By Ross von Metzke
Originally published on Advocate.com March 22 2010 7:50 PM ET
Spencer Day is nervous. Not because he’s about to spend a half hour talking to The Advocate about growing up Mormon, life in Utah, and making a go of it in the music biz as an out gay man. And it’s not because in an hour and a half he’ll take the stage at Los Angeles's Upright Cabaret on Vermont for his second of four solo shows.
Spencer Day is nervous because he cares so much about each word that comes out of his mouth that he doesn’t want to mess anything up.
He doesn’t mess anything up. In fact, almost without trying, he’s equal parts eloquent and thoughtful. And when the words escape him, he sings — to illustrate a point he doesn’t have words for or simply to describe various styles of music. And the minute he does sing, the nerves fall away — the second he opens his mouth and the notes come out, Day is calm, cool, and completely in the moment.
A sort of John Mayer–Michael Bublé hybrid — though that's a loose comparison considering Day does everything from standards to rock to Broadway — Day seems as excited to talk about his new album, Vagabond, as he is his newfound platform: an attempt to create a dialogue between Mormons and gays. In May he’ll perform at the sixth annual Human Rights Campaign dinner in Utah — a chance, he says, to return to Utah a successful, out man and act as a positive role model. And his philanthropy goes beyond gay causes. He’s also a spokesman for Feeding America, the country’s leading hunger relief agency, feeding more than 37 million low-income people yearly.
Whether singing, speaking, or simply plunking away at the piano as he warms up for a show, everything Spencer Day does, he does with passion — and after spending a few minutes in his presence, it’s infectious.
The Advocate: What is your first memory of music?
Spencer Day: My mom sang opera — she was really good. My dad, kind of in typical Mormon fashion, was not so keen on the woman making more money than he did, so she got regimented at canning tomatoes and baking. But, she could sing the Queen of the Night aria [from Mozart's The Magic Flute] — she would sing it around the house. I think I was 4 or 5, and she was in an opera called Amahl and the Night Visitors, and she plays a thief and there’s a part where she gets caught and this guy grabs her, and I remember crying, “Don’t hurt my mommy.” [Laughs] And we were always watching the MGM musicals — a lot of the Judy Garland, Gene Kelly ones. South Pacific. Anything that took me away from Utah.
When did you first leave Utah?
I left Utah when I was about 10 years old — my mom took us kids and kind of ran away from my dad, which was a good thing. And then I lived with my grandparents in an all-Mormon town in Arizona ... until after high school. I was debating going on my Mormon mission ... and a friend invited me to come out to California for one weekend, and I was like, “Fuck it. Why not?”
And you wrote a song about it.
Yeah. Part of that is me and part of it I wanted to make a universal experience, because I think it’s kind of a common story.
Was music your escape growing up?
Oh, yeah. I was not a happy kid; it was not a happy household either. But that that’s the thing ... if you go to Bali Ha'i in South Pacific, it was always sunny. And when you’re a kid, your imagination is so strong. You can make a couple pillows from the couch an Arabian castle [laughs]. But yeah, we’d play records, a lot of classical music, a lot of country music. Any music was all about escapism. And I don’t think that really changes for adults — you still want to be taken somewhere, whether it’s a show or a performance. You want some kind of transformation.
Do you think a lot of your need to escape had to do with the fact that you sensed you might be gay?
You know, I think for me, more so than just thinking I was gay, it was more just feeling incredibly, incredibly different. There are a lot of Mormon guys, I can guarantee you, who don’t even know that they’re gay ... because it’s not even on the table. It’s just not talked about. I was unhappy on so many levels, it would have been hard for me to have an aha moment about it.
So did you have to leave before you figured it out?
I just had to go. I didn’t know why I was going. I just went.
When you finally did figure it out, and you came out to your family, how did that go?
My mom’s pretty cool ... that’s the thing about Mormons, though. Everyone knows, it's just not talked about, you know? I think a lot of people in the community don’t quite understand the language in which Mormons speak to each other. It’s not a culture of confrontation whatsoever. Obviously the agenda they have should be challenged and fought, but they don’t confront each other on things. I don’t think they even realized what they were getting into with the Prop. 8 stuff. But that’s what I’m excited about with this HRC dinner. I’d like to encourage people who are also from small towns or religious environments to go back and be ambassadors in their towns. I think one thing that happens is a lot of people grow up in these hostile environments and they run off to cities, to other places where they feel like they can have some sense of normalcy. But the problem is, these people in these small towns then have no reference point for what a positive gay influence is. These people tend to leave these environments that are already not even diverse, and because of that, these people in these small towns don’t have any positive role models. So that’s what I’d like to do ... to be an ambassador for people being a positive influence ... or just making their presence known.
