Tracy Spuehler's music is another of those gems I've found while casually surfing the Internet on some idle Monday evening. I was initially drawn to a photo of her with her guitar. Petite, pretty and wearing librarian-styled glasses, I originally thought she was Lisa Loeb. But after listening to her music, I quickly realized she wasn't.
A native to the Los Angeles area, Spuehler spent several years as a violinist in the band, Pimentos For Gus. After the group disbanded in 1996, Spuehler moved back to Los Angeles from Minneapolis and took care of her ill mother. It was after her mother's death a couple of years later that Spruehler began to write songs and ultimately, embarked on a solo career. She would see the release of her debut album, six three one, in 2001.
six three one served as the first step to what appears to be a strong and promising career in the world of music for Spuehler, as she has a particular knack for writing remarkable songs about family, lost loves, and life's ups and downs. Highly reviewed by local colleges and receiving airwave endorsement by Los Angeles' KCRW, Spuehler quickly found praise for her music. Her song "Where Do We Go?," a sturdy and memorable sing-a-long found itself used in a commercial for Nissan. Later it was used in the television shows, What About Brian? and Showtime's Weeds.
In 2004, Spuehler released her sophomore album, Itâ€™s The Sound, furthering the musical style that was quickly being attributed to her. Standouts include "At The Frank Black Show," "Tell Me That" and the title track.
Spuehler's latest is this year's "You're My Star," yet another strong release that finds the songwriter boasting yet another collection of smart and infectious songs. "Holding Out For Love" is an extremely addicting track with a chorus you can't help but sing along to. "Unforgettable," the album's groovy synthesized rocker, is as the lyrics goes, "pure magic." Songs like the engaging "Long Way From Here,: show off Spuehler's softer side, but never dull down the momentum of the album's whole. Simply put, You're My Star sparkles.
Musically, Spuehler is most often compared to critical darlings like Aimee Mann, Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield and other strong, female songwriters who emerged in the early nineties. But unlike them, Spuehler has somehow remained under the radar, despite many of her commercial successes.
The beauty with Spuehler is how remarkably simple her songs sound. There is a straightforward sincerity to them that is completely refreshing in a business full of over-production and lyrical overflow. Her lyrics are sharp and sugarless. Her songs never seem too long or too short. And her albums sound better and better after every listen.
Tracy Spuehler: Press
When we first considered the facts about young Tracy Spuehler ...we fully expected "It's the Sound" to be one of those discs that we just wouldn't like. Not only has one of her songs been used in a commercial for Nissan / Altima (barf!) ...but she also has a day job as a producer for slop/crap outlets like MTV, VH1, and CMT (double barf!) . Well the proof is in the grooves, so they say...and despite her seemingly overtly commercial credentials...Tracy Spuehler is actually a credible and entertaining singer/songwriter with real integrity. And her music is surprisingly sincere. Instead of predictable inane dribble...the tunes on It's the Sound are thoughtful and sensitive...and they feature wonderfully addictive melodies that show off Spuehler's super smooth voice. This is a very cohesive collection of tunes from start to finish. Tracy covers human topics in her lyrics...while never trying too hard to get her point across. The album is well-recorded...but not overtly slick. Overdubs are used sparingly...allowing the listener to focus on the songs themselves. Superb pop numbers include "It's the Sound," "Time," "Tell Me That," and "Broken Melody." Tracy has a sound and style that is not unlike Suzanne Vega ...while at the same time having a sound and vision that are truly her own.
"You're like a seasoning or a spice that's baked its way into my life," Tracy Spuehler confides on "All the Way," a whistle-driven tune from her third album, You're My Star. The local singer-guitarist bakes her way into our lives with the charming pop of "Unforgettable," which brackets her endearing melody with stop-and-start guitars. At her best, on tracks like the cheery "Orange Crush" and the steadfast "Holding Out for Love," Spuehler evokes the groovy pop-rock of Anny Celsi and the Bangles' Vicki Peterson. At her worst, she teeters too close to the feeble, cutesy pap of Lisa Loeb and Sheryl Crow with such blank and lazy lyrics as "You are my only/You make my heart grow." Spuehler has a facility for sweetly earnest tunes (augmented nicely on the CD with her violin embellishments and producer Liam Davis' low-key instrumentation), but her lesser songs are undercut by simple-minded romantic imagery that could use some, well, spice - and more of the darkness hinted at in the breezy title track, where she gets off on watching her beau get in a fight over her.
