There's a little bridge Spencer Day would like you to cross - the bridge between what's thought of as traditional cabaret (the standards and show tunes in the hushed intimate night club) and the broader contemporary music world. "It's one of my missions," he told me in a phone interview from his home base in San Francisco. Like many performers, he doesn't like being labeled. "I guess I'd rather be called a singer-songwriter." He's been called a crooner, but "that title can be a bit limiting," he remarks with some restraint. "I kind of want to do it all."
Now that Spencer is writing more of his own material which absorbs various styles - and even creating musical theater - he may be increasingly difficult to categorize. The bridge could be crossed from either direction, as those who are charmed by his respectful and plaintive renditions of standards like "Skylark" and "Blame It On My Youth" will come along for the ride into his own story songs. He brings much of the same sensibility and open emotional quality to much of his writing. Likewise, those initially attracted by his hip and bluesy originals may also find his take on standards to be well worth the crossover.
"I like music to be rhapsodic. I draw on Gershwin a lot," he admits. "I've been listening to more classical music lately. Sondheim and Cole Porter are the top of the ladder for me." In the same breath, he mentions fondness for today's writers such as Fiona Apple. "I want to stir it up. I've been reading a lot about what cabaret was like in the old days in Germany, when it was subversive. The world could use a little more of that."
I caught his dynamic show at The Cutting Room in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago; his new song about the seductive qualities of The American Dream was a powerful political statement, and it got a roaring reaction of approval. "I'm very politically involved," he says simply. He's emotionally involved, too. His sultry baritone voice alternately purrs, growls and soars. His piano playing sometimes takes center stage and his seven-piece band keeps him revved up, too. The entertainer knows how to strike a chord in more ways than one.
Things have been moving along quickly for the 26-year-old since he dipped his toe into the music world a few years ago and found himself a finalist on TV's Star Search. His first self-released CD, Introducing Spencer Day, brought him wider attention and one booking has led to another, including runs at The Empire Plush Room in San Francisco and appearances in New York at the Cabaret Convention and Don't Tell Mama. This Saturday, November 19, he will be at Joe's Pub. This week's trip back East was planned as a relaxed evening for his growing New York following, but the stakes have been raised. A few major record labels have shown interest, have set up meetings and will be sending representatives on Saturday night. Pressure? "I was sort of just looking forward to just doing a show! And now ..."
Spencer's own songs are mostly personal stories, some based on actual experiences. I asked about a particularly sweet little tune called "Last Train to New Jersey" on the new 5-song EP Movie of Your Life. The entire lyric is one side of a phone conversation with an apologetic man asking for a second chance at a relationship. The conversation really did happen as the song represents it, although probably not initially in rhyme. "It's about this jerk - me!" he readily offers, and all stemmed from a forgotten birthday and hurt feelings, wanting to get back together immediately. But "I actually missed the last train." He finds singing the personal songs in a live setting to be a different experience and connection each time for himself and his audience. "It's really about keeping the channel open."
"I grew up with musicals," he states, adding the form to a long list of early influences. A recent favorite was Caroline, Or Change. In California, he recently performed in and wrote most of a musical called Someday, Love based on William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. "It's avant-garde, with a cast of six or seven, and it's about the loss of innocence." He says writing more musicals is something he really wants to do. "I love collaborating."
The Utah native is a self-effacing man who shrugs off the quotes comparing him to various music icons or praising his easy good lucks and grace. "I don't know what to make of it when a reviewer says I have a honey-covered throat," he tells me with a tone of bewilderment. He did like getting a review that said he had progressed to a point where "Spencer Day doesn't need to be compared to anyone anymore."
What he really wanted to talk about was not the growing acclaim he's been receiving but his involvement with AIDS charities. Working with Artists Against AIDS and singing at fundraisers, he's concerned about education and activism and wants "to keep that in the public consciousness. I feel there was a lot of fire in the '90s and then people started to get apathetic. We Americans like our quick fix." He's been asked to headline the World AIDS Day concert in Melbourne, Australia and is headed there right after his Joe's Pub night. "They heard my music somewhere and invited me. I can only stay for a week." So, he insisted on only one condition - to see some of the country and wildlife. He laughs, "I told them I'm not leaving until I see a platypus!"
Spencer Day performs with his band at Joe's Pub on Saturday night, November 19 at 7:30 pm. Visit Telecharge.com for more information.