Sometimes, the hardest thing for an artist to do is relent and let other people into their creative process. That was the self-assigned task of deem spencer, the thoughtful, Queens-born artist whose latest studio album, adultSW!M, dropped today. He tells Rolling Stone that the 12-track project is the result of seeking more creative feedback than ever over the past year because he realized that even if he loved well-regarded albums like We Think We Alone and Pretty Face, his reclusive approach was hindering his potential as a professional musician.
“I felt like all these years of just listening to myself, I kind of hit a ceiling of what I could do myself, and I’m not afraid to admit that,” he says via Zoom. When we talk, he’s at a studio in Queens, one of the several studios that he recorded adultSW!M at after years of recording (and mixing) himself in his bedroom. That intimate approach reflected back onto listeners who celebrated him as a thoughtful lyricist who expressed his thoughts on grief, purpose, and so many of the other qualms we reconcile within our alone time.
Those themes are still at play on adultSW!M, a project that shows spencer pondering what it means to come of age and look to the future in a world that’s steadily degenerating. The premise was hammered home with album art (created by painter Beatriz Whitehill) that depicts spencer underwater holding a baby, symbolizing the mental state of so many people trying to stay afloat. It’s fitting that this generationally relatable album is the one he decided to embrace community with; he’s likely helping tell the story of the producers, engineers, and others who helped create adultSW!M.
He also documented the process in a visual that will be released at his album release party tomorrow in Brooklyn. “It seems natural to document the process because I’m inspired when I watch a documentary and it’s like, ‘I can’t believe you got the moment when you created this song that you didn’t know was going to be fucking huge.’” It’s a testament to spencer’s malleable nature that he viewed the documentary as a “natural” occurrence, considering that it wasn’t an innate part of his previous approach.
For his album, his debut on the indie label All Flowers Group, he’s trying to break out of his comfort zone while still maintaining the poetic flourishes that make him so special. On standout track “Baby Boy,” he tells the story of how gun violence befell his Uncle over sparse, solemn production. We’re accustomed to the dehumanizing ways artists refer to murdered people, from “bodies” to “points” and everything else but “human beings.” But when spencer rhymes, “a gunfight ignited like three candlelight vigils,” he elucidates the human toll of loss. When we lose people, it’s not just one less part of the population; their families and communities experience a gaping void that will never close.
That poignance permeates adultSW!M. He compromised on elements of creating and amplifying the album, but he didn’t compromise his artistry. For now, deem says he’s excited for people to hear the project and to perform it in person on 4/20 at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere. He talked to Rolling Stone about getting out of his comfort zone for his new album.
How are you feeling on the week of release?
I’m feeling great. I’m excited for people to hear this. Very excited.
You said 2021’s Deem’s Tape “is a moment of self-reflection and access, one last sigh of relief and gratitude before I charge toward the future I envisioned for myself.” How have things been in your efforts to actualize that vision?
That’s a good question. I think I spent the last year … since Deem’s Tape, I feel like I realized a lot about myself and just my priorities and stuff. Damn, I’m trying to answer this in a clean way.
What do you think you learned the most about yourself in that time?
[What] I was trying to figure out from Deem’s Tape to now is what I’m really doing this for and what I want to mean to the greater culture. I always understood what I represented, and I always understood what I wanted to represent, but I realized more of the steps that it’s going to take to do that. I definitely opened up a lot with my team and my friends, and I got a lot of help with this album and I feel like the result was something greater than me, and that’s what I needed.
When you say opening up, is it that your prior creative process was so independent that you didn’t really rely on people?
Yeah, exactly. I loved recording alone. I loved writing alone. I liked putting my own little mix on it before I played it for anybody. In the past, by the time I played anything for anybody, I already liked it. So it was like sort of a “you can’t really tell me shit if I already like it.” So I changed my attitude as far as that goes with this project and I listened to the people around me and I took input and advice and applied it. I felt like all these years of just listening to myself, I kind of hit a ceiling of what I could do myself, and I’m not afraid to admit that.
I know some artists grapple with the tension of wanting to be true to themselves as an artist but also prioritizing mass appeal to an extent as well. Did you deal with that tension at all?
Yeah, definitely. Because, like I said, I was finding that it wasn’t paying doing things the way I was doing it. So I was considering the advice of my friends, my team, and my fans, getting a bigger perspective of what people really appreciate me for. Not only that but receiving the perspective the closest people around me have of me allowed me to get a bigger idea of what I can do differently.
When you say you might not have had the most lucrative results from doing things the way you were doing them, are you referring to the actual content of the music or is it more the marketing, the mixing or other aspects of it?