Tracy Spuehler is one of the best singer/songwriters currently plying the folk/pop trenches, and she's got a new disc, the aptly-named "It's the Sound." The sound expands a bit this time out, though it doesn't run roughshod over the songs, allowing her winsomely clever wordplay to shine through on songs like "'At the Frank Black Show'" and the title tune, a true slice of summer pop sunshine.
If you must compare her to anyone, Lisa Loeb, Jill Sobule and Aimee Mann come to mind, but I think, with all the hooks this lady manages to come up with, there's also a bit of (Sheryl) Crow in her, too. One can only hope the breaks continue to come, because she would be a welcome addition to radio playlists. and who knows, maybe there is another commercial lurking in the tracks of "It's the Sound," too.
Listening to the sophomore album from this L.A.-based singer-songwriter is like seeing the smart girl at school take off her glasses, unwrap her pigtails and turn into a beautiful swan.
On her new record, the title track and the sly "At the Frank Black Show" are filled with rueful observations and post-feminist sexual politics. The sensibility recalls the mid-90s, when smart, liberated rockers like Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield and Amy Rigby pointed the way to a post-confessional grrrl power that wasn't afraid to wear its desire and insecurities on its sleeve. At the same time, "Keep Your Coat On" and "Caution Tape" reflect the hope for solid ground and security in a world, both public and personal, whose safety net has been irrevocably torn asunder after 9/11.
"It's The Sound" follows singer-songwriter Tracy Spuehler's 2001 solo debut, six three one. "It's The Sound" songs are poetic and straightforward, yet with a satisfying depth to the lyrics. Spuehler sings with light, Lisa Loeb-ish or Sheryl Crow quality over her roots-oriented, poppy folk-rock guitar strumming.
The album opens with the title track, a potent, melodic and uppity tune that creates images of colorful flowers on a sunny afternoon. "It's the Sound" sounds like a girl in love. That organic, airy quality flows throughout all ten tracks. Another standout discovery is "Time," which makes me stop and listen extra carefully every time it plays. There's a haunting, hushed, sweet and very sensitive quality to it. Spuehler effectively captures the feeling of waiting for someone, when time seems to drag on painfully, making itself very known. Other favorites are "Caution Tape" and "Hear You Say."
While writing songs for her 2001 debut, Tracy Spuehler's world shuddered with "big life things," including the death of her mother and a breakup with a longtime boyfriend. And go figure. The song that earned her notice was "Where Do We Go?" which was used in a Nissan car commercial.
'It was my poppy, happy song,' says the 32-year-old singer, whose tunes charmed their way into the public's ear on KCRW-FM and beyond, with bursts of wit and sweetness tempered by dollops of sobering reality.
Now comes her follow-up, "It's the Sound," which Spuehler will celebrate Tuesday with a show at the Hotel Cafe. "It's my L.A. dating album," says Spuehler, a producer for music television by day and a former violinist who didn't take up songwriting until she was in her mid-20s. "I love the process. It's very therapeutic and still very exciting."
