at adjusting to different circumstances.
AVC: You’ve recorded all your albums with drummer-producer Bill Curtis at his home studio. Do you like the intimacy of working in an unconventional recording space?
HS: Money is a huge issue. I mean, I don’t have money. And there’s always the time constraint. You’re watching time. When you do it at Bill’s—he calls it ShipRec Studios, it’s a joke—we could just take our time. Sit and listen. He mixed the whole record. He might have gone crazy because he worked a full-time job and came home and had to do it all. He’s probably insane. I don’t think you can plan for what it’s going to sound like, really. We don’t have a plan. It’s more like a process of how we do it, not how it comes out.
AVC: Two singers come to mind when I hear you sing: Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush. Did they influence you at all?
HS: My childhood idol was Dolly Parton. I had the record where you open it and she’s, like, wearing a pink dress. I met her at Summerfest when I was a kid. So, I love Dolly Parton. The only other person who had like a direct influence is Edie Brickell. That’s when I was like 17, 18, when I really started to write. They were really bad songs, but at least I was starting to do it a lot. But, voices, yeah—Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, kind of the obvious ones. Tracy Chapman. Tom Petty is actually awesome; he’s like, my favorite. I don’t listen to a lot of music. It’s embarrassing. I listen to the Amelie soundtrack a lot, the Stand By Me soundtrack, mixes that people make me. My best friend Renee, she sings in my band, she makes me mixes to learn about new music.