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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Heidi Spencer’s Cinematic Turn

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Photo by Kathleen Hamilton
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Heidi Spencer has been crafting beautifully sung, homegrown melodies for the past decade, but underneath the whitewashed exterior something mysterious lurks. Since 2003’s Matches and Valentines, her down-tempo, downtrodden folk songs never quite reveal the entire portrait, rather allowing each listener to paint the remaining canvas. The singer-songwriter remains equally elusive in person, as well, constantly rejecting previous comparisons made in the press and only providing scant surface details. (Spencer says the themes from her new album with the Rare Birds, Things I Remember Golden, are “probably the same thing as all the records—just thoughts and experiences.”) Even the way she plays guitar is evasive.

“People would say that no one would ever be able to play with me—that it was an impossibility,” Spencer recalls. The skeptics criticized her abnormal guitar playing ability as amateur and unapproachable. “They were very condescending people. Then I met Bill Curtis and the notes didn’t matter as much as the meter. And I had learned that somebody could play the meter.”

Bill Curtis plays drums and other than Spencer, of course, can be attributed as the sole reason the ensemble exists. He’s recorded and mixed all four albums, offering his apartment and his own handmade microphones to the process—Curtis’ microphone company shuttered in the ’90s, but not without a surplus. However, more importantly, Curtis could translate Spencer’s bizarro guitar playing into a rhythm the other Rare Birds musicians could comprehend.

“He is the only person in the band that completely understands Heidi’s sense of time and her changing patterns,” Rare Birds guitar player Allen Coté explains. “The rest of us follow and hold on for dear life. Bill actually locks in with Heidi. And if Bill couldn’t do that, I guarantee none of the rest of us could.”

Spencer’s unique sound and crypticism is what drew the British independent label, Bella Union, home to Fleet Foxes, Explosions in the Sky, The Walkmen and Beach House, among others, to release her last record, 2011’s Under Streetlight Glow. The backing exposed Spencer to a larger audience through numerous reviews and an overseas tour. She’s self-releasing, Things I Remember Golden, but that doesn’t mean it’s not her strongest effort thus far.

Spencer has always been able to expertly create distinct moods in her songs—mostly gloomy—but her new record contains the most diverse catalog yet.

“It’s not just moody, though,” Coté explains. “It’s cinematic. There’s dynamics and there’s atempo periods where she takes advantage of the feeling versus the structure.”

And if Spencer had her way, her songs would be featured not simply on radios but also on the silver screen.

“I want them in other people’s films,” Spencer says. “That’s all I ever really wanted. I love performing—actually, I miss it a lot. I don’t perform much and I really do miss it. I started to really love it a lot. But the recordings themselves, they can fit into somebody else’s imagination.

“If I had my dream, it would be a Wes Anderson movie that’s surreal, not quite reality but not quite not reality,” she continues. “The sort of world that exists in imagination.”

Her unusual musical sensibility and lyrical ambiguity certainly help to heighten the mystery. It seems pretty realistic that her songs could capture a dreamlike coming-of-age film.

“The last line of the whole record is ‘in the middle of nowhere,’” Spencer says, “which is maybe how I feel in life; maybe it’s how I feel here—maybe. Or maybe you do? Or maybe everyone else does.”

Heidi Spencer and the Rare Birds headline an album release show on Friday, June 13 at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn with Lyric Advisory Board at 9 p.m.