“I’m your less iconic Harry Connick,” quipped jazz singer Spencer Day at Yotel’s Green Room 42, the popular cabaret where he’s in residency. “Your gayer John Mayer. I don’t care what you call me, just call me maybe.”
The onetime Star Search contestant from Utah went on to sing a winning array of original songs that were alternately sincere and sardonic, as well as some oldies that he dutifully reinvented. “I feel like the 1950s was my time,” Day said, adding, “minus the racism, misogyny, and homophobia.” So he performed those songs in a slightly different context, without the age-old baggage attached.
He also did a hilarious medley of tunes about unhealthy doses of codependency (everything from Patsy Cline’s hit “Crazy” to the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” and beyond). And he gave glimpses into his upbringing as a Mormon and, even worse, his stint in L.A. (“If you’re ambitious and not very smart…Hello, Los Angeles!”) I said, “Hello, Spencer” for a chat about where this fascinating entertainer has been and where he’s headed, which includes promoting his sixth album, Angel City.
Hello, Spencer. Let’s start way back. When did you become a Buddhist?
When I was 16 or 17 and still planning to go on my Mormon mission. The core concept of it is it doesn’t require belief in the supernatural. That’s the part I like. As someone who’s struggled with mental illness and depression and all your classic artist malaises, it’s been a pretty balancing thing in my life. Being reminded that everything means nothing and nothing means nothing before you go out there is kind of good.
At 19, you bolted for San Francisco. Were you moving away from something or towards something?
I felt like I was suffocating to death. I was in Northland Pioneer College in rural Arizona—an all Mormon town. Knowing I was gay on some level, it wasn’t talked about at all. I think that’s why my mom was supportive, because she knew that and knew how depressed I was. When I got to San Francisco, it was like going from the freezer to the frying pan because I’d never dated or had sex. The first few weeks, I lived in my car. Now it’s terrifying to think about. After that, I stayed in week-to-week places in the Tenderloin, where, as if out of Central Casting, some guy in a beer-stained wife beater was at the front desk and there were bed bugs. But for me, it was thrilling. It was survival and there was no other option.
Did you become promiscuous?
The book of Mormon says your body is a temple and the great John Mayer says your body is a wonderland, and I got those messages mixed up when I was young. I had such low self-esteem. No drug high is better than a person you find attractive telling you you’re attractive. If you buy into that, you don’t like yourself and have a desperate need for that validation. At 20, I then think, “I’ve got to go to Los Angeles and dry out.” Great choice, right? I wanted some Nathanael West Day of the Locust stuff, with a bottle of whiskey and a blinking light, so I found an apartment on Santa Monica Boulevard at Sunset Junction. Today, it’s trust fund babies and its very bougie. Back then, there were some questionable types. My friend heard me singing in the shower and bought me my first Casio keyboard. That gave me an outlet for the catharsis for all these tortured feelings inside.
If music didn’t come along, I don’t think I’d be here. But when I was young, I had such terrible stage fright, so I would drink. People after the show would say, “You were so relaxed tonight.” I started to build an association with drugs or alcohol. I was able to shut up those voices that said “You’re a joke,” and it really did work to a degree, but it’s a very unhealthy association. I was very democratic that way—across the boards. I did pretty much everything under the sun. I’d like to be part of changing that stigma because I know how debilitating it was for me. I was suicidally depressed when I did my second album. I kept looking for validation in a bong or in the bedroom, and that got me through my 20s. I reinvented myself as a happy-go-lucky, fun person.
Were there romantic problems?
There was someone I was desperately in love with, but I didn’t have the grounding to keep it going and I had mood swings. When it ended, I spiraled down and cried myself to sleep every night. Now, if I find myself in a clinical depression, I know it will pass. Growing up in such a virulently homophobic area, I was relying on professional validation. It’s such a cliché—“You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else,” but it’s a cliché for a reason. Looking back at that period, I shudder and have gratitude that I was able to make it through, because some friends didn’t.
Have you dealt with doctors and medications over your depression?
