Deem Spencer on Love and Lo-Fi: "I'll Be as Vulnerable as Can Be"

"I’m not afraid of being judged or telling the truth."
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Deem Spencer Interview, 2019

"Really, I been tryna tell shorty how beautiful shorty is to me but shorty not tryna hear it from me.” —Deem Spencer  

The above tracklist, written out in sentence form, is a missed connection both sad and hilarious in its confessional bluntness. It also happens to be the driving mantra behind Deem Spencer’s latest project pretty face, a 12-track road map across the grooves of a broken heart.

“I think romance plays a big part in how I make music,” Spencer says over the phone from his native New York. “I’ve noticed that whenever I’m in love, that’s where a lot of my attention is and a lot of my music, in general, is about different sides of love.” 

Spencer has seen his fair share of shades of love over the course of the last three years. His debut EP, sunflower, introduced a thoughtful young mind wandering through a field of posies while parsing through relationships both romantic (“fucked up flowers”) and platonic (“soap”).

The untimely death of his grandfather in 2016 led Spencer to dig even further into himself, to address the more explicitly paternal love shown on his 2017 follow up, we think we alone. On it, Spencer’s brand of confession ripples throughout his verses, slant rhymes hitting the heart with one emotional wave after another.

“Our loved one left last Friday and he still get mail to the crib / How do I forward his checks to his next foreign address? / Move me, I wanna be next to him, I wanna be next / Even if it’s right now. —Deem Spence ("Moonflower")

Over keithcharles spacebar’s stark piano and drums on pretty face single “but," Deem articulates a potent mix of humor and heartache: “It’s me by myself and Irene. We in here as far as I see. Niggas go public and hide things. He need a hug and a Hi-C.”  He’s clearly tired of emotional false starts but refuses to let the baggage beat him down, passing confidence onto the listener through his foibles.

With his raw confessional approach, Deem Spencer has been linked with the city’s burgeoning lo-fi scene, a well-earned distinction since he mixed the entirety of pretty face himself. His vocals range from being high definition accounts of dates gone wrong (“been”) to disembodied yet hopeful wails for the future (“to me”) that give his music the dreamlike quality it’s known for. 

“This feels like a turning point for me,” Spencer says about the release of pretty face. “I’m just glad we made it here safe.” 

Our conversation with Deem Spencer, lightly edited for content and clarity, below.

DJBooth: When was the first time you fell in love?

Deem Spencer: First time I fell in love, I was probably 14. I really fell for this girl at my high school. That’s about as much as I’ll say [laughs].

What was the creative process like behind pretty face?

When I was making sunflower, I had the title, pretty face, in my head. I knew that I wanted to make a very romantic project. pretty face was the working title of what sunflower eventually became. I finished that and scrapped the title. And then that became the title for what would eventually become we think we alone [laughs]. I kept the title for a few years and when I was ready to work again after we think we alone, I was also ready to get to it on some super romantic shit. I wanted a happy project, but then once I started working on this, the relationship I was in began unraveling itself. It couldn’t be the happy tape that I thought I was gonna be able to make.

Post-relationship and post-album creation, how’s your mental doing right now?

Right now, I’m excited. I’m just excited about what’s to come in all areas of my life. This feels like a turning point for me. To keep myself happy, I’ve just been focused on the music and focused on this day, specifically, and just knowing that this tape is gonna come out. Now that the day is here, I have no idea what’s gonna happen, but the hope that something greater is gonna come has held my hand on my way here. I’m just glad we made it here safe.

What inspired you to tell a story with the track titles?

That’s a good question. I just thought it would be clever and cool. It also definitely helped me to stay on topic and was a cool template to work with. I decided to use that as the track list before I even finished all the songs. I knew that was the mantra that I could use, to sum up the fight that I was going through that whole year while I making this. I believe that people are gonna remember the song titles [laughs].

How has romance in the digital age influenced music, in general, and your music specifically?

I think romance plays a big part in how I make music. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m in love, that’s where a lot of my attention is and a lot of my music, in general, is about different sides of love. sunflower was a more immature version of me. The way I was thinking about love on that project was very insensitive and dismissive but also very genuine. The love I was speaking about on we think we alone was more unconditional and this tape is more about the disappointment that comes with romance and how shit changes and knocks you on your ass.

Deem Spencer Interview, 2019

There’s always been a balance between spacious production and heavy subject matter on your projects. Is that intentional?

I haven’t noticed myself lean into a specific type of beat, but I do realize that whenever I choose beats, one thing they all have in common is having room to dance around, if that makes sense. Regardless of the mood, I just want room to do whatever, and with pretty face, I feel like I was able to do just that. On songs like “but,” I was able to just vent and rant. Every beat on here was dancing with me; they’re very constant, but it still feels like dance to me. When I was making this tape, I was going through hella lows. I really can’t recall my decision-making process. It’s all a blur.

Your sound has always hewn close to the so-called “lo-fi” movement, which is having a very public moment right now. Do you and your collaborators feel a kinship with lo-fi?

I have the opportunity to be at the forefront of this innovative moment that’s happening in New York. It’s definitely not a conscious effort on a part of anybody who worked with me on this tape, but I definitely get that a lot in regards to wtwa. It fascinates me when I get the lo-fi comparisons and I feel like I can make some very creative things within this lane I’m building for myself. There’s definitely a reason that people have been naming me alongside everyone else and I’m all for it. Kids in New York, we not mixing our tracks the same or enunciating in the mic the same. It’s a different sound we’re going for and I love it. I love mixing my own music.

You recently tweeted, “Don’t assume I’m happy just cause I’m excited. I be going through it. It just happens to be lit right now lol.” At a time where artists are being more open, with talk about performative happiness, how important is that emotional balance?

It’s important to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling because until you are, no one can really interact with you appropriately enough for you. I run into people sometimes who you just push the wrong button, and if you would’ve known how they were feeling, maybe you wouldn’t have pushed that button. It’s challenging to be vulnerable. Personally, I’m at a place where I’ll be as vulnerable as can be if you let me. I’m not afraid of being judged or telling the truth. I let it be known what I’m going through an how I’m feeling so you know how to talk to me.

Who has the prettiest face in the game right now?

You put me on the spot. I wanna give you a great answer, so this might take a second. Tierra Whack came to mind first. I’ll take number two, though (laughs). She said she’s trying to put songs out every week. When the dust settles after pretty face, I wanna do something similar and come out swinging. I’m not done working this year. It’s only February.

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