EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — To call Spencer Douglas a versatile performer would be an understatement.
The 17-year-old Eau Claire resident has appeared in nearly a dozen regional and touring musical productions through local community theaters; began dance training at age 7; sang in multiple honors choirs, earning honors at the state level; and for two consecutive years was the youngest male principal singer and dancer in the celebrated Kids From Wisconsin troupe. Heading into his senior year at Memorial High School, he also entertains as part of the school's improv team.
His efforts writing, performing and producing songs in the indie-folk-rock vein show significant talent in that realm as well.
"Princess Charming," a five-song EP that Spencer Douglas (given name Spencer Rhoten) released last November, has garnered more than 120,000 streams on Spotify.
He followed that up recently with a two-song EP. "Basement Covers" features two of his favorite songs by other artists: COIN's "Malibu 1992" and Bon Iver's "Holocene."
The varied arts Spencer pursues serve to enhance his performance of each one, in his view.
"I think they all kind of mold together," he told the Leader-Telegram in a phone interview. "In terms of being part of the arts, they're all such an amazing creative outlet that you kind of can't help but feel a connection between all of them."
Along with winning awards and garnering interest on Spotify, Spencer brings modesty to his work. Notably, the bio on his website shares a lesson he learned about making music at age 14, when he booked time at a local studio to record some of his music. As the bio puts it: "(Spencer) quickly discovered he was unable to play to a metronome, did not have any demos, and only had guitar and vocals for his songs. It quickly became apparent he had work to do before coming back to the recording studio."
"Princess Charming" came out two years later.
"There was just so much that I had no idea about, and I really had to learn a lot and really push myself to get there," he said, adding, "I've had a lot of support along the way, which has been wonderful for me."
Willingness to learn goes hand in hand with that support, two of Spencer's mentors pointed out.
Mark Lundin, his vocal teacher, put it this way: "It is an honor working with Spencer because he is self-aware, humble, and able to immediately turn feedback into results," Lundin said in emailed comments. "He is always open to new ideas and working any particular section multiple ways before discovering the winner. Since most of our work together has focused on classical repertoire, it's exciting to witness how these techniques enhance his own contemporary compositions."
Kyle Culver, owner of Sprinter Studios, formerly of Eau Claire and now of Minneapolis, expressed similar sentiments. He first met Spencer at the now closed Toy Car Studios, where Spencer began learning in that type of environment.
"Studios can be intimidating, especially at that age," said Culver, who also is in the pop band Blue Swans with singer-instrumentalist Christina Swangim. "(Spencer) just waltzed right in, and he was ready to learn. I appreciate that about kids having their own diligence on things. You don't teach that — some kids have it or they don't, and I think Spencer has that drive."
"Princess Charming" was recorded, mixed and mastered by Justin Green at Toy Car Studios. Additional remastering was done by Culver at Sprinter Studios.
Crafting his sound
Some listeners have seen similarities between Spencer Douglas' sound and Brit pop star Morrissey or Southern California group Young the Giant. The first time he heard the comparison, Spencer said, "I'll be honest; I had no idea who that was. And my parents were like 'Oh, you're going to learn who that is.'" Now that he knows those artists, "I would definitely take that as a compliment."
An accomplished singer, Spencer sometimes employs his standout falsetto to create memorable moments in his songs, including "Princess Charming" and "Goodbye."
Spencer's vocal teacher noted his singing abilities.
"Spencer's vocal tone has a unique purity that blends well with the timbre of his guitar and other voices," Lundin wrote. "His versatility as a vocalist is also impressive; he's earned accolades performing French and Italian art songs, German Lieder as well as vocal jazz charts."
Words and melodies
Along with the vocal talents, Spencer has a passion for composing songs.
"I love songwriting," he said, adding that it's not because it always comes easily. "There are definitely days where it is a lot harder than the others," he said. "Writer's block, I feel, really is a thing."
The lyrics on the "Princess Charming" EP stay true to the singer-songwriter genre of sharing personal experiences and observations.
"I really tried to focus on what I was feeling at the time," he said. He cited "Fireside" from "Princess Charming" as one favorite.
"I like that a lot," he said. "That's about my great-grandma, who I lost to Alzheimer's. I believe I wrote that song in about 10 minutes. I just found the chord progression and I just started singing. By the end of 10 minutes I had a song. I haven't really had that again, but just the fact that it flowed out of me was really special, and it holds a special place in my heart."
Offering another snapshot of his creative process, Spencer talked about the title track, which involves the early stages of romance.
"It was kind of the excitement leading up to being with someone," he said, elaborating on how the song came together. "I was looking to be more different and unique with my guitar playing. I had gone into the habit of playing the same chords over and over again, having some writer's block. Then I watched a YouTube video and was like, 'Hey, try this technique out.' And I tried it and that ended up being used in 'Princess Charming.'"
Time to work
Spencer said he had "an absolute blast" doing both songs on "Basement Covers." He has long appreciated the music of both COIN and Bon Iver, especially the latter, considering the local roots of band leader Justin Vernon. "(Bon Iver) was my first concert I went to when I was 8 years old," Spencer said. "I still remember that night. It was such an amazing performance."
"Holocene" served as a significant challenge for him. "There are so many layers," he said. "I think I ended up with 60 layers, 60 unique tracks, on that song. Which is the most I've ever done on a project. It was just such a wonderful experience."
On "Holocene," Spencer mainly did everything himself, although Kids From Wisconsin friend Nate Schmidt played trumpet on the song. "He did a phenomenal, phenomenal job," Spencer said. "I really think he made the song what it was."
Shortly after "Basement Covers" came out, Spencer put out a video featuring another favorite cover: Bon Iver's "Minnesota, WI."
The Kids From Wisconsin connection also stands out on "Minnesota WI," with Spencer collaborating with five Kids alumni joining him virtually. The performance of the song can be viewed on YouTube at tinyurl.com/y5rb5vcl.
Spencer began listening to COIN intently during middle school. "Malibu 1992" interested him, he said, because it's different from what they usually do but "still keeping their style in it."
Spencer is interested in looking to do more on the production side of things, which, among other benefits, can be done while sheltering in place. "So if I'm able to do everything from home, I'll have complete creative control, which is really exciting and then I'll really be able to take my time and add those kinds of texture things that I would like," he said.
Culver was pleased to see how much Spencer had grown when he first heard "Holocene."
"He was like, 'Hey, what do you think about this?'" Culver said. "I was like, 'Oh man, this is awesome! Do you want me to do a quick master on this for you?' And he was like, 'No, I got it.'
"I was just like, 'Hell yes,'" Culver continued. "That's kind of the answer I was hoping for."
While Spencer's most recent releases are covers, he has been working up new material, with about eight songs in the works.
"I would very much like to get into the habit of six weeks a new song, but I wouldn't say that's a promise quite yet," he said. "But I would love to get into that habit."
Spencer acknowledged disappointment at the curtailment of live music because of the pandemic.
"I was very much looking forward to doing some live gigs," he said. "I was really going to plan on focusing on that for the summer."
Yet he's keeping a positive attitude about it. "You know, stuff happens," he said. "It's not the most fortunate thing, but you've got to roll with it."
After all, it's clear Spencer has plenty to do with his time.