I sat down for a chat with Canadian (London born) singer-songwriter musician Stephen Spender. I discovered Stephen whilst he was performing outside Greenwich park last summer, and as soon as I heard his voice my ears pricked up! We spoke about his much anticipated fourth album, which he crowdfunded for on Indigo. As well as his 2013 album ‘Daylight Coming’, and the experiences that have fuelled his songwriting. He also shared how he finds the reception of the public (and pigeons!) whilst busking and his aims and dreams within music.
Can you share with us your journey so far within music, have you always wanted to be a musician?
Well, way back, I was singing at church as a boy. My parents went to church so I was in the choir for a while, and then started going to camps and singing. Both my sister and dad played guitar, so I was around it a little bit. And then in high school, I started getting into theatre – I was then an actor for a long time. I was doing musicals, and a lot of those guys played instruments so we’d jam together. A really good friend of mine, who’s an excellent guitar player, inspired me to play and so, we started up a little thing musically. But basically, at theatre school I was always writing songs – as soon as I picked the guitar up. At that point I was just in my bedroom playing but eventually I started to perform to people and they were like, “you should do something with that!”.
For me, as soon as I could play a couple of chords I instantly wanted to be creative with it.
Where did you first start performing – what kind of venues and spaces?
The first venue was in my kitchen! At parties mainly, and people were responding, ‘that’s really good”. Which was kind of a surprise. Then, my girlfriend pulled me up to an open mic one time and I was terrified. But it went ok – so that was the first time.
I was acting at the time, and was just doing music on the side but eventually music took over. I was up for this really big role in a series and we’d shot the pilot and it was supposed to go, but it never did. I was really disappointed and so I wanted to take a break from that. And then I started pursuing music full time.
You were born in London but grew up in Canada – have the different cultures impacted on your music?
There is a little bit of difference in terms of style and context. I grew up with a lot of roots music; a lot of folk music and country music. Not that in the U.K we don’t have other genres, we do, but I find in Canada there’s a strong roots / folk music scene. I find London a lot more urban.
I think geography and where you are plays a big part in how you write music. In terms of influencing my music, I was always drawn to folk music and writing folk music growing up – maybe because it was simple! But I just really like it, and I like poetry set to music.
If I have a line or a lyric, and it just fits and feels right, that’s what I look for.
When you sit down to write music, what fuels that process for you? Would you say it’s emotionally led?
It’s funny, I think about that sometimes. My mum said when I was a kid I used to sit around and draw people and scenes and would talk the whole time. I’ve always enjoyed playing and being creative. For me, as soon as I could play a couple of chords I instantly wanted to be creative with it. As a person, I just want to create and do something. I think that it’s something that’s in you to be a songwriter. There is a need to express and create.
I spend quite a lot of time on the lyrics and the words. It’s a balance between making them spontaneous and making them feel fresh, whilst also making them fit and mean something.
How did you go about writing the songs featured in your 2013 album ‘Daylight Coming’? Did certain places bring inspiration.
It took me about three years to write the songs, and then about three/ four months to record them in the studio. There’s a travelling song in that one called ‘Love Travellers’ and that one was inspired by travelling with a girl. That was pretty literal! But when I went back to Canada this past December, as soon as I got there, I picked up my guitar and a song just popped out. I think sometimes when you change environments stuff can come up emotionally.
Do you aim for your music to resonate with people on an emotional level?
That would be nice. I don’t really strive to get people to think about things. I like to create truthful lyrics – sometimes they’re playful and I like to have fun and sometimes be clever. I like it to work – if that makes any sense. If I have a line or a lyric, and it just fits and feels right, that’s what I look for. I’ve written a lot of cheesy songs but I like them because they’re honest and truthful. Like a lot of things, when you’re not wrapped up in thought or the process, sometimes great things happen which are more spontaneous.
How do you find busking to the public? I have always admired buskers – it’s quite exposing…
Generally, I have gotten used to it, but it does take a bit of time to get the courage and the confidence. I have been doing it long enough to know that I don’t suck and people don’t seem to mind it. So, that’s ok! And I think once you’ve got that confidence and you’ve got your spots where you feel comfortable, it’s good. It can be quite difficult when you get to a new spot where not many people usually play, and you just rock up and set up.
How does it work, do you have to pre-organise where you can busk? Where are your favourite spots?
There’s a group called ‘Busk in London’ and they have all these designated spots in the city, like Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square. Greenwich is unlicensed – it’s like the wild west! With busking I like how everything is immediate: you get paid immediately, and if someone likes you, they will come over. There’s no barrier between you and the people.
I used to go to the Tate Modern a lot – especially when I first got here. It’s nice, right by the river and the Tate Modern. On good days it’s great – it’s a beautiful day, you’re out playing music, and you feel free. You can show up when you want, and if you have new material you can go out and practise it that way.
“Now I really have to make an album because I’ve told all these people i’m going to do it!”
How do you find the public’s reception when you’re out performing?
Generally good. I mean, sometimes you get noise complaints – I’ve been yelled at a couple of times and have had a couple of nasty notes, usually from residents. So there’s always that push and pull but most people really like it. If I didn’t have anyone giving me positive feedback and it was just the negative, I’d be pretty upset!
As you know Burnt Orange City aims to reflect reality and authenticity with it’s chats. The music industry, like many industries in the arts, is a competitive one. How do you find that?
I find the industry confusing nowadays. It probably was before, it always has been hard, but now there are so many more opportunities with social media and online. And as an independent artist that can be hard to navigate. It can be overwhelming sometimes. But having said that, it gives you so many opportunities to promote yourself and there are so many avenues available to do that.
You’re currently working on your fourth album which you recently crowdfunded for, how is this going? Have you started recording for it?
It’s going well. The good thing about crowdfunding is that it makes you think, ‘now I really have to make an album because I’ve told all these people I’m going to do it!’. I was going to do it anyway but it really makes you accountable. I also haven’t been the best with social media, so it does force you to get out there and talk to people about it.
I start recording for it on Monday. We’re going in with a drummer and a bass player, so we’re going to put down bed tracks and then build off those. Some tracks are more simple and I’ll just record with voice and guitar and add to that. Usually we have a bunch of songs on the go – some people go in a do one and get it done, but we’ll probably have a mix.
When can we have a listen?!
Hopefully, in three months it will all be finished – signed and sealed! Stay tuned.
Where do you hope to go with your music – what are your dreams and aims?
I would really like to reach a wider audience. If I could get 100,000 really true fans, that would be amazing! It would mean I could tour, write and make a good living off my music.
I’ll be at The Black Deer Festival in Kent from 21st – 23rd June 2019, and in the meantime I’ll be busking (usually by Greenwich Park gates at the weekends) and have some gigs lined up.
Spotify – Stephen Spender
Favourite record of yours…
The Velvet Underground & Nico – it’s a classic album.
A fellow artist that’s inspired you…
Where’s next on your travel list?
I’m hoping someone will fly me down to a gig! I’ve gone down to Malta, Nice, Berlin – all mainly from playing in Greenwich! But, I’d love to go to Greece and Barcelona, and would love to do a U.S tour.
Favourite things you like to do in Canada and London?
In Canada, I love to walk around Stanley Park in Vancouver – they’ve got a really beautiful sea wall. In London, I feel like i’m still getting to know this place. I really like going to Camden and then walking along the canal to Regents Park – hitting a pub, and discovering the city I guess.
Where can we find you?