Even though artists like Troye Sivan and Kim Petras rule the charts, out musical artists are still few and far between. Count Spencer Day as one member of that rarified group. This Utah-born, New York-based singer and pianist has found success with deeply-felt jazz songs, many of which he writes himself. Day has a new album — Broadway by Day — and is performing his music at venues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. We caught up with the young talent recently:
The Advocate: What inspired you to start singing?
Spencer Day: My first musical inspirations were splashy MGM movie musicals. They were the only option growing up Mormon in Utah. The video store didn't even carry R-rated movies. Early on, your options were either Disney movies or MGM musicals, so those MGM extravaganzas were my gateway to learning about really great songs at the age of 7.
Who were your favorite torch singers growing up?
Of course, I lived for Judy Garland, who knew her way around a torch song. But I love Marilyn Monroe, Peggy Lee, and Julie London. The classic cool school singers were so sly, saying so much by saying so little.
So many of the classic songs you’re singing are written about heterosexual romance. How do you relate to those when you sing them?
Music is universal. That said, sometimes if you sing in a sexy or romantic way, people want to envision themselves in a certain setting with you. When I’m singing, I want to be like an abstract painting where a listener can find themselves in whatever way makes sense for them. Sometimes I change a pronoun, sometimes I don’t, but first and foremost I try to communicate the truth of that particular song and that moment.
You sing much more than jazz standards, including awesome David Bowie covers — how do you develop your eclectic set lists?
A wonderful song is a wonderful song, if it’s a Cole Poter standard from the '40s or a rock song from the '80s. I try to strike a balance between great classics from the past and my own original work. If its something that would be immediately recognizable to the audience, I want to make sure I bring something new to it, a new spin or a new feeling.
In your opinion, what makes a sexy voice?
There is a certain mystery in certain voices that I love, like Rufus Wainwright. Chet Baker has a cool detachment that lends him an intrigue as well. I guess a sexy voice is suggestive but still leaves something to the imagination.
How does being gay influence your career choices a jazz singer?
With both musical choices, and life choices, I try living my life as authentic and transparent. That feels important. My work is better if I'm true and honest to myself. So I try to pick songs and styles that feel organic and suit my talents, suit my voice. It can be a profound act of activism to sing a song unapologetically and beautifully without a sense of irony, "Some day he'll come along/the man I love."
You recently performed at Pride, do you find your performance or approach to a show changes when you’re playing for a primarily queer audience?
People are people and you have to give them credit. And again, great music is universal. I may make subtle changes here and there in the show. But many people in my fan base are Republican. Mike Pence’s mom saw me perform, I was out and did jokes about being gay, and after the show she told me, “I so enjoyed that!”
When not on stage, how have you been celebrating Pride?
I try to incorporate Pride into my writing too. I wrote kind of a love song for my boyfriend when I was in New York, that I think turned out beautifully. I had never written a love song to a person before! I’ve written about wanting love or losing love, but never really having a love for myself.
What are you most excited about for your residency at Rockwell Table & Stage in L.A.?
Rockwell has been such a great testing ground for new material, and I appreciate them for providing that. Being able to come back to the room over the last few months has let me explore that, trying out original songs for audiences, get immediate reactions. I am extremely lucky to have musicals homes like The Green Room 42 in New York and Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco. The audiences have been very generous with their time and attention.
What are your favorite songs to perform?
It always makes me happy to incorporate different styles and genres, but right now I am happiest honing the songs for our new record, Broadway by Day. I think we’ve found fun new ways to exploring show tunes from musicals that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear in a jazz context, but still have their own logic. “I'd be Surprisingly Good for You” from Evita is a rhythmic rhumba, “Losing My Mind” from Follies is quiet and completive. Plus, I think we’ve found a subtext in “What I Did For Love from A Chorus Line that most people haven’t heard before. This album has been very exciting to create.