Today marks the launch of the third season of my wellness-focused podcast, The O.K. Show, which will be rolling out over the next eight weeks, and my first guest for this season is Spencer Wirth-Davis, who you may already know as the producer that goes by the name Big Cats! The exclamation point is part of the name, and not just me be overly excited — though I am super psyched to finally be sharing some more O.K. Show episodes with you.
Spencer called me up a few months ago to let me know that he was getting ready to release a new album, and that it was going to be called What if it Doesn’t Get Better? That name! It caught my attention immediately. We tell each other all the time that it gets better, that all things must pass. But what if they don’t? Spencer’s words haunted me.
As Big Cats(!), Spencer has worked with dozens of musicians here in the Twin Cities, from Claire de Lune to Guante to Toki Wright. He approaches hip-hop like a classical composer, arranging live instrumentation and sampling organic sounds, and his new work is cinematic and gorgeous. He has excellent taste and called on some very talented friends to make the album, including Lydia Liza and Eric Mayson.
I also wanted to ask Spencer about the process of releasing his first album, a tribute to his late mother which he made in the wake of losing her to cancer, and how he’s moved forward from that period of grief and into a new chapter of his musical life.
Without further ado, here’s the O.K. Show, episode 16: a conversation with Big Cats!
Andrea Swensson: Ok, we have to start with the title of your new album, because I actually find it kind of upsetting.
Big Cats!: [laughs] That wasn’t quite the intent.
And not, like, Oh, I can’t believe you called a record that. But just the idea, what if it doesn’t get better — I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot. Thinking in the context of health and mental health, we like to tell each other that it is going to get better. Entertaining this idea of, well, what if it doesn’t? It hits me in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
It’s not meant to be as ominous or as depressing as it might sound. It’s sort of a mantra, and it motivates me to not be complacent. “What if it doesn’t get better?” is less of, well, things are awful and they’re going to stay awful, and more of, well, things could always be better. And the only way that’s going to happen is by me working towards that, and by me actually doing something about it. Because I’m actually at a place right now where, for the most part, things are going pretty well for me.
Between music and my personal life and work and all that stuff, things are pretty good. But I think that’s kind of a scary thing, as an artist. Because I try to not put out new music unless I feel like I actually have something to say. Or what I’m saying, I’m saying better than I did the last time. So “What if it doesn’t get better?” is sort of a way of taking on things that might be scary.
I totally identify with that. I think terrifying myself is the best motivation.
All of the best things that I’ve done professionally and personally have started by saying yes to something that scares the hell out of me. And then figuring out later how I’m going to do it, or if it’s going to work. It’s an attitude: I have to keep trying new things and growing and taking risks and failing, if I want to improve as a person and an artist.
What’s the most recent thing that you’ve done that was scary?
I took a job this fall that I really had no idea how I was going to do. I’ve been teaching music to high schoolers this year, full time. I’m not trained as a teacher. I’ve worked in schools, and I’ve worked with kids my whole life, but I went to school to be a painter and a photographer, and I was not at the time — I am now — a licensed teacher. I got offered this position to teach music production to high schoolers, and they figured out a way to get me licensed and make it happen. And I had no idea what that was going to look like, or if I’d be able to do it. But I said yes, and then had to figure out how I was actually going to make that all happen. It’s been an amazing experience, but one that was terrifying, at first.
Well yeah. High schoolers are terrifying just on their own.
That too, yeah. [laughs] Being faced with a room full of high schoolers every morning at 7:30 is an interesting way to go about life.
I bet you’re the cool teacher, though. You’ve been in bands and on tour.
Yeah… I try to only bring that stuff up when it actually applies to what’s going on, mostly just to keep some sort of professional separation there, but that’s really hard, too, with the internet. Because obviously half of my life, as a musician, is promoting myself on the internet. And then as a teacher it’s like, no, don’t go look on the internet!
I was really moved by how open you were while releasing your first solo record, For My Mother. I was wondering, now that some time has passed, can you reflect on what that experience was like, for you to share that with the world as you were sharing your music? How was that for you?