You probably know LA singer-songwriter Tracy Spuehler from her relentlessly hummable song, "Where Do We Go?", that was used in the Nissan ad. You probably don't know that New Times wrote that her music has "elements of Juliana Hatfield's little-girl lilt, Aimee Mann's confessional pop and Liz Phair's indie-rock feistiness" while still being "charmingly fresh and all her own". As far as those comparisons go, she's earthier than Hatfield (no Blake references here), less calmly whiny than Mann can be, and not as clear in her various commonplace dysfunctions as Phair. At least to someone who's something of a soft touch for Hatfield, wishes Mann would stop making observations and start rockin', and thinks Phair is the only one among the three who might be a major artist. And, yes, I can tell Spuehler apart from any of her predecessors in a blind test (Spuehler's slow ones are like Mann without the Berklee-trained melodies but her fast ones, thankfully, have more urgency)...the pairing of good melodies to good lyrics is unlikely to be coincidental. In "It's the Sound", she savors lying next to a lover in a quiet moment. "Keep Your Coat On" (as in "Rhymes with, 'You won't be staying long'") offers a "sexy sweet" guy sloppy seconds while underlining that it's nothing more: "You better be safe / Or you're gonna be sorry". "Skin Deep" might be about the same guy falling anyway, declaring his love after the two have been "idling for hours in your car": "And I felt badly / 'Cause I knew right there and then / That I couldn't see you again".
"It's the Sound" is an awesome record. Spuehler's voice is captivating and reminds me of Aimee Mann, and that's a good thing. Produced by Liam Davis, this album does sort of mirror the sad-little-girl vibe that has been done by, well, basically everyone. But these songs are clearly so personal, yet universal, that the sadness isn't a killer. She lilts her way through the very Californian title track and from there dives right into "At the Frank Black Show." This combination sets the tone, without being boring, for a very evenly paced record. This is Spuehler's second release and I am already eagerly anticipating the next. You should be too.
Tracy Spuehler is that bookish girl in glasses you knew in high school who surprised everyone when she picked up a guitar and played for the first time at the annual talent show. Unexpectedly original for the girl-with-guitar genre, Spuehler has some twentieth century Sheryl Crow and Liz Phair in her. Each of the ten tracks on this sophomore album are little packages with surprises inside, like the repetition in "Tell Me That" which captures that lump in your throat feeling associated with the inevitability of love on the rocks.
On "It's The Sound," L.A. power popster Tracy Spuehler's lyrics navigate through various stages of love: missing it, trying to hold onto it and kissing it goodbye. "Keep Your Coat On" threads this thematic needle even more deftly as she admits to someone she's attracted to that she still has feelings for someone else. I don't know how Spuehler does it but she makes these lines - "You better be safe or you're gonna be sorry" - sound like a pop symphony with Brian Wilson smiling in the front row.
It's impossible not to begin any discussion about Tracy Spuehler these days without making mention of her infectious tune "Where Do We Go?" having been used in a Nissan commercial. That track ushered in her touching and fun debut release "six three one." "It's the Sound" captures the same sharp and sweet dynamic and proves that her first outing was no act of chance. Simple images emerge from Spuehler's intimate lyrics, yet they paint a bigger picture when all the elements are there. Paste magazine describes Spuehler as possessed of "writing so unobtrusive that she is able to evoke profound depth of feeling through little more than subtle suggestion." In contrast to her debut, which focused more on external elements - a stolen car, a hummingbird, a sunflower, a childhood home - It's The Sound finds her turning inward. The title track, a mid-tempo pop rocker, opens the disc by amplifying the mere act of looking up at the sky and feeling as well grounded as the friend you're sharing the moment with. "At The Frank Black Show" explores that rush you get when you think you've seen someone you have unresolved feeling for. She never has to say it but she can talk around "it" in a delightfully fresh way. The organic carefree pop of It's the Sound - once again helmed by producer/multi-instrumentalist Liam Davis - is simply lovable.
If the thudding baseline that announces the opening of Six Three One sounds familiar, it's not only because the song appeals to the hallmarks of effortlessly fun road music, but because it happens to be weaving itself into your memory files by virtue of a Nissan commercial. And while it might be a bit more lighthearted than the bulk of the album, "Where Do We Go?" is generally indicative of the simple, straightforward approach Los Angeles native Tracy Spuehler employs throughout her memoir of life, loss, and love.
A singer-songwriter with roots in a seven-year tenure as a violinist with folk/rock duo Pimentos for Gus, she plays the role of modern everywoman well, writing simply but not inelegantly with a voice steeped in homespun charm and informal grace.
