Stephen Spencer

A Conversation With Jersey Native Stephen Spencer
5 mins read
Stephen Spencer

Stephen Spencer has had an unconventional career spanning music, photography, and graphic design. The common thread in everything is the curiosity and stubbornness to keep creating no matter what. Maybe it’s the New Jersey in him or his parents’ taste for the arts, but he understands that life is about creating free and without bounds. We spoke to him about his journey, motivations, and plans. Enjoy the conversation below!

Talk about the influence that being from Jersey had on your creativity.
North Jersey is a melting pot. I’m from a town called Teaneck which is one of the first towns in the country with integrated school systems. There were teachers who were major participants in the civil rights movement. Jersey has every ethnicity, background, and walk of life. You don’t get it till you leave, and you notice other places aren’t like this. Both of my parents are also creative. My mother is a playwright and spiritual healer. She plays bass and is the musical director at church. My father plays guitar and has his degree in teaching music to children with special needs. Neither of them pursued music full-time. So, when I got into the creative stuff, they were all hands on deck.

What were some of the early conversations with your parents when you expressed you wanted to do music full time?

I got really lucky on the parenting side of things. It wasn’t a conversation. For me, it started with music. I started like in 5th or 6th grade producing. My father got me Cubase once he saw I was taking music seriously. They were quietly supportive. They let me do what I do.

Growing up in a house of creatives, what were some of your early musical influences?
Coming up with the hot 97 community I remember Funk flex dropping bombs. I remember the DJ clue mixtapes. I remember using cassette tapes to record stuff right when they were on the way out. With our generation, the Hip Hop influence was there, but both my parents are world music fans. They enjoy classic jazz. My father is into classical rock. My mom is super R&B. It wasn’t about having a specific influence. The way they brought me up taught me to have an open mind about music. When I was making music, I wanted to make Hip Hop and urban contemporary, but the world music influence would always find its way there.

How did your first music placement come about?

The first big placement was the Tinashe one [Spacetime]. I went down to Atlanta and I was working out of Dallas Austin’s studio. I went to college in Florida for music engineering and music business. After college, I went back to NY before going to Atlanta. At that point, you just make as much music as possible, and the manager shops the music. In terms of the first placement, I don’t remember. But the big one was Tinashe.
Did you send it off or did you guys get a chance to work together?
This was in the twitter days before it was as crazy as it is now. She just put her email out there. I had the email and didn’t use it. A couple of years went by, and I realized I had her email so I sent her Spacetime. I didn’t hear back from her for one or two years. I was still working and making music during that time. I honestly forgot I sent it. When I finally got the song back, she told me she loved the track and asked how I got the email. She told me she finished the track and asked me what I thought. She told me she’d put me in contact with RCA and well figure it out. The rest is history.

Stephen Spencer

 

You eventually made a jump from music to photography. What made you make the decision to get into photography?

Once I moved to California, things evolved on their own. I had a day job to go alongside the music. I hated having a day job which isn’t a good way to live life. I decided that if I’m going to do a side job, I might as well do something I like. Once I made that decision, everything started feeding itself. I had one of those reflective moments where I was trying to decide what I would do for the side job. Thinking about the “what do you do?” question that always comes up when you meet people and the title I felt represented me most. The title of “art director” came. I felt like that title fit me as a person. I started my own art collective and became the art director for that. It was that initial thought that pushed me. From there I started doing graphic design and I needed to work with photographers. It was difficult to get photographers because of schedules so I just did it myself out of necessity. It all lined up when I went to a black networking event at Netflix. A friend of mine invited me and that was the first time I saw movie posters on an accessible level. To be there and speak to the people who make the final decision for them made me see it. “I could definitely do that.” I started making posters and I applied to all the ad agencies here. One gave me a shot in production so I could work my way up. Once I got in there, I found out that the people that actually make the posters are called art directors.

You could’ve settled once you got the job, but you didn’t. Did you start your own firm for control or because you felt compelled to?

The whole point was that I wanted a steady check coming in and I wanted it to be something I enjoyed doing. I wanted to hone in on the creative aspects and learn what I needed to learn. It wasn’t about the end result. It was about the craft.

Your story has a lot of perseverance. Elaborate on what that takes to keep pushing and keep pivoting.
You have to be a little hardheaded or stubborn. It’s not about the fact that I’m not good now. You have to trust your work ethic. Where I’m at now isn’t where I’m going to be. A lot of us get caught up in the rejection, which has nothing to do with the next job. You keep building and building and eventually something opens. The music industry gives a different kind of hustle. I wouldn’t be where I am as a photographer or art director if it wasn’t for the music industry. If you’re sitting on your hands, all the opportunities may not come to you. As long as you’re getting up and trying to open the doors, one will eventually open. Actively doing it and taking notes as you go is necessary.

What are some of your future plans?

I related when you spoke in your interview about a multi-year plan – the head down, grinding aspect of it. I work on projects in music and movie posters all the time that take years to come out. I have some photography moves in the works that will elevate that in the near future. The major “plan” is just to elevate all three avenues, photography, art direction, and music, to a higher level in the next few years, but factoring in that work-life balance. I’m excited for it.
Who are you listening to these days?
I’ve been listening to Smino, Mayra Andrade, Griselda, Stromae, SiR, a lot of movie scores. If Beale Street Could Talk soundtrack has been on repeat.
What’s some advice you could give?
Get out of your own way. Get out of your own way and create freely. We get caught up in creating with the intention of it being some great thing. Just make YOUR thing. Get out of your head and create.

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