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Meet Botany, a sincere and talented composer
words Sven Carlsson / images Press
Botany is a Texas-born producer whose quest to make an album was interrupted by the interest of Austin outfit Western Vinyl, who wanted to sign him. To have something to show for the deal, he released Feeling Today, a release that is at once electronic and organic, but above all brimming with potential. Beatnik caught up with Botany while in New York City for the CMJ festival.
It’s a warm October afternoon in New York, and Botany—probably the epitomy of a studio cat—is only moderately pleased with his performance at the CMJ’s. The 22-year-old Texan, born Spencer Stephenson, was invited to play at the festival after the blogosphere worked its magic on a few of the songs from his recent release.
“I didn’t expect the blog tracks to be well-received, but then I got asked to come to CMJ so… I had to,” explains the recent Western Vinyl-signee with an air of indifference that (somewhat) disguises his humility. Spencer, the self-confessed “puppet master” of his own tracks, was caught a little off-guard when invited to one of the music capitals of the world.
“[I felt] flattered, and immediately scared. Since playing, that’s worn off a little bit. This is my first show.”
“Haha… yea I know, man.”
As Botany’s first release, Feeling Today reveals a versatile range influences that have been consolidated into one particular sound. ‘Benefactress,’ no doubt an ode to Spencer’s deceased mother, has synths that float seamlessly over a complex drum pattern to evoke a serene range of emotions, carried by the optimistic tone that run throughout Feeling Today.
“Well, to be honest, my mom had just passed away last January,” Botany says of when he began working on his debut album, which is set for a 2011 release date. “I kind of decided during all of that that I wouldn’t make sad songs any more, because during the whole ordeal it was… almost too expected to be gloomy all the time. I don’t like when people put on a fake gloom thing. And I don’t like pessimistic people.”
The shimmering euphoria of ‘Benefactress’ is recurrent on Feeling Today, perhaps most obviously on the title track, or on the beautifully paced and layered ‘Minnow Theme,’ with Spencer’s knack for assembling original and meticulous percussion shines through.
Botany’s songs have been likened to Anticon producer Baths debut album Cerulean. The comparison, often drawn from a surface-value account of the two artists’ upbeat, melodically sensitive electronic output, would inevitably come up in our conversation — especially as Beatnik interviewed Baths shortly before it.
As you’d expect, Spencer is indifferent to the comparison. But the likening of the two is warranted; though perhaps not for the obvious reason. Baths and Botany have both channeled their introductions to the music world through chirpiness and—most tellingly—both are eager move beyond this sound now that the formalities of entering the right circles are over with (read about Baths’ new direction here).
“My anxiety would disappear when I would focus more on that type of music. It helped me out to be in that mindset. I don’t think that slaphappy, blissful sound will stick around forever. It will to some degree, but even on the album that’s coming out in the spring it’ll be different in tone.
“I think the blissfulness and happiness are really obvious emotions; it’s kind of too easy to work with that. I’d like to mix it up a little more and have more of a complex emotional tone rather than just being happy all the time.”
The five tracks on the EP share a clear element of spaciousness. As a trained drummer, guitar and bass player, Spencer probably has a blank sheet as his starting point — but his talent lies in turning his trained approach into something that resembles free from, at the same time as the music is held within its structure. The apparent boundlessness to his tracks is a result of his creative environment.
“I still live in the house that I grew up in with my dad and little brother. I sit up in the room at the very top of the house, which is on a hill. I live almost in the boonies in Texas, and all I have to do is look outside. When I listen to my playbacks I just pace around my room, look out the window and it’s a perfect backdrop.
“No matter how hard you try to cover up where you made the music, it always shows. If I were to move to New York I don’t even know how that would be; I don’t even know if I want to make an album here. The surroundings I’m in right now are really reflected in the music.”
On his first visit to New York, Spencer would play two sets at the CMJ, taking his grand total of live gigs as a solo artist to seven. The CIty has obviously left a mark on him, but it’s still unclear what he’s made of it. Intimidation may play a part, but it also seems that the Texas native isn’t so comfortable in the high-pace environment I’ve found him in. And he wouldn’t be like him to fake his excitement.
But the revelation that Jay Dee’s work on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, an album that was more than formative in Spencer’s musical evolution, was done at Electric Lady Studios — about a 20-minute walk from where we’re standing — does bring out some animation.
“When I did listen to hip-hop exclusively,” one Dilla-latecomer explains to another. “I listened mostly to Like Water for Chocolate.”
That was recorded…
“Down the street?” he interjects. “That’s awesome. It was because of the production. That was Jay Dee; I didn’t find that out until a couple of months before he died,” Spencer continues, finally showing signs of being a little awestruck.
EP: Feeling Today (Out now on Western Vinyl — buy here)
More about Botany