One of the breakout stars of 2023 is Grammy nominee singer/songwriter Laufey. The extremely gifted and affable Laufey will tell you a big part of the reason for her commercial and critical success is producer Spencer Stewart.
The L.A.-based Stewart has worked with Laufey on both of her albums, as well as Alina Baraz, LAUV, D4VD, and more. Sage Bava and I met with Stewart in his L.A. studio to discuss his creative process. What ensued was an incredible philosophical conversation between Bava and Stewart that invoked Plato, mythology and much more. For anyone interested in the creative process this is a fascinating conversation.
Steve Baltin: So we were just talking about darkness in the industry. How do you escape that?
Spencer Stewart: I drive through Aberdeen on the way to see my father who lives in Ocean Shores. And you enter the town and it says, “Come as you are” [laughter]. It says, “Aberdeen come as you are.” Which is so beautiful. But you drive through this town and it has a vibe. It has a vibe. I think there’s a darkness lurking. And Washington is the most beautiful state ever. Anyone who goes there knows that. There’s nothing like it truly, it’s like the Scandinavia of America somehow, just the landscapes. But, you asked me how I escape the darkness. There definitely is a darkness, but I know I don’t give off that vibe. And I think it’s just all thanks to music, to be honest with you. Music has just structured my whole being in the most beautiful way since I was, I discovered it as a kid. And that’s just been my lifeline, man, through all of it.
Baltin: For so many artists, music is just the way to communicate. That becomes your way of speaking to the world.
Stewart: Absolutely. I think you, in some weird way, you structure your entire being on it, and it’s worthy of that too. You can structure lifelong music, it has the stability for you to do that. And people structure their lives on all kinds of sort of things. But I’m lucky that I found music and that it’s worthy of that in a sense. And it’s never gonna, I don’t feel that music is ever gonna let me down in a sense. It’s got my back. And it just keeps paying me back in a way. Music’s introduced me to my wife and to just all these beautiful people. And I just feel like everything good in my life is thanks to music. So yeah.
Sage Bava: I love that phrase, “structured my being.” I feel like, to internalize that. And then now as a producer, creating worlds outside of yourself. Can you talk about how that structuring of your being, you were able to bring that out of yourself to create it into tangible reality with structuring worlds of different musical spaces?
Stewart: First of all, thank you for noticing. That means a lot to me. I think that my job on this earth is to investigate music without any boundaries and to serve music. And I think that not every musician has that job title. There’s a lot of different ways to participate in music. Like some people are on earth to speak their unique voice until they die and they have this solitary thing. And that’s what the world wants from them. That’s what they’re here to do. That’s their highest form of existence. And I found that for me that’s not necessarily the case. I feel like my job is to be in service of music, to just freely float through the kind of mythological landscape of music and not have any judgments even if I discover something that I don’t like, even that’s interesting to me. Like I’m “blue da bu du da bu die,” that could be just as interesting as anything else. Like, let’s hang out here for a second. So for example taking it to Laufey two years ago, I got bit by the Henry Mancini bug for some reason, and I just was like, “Something is calling me to investigate Henry Mancini.” And it just was so charming me, and capturing my imagination and Laufey wasn’t a person that I was aware of at that time. I don’t think she had even started releasing music, but when we met, it was like the Henry Mancini phase had already been like a year or two past, but it was like, “This is why I was called to do that.” So the question of how I create different sound worlds is, I just let curiosity guide me wherever it wants to guide me without questioning it. I have this phrase like, “Follow curiosity, like a dog follows its nose.” It’s not wondering, well, “Where’s this going?” It’s just like, “There’s something here. Let’s see where it goes.” And I feel that’s my job. I can’t control where that curiosity takes me or whether or not it’s going to be useful. But then when I have the opportunity to collaborate with an artist, I think that’s allowed me to create distinct worlds. And the thing I’m most proud of about my career and my discography is that the albums that I’ve made with different artists don’t sound alike necessarily. So I think that’s all because of my process of exploration. There’s always the temptation to limit yourself. There’s always this feeling of, “I should be doing something practical,” or like, “What does this have to do with anything?” And there’s always a voice that’s trying to stop you from just giving into your curiosity. But I think part of my struggle and my battle, and the thing I’m very conscious of, is not giving in to that. I think especially, the more successful you become or the more responsibilities you have in life, the more the temptation to be practical is strong, the more important it is to cling on to that principle of curiosity over everything, no matter what. I feel like I have to accept, even if that leads to financial ruin, or even if that leads to no one wanting to work with me anymore, it’s more important for me to cling to that principle, because I have to believe in something absolutely and that’s what I’ve kind of chosen to believe in.