It started out just as something that I felt like I needed to do for myself, just because writing and playing music is sort of how I deal with a lot of things and process a lot of things. And so that felt like a very natural but also necessary way for me to process that situation. But I felt like that could go in a very dark and depressing way, which is not what I wanted that record and that project to be. So it kind of became this process of taking something largely negative, the death of my mom and a lot of the stuff she was dealing with leading up to it, and trying to turn that into something that could be positive and help other people in addition to helping me. And so part of that was donating the money from the record to the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, which is an organization that my mom really felt strongly about and supported, and got support from.
But also in the music itself — if you listen to it, it’s not a dark or depressing record. I wanted to make something musically that could help other people who were either dealing with something difficult or just wanted to be able to listen to and enjoy some relaxing music. From what people have told me, it hit that mark. The number one piece of feedback I get is how many times people have listened to it. And that you can listen to it on repeat. I think also because of the nature of the project, and that it was partially crowd-funded, and I got a grant to do part of it, and I was donating a lot of the money from it, and then those things led to it getting a lot of press coverage, it really benefitted me a lot in terms of my career, which was not something I was really expecting. That was more a record that I just felt like I needed to make. But I think of all the work I’ve put out, that’s what people have heard the most and identified with the most.
It’s very easy to go too far down the making music for yourself path, where you almost might as well not release it at all, but it’s really easy to go too far the other way and make stuff only to elicit a specific reaction in other people. I think that was the best balance I’ve struck. But I don’t totally know how I did it. I think a lot of it was coincidental, in what I was dealing with at the time. A lot of other people deal with the same stuff or very similar things. At this point, almost everyone knows someone that’s been affected by cancer. It’s very, very common. And I don’t think at 23, making that record, I really understood that, because it felt so personal. And at that age I didn’t have the experience to know that, oh yeah, everybody deals with stuff like this. So I was processing it on a very personal, internal level. I think that was good for me to put that out and have to talk about it, and see other people connect with it and react to it and want to talk to me about it. I think that was eye-opening for me, to realize that this is something that everyone deals with, whether it’s specifically cancer or any kind of hardship like that. It’s really just a matter of time that something is going to come up that’s going to shake you.
I’ve had to come to terms with that a lot in the last couple of years. There is an inevitability to it as you get older. I can relate to what you’re saying about how it feels very personal, to the point where your pain feels unique and more intense than any other pain that exists.
And it is. To you, it is.
I’m just amazed by anyone that can be remotely productive, and communicate that experience within any kind of time of it happening.
Yeah. I mean there were the weeks and months right after, I didn’t do anything creative. I didn’t feel like doing anything at all. But I think once I figured out what I did want to do and had the vision for that project, it all came out pretty quickly.
This might be kind of a weird question, but I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to include my own personal thoughts and feelings in my work, and being more open and vulnerable in that way. The response has been really cool, but I almost get to a point sometimes where I have to pull back — I can’t go that deep all the time. It’s kind of exhausting.
Totally. That was another thing I didn’t really think about when I was making that record. You’re going to have to talk about this a lot. People are going to want to ask you a lot of questions about this thing that you just figured out how to deal with. I had just gotten to a point where I was kind of comfortable talking about it, but I didn’t realize that putting out a record with that sort of narrative attached to it meant I would have to talk about it a ton. All the time. Whenever you do an interview, or play a show. I don’t know if there’s really a way to wrap your head around that before you actually do it. I kind of got to a point where that was part of the process for me, dealing with it, was being able to talk to people about it, and being able to be more open about myself. Which is not naturally something I’m very good at. So that was, again, not an intended outcome of that project, but definitely a benefit to me. Yeah. I have to not only understand this for myself, but have another conversation with another person about it, and often times that person is going to be a total stranger. I’m not talking to one of my friends or my wife about it, which I had barely figured out how to do. It was like, some guy at a radio station is going to ask you. And you’re going to have to talk about the most personal stuff you’ve got.
Yeah! And figure out a way to not have it be awkward. And figure out a way to have people want to come to your show after they hear you talk about it.
So anyway, buy my CD.
Exactly. You definitely run the risk of being pigeonholed as that band that only makes really depressing music, or that writer that only writes really dark stuff. As a musician, I’m not interested in that. I want to be able to make a bunch of different kinds of music. As a producer I can kind of – I think I have more flexibility than say if you’re Cloud Cult, that’s your thing, you are this band. But that would be really hard. Can you write a happy song at this point? Do you lose fans because you’re happy? That’s not a fun situation to be in.