There are a lot of positive things about Mormon culture too — the emphasis on family, helping the little old lady cross the street. And I think because I speak that language and understand that, as my career progresses, I’m excited to be an ambassador between these two communities and help build a bridge.
Was there any hesitation for you being an out artist?
Oh yeah, I think its still a really big deal. It’s a challenge for a lot of my friends still to do it. The record industry is not doing well, so I think any variable or challenge for them to sell you and not just do the typical, matinee idol, Jonas Brothers thing makes it a detraction ... at the very least, not a good business move. I think that’s one of the really great things Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang have done, is to blaze the trail and hopefully get it to the point where it’s like mentioning my eyes are brown. What I do, the causes I’m behind, that’s what’s important. Who I am, unless it is particularly relevant, has no place in my music.
Do you think it would be harder for you if you were trying to market yourself like the Jonas Brothers?
Well, I think I missed the age cut offfor that [laughs]. I got asked to be in a boy band when I was 22 ... I didn’t do it because I was a hippie then and didn’t want to. But yeah, it's been hard for me regardless, because in the industry, people are like, “What are you? You’re not pop, you’re not jazz. You’re kind of Broadwayish ... ” But then, that’s most of the people I like. What is Feist? What is Rufus? But yeah ... it’s been a challenge for me from many levels.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?
Well there’s this old song ... it says, “the sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear are still inside my head.” It’s hard to say, because I’m so excited about the things I’m going to do. Being an advocate. Any way I can bring people together. Any show I’ve done where you have older, staunch Republicans sitting next to 18-year-old raver kids. If I can encourage anything that creates community ... even if I’ve gotten two people in my entire lifetime to change their views and have a more humanistic view and include people, my life would be a success.
Why did you call the album Vagabond? I get the sense from you that you’re always traveling, never staying in one place for long. Is that it?
Well, for me, it’s a musical journey ... I was trying on a lot of musical outfits. And, you’re right, that’s kind of been my life. I’m so grateful for my life and to be able to do what I do, but it’s not without its challenges. For years I was just sort of running — I lived in New York, then I lived in San Francisco, then I lived in New York again ... then I lived in my car for a few weeks. I’m just waiting for someone to tell me to stay ... maybe something to tell me, “You can stop now.”
Where do you feel most at home?
I don’t even know. Los Angeles ... I’ve lived in Topanga for the last year, which has been wonderful. San Francisco is where most of my friends are, and New York has my heart. I’m in a threesome.
Where do you find that your music is most appreciated?
I’m constantly surprised where it’s appreciated because it’s been in places I wouldn’t think. [Laughs] I’m surprised just period. I did a show in Palm Springs and there were like 1,100, 1,200 people and I’m just like, “Really?” To me, it’s still this amazing game.
What has been your most surprising fan encounter?
I’ve had some really great ones. Judy Shepard, which was really cool. It’s all really surreal to me. I did this show and afterward Charlize Theron came up and gave me this bear hug and said, “You were amazing.” I can’t believe this is my life because, as a kid in Utah, these weren’t things you got to dream about. I didn’t even have these dreams, I was just depressed. I’m still taken aback.
I had a woman whose son killed himself, and she came to my show ... he was a musician, and she brought a picture, and he looked just like me. I don’t know how she heard about me, but she said, “He’s living through you.” I get really choked up just talking about it, because I didn’t do anything ... I’m just grateful that I could give her some way to feel connected to him. It’s things like that ... it’s great to meet famous people, but ... if something I do can touch people on that level, that’s amazing.
And what about your mom? Since she’s the one who really sparked your passion in music, how does she respond to all of your success?
She’s so thrilled by it. She’s so proud. The only thing I can’t have is her sitting in the front row. She starts crying every time. And my brother starts crying. And then I start crying. And then my pitch goes flat (laughs). Literally, first note. All my siblings I’m really close with, and my mom… for having such a challenging situation growing up, it made us attached at the hip. People think my brother and I are a couple… we hold hands walking down the street (laughs). I’m really blessed.