An interview with Sarah Spencer on her EP Freshman Year

I met Sarah a few months ago and have loved following along with her online since then, so today I want to introduce her to you! She is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, graphic designer, blogger, and is making things happen here in Nashville! You can read about her latest EP, Freshman Year, below and enter for a chance to win a copy! Winner will be announced on Facebook next Monday.


 

Freshman Year Track by Track

"All or Nothing"

Freshman Year as a whole is a collection of some of the best songs I wrote during my first year in Nashville, and "All or Nothing" is still a song that I play out all the time. There are some clunky lines here and there and I've definitely learned a lot since them, but it's still so fun to play. I think the rhythm/meter of the rapid chorus is something audiences find fun and interesting. It tends to open up a room.

"River Road"

"River Road" is actually based on the same story as "Us Someday." My fiancé (then boyfriend) and I went driving up River Road in Nashville one lazy afternoon, and took it all the way up to Ashland City. Just to see the place. "River Road" is a more flirty uptempo that twists the facts a little in order to tell a more interesting story. But it was literally 100 degrees out!

"MOUNTAINS"

This song I actually wrote just before I moved from Tallahassee to Nashville. My buddy J.Cruz offered to record it, and he made the arrangement absolutely beautiful. A lot of good friends played on that track. It was a stream of consciousness type of write. I used to write that way back in the day, before I started learning more about commercial songwriting. Now a days a usually start with a solid concept before diving into writing the song. But in the case of "Mountains," I think the stream of consciousness approach worked out really well. That doesn't happen for me anymore!

Sarah Spencer Freshman Year

"GET GONE"

This is the first song my fiancé (then boyfriend) Adam Sheppard and I wrote together. It's a break up song! It just came out that way! He actually started strumming some beautiful chords one day, and we were like, "Let's write on that!" We started listening to the chords, feeling out what kind of song we thought was inside them. Decided it was kind of beautiful and tragic sounding, like love that was real but coming to an end. We searched for the right words and came up with the hook "Get Gone" and started writing it from there.

"US SOMEDAY"

Like "River Road," this song tells the story of a couple taking a driving day one afternoon. But this story is more accurate to what really happened. That day, I remember being so in love with him (still am!) and just thinking, "Can we do this all the time?" I was so excited to see where our relationship was taking us. I remember the music came first, then I think the hook kind of happened as I was writing the chorus.

 
I hope the listener walks away feeling something. I hope these songs move them where they need to be moved. Whenever I put any music into the world, I hope listeners find love, happiness, healing, and release. That’s always the goal.

When did you start writing music and how has your process evolved over time?

I started writing music ages ago, when I was about 11 or 12. At the time I was writing stories and poetry. I was also writing piano instrumentals, mainly because I hated practicing! I was a total brat. But my piano teacher realized I was never going to be a concert pianist and instead encouraged me to compose. She was a saint for putting up with me. So were my parents! But eventually I started putting poetry to music and those weird songs became pop songs. 

At first, everything was very stream of consciousness. None of it ever really made any sense. But I loved writing songs and learned how to record them at home, with the help of my dad. He taught me how to use his little home studio setup. Over the years, I wrote pop songs, midi orchestral-type pieces, piano instrumentals, anything I was feeling at the time. I loved making music and couldn't stop.

Eventually I heard about NSAI and started digging into the Nashville approach to songwriting, and I've been hooked ever since! Hooked on hooks. Har har! But I love the organized approach to songwriting - find a great hook or title. Make sure the concept is solid. Then dig in. Don't start writing then try to find that concept as you go. It made so much more sense to me.

Find a great hook or title. Make sure the concept is solid. Then dig in.
 

How long have you been in Nashville and what role did being in music city play in putting this EP together?

I've been in town for about three and a half years now. Being in Nashville and going to workshops and meetings and cowriting and just soaking up all the education I possibly could has been AMAZING. Freshman Year is a true reflection of that time when my writing was really starting to transition into something listenable! 

What has been your favorite part of this Freshman Year journey?

Probably the recording process. "Mountains" was recorded first in Tallahassee before I moved. Before I even knew it would be included on any type or album. In a studio just outside of town. I'm playing guitars, which is not cute, but works.

The other tracks are all recorded in various home studios, with instruments played by friends. Adam had a hand in many parts, from mixing to tracking to helping put together the rooms we recoded in. I get such a great feeling remembering how we recorded these tracks, it was always so homey. My little Nashville music family was being built!

 
sarah spencer
 

Who are your musical idols and why?

So many! But right now - Lori Mckenna and Ton Douglas are my everything right now. Both of them have this incredible ability to write really raw, beautifully tragic stuff. Every time I sit down to write something, I always strive to be like them in that respect. I also love how Lori can so beautifully celebrate all the sweet, small, domestic things in life that often get overlooked. Her sensitivity to the bigger stories in every day life is so amazing. 

Congrats on your recent engagement! Is your fiancé musical? What role does he play in your musical life?

Thanks so much! Yes, he is! He's been playing keyboards in bands since he was a kid. He's started recording and doing some freelance engineering in I think college, maybe earlier. He is seriously so incredible. I look to him a lot with my own career because, even though he'd never give himself this much credit, he knows so much more than I do about being a musician. I've always just been a singer and a writer, playing solo. He's played in so many bands, booked gigs, been the band leader in many cases. Really, I think his true talent is being in the studio with other musicians - he can absolutely make everyone feel like they're having a great time, while pulling the best performances out of them. His sense of musicality is so spot on. 

Where do you get your inspiration to make music?

Inspiration happens all the time and not often enough! I think most songwriters probably feel that way. Sometimes I wake up ready to write. There's an idea churning in my head and it's time to get it down. Other times, I'll be like, driving or in the shower and something writable pops up. Other days, I'll simply sit behind my guitar and strum. Force myself to do something new with it. Learn a new chord. Make up a new chord. A new tuning. A new pattern. Sometimes those new sounds will spark something. Other times still, I'll go out to see friends play and be completely inspired by their abilities. Hearing great music can make you want to write great music. Sometimes I'll write after a hike or a good jog. Getting out into the world when you've been inside all day can help.

Hearing great music can make you want to write great music.
 

What is something you struggle with as an artist and what are you actively doing to overcome it?

The ever present feeling of guilt that I'm not doing enough for my music career at any given moment! You know that adage, "Do at least one thing every day for your career, even if it's just one thing?" Most days I feel like that is a completely underwhelming approach. I tend to take on many projects at once without making room in my life for all of them. It can be a good thing in a way, because I'm kind of a jack of all trades. But that will burn anyone out after too long. 

These days, if I can simply identify that I'm taking on too much, it makes it easier to start paring down. Baby steps!

What is one thing you want people to take away from Freshmen Year?

From a songwriting perspective: This is an acoustic EP. Everything is a guitar vocal, with a few other instruments here and there. We did that on purpose because a good song will sound just as amazing as a guitar/vocal as it will with a full band. It was a test, in a way. I hope these songs pass and are able to stand on their own!

For the listener: I hope the listener walks away feeling something. I hope these songs move them where they need to be moved.  Whenever I put any music into the world, I hope listeners find love, happiness, healing, and release. That's always the goal.

Katherine Forbes

Nashville, TN