I think about that too, with musicians who make that big break-up album, and everyone relates to it and pulls it out everytime they go through something hard. What if you get married and have kids? What happens to you then?
I think that’s why, especially in pop music, you get pushed into these really narrow topics. It has to be relatable. And at least in pop music, it also has to be, for the most part, fun. You can have one ballad on your record, but it has to be fun, or it has to be a love song, because that’s what everybody can identify with. But the really heavy stuff, I think a lot of people can relate to, too. But that’s not a space I’d like to permanently occupy. I’d like to be able to make some fun music.
So what is this new record about?
One of the biggest themes on it is experiencing different things simultaneously, and being in multiple places at once. Different people having the same experience from lots of different places, and this idea that we’re maybe not all as separate and individual as we might seem, or like to think we are in our own heads. These songs are constructed in a way where one song might have several different ideas, or what could have been several different songs, kind of pieced together into one. It might have very stark changes throughout it. There are a couple of songs that literally are, I made three songs, and then blended them together as if I were DJing. There’s a song where literally nothing happens for four minutes. It’s just, musically, a four-minute drone. I was playing with the idea of just experiencing one thing for four minutes, which is something we never do anymore. It’s such a short period of time, but it’s something I notice with my students all the time – if something drastically different isn’t happening every 10 seconds, we don’t care. We can’t pay attention to it. We need something actively engaging us all the time, rather than being like, ok, I can just exist here for a few minutes. We’re always trying to figure out what else is going on, what is this person doing, what’s happening here. Just being able to sit with one feeling or one sound or one thought for any extended period of time is not something we get to do.
That’s why people text and drive. They don’t want to be alone.
Exactly. We can’t exist with our own thoughts anymore. I need to know what mindless thought someone else is tweeting while I’m driving 60 miles an hour from one thing to the next thing. I can’t – it’s scary to be in your head for a minute. So musically, that comes out as four minutes out of a 30-minute record are just the note F. You can experience all there is to experience of F for four minutes, and figure out what kind of person you are.
I’m so fascinated by music’s ability to heal, because it’s so intangible, but then it can have super tangible results in your life.
I think about that a lot. When music things are not going so well, when you’re waiting for that invoice that was due three months ago, and you need that money. I think about all the – like, how different my day-to-day life would be, had I not decided to play music. Because at this point it’s everything I do all day, but it’s also literally all of my friends. Everyone I hang out with on a day-to-day basis, I met through music. Anyone that I would consider friends or family outside of my actual family, I met through music. So that’s incredible. That’s beautiful. And very real, and very tangible. To connect that to playing a piano, or moving some things around on a computer screen? It’s something I don’t really understand, but to me is the most incredible part about making music, and a bit part of why I do it. The people that you meet through it, you instantly have this understanding and connection. Anybody who takes something very seriously and works hard at something and feels very passionately about something — yeah, that’s someone I want to be around.
The O.K. Show, Episode 1: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee
The O.K. Show, Episode 2: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer
The O.K. Show, Episode 3: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album
The O.K. Show, Episode 4: Irv Williams, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz
The O.K. Show, Episode 5: Lydia Liza on empathy, anxiety, and staying grounded in the music business
The O.K. Show, Episode 6: Hard-touring rapper Astronautalis talks about staying sane on the road
The O.K. Show, Episode 7: Mayda on her health and her journey as a Korean adoptee
The O.K. Show, Episode 8: Manchita on feminism, rapping, and her relationship with Eyedea
The O.K. Show, Episode 9: Lizzo on self-acceptance and falling in love with herself
The O.K. Show, Episode 10: Rock ‘n’ roll dreamer Dan Israel comes to terms with his divorce and his health
The O.K. Show, Episode 11: Claire de Lune on anxiety, imposter syndrome, and finding herself through music
The O.K. Show, Episode 12: A conversation with Greg Grease on self-care and community building
The O.K. Show, Episode 13: The evolution of Holly Hansen
The O.K. Show, Episode 14: Writer, DJ, and beatmaker Ali Elabbady
The O.K. Show, Episode 15: Sarah White’s journey toward self-care