Baltin: For you, when did you figure that out that you could follow your curiosity? Because I think as an artist, forget about it as an artist, as a human being, it’s the only way to live life.
Stewart: That’s so cool, man. I love that, yeah. It’s beautiful to hear that echoed in other people. I think that it’s been gradual. I think moving to LA and taking a risk on myself was a big step in me finding confidence as a human. I’m still finding it. You have affirmations. I think it starts as, I think this is the way, I think this is more important. Someone told me confidence comes from success, which is a really hard pill to swallow. But I found that to be true to some degree. I think that I’ve always had confidence in myself on a fundamental level. I think that’s what my whole musical life has been built around, is just a belief that I had to do music. Once you start having success in different small ways and big ways, I found that it’s been like a reaffirmation. Like, “Oh, I can just be myself.” Because it’s always the things that’s most authentic to you that are most successful. Every time I have that experience, I’m like, “Okay, great, now I can just fully invest in the pursuit of my curiosity.” But I used to live in New York and I was a bass player for people, and I was a sideman. And I think I very much had a posture of, “I’m in other people’s bands. My friends are the geniuses.” I discovered production while I was a bass player and it just was this seed. I was never a great bass player because I would get so distracted on stage and I’d forget my parts. I think to be a great performer, you have to be a very focused person. And I think when I found production, it was like, “Oh, this is perfect for my brain. It’s non- linear. You can just dream. You can dream into your computer and then see what comes out.” And also the canvas is unlimited. It’s up to you to set the boundaries. That little seed of discovering music, discovering production, I think gave me confidence to be like, “Oh, I’m going to leave this being a bass player thing in New York, and I’m going to move to LA where I don’t know anybody and have no contacts and pursue becoming a producer.” And so that was one step in my confidence of pursuing my curiosity. I’m going to take a chance on myself and then you work really hard at it. And I had a mentality in that first year and a half before I met Maytav [Koter, his manager] and before, I really had any opportunities of just, I [had the] warrior mindset. Failure was not an option. I had to make something happen. And I was so determined and I think once you make up your mind on something too there’s no pitfall or challenge that is even relevant to you, even if it stings in the moment. I had made up my mind, so end of story, just keep going. And I think more than ever I have that mindset now of, there’s no high or low in the present that’s going to prevent me from making records until I die.
Baltin: And what is your musical mindset today?
Stewart: It’s just been a process of discovering that curiosity. And I feel, I guess steeled, if that’s a word in that more and more every day. I feel so good about music right now. I feel so confident in the future. I feel so good about the future. I would say there have been times in the last five years since I’ve become a producer where I felt very unsure about the future and definitely doubted my own creativity. I think you have moments where you’re like, “Am I even a creative person at all? Am I just a complete fraud?” And I know that that feeling is going to come back. But at the moment I feel very optimistic and excited about what the future is going to bring, which is such a good feeling.
Baltin: Who are those artists that when you look at that vitality and that energy and that creativity and the way they’re doing things inspire you for the long term?
Stewart: There are so many people. There are so many producers, John Williams, I love Rick Rubin. I adore, I absolutely adore Quincy Jones for so many reasons his entire career. And we can go on and on about artists and producers and stuff. For me, Quincy’s the top, because the variety of his career is what’s so amazing. Like when I listen to his arrangement of the Sarah Vaughan record “Invitation” or “On Green Dolphin Street,” which is on the record called You Are My New, I’m just reminded that he was already a master musician a decade or two before Michael Jackson. He was doing things that when I hear that, I’m like, this is just completely one of a kind. And then he was able to do the producer that’s just behind the boards and I’ve heard people say he was like a casting director with, Thriller, where he was just like picking the musicians. He wasn’t micromanaging the music itself. And I really admire that too. And I want to work on projects in that way as well. But the fact that he could do that kind of executive role of like the creativity of placing musicians together and then also write notes on a page, I find very inspiring.
Bava: Where does your philosophy come from?
Stewart: I don’t know if I’m going to be able to explain this, but I think it’s really fascinating music exists. Like Plato’s theory of ideals? [chuckle]
Bava: I literally constantly talk to him about this.
Stewart: Okay, so you’ll be able to correct me then because it’s been a long time since I’ve heard this. There’s ideal forms. I’m just going to go there.
Bava: Please, speaking my language.