Still, as good-natured and generally upbeat as they are, the 12 entries on this, her solo debut, mask a deep sense of defeat and disappointment, providing a sense of contrast that ultimately becomes the album's defining characteristic.
To that extent, the memory of her mother hangs over a few tracks, with the fluttering keys of "Secret Life" and stately violin lines that wind around the acoustic guitar figures of the movingly picturesque "Hummingbird." That she can steer such songs, so laden with personal meaning, away from maudlin melodrama is much to her credit, as her writing is so unobtrusive that she is able to evoke a profound depth of feeling through little more than subtle suggestion and vocal intonation.
Before she's done, she'll lament a few past loves, a childhood home, and a car, but her ability to exude charm and observational restraint generally saves her from the over-emoting that plagues lesser songwriters. Just as her songwriting is caught in the contrast between hope and despair, her musical aesthetic is torn between stripped-down, lo-fi arrangements and more lush, richly produced fare that generally complements her gifts more appropriately, sometimes giving rise to an interesting hybrid with her draping violin lines over processed beats in "Sunflower." Still, at her best, seen in details like the swirling harmonies and trumpet solo in "631" and the warm Wurlitzer touches of "The Gift," Spuehler occasionally hints at more expansive ambitions. As such, at this point, her melodic gifts are outpacing her lyrical skills a bit, as she opts for any easy rhyme a few too many times, even if the emotional directness is ultimately endearing. With any luck, she'll be remembered as much more than the author of a catchy car jingle.
Flowing through singer-songwriter Tracy Spuehler's impressive debut disc are elements of Juliana Hatfield's little-girl lilt, Aimee Mann's confessional pop and Liz Phair's indie-rock feistiness. But this native Angeleno puts so much of herself into her songs that her music winds up charmingly fresh and all her own.
Kicking off Six Three One, the irresistibly catchy "Where Do We Go?" is all bouncy beat and boppy "ba ba ba's," but underneath is a sense of questioning that foreshadows the life examinations present throughout this disc. Spuehler demonstrates a real ability for turning personal events into engaging tunes -- in "Little Red Car," for example, she offers a loving tribute to her stolen Toyota. And the title track stands as probably the best rock ode to a house since Grant Hart's "2541." But where that tune honored a punk rock bunkhouse, "631" mixes childhood nostalgia with an air of joyous celebration ("That's where we made lemonade/Back when I was in first grade") to chronicle the packing up of her family home.
The album's centerpiece song, "Hummingbird," similarly employs down-to-earth imagery but for a more serious topic, with Spuehler poignantly using the incident of a hummingbird distracting a mourner during a funeral service to express the love and loss that the song's narrator feels for the deceased person.
Producer Liam Davis, from Chicago's Frisbie, adds thoughtful touches of horns, strings and other studio texturing that well suit Spuehler's seemingly simple yet quite substantive songs. A delightfully endearing album, Six Three One proves that Spuehler is more than just another "girl with a guitar."
"sweet, sensitive songs"
Tracy Spuehler had an epiphany. Over the course of three years in the late '90s, her band broke up, she split up with her longtime boyfriend, she moved from her adopted home of Minneapolis back to her hometown of Los Angeles, where she cared for her mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 1998. At the end of it all, she wrote the songs that make up what critics are calling one of the most beautiful debuts of 2001.
The only question remaining for the 30-year-old songwriter as she hits the road for her first solo tour that brings her to Minneapolis tonight: What next?
If that sounds too much like a synopsis for a "VH1 Behind the Music" segment, it's no mistake: Spuehler was associate producer for many of the infamous "Behind the Music" bits, including those devoted to Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, the Black Crowes and Metallica. As such, she is fully aware of the irony that comes with the double life of being a gifted songwriter in her own right, as well as part of pop culture's biggest punch line.
"It was really fun, but it's really strange for me because I don't ever watch TV," she says from her apartment in Los Angeles. "I haven't since high school. Now and then, I'll watch something with friends, but I don't even have a TV right now. I don't do 'Behind the Music' anymore, but it was fun to be part of this thing that everybody parodies."