Oh, yes, and I’m very glad I did. But the medication only works if you combine it with inner-work. One time, I had it planned out—all the pills were lined up—and my best friend called me out of the blue and said, “Are you OK?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You’re not OK. I’m getting on a plane.” Having been there, you don’t think the pain is ever gonna end. I’d get two hours of sleep a night. Every wonderful thing that was happening in my career, I couldn’t enjoy.
But getting your music on the radio must have nurtured you somewhat.
It was a real surprise the first time I heard it. I was first signed to a major label for a development deal when I was 26. I was being compared to Michael Bublé. I don’t think there’s any comparison except we’re both baritones. They kept saying, “We need you to be a star.” They brought in a performance adviser who said, “Don’t tell weird stories. Keep your hands at your sides.” Today, those are the things that keep me interesting! I went down in flames with my record deal. Years later, it was gratifying when a review said, “He started as a Harry Connick Jr. clone and became a quirky, compelling songwriter.”
Did that first record label say, “Don’t be openly gay”?
Yeah. They didn’t care themselves if you were gay, but they knew who their audience was. One night, I was out on a date, and the guy was hanging all over me. As we’re walking out of the restaurant, his tongue was in my ear. That’s when the Vice President of the label walked in! The next day, I was dropped. Rufus Wainwright and k.d lang were huge inspirations. They were out and they were trying to make it a non issue, trying to make it about the art they did. But I don’t think that label was wrong. Considering the audience they were trying to reach, I would not have been as successful.
But you’ve broken down some barriers.
A lot of my fan base is Republican. When Mike Pence’s mom saw me perform, I was out and did jokes about it, and she said, “I so enjoyed that.” I can be an ambassador in that way and maybe bring on a little bit of change.
And you’re doing well?
I know how important it is that I stay clear headed and not spiral down. The desire to do it is there, for sure. But there’s always some showgirl younger and hungrier coming down the stairs. [We laugh]
What’s the hot goss?
Here’s a new slew of my notorious blind gossip items for your salacious delectation, all framed as nameless questions sprinkled with hints and innuendo. Put on your thinking caps and get ready to dish till your jaw drops:
*Which hiphop star can’t borrow stuff from a major design house anymore because the shit don’t fit and she breaks the zippers? (I’m not body shaming here; maybe they are.)
*Which enduring ‘60s singer isn’t allowed by her people to use her hotel mini-bars because she has a problem, so she simply sneaks around and mooches off other people’s?
*Which deposed chat show female had a makeup artist fired for simply looking at her? (And she’s not even that famous! They probably looked at her by mistake!)
*Which hit TV comedy star wanted a Broadway diva to play her mother, but the network said no way, the woman’s impossible to work with on a regular basis?
*Whose return to a hit show found her (according to a source) vocally meh, refusing the conductor’s request that she warm up one evening, the star claiming, “I’m as good as you’re gonna get tonight”?
*Which TV star turned rich divorcee travels first class while her daughter hangs in coach with the nanny? (And when they reunite after getting off the plane, they don’t even address each other.)
*Which ‘80s art-world superstar, who’s long gone, was not what anyone would call straight? (For one thing, he shtupped that Germanic singer with the crazy lips.)
*Which ‘80s closet case is now trumpeting the importance of outing because of a film he’s involved with?
*Which iconic football player slash womanizer started out liking guys and broke at least one heart irrevocably when he dumped all that for fame?
*Which TV personality got so toasted at one of her gigs that she started screaming at the staff, and those in charge had to tell her she wasn’t going on the next night? (I truly hope for her full recovery.)
*Why did that most famous of trophy wives supposedly want her husband to win? (Free answer: Because it meant not only more cash, but that she’d have to spend even less time with him than before.)
*Where is a certain disgraced mogul hanging? (Free answer: His friend’s estate, where he’s laying low and waiting for more shit to hit.)
*Which long running, hip swiveling star cheats on her high profile beau, coming on to one of her video’s supporting players, to name one instance?
*What Oscar winner with questionable taste in men is actually a closeted lesbian?
*Is it true that adults will be playing non-adults again on Broadway soon? (Yes, just wait and see, kiddies.)