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Student Spotlight: Spencer Brill From the Private Song Book to the Public Stage

Spencer Brill diptych

Remember this moment.

This is the moment you heard a demo of a song that’s about to be an instant classic.

Spencer Brill is a newly solo singer/songwriter formerly used to touring and playing in bands and currently rediscovering both his voice and his creative process. Having gone through a bit of a tough patch during this pandemic, he’s now emerged with more energy and songwriting inspiration than I think even he expected…

Below we talk about Spencer’s recent session with a Soundfly Mentor, we talk about his battle with COVID-19 and how it turned into one of my favorite not-yet-released songs of the year so far (and soon to be yours), and the intimacy of revealing one’s private thoughts in the public “journal” of songwriting. Here’s “Hospital Song” in demo form.

If after listening to that song you don’t immediately want to know more about how and why he wrote a tiny ode to COVID-19, you’re on the wrong blog, my friend. Check out our conversation below, and follow Spencer on Instagram to get updated when this music goes public.

Q: You recently finished a couple demos of the song “Hospital Song,” which is a super infectious indie ballad seemingly recounting your experience getting COVID-19. Let’s start there, did you actually get COVID or is this just a dramatization of the general experience of someone getting it?

A: Thanks Jeremy! I got COVID in March 2020, one of the first in my neighborhood, and was hospitalized for a week right around the time everything shutdown (thankfully, never on a ventilator and no lasting symptoms). It was a harrowing experience and certainly one I’d never wish on anyone.

I saw and heard things in a hospital room jam packed with people that changed me and made me take a closer look at my own priorities and how important being healthy is (spoiler alert: it’s the most important thing), and that’s what inspired this song.

Staring death in the face can have that effect…

And I guess this is a follow up, but was the subject matter for this song just a personal challenge, like to write about something relevant to the time, or is there a deeper storytelling goal happening here? 

I like to think of this song as a prayer; to myself, to my wife, to the universe. Basically, give me a chance to get out of here and I won’t take you, or my life, for granted, like I may have in the past. For me, the line in the chorus, “breathe in, breathe out,” is both meditative and related to COVID because of how the virus attacks one’s lungs. The lyrics arose out of some prose poetry from a sense-bound writing exercise, and was completed right around the second anniversary of my release from the hospital.

The hospital experience has never left my mind and writing a piece that was both “hey, this was my experience and it was awful, please take care of each other” and also something so clearly present for everyone still felt fitting to write about. I do love writing in a duality of music and lyrics though, especially with sad lyrics and upbeat or catchy music.

“I’ve joked in the past that songwriting for me — and I’m sure for many others — is like having a secret public journal. It allows me to process things externally and share about stuff that I’m thinking about or that lots of folks may be thinking about.”

In general what are themes you like to play with lyrically and do you have goals you set for yourself when you set out to write a song?

Currently, my focus has been on super uplifting themes like dementia, death, grief, and anxiety. Having gone through a societal collective trauma in the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot of stories related to those topics. They keep showing up in my life, so that’s where my attention is currently.

When I set out to write a song, my goal is to find an interesting angle and be as authentic as possible.

I’ve joked in the past that songwriting for me — and I’m sure for many others — is like having a secret public journal. It allows me to process things externally and share about stuff that I’m thinking about or that lots of folks may be thinking about. Right now my goal is just to write a ton of songs (20-25 songs is the goal for the near term), and shape them into a collection. Solidifying “my sound” will come with time I think, once I have a bunch of material done.

“Hospital Song” has such a throwback ’90s alt-rock vibe, I can totally imagine this being played on MTV in my childhood. What are your influences?

I’m big into Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer, and a lot of bands in that mid to late ’90s/early ’00s era of alt-emo-indie rock. I think those styles of music are so embedded in my brain that the process is pretty fluid, but I’m trying to keep things interesting, new, and different. Lots of big inspiration from that timeframe, but I also listen to and love so many different types of music that I’m sure my sound will shift over time.

What is your songwriting (or production) process like exactly? What elements do you start with and how do you build your tracks?

