Any songwriter will tell you: you need to write a ton of bad songs to write the good ones. Such is the case with Athens-based singer-songwriter Spencer Thomas. Amidst a furious writing spell, “Traveling Angel” fell right into his lap, and it’s a classic “diamond in the rough,” as he puts it, “cut from days of trying to dig out a song.”
Originally from his 2019 solo debut LP, Hangin’ Tough, the musician pulls out the stops for an evocative performance video, filmed at Sleeper’s Mountain in Portland, Oregon. “She’s got tattoos from her neck to her hands / And fidgets with her cigarette,” he opens the first verse. “Yeah she takes comfort in the conversation / About what life had always meant.”
Thomas has a knack for vivid storytelling, often taking influences from Billy Joel and Jackson Browne. He continues to unwrap a story about the power of women storytellers. “And she said Wichita is colder as the snow fell on her shoulder / Knowing well the Midwest weather ain’t kind,” he sings, gentle piano ebbing and flowing around him. “To a southern girl with some boots of cheap leather / And a guitar that falls out of tune each night.”
The former Young Valley singer/drummer initially envisioned the song built with strings, but he thought better of it. “Sometimes, the song doesn’t need anything but space. No frills or distractions, just a story and chords ─ although I’ve done some live versions with a full band singing harmonies, and it turns out that works pretty well, too!”
Faithful to the recording, Thomas’ performance feels both reflective and celebratory. He mows through the melody’s innate heaviness with precision, excavating an appreciation for live performance, and it perfectly captures our collective longing in 2020.
“I moved to Athens during the pandemic, and while it’s been an amazing experience despite that setback, I want so badly to be able to go to a bar and hear a songwriter or band for the first time and be blown away,” he says. “Or really get on the road again and be moved by the opening songwriter ─ like shut your friends up and make a 180 turn with your bar stool kind of moved! I feel nostalgic for those moments more than anything.”
Thomas now cherishes the art of live performance through his own YouTube series. “Traveling Angel” is the latest installment, following a brand new song called “Woman Who Smokes Cigars.” “This was a way to showcase a few of those songs to hopefully bring people back to that record,” he explains, “while featuring a brand new song to show where I’m going next. It’s a transitory series, if you will. Plus, I was on a Warren Zevon kick for about seven months out of this year, and I can’t say that’s irrelevant.”
As he reconnects with live performance, even in a pandemic, Thomas is also finding new ways to mentally recharge. “I’ve been getting back more to creating just because, as opposed to creating always with the purpose of producing ‘the next good one,’” he offers. “I remember being in high school, sitting on my bed with a cheap Casio keyboard or borrowed acoustic guitar and focusing on it for hours because it gave me purpose. It sharpened my brain and eased my anxieties. I’m trying to use music as a space for sanctity again and not just because it’s my pursuit.”
All things considered, 2020 has taught him how to forgive himself and be “patient with my circumstances. I’m a doer, so playing shows on the road was the tangible organic way of reaching people with my songs. It was really tough without that affirmation at first. Now, I try to think about the long game, practice gratitude every single step of the way, and not be so hard on myself. The big takeaway mantra: If you want to speed up, slow down.”
Thomas is also busy working on his sophomore record, and he recently recorded the first official single with engineer Thomas Johnson (Futurebirds) and Athens rock band Heffner. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out,” he teases. “It’s a rocker!”
Watch the performance below.
Photo by Sean Dunn