Thursday, January 15, 2009

Light of Day

The second Singapore Sun Festival, set for 10 days, from Oct. 17 to 26, 2008, was deluge of sensory delights. Involving about 200 or so artists, musicians, chefs, writers and celebrities, it celebrated the arts and living well, set against the cosmopolitan feel of Singapore, particularly in the Marina Bay area and along the Singapore River. I came to Singapore during the latter part of the festival, missing opera star Kiri Te Kanawa, the Vienna Boys Choir, actor Geoffrey Rush, singers Sergio Mendez and Peter Cincotti, Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, violinist Sarah Chang and Australian-Filipino writer Merlinda Bobis. But I did get to taste the dishes of Australian chef Luke Mangan and contemplate the paintings of German-American abstract artist Sibylle Szaggars. I heard Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Esplanade, and was introduced to Canadian flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook and American singer-songwriter Spencer Day.
Cook and Day performed back-to-back one Saturday night at Timbre, the chic café near the Arts House, near the river and among colonial buildings restored to become art spaces. The statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, almost disappeared among the people, dancing and drinking, and in the darkness dappled with varicolored lights. Cook impressed with his dexterity, coaxing incredible sounds from the guitar and setting the air on fire, and Day coolly crooned, dripping with sincerity, against the backdrop of the glittering skyline along the Singapore River, a spectacle.
Fusing jazz, contemporary, folk and country music, Day sings in his velvety baritone on diverse subjects with refreshing wit, becoming a favorite performer at San Francsico’s Bay Area. He is also well-received and acclaimed when he performs in other areas of the United States and outside it. He has put out two albums, Introducing Spencer Day in 2004 and Movie of Your Life in 2005, and is working on a third, Vagabond.
The next day, Day was set against the skyline composed of malls and office buildings, his blond hair catching the most gossamer light of a gray Singapore day as we conversed at the club lounge of the Conrad Centennial Hotel. He was easy-going and was excited being in Singapore.
“It is really great. It is really clean. I haven’t seen really so much because we literally flew in yesterday, slept for a few hours, did a rehearsal and a sound check. We went to a hawker center. I have eaten a lot which has been great. That’s the main thing I have done so far,” he started.
Day has been performing a lot recently like at the Monterey Jazz Festival and at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Massachusetts. Now, at the Singapore Sun Festival, he appreciated performing in a smaller scale in a warm outdoor setting. He also got to watch and interact with other artists, and taste the gustatory offerings. He also got to be interviewed, sharing his views on his music and life:

RHM: Any influnces?
SD: I have a ton of different influences. I think it has been a challenge in the industry because I am not doing what I think a lot of people expect me to do. I had some challenges in my career because I think I am not as jazzy like Michael Buble, or I am not doing a big band thing but I am also not doing a rock thing. But I think ultimately, hopefully that would be a huge benefit, that I don’t fit into either of those categories. I also grew up listening to a lot of different sorts of good music—country or Western music. My favorite singers are Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker. I really think they both sing ballads so beautifully. I really consider myself a torch singer, a ballad singer. I don’t think there have been a lot of torch singers lately though, more of another time period. I want to try bring that spirit of another time but put it in a more modern context.

RHM: Does the younger generation like your music?
SD: Yeah. I have been really surprised. I try not to worry or think too much about who is going to like the music and just do what I love to do. That is always better than thinking if I am cool with this people or am I proper enough for older people. What I have been really happy about is that I have discovered that there is a very wide range of people who seem to listen or appreciate what I am doing. I have people who are in their 80s and some are 18-year-old. I am really pleased about that.

RHM: Do you get compared to Michael Buble?
SD: It really depends on where I play and in what context. Sometimes when I play more like a singer than a songwriter, I get compared to Jamie Cullum or Rufus Wainwright or Harry Connick, Jr a lot, or Michael Buble. I think that’s what just people do to have a reference point, when people are trying to describe something. Just like if I would describe Singapore. It is a mix of Hawaii or Hong Kong. I don’t even know how to describe it, but sometimes when people don’t know something they need a starting point to give them an idea, even if it does not end up something familiar to it. People do that a lot. I don’t mind because they are wonderful people to be compared to.

