For Brittney Spencer, the albums that have proved most influential are those that taught her versatility. Some of her favorites exemplify sonic diversity, like Shania Twain’s genre-defying Up! or Keith Urban’s blend of dazzling guitar work and pop-tinged commercial country. In other cases, the most important albums to Spencer are the ones that present different directions to get to a common musical destination.
For example, she highlights two albums by British singer-songwriter Sade, which taught her that protest songs don’t have to sound a certain way or fit a certain genre. “Music and art, in general, offer a lot of opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes,” Spencer tells Holler. “To show you what their life looks like or give you a glimpse into their story. For me, that’s the power of music, being able to increase our capacity for empathy.”
Then, there are other songs and albums that showed her how to lead with raw lyricism. She cites Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record album as a project that defies genre lines, stepping effortlessly between the commercial country she’s best known for and a more Americana-based sound, such as in her cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Look at Miss Ohio’. The emphasis, both in that song and the originals throughout Four the Record’s tracklist, is on lyrical precision and poetry.
“The likes of Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, Cam - they write such incredible poetry in everything, which makes me feel at home,” Spencer explains. “I’ve always been a literary person, paying attention to words. The rawness is what I love. I hope I embody that in my new song, ‘Sober & Skinny’, when I say 'When you get sober, I’ll get skinny.’”
‘Sober & Skinny’ explores the pitfalls of picking at another person’s faults, especially in a loving relationship. Spencer wrote it with singer-songwriter Nelly Joy and Jason Reeves - who are also a married couple - as a reflection on the hypocrisy of comparing flaws, in an effort to find better ways to communicate.
“I'm trying to find a loving way to sort problems in a relationship, because it’s so easy to fuss, yell and fight,” she remarks. “It’s just a metaphor for, ‘Stop pointing at my flaws.’ Or, ‘Be willing to change your issues if you’re willing to point at mine.’”
For Cuts The Deepest, Spencer reflected on just a small selection of the albums that have inspired her – the five discussed highlighted as particularly powerful influences on who she is as an artist. “I could’ve kept going!” she adds with a laugh, before launching into her choices.
I can’t decide between these two. The music is just so beautiful - sonically, it has such a universal sound. It was incredible storytelling presented in a way that reached beyond genre lines. I thought it was brilliant the way that Sade would present protest songs because it wasn’t preachy. She just told the story of a person. She did that on her Love Deluxe album with a song called ‘Pearls’, describing a person’s pain by saying “It hurts like brand-new shoes”. I just thought that was brilliant and it really influenced me. I think you can kinda hear it in my song ‘Compassion’.
I think the biggest takeaway I got from that album was that it was two-sided. One side had all the country music songs, and then the other side was all pop. I thought that was genius; a wonderful way to show that a good song can be translated any way you want. It gave Shania the opportunity to express herself artistically and reach different audiences; it allowed her to branch out. I really do think that album paved the way for so much of what we’re seeing right now in terms of country-pop music and cross-genre collaborations. I’m just so here for that album, it’s beautiful in every way.
It’s so sonically versatile, you know? There are disparate ideas everywhere; it’s not all about the same thing. I love that there were songs she wrote herself like ‘Dear Diamond’, but also ones she cut written by other writers, like ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’. She had Chris Stapleton [‘Nobody’s Fool’] and Charles Kelley [‘Better in the Long Run’] both write on it as well. I just thought it was an incredible display of her artistry; especially as a songwriter who can write by themselves. She probably didn’t really need co-writers, but you can tell that she enjoys collaboration. I think that’s easy to tell on this album, even if you’re not like me, a nerd looking at the liners.
I remember when I first heard ‘Daddy Lessons’ and watched Beyoncé perform it with the Chicks at the CMA Awards. I was in college walking to my car from class when we found out she was in town. My friend said, “Oh my God, Beyoncé’s in Nashville”, and I just fell on the ground. There are pictures of me just lying on the ground. ‘Daddy Lessons’ is so Black, is so country, and it just totally opened my mind. I was already pursuing country music in Nashville when that song dropped, but when I heard it in the context of all the other styles on her album, I thought, “This is exactly how I’ve always listened to music”. She goes through so many different sounds - ‘Pray You Catch Me’ is really kind of alternative, ‘Hold Up’ is a Caribbean-themed song, 'Daddy Lessons' is a country song, and then you get to the song with Jack White and it’s a rock song! But that’s the way I’ve always consumed music, and this record just meant so fucking much to me. In my mind, it forecast the future of music in general.
I love that album. It fused so many folk, country and R&B elements. It was also the first time I heard an R&B singer with a country band - she did ‘Summer’ with Rascal Flatts. I had never heard that before, so it just blew my mind; I didn’t know that sort of thing happened. It was incredible. That album taught me so much, because I didn’t grow up with country music. As a kid I didn’t have country music, but instead, I had India Arie - and honestly, it’s just as good.
Brittney Spencer's single 'Sober & Skinny' is out on June 18th. You can read our full In Conversation interview with Spencer here.
Photography by Nicki Fletcher