I mostly write on my acoustic guitar; play around with chords, find a pattern that seems interesting, and then experiment with melodies, singing gibberish along the way, ultimately finding words that fit. Recording those sessions on my phone has been such a simple but effective game changer, as I can go back and listen to a way I tried singing a line, or a chord progression/rhythm that was interesting, and work on it later.

I keep a notebook of interesting phrases, things people have said, topics that come to mind, and I’ll do free-write sessions on those to see what comes out! As far as production, I start with guitars, add drums, then vocals, bass and other instruments, more or less in that order. Seems to be working for now!

“When I set out to write a song, my goal is to find an interesting angle and be as authentic as possible.”

You worked heavily on your songwriting in a mentorship session with Charlotte Yates. What kinds of things did you work on together?

Charlotte. Where can I even begin? I came into the mentorship with an idea of where I was in my journey as an artist, a vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish, and some sense of where my skills were. More than anything, Charlotte helped me put up guardrails on my momentum, like the bumpers on a bowling lane, to help me better understand what I was trying to do/accomplish.

So, rather than bouncing from side to side, I’m moving forward.

She helped me get over my perfectionist tendencies, guided me to where I should be focusing my attention (turns out, it’s working on being the best songwriter I can be, and not half-assing it as a songwriter who dabbles in half-assed production), helped me determine how best I can spend my regular intentional song-focused time (as well as how to spend a six-hour cross-country flight with no in-flight entertainment and use that to write!), and ultimately create a plan for what’s next!

We talked about the music business side of things as well — representing oneself out in the world, getting marketing/promo materials together and all the other things that I was likely going to push off until way, way later. She motivated me to seek out live performance opportunities to get real time feedback from an audience, which I’m now doing regularly.

In terms of songwriting, she helped me to understand how to best get to the point quickly in my songs, rather than dancing around the topic and eventually getting to it. I’m super appreciative of her knowledge, her skills, and her bedside manner. Because of working with her, I felt comfortable this last week walking into a co-writing session with another local Brooklynite and getting a draft of a new song down in an evening! Pretty exciting stuff.

+ Learn about Soundfly’s goal-oriented custom mentorship program, and fill out a quick form to get paired with a mentor (like Charlotte Yates) to improve your skills!

Charlotte Yates

How was that process of working with a coach in general?

I needed that structure, definitely. Setting clearly defined, reachable goals, setting up those systems… Charlotte was awesome. I would send her drafts of pieces, things I was thinking about, and share what was inspiring, and she would send back thorough feedback, places where I nailed it and places to improve, and was an amazing cheerleader. I started and finished “Hospital Song” while working with her, and it’s the song I’m proudest of writing so far in my songwriting career.

You’re also heavily active on Soundfly’s community Slack channel. What initially brought you to Soundfly?

The office hours on Slack are great, and perusing the archive of conversations and questions is a WEALTH of information. I signed up for BMI and got some other licensing done due to a Flypaper article, and great links from the Slack channel. That is huge! And being able to get feedback from a group of awesome supportive humans is a major plus.

What brought me to Soundfly was my search for a community of other songwriters, but more specifically a mentor relationship — and Soundfly has it all! So much amazing information, communication, and such a caring community. Feel like I struck gold!

Spencer Brill's studio

What’s next for you in 2022? What are you working on now?

Playing shows (getting involved in Sofar Sounds, opening for other bands, and playing as many open mics as I can manage), maybe building my own band later in the year, and working on writing like a mad man, now that I have a cohesive system to do so.

Right now I’m about halfway done with a song about being overwhelmed by bad news and working on getting my socials, website, and media content up to snuff. For now, folks can find me on Instagram.

Thanks again Jeremy (and high fives to the rest of the Soundfly team)!

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a Montreal-based musician, sound artist and improviser who loves giving advice to emerging artists on how to make their tours more effective. He writes, records and performs electroacoustic "concrète" music for tape, oscillators and amplified objects and surfaces, as well as solo guitar. He has performed and released material throughout Europe and the UK, Asia, the US and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.