RHM: How does a song idea come to you?
SD: It starts with coffee. Nothing happens without coffee. So as long as the trees keep growing beans, I would have ideas hopefully. When I am stuck with an idea, what I do is listen to something, whether it’s bolero or Joni Mitchell, and listen to a song I really like and try to figure what it is that I enjoy about it, and start to play along with it. When I stop the CD, it kind of transforms to something else. Sometimes by the point that I am done, it does not sound like anything like what I have started to listen to. When I am stuck creatively, I’d like to go back to a catalog of songs that I really love and respect, and think of what it is that makes me feel good about it and try to come up with my own interpretation. Sometimes, if I am stuck creatively, to work up a challenge, I would write a love song but never use the word love in it or do something like that. Or maybe just write a song about a bottle of water and what makes you think about it. It is a great way to focus your self. I think there are a lot of artists who tend to be very scattered. I put a lot of discipline onto myself.

RHM: You write songs on diverse topics. Where do you get your ideas?
SD: One thing that I was told when I was younger that I really disobeyed is you don’t want to write too specifically because then people won’t be able to relate to the song. That’s why a lot of love songs tend to have a general or very broad appeal. But a lot of the songs that I really, like The Counting Crows’ “Me and Mr. Jones,” has very specific details. It was a huge hit because they are really creating an image of the place, the people. Even if they have not been in that world, they really understand and know where the person is taking them. And for that one, I want to write a song from the perspective of family whose son is leaving home and they are worried that he is not going to make it and he is going for the big city of California. They never hear from him again, which is not an experience I personally had.
The fun in writing songs is that you can write about Marie Antoinette or you can put yourself in many different worlds. It is almost like a mini acting performance. Within the four-minute song, I can create a world which I have not personally experience, but we can find that experience all within our selves, and I want to invite everyone else to come along.

RHM: Do you have any idiosyncrasies or rituals before creating a song?
SD: I meditate a lot. I think creating an atmosphere wherein you can be creative is really important. That’s why I live now in the woods. I don’t live in the city. Usually I can find it when it is really quite which I do better too. I need to be alone, too. If I need to do any work calls or something like that, I have to do it on a different day. If I am going to be creative, I have to wake in the morning knowing that I have nothing else to do left to do because you are using the left part of your brain. Anytime I start thinking that I should write this song to make money or something else, it kind of ruins the creative impulse. You really need to be open and free. Yeah, I guess my real ritual is turning off my phone.

RHM: You are a singer, a composer and an actor. Which of the three comes first?
SD: I would say songwriter-composer and secondly a singer. I love singing other people’s songs too. All composers and singers have an element of acting. It is not the main talent if I would say, but I have learned that no matter what you are doing it is acting. You still have to create a world around you and then invite people into it. I did not think about that before, but now I do believe that I am an actor. But really more of a songwriter

RHM: Do you have any favorite songs that you wrote?
SD: I love them all. They are like children. Even if you have one kid who’s in jail you would still love him the same. I am really proud of the song I did last night, called “Weeping Willow,” and some of the ones that are very melodically strong. I think those of the songs I most proud of. I think a lot of songwriters are saying the best song they have ever written they haven’t written it yet. It is yet to come. Maybe tonight, who knows.

RHM: Who do you want to work with?
SD: Wow! I love Joni Mitchell. She is wonderful. I would love to do an album with an orchestra like the Boston Pops or the New York Philharmonic. There are so many different projects I’d like to collaborate with I can’t even think any of them. There are so many people I respect. I am really lucky that finally I am starting to meet those people and be respected in those circles. I love Feist. I would love to sing something with Feist. I love her. She is fantastic. I can go on forever.

RHM: What do you do in your spare time?
SD: I love to garden. I live in Topanga Canyon, in Malibu North of LA (Los Angeles). I love working in the yard. I just moved in to a new property. Tons of work to be done which is for me is exciting because for me I could see a lot of ways to make it beautiful. There are deers and coyote and some stuff. I am really excited to go back to tons of work. I also love traveling which is fortunately what I do. I get paid to travel. I want to do it anyway. I am so happy to be in Asia. Traveling is one of my big loves. I used to teach swing dancing, so used to do jitterbug music.

