He May Sound Strange: An Interview with Spencer Sutherland
As a pop-obsessive who was on the verge of being pigeonholed as a radio-ready pretty boy, Spencer Sutherland instead turned inward, dedicated himself to songwriting, and ended up creating a full-throated choir by looping his voice dozens of times over.
NONE of this has been about you
The choir is fake.
It's shocking to think, but on "NONE of this has been about you", the single from Spencer Sutherland's EP of the same, that full-throated choir in the background that imbues his song with a fierce and palpable gravity -- is completely made up. Made up by Sutherland and his writing partner Sam Fischer. "42 takes," Sutherland notes, of just looping the chorus and two changing their vocal tones every time. It works better than it has any right to and only goes to prove that Spencer Sutherland might very well be pushing pop music into a fascinating new place.
All of this stems from a breakthrough that the Ohio-born singer-songwriter had. Having grown up on Top 40 pop music, he naturally wanted to make some of his own, going onto YouTube and making slick videos of him covering Maroon 5, Beyoncé, Childish Gambino. He had heartthrob good looks, sure, but his actual vocal range was impressive -- impressive enough to get him booked on the UK singing competition show The X Factor. Simon Cowell was impressed but wanted him to be original. He made it to the live shows but not much farther, and if this were a like a normal covers-based YouTuber career arc, he'd fade back into obscurity.
Yet Sutherland pressed forward, diving headfirst into writing. Not just one song, but hundreds.
"I put out a couple of singles a few years ago, just kind of like putting out anything I'd written," Sutherland tells PopMatters backstage at the historic House of Blues in Chicago, getting ready for a show. "Then I'd say last year, in 2018, from January to May, I was just writing. I wasn't performing for five months because of the X Factor contract, but it forced me into something amazing where I was able to dig in and be like 'I'm done trying to put on this pop music mask and just -- I'm gonna make whatever I make, and whatever comes of it is awesome.'
"I probably in this five months wrote over 100 songs, got them produced, and I started picking some singles to put out that I felt kind of embodied me as an artist and what I was going through," he continues. "I put out a series of three singles last summer, and they all connected so well. It was amazing. So I had these three singles, I went on a little tour, and I came back, and I went into the desert, and I wrote this EP. It was a crazy experience because I was able to dig further in, [which] I didn't know I was able to do. This is the first time that five songs that were on there (two of them were singles first) -- it was the first time that it felt like it was a project ever. And I was like 'Oh, this is a thing that goes together.' And all the emotions -- all the anxiety, the love, the comedy, the hurt -- it all just came together in this whole thing. I was just 'Oh my god; this was a snapshot in time. This is it.'"
"Sweater" was undeniably his breakthrough moment. Written in under an hour, it is a striking little slab of soul-pop that has the memorable falsetto-sung opening lyric of "That's my sweater / My sweater / Why the fuck you go it on?" It's humorous and memorable, vulgar but pointed: the kind of thing that's very much missing from contemporary pop music. It's also a far cry from his previous singles, which, in turn, might be why his debut EP features none of his previously-released material.
"I think just like everything, you become a better writer the more you do it," he notes. "The more hours you play basketball, the better you get at basketball, everything. So I just started writing better songs, honestly. The reason I actually chose 'Sweater' as a first single is because we did on this fall tour [as an opening act], but we were playing smaller shows, like 200-300 people (I mean that's still large to me), but I wrote 'Sweater' in like 20 minutes, and we were performing it as a filler song, like, 'We need six songs ... let's do the 'Sweater' one!' because it was funny and kitschy.
"We started playing it, and about three or four shows in, everyone started Tweeting each other about it and singing it like word-for-word, and the song wasn't out. By the end of the tour, there were a bunch of Instagrams called 'Spencer's Sweater' and 'Sweaterland' and 'That's My Sweater'. It became this weird movement in my fanbase, and it was like 'This is really crazy -- this doesn't happen a lot.' Or you release a song and try to get people to like it. So I signed with my label right off the tour, and they were like 'Hey, we're thinking these other songs for the single, but the fans are never wrong. We gotta put this out.' So I lead with that one and thought I would twist it on its head and put out 'NONE of this has been about you' after.
"You can't force that [writing] breakthrough: it just happens naturally. I'm lucky enough to where it happened at this point because I don't know if this happened when I was 20 I would've appreciated everything as I do now. Like, I'm not just saying this, but I'll go to the green room, and there will be coffee, and I'll be like 'Oh my god!' Also, 'I have a green room? Unbelievable! There's coffee? We have catering tonight?!' I love that. It taught me, in the years of grinding, to be super-grateful."
Once Sutherland finally went out on stage during that Chicago tour stop, he worked the crowd up into an absolute frenzy. The knew the words to most of his songs, from the spry "Freaking Out" to the acoustic ballad "It May Sound Strange". His voice dipped and swung around, hitting gravely lows and peaking with falsetto highs. When he brought out a slow, snappy cover of Ariana Grande's "thank u, next", he treated the song like it was his own, his voice walking up and down the lyrics with passion as well as a wink. It's rare for someone who grew out of the social media soundscape to deliver potent, forward-thinking music, but that's exactly what Sutherland has done here, up to the point where his brief run on a singing TV show is now the least memorable thing about him.
Even as he looks towards his future, Sutherland, perhaps learning the lesson from his time on national TV, knows full well what kind of career he's in for. "We don't want to rush anything," he notes. "I don't feel like [these are] songs that come out and blow up -- and I don't think I'm that kind of artist either. I think I'm the kind of artist that people have to marinate [in]."
Even if that's the case, fans are coming to his shows in sweaters. They believe the hype. They have faith in his next move. They might even stick with him after finding out the most incredible truth of all: that the choir, in fact, is fake.