Stewart: So right now I’m studying Debussy’s string quartet. He wrote one. And this is what’s got me thinking about this. So I can play a simple thing on piano and then I can say, “Okay, I’m an orchestrator, right?” I’m like, “This is going to be the basses and this little piece in my right hand is going to be like the flutes, okay? And then this little middle part that I’m not playing on piano, but I can imagine it. This is going to be like the violas and the violins or something.” So that’s kind of orchestration, right? I think you start to think that the piano is the music and the orchestration is like an extraction of the music. But that’s actually an error. The piano is an orchestration of the ideal of music. So like right now, think about a C major chord. And now you play it. And so now it’s taken a physical form. But when we were imagining it, like there’s some ideal form and it might not even be called C major. But for music to exist, it has to be a compromise is my point. There’s an ideal of music, the music of the gods, whatever, the music of our imagination and of our dreams. But the moment it becomes on any instrument, whether it be a piano or even a voice, it’s already been compromised. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s like the nature of being like everything is a compromise from some ideal, hopefully. And so I think part of the job of a musician is to have a really good ideal. And I think your ideal becomes refined and developed the more music that you live with and the more music that you truly ingest. And I think that’s what taste is, people with good taste just have a really good ideal of music. But when you create it, it’s never going to be the exact thing that you imagined but that never feels like a compromise. You’re actually excited by that when it happens.
Bava: So the root of genius is Januarius in Latin which means to give birth. So it’s like taking an idea into this three dimensional plane but you have to smush it to be able to be tangible. So it’s just a fragment of what was dreamed and imagined. And I love how much you brought myth into this conversation very offhandedly. But I’d love to know more about your specific creative process.
Stewart: I’m not going to be able to answer this in a coherent way but I love the question. I talked about investigating music. And I feel like I’m an archeologist sometimes and you’re like digging around in the dirt and I think that was a Schumann piece that I was like this sounds like Radiohead. And Jonny Greenwood I’m sure has checked that stuff out. Or at least subconsciously that’s part of their aesthetic. That romanticism and these Quasi classical chord progressions is what made Radiohead so unique. Suff like that. And that’s where free association comes from. That’s why there is nothing off limits to the creative process. I’ll show you guys these books. This is pretty interesting. I found these like massive tomes. It’s the Garland Encyclopedia of Music of World music. I haven’t gotten everyone but like this is just South Asia. Okay so the Indian subcontinent. So you just open up open this up and it goes by country. Like you’ll have like this much information about Sri Lankan music. How amazing is that? I’ll never be able to digest this information. But when you look in here you can see the imagery that’s associated with these ancient musics. And just taking this as a random example in the one of the Hindu texts it talks about how, if I’m not mistaken, the flute is part of what created the universe. One of the Indian gods like had a flute that created the universe. And this is long before Atlantic Records was formed. Having the reminder that music does go back to a mythological level is such an amazing reminder that there’s something bigger about my job as a record producer and the music industry. And this goes back to just keeping the wonder like, “Oh, there are bone flutes that I think are like 25,000 years old.” We’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s meant something to us for a long time. And it’s in our reptilian brain somehow. It’s encoded in us like the just tones.
Bava: Do you find that experimentation is a big part of your process? Because it’s so specific, the incoherent, where you get to, and it baffles me, the process of getting to there.
Stewart: I think there’s plenty of experimentation. There has to be no, nothing’s off limits when we’re in here. I think when I’m with someone who has a coherent vision, I can channel that. Part of my job is to push them a little bit beyond where they feel comfortable or what just naturally occurs to them. But so many of my first sessions end up being something outlandish and something that isn’t used ends up being our most experimental thing. I think it’s just a nice icebreaker. Let’s start out as if there’s no rules. Just so that we know that we can. And then the next session will often come and be like, “Hey, I actually have a song that I wrote. And I want it to be like a little more concrete and then we’ll do that.” But it’s really fun to start out and just be exactly like you said, just experimenting and go wild and do things you’re not supposed to do. Not record to click or record something in the wrong way or just say something stupid. But it’s funny because I think there’s a contrast between the way I talk and the way that my music is, and I think that contrast exists in a lot of creative people. I think that my records are actually very coherent in a way. They’re very minimal. There aren’t wasted words or at least I’m not attracted to that sort of thing when I’m creating and I’m just noticing right now the difference between the way I talk and the way my records end up coming out. And I think part of that is I’m chasing this ideal with the music. I need to create music that is just beautifully structured.