RHM: Where did you last spend your vacation?
SD: Oh, that is a while ago. I went to visit my family in Arizona. They live up in the mountains which is really beautiful. So I guess that is my last vacation. New York is my favorite city in the world.

RHM: What other places have you been or want to go to?
SD: Well, I have been to Australia a few times. It was wonderful. I love Australia. I’ve been to Paris which is amazing. Rome, all over Italy. Brazil, a few times, and London. I would love to go back to Paris though. I was only there for three days. It was prettier than I could ever imagine. I did not think it would be that beautiful when I got there, but it was really something.

RHM: Are you a light packer or heavy packer?
SD: I used to be a light packer until I destroyed my very expensive travel bag because I was packing too much into it. Now, I have started transitioning to be better safe than sorry. When I travel I have an enormous bag so that I won’t miss anything. I bring more than what I need. I bring like the entire medicine cabinet. I bring my own pillow for the airline, earplugs. I don’t leave anything to chance now. But it is a little bit of a pain.

RHM: What albums by other artists are you listening to right now?
SD: I am really into Roy Orbison right now. I am kind of rediscovering him and Dusty Springfield. It is so great. The productions are wonderful in those albums. I am kind of going back to the music I have grown up with that I kind of took for granted because it was always there. [I am listening to an artist] from Pakistan. I am listening to him a lot too. It is very diverse, and I don’t know what would come of me after this. A very interesting combination.

RHM: What are you reading right now?
SD: I am finishing a book right now entitled Delirious New York, which is an architectural manifesto about New York by Rem Koolhaas. It is a theory about everything that is wonderful and horrible about New York, that it is pre-planned. Because of the way it was built on the grid, it created certain rules on how to build because you couldn’t build a really huge building. You only have this tiny area so all the buildings have gone up. It is just a study of how people deal with each other in the city, [being put] in close quarters. It is really an interesting psychological study. I am reading that and I am also reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke.

RHM: Some critics have called you the male counterpart of Nora Jones. How do you deal with this?
SD: I love that. I’ll take whatever I could get. You know when I was younger, I try to avoid getting compared to someone, but now it is such a huge honor to be in comparison with them. I think what we share in common is that her music is very organic and natural sounding as opposed to other tracks out there which are very studio and manipulated. I think that’s what I actually share with her. We are both crooners too. She is a torch singer too. She sings ballad and has a very breathy, beautiful voice. She plays the piano. I feel great about it. Being in her company is not a bad place to be.

RHM: Do you consider yourself a poet?
SD: Other people call me that. I don’t know. There are so many good poets out there as well as songwriters.

RHM: Did you write some poetry?
SD: Yeah, a little bit. I did write some poetry. I write long, free-flowing poetry. With songs, it is a little bit difficult with the nature of melody. It kind of limits what you can say poetically. It’s really a whole different thing. Lyric writing is similar to poetry, but I think the rules are a little stricter. I think you have a little more freedom when you write a poem because in songwriting the melody should always comes first and the lyrics come second. “Take on Me” is a great 1980s song, and I don’t know what they are talking about. The lyrics do not make any sense at all.

RHM: Do you have a favorite poet?
SD: Who do I like? I like Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton. She is really great. I have to be in a little sad if I would be reading Sexton poetry. Elizabeth Bishop, she is really great. Pablo Neruda.

RHM: Do you look at their styles?
SD: I think sometime. also lyrically I get blocked out, and I just have to go back and look at the subjects they write about. Poetry is best at taking what seems to be a very simple moment and bringing something so profound out of it.

RHM: Do you have a philosophy you follow?
SD: I think one of my main goals through music is to try to bring all the religions and philosophies in the world and show them what they have in common. I have been studying a lot of Buddhism recently, but I think they all have the values of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, etc.

RHM: What do you want people to remember you for?
SD: That is a very good question. I think what I want people to remember me for, long after I have gone in the earth, I hope there is a little smile in their face. I think if I could leave people feeling something or thinking something, that is my main goal. I really want to encourage people to look at the world and human beings a little differently. Even if I could only do that with one person in an audience where after they go home and encourage them to view their lives in a more positive way. That is my goal. I think musically, to just leave them with something beautiful. It is a very simple goal.

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