Much like her solo debut, "Six Three One," Spuehler's story of artistic growth is far more interesting than most of the soap operas she has produced. Spuehler was a founding member of Pimentos for Gus, the local pop-folk band that, after a seven-year run, called it quits in 1996. Her former bandmates include Justin Roberts and Mike Merz, who have both gone on to successful careers as solo artists.
"It doesn't surprise me at all, because Justin and Mike were doing that back with Pimentos," she says. "We're all finding our niches. We're all going strong. And I honestly would never ever have expected that I would have been doing this."
Part of what got her to this point, she says, is the fact that she and Roberts went their separate ways in 1997 after an eight-year love affair.
"It was amazing, but it was my first love, him too, and after eight years, I was 26, and it was the kind of thing that would either have to move forward into serious life commitment or not," she says. "And I just couldn't make that commitment. I knew myself too well. I wanted to live on my own."
A Los Angeles native, Spuehler ultimately found Minneapolis "too small" and returned to her roots (the title song of "Six Three One" refers to the address of the house where she grew up). She spent much of the next two years putting her musical life on hold as she cared for her mother. After her mother's death, Spuehler, who comes from a family of classically trained musicians and who received a degree in religious studies from Kenyon College in Ohio, started writing songs.
"I wrote some songs when I was in Minneapolis, but they were never anything I wanted to play because I didn't think I had anything to say," she says. "When I moved back here, it just kind of started happening. The melodies and lyrics would pop into my head, and so many things were happening - every possible transition, from having lost this long relationship, moving from my base of friends and support system in Minneapolis, and my mom.
"So all of a sudden, I had a lot to write about. It was definitely my form of therapy. And it was also very surprising that I was even writing songs. The only person I'd play them for was Justin, who was really encouraging, and then they just started pouring out."
Those songs include "Where Do We Go?" "Hummingbird," "Sunflower" and "Round and Round," all of which trace Spuehler's journey of the heart and the losses-gains that come with spiritual and artistic growth. The uncommon depth of the songs caught the ear of producer Liam Davis, a member of Chicago indie-rock heroes Frisbee and head of the Chicago-based independent label Hear Diagonally, which released "Six Three One" in July. Since then, it has garnered rave reviews from such outlets as amazon.com and the College Music Journal, and steady airplay on such influential independent radio stations as Los Angeles' KCRW-FM.
All of which would never have happened had Spuehler not come to a crossroads in her life and taken the leap.
"I've thought about that: If I hadn't gone through all these changes and gone on my own, would I have done all that I've done and explored everything I've explored?" she says.
"I love my mom so much, and it was hard to see her decline physically, but at the same time, it wasn't a negative experience. It was peaceful, in a way. I got to know her so much better."
The same could be said about Spuehler, by anyone fortunate enough to stumble upon the open book of an open heart that is "Six Three One."
Imagine a messy chaotic world filled with junkyards and media billboards, all shouting noise, hype, and clutter. Now imagine in the middle of this mess is a little oasis, a little perfect circle with a single simple beam of light shining down on a girl singing a simple melody. That's Tracy Spuehler. It takes a real confidence to make music this beautifully simple. Her unaffected voice. Her direct melodies. Her unhidden personality. It's the antidote to your crazy life. It's a sunflower in the junkyard. It's pop meditation. Nursery rhymes to calm the frazzled soul. If you liked Aimee Mann's music in Magnolia, you need to have this album.
Yet one more amazing debut that, when you finish with it the first time, makes you feel as if you know its maker intimately. No bio came with this CD...But what I gather from these dozen songs is that she has been in and out of love; her dream of perfect love is on the ropes; her mother died and her spirit was reincarnated in a hummingbird; her beloved little red car that took her from Minneapolis to California was stolen and violated (it's a love song); and on her worst days, she feels like giving up, but she also wrote one of the most optimistic songs I've ever heard in "Sunflower."
In other words, she sounds like a hundred women I've known, and one in a million.