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  • Ellie McGuire

Interview - Sterling Spence

Raised between the East Bay and the Micronesian Islands, Sterling Spence is a multi-talented artist, musician, maker, performer, and nonprofit grunt. His art focuses on the spaces that exist between optimism and hopelessness, personal lives and community contracts, and justice and religion. The six tracks on his most recent EP, Someone Tried to Calm the Storm, provide a more sombre glimpse into the songwriter's quest for acceptance and meaning in life.

We had a conversation with Sterling Spence regarding the release, his future plans, and the reasons you should listen to his music. Check it out here at IGNITE!

Hey Sterling Spence, how are you doing?

I’m doing really well! It’s been a busy year so far, but I’m excited for all the music stuff that’s happening. I do a lot of solo work with this new project, but I’m also playing and writing with my band Westerly (who are also featured on this EP). It’s been a very fulfilling creative time. 

Who are your main influences?

Mostly my influences have been the musicians and friends I’ve surrounded myself with. Noa Zimmerman, who also helped produce this EP, was a big influence on pushing me to write with more introspection and constantly asked me what I really wanted to say. 

I’ve always been a huge Springsteen fan. Obviously, I love his music, but the main thing that spoke to me was his way of writing with a genuine love for his subjects. He found the hidden meaning in everyday life, whether it was a factory worker or a marriage struggling financially. His writing always showed the beauty and dignity of those experiences. 

I love Leonard Cohen, Jason Isbell, Katie Pruitt, Lianne La Havas. All these artists are writing to bring the listener in close. 

Sum up your music for us in three words?

Finding my people. I think that’s everything I’ve been doing. I’m hoping there are people who think or feel the way I do. I want to reassure them and give them a little bit of hope in a time when hope feels hard to find. 

What's your biggest highlight so far? 

You know, I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I have trouble finding gratitude in my life. I guess most musicians feel that way. Why don’t I have a bigger audience? Why isn’t there more money? Whatever the concerns are. It's easier to focus on the things that just don’t feel like they’ve fallen into place yet. 

But one thing I’ve been thinking about is how incredibly lucky I am to have this community of artists around me. Playing music has given me a reason to see the people I love on a regular basis. Whether that’s shows or rehearsals, every week I’m surrounded by people who make my life so much better. I’m not sure if I would have that without the songs I write. And that’s an incredible gift. 

How have friends and family reacted to your journey so far in music?

I’ve always been a kind of blue-collar songwriter, which means I’ve never believed in fully spending all my time on music. The reason for that is I think good art comes from the experience of everyday living. I spend most of my days in the nonprofit sector. I’ve worked as an organizer and fundraiser. Currently, I’m the development director of buildOn, an org that gets low-income high school youth in my home of Oakland engaged in service. We also build about 250 schools around the world each year. 

For me, that kind of work influences and gives substance to my songs. It also has the added benefit of making sure my family isn’t constantly worried about my financial future (though I often think they should be!) 

But, very recently a good family friend of mine, Dale Robbins, passed away. In the grieving process, I was reminded how incredibly supportive he was. He’d always tell me he was listening to my album or ask me to play a song. That’s one of the kindest things someone has ever done for me as an artist and it reminds me how lucky I am to have a supportive community.

Congratulations on the release of your new album ‘Someone Tried to Calm the Storm’. We're loving it! How did it come about and what’s the meaning and/or message behind the album?

Thank you so much. This EP really came out of an overflow of songwriting. I was working on my album “Common Chaos” with Westerly and in the recording process, all these new songs started bubbling up that I knew I had to work on. The band didn’t have the bandwidth to add a new project so I asked their blessing to go do a solo project. 

For me, this was a collection of more intimate songs about longing and my never-ending search to find some sort of meaning in life. It touches on searching for relationships and love as well as looking for a broader reason to believe in each other as a society or community. I want to demystify the idea of fairytale love or magical connection. I think holding community or love together requires really hard work. Both internally and externally. That labor of love seems incredibly beautiful to me. I want to celebrate that things are rarely easy and the ease of a relationship isn’t a sign that it’s right. I think that for our world to get a little bit better, it will require us to commit to the idea of the hard work needed to hold it together. 

What was the recording and writing process like for this album?

I started writing this record during the pandemic while I was living in Los Angeles with my partner at the time. A lot of it centered around the work we were doing to make some kind of relationship work in those very strange times. One of my favorite songs “What You Mean by Home” was written when we drove out to Missouri to be with her family after her father suffered a stroke. We were holed up at their rural home for several weeks as the pandemic was just starting. We weren’t sure when we could drive back home or how long anything was going to last. I ended up spending a lot of time just sitting at the piano in their home and sketching out different song ideas.

About a year later, I had moved from LA back to the Bay and the relationship had ended. I was building back my community and starting new projects with my musician friends. I was kind of in this transition of years playing solo while in LA but now working on bigger rock n roll songs with my band. These songs were still floating around in my head and I needed a place to put them down.

“Someone Tried to Calm the Storm” was recorded at Soundwire studios in Richmond, CA with Chris Krotky as audio engineer and producer. It was also co-produced by Noa Zimmerman. Chris did a lot of the backing orchestration and played some drums and keys on the record. We also used Scott Wilson, Mike Bond, and Jeff Peck from Westerly for guitar, drums, and bass as well as Noa Zimmerman doing backing vocals. 

How would you describe this album sonically for our readers?

I think what we ended up with is a pondering record. It's heavy on the story-telling and folk song structure but with an expansive soundscape behind it. It feels like taking an acoustic guitar out into a gentle rainstorm. Sometimes you can hear the wind whipping around the lyrics and the thunder in the distance, but it always feels inviting and somehow comforting. 

What are your plans for the rest of 2024? What can fans expect?

I have a lot of shows lined up with Westerly and several videos coming out for the songs. I’m hoping folks are willing to go on a little journey with me. I’m back in the writing process now and I hope new stuff will appear in the performances and on all my socials. I also have a poetry book of lyrics and drawings coming out sometime late in the year with Fernwood Press. So, I’m looking forward to connecting with people about all this work! Like I said earlier, the songs are about creating community and I’m hoping this record calls people in.


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