I think it was all of the above. It starts with the music, and my team would always bring me feedback that things could be mixed better, or people would tell them that they can’t tell what I’m saying on certain songs or they can’t really hear me. But I couldn’t receive that because I liked it. I liked it, and I didn’t really care if anybody else liked it. I didn’t care if anybody understood it. I realize now that’s not how you sell things.
From the album cover to the title, how was water utilized for you as a theme and a metaphor through your creative process?
I had the cover early, before most of the songs were made. So throughout the process, the producers, the features, I was showing everybody this cover and explaining to them what it meant to me, and finding new reasons of what it could mean in relation to the stuff I’m talking about on the project. It definitely helped to guide a lot of where we took the music.
How did the cover come together?
The cover was painted by this painter, Beatriz Whitehill. She’s from Boston. I really wanted a dope painter to do my album cover, and I hit her up. We had a conversation about what the album was. At the time, it was called My Wife and Kids, and the theme of that was pretty much what I said earlier: “what am I doing all of this for? What am I trying to get out of this?” And from jump, early answers I had were like, ‘I want to be a positive example to people.’ I want to put out good music. I want to represent a man who [is himself]. I’m trying to get as far as I can by being myself, and family was a big part of it too. I want to build a family. I want to take care of my family; I want to work with my friends and just all of these things. And she took that and came up with the cover she came up with. From that, I’ve had so many conversations.
And now, the cover means, to me, there’s a duality to it. My friends and I, we were talking about the end of the world in some of these conversations and shit was looking bleak certain times throughout the last couple years. We didn’t know what was going to happen. And even now, we don’t know what’s going to happen. And that was a big game of these conversations; what is going to happen?
Where was your head creatively when you were putting the project together?
I wanted to put out something good. That was the basic intention of everything. That intention took priority over everything because there wasn’t much I could do. I didn’t have much bread. I wasn’t booked. I wanted to create some momentum again, and I wanted to get back on the road and this was constantly on in my head, and I didn’t want to not be an artist, so I just took advantage of everything, every resource, all the people around me. I’m signed to a label now. I just really considered a lot of things differently, and I felt like it was time for me to consider doing things differently.
What was that process like in terms of trying to find the right label?
I actually wasn’t looking for a label. Nigel, my first manager [who’s] always been involved since my music became popular, started a label, and I was the first person he brought on. I knew I could use some help putting out new music and just figuring out what I need to be doing, and it made sense. But I wasn’t looking for a label.
I know you’ve referenced that you previously recorded in your bedroom, and it was more of an insular process. For this one, did you record a lot of it in the studio with other people?
Yeah. There’s a few producers on the album, and for all the songs, pretty much, I just went to their studios. Mainly, my friend Spencer got a studio in Jamaica, Queens, and I laid a lot of the demos there. Just whatever studios me and the producers had access to. But I didn’t record anything alone this time.
How different was that for you?
It was exciting. It didn’t seem any more challenging, except I was more open this time, so it was seamless, for real. And everybody I worked with on this album is people who I really trust creatively and they already love and understand me as an artist. So I was able to record very fearlessly around everybody.
What was the adjustment in terms of them giving you advice on how you’re recording or how it sounds? I know some artists might take feedback personally.
Yeah, it was a few times. Well, pretty much everybody was like, “Yeah, you got to do that again.” I’ve always been a first-draft type person. I recorded it once, and then that’s it. But I got a lot of direction, like, “You should add a layer on this.” Or, “Do it a bit different,” or not different, but “do it again, do it five times, we going to stack it”. And these are musical prompts that really help create big music. And these are things I wasn’t aware of or cared about in the past.
How many sessions did it take you to get used to that kind of collaborative process?
I can’t really quantify how long or how many sessions it took. It was fluid, and gradual. Because each song, the type of person I am… I could be annoyed every time I see you. I’m probably not done being annoyed with advice and shit, but I’m going to take it. I know how to take it.
You’ve said the song “27” deals with “the struggle between fear of death and your desire to live a complete life”. I was wondering how that tension affects how you navigate your life and career?
It’s hard for me to call it a fear all the way, but I know that’s what it is. How I approach the concept of death is…I’m an honest artist. I think everything I’m putting out that’s going to live past me represents me well, and that’s really what I want to do. There have been times in the past where I’ve felt if everything ended right now, I put out some shit. You can’t say I wasn’t ill. You can’t say I didn’t say some shit. I know I represent something fresh. So I do have a peace about what I mean to the world. I guess I just approach life honestly. I try to be a good person, so my legacy is something people can value.
I feel like “Baby Boy” might be my favorite song on the album.
I’ve been hearing that a lot.
How did that come together, and what made now the best time to tell that story?
At the time, I was staying with my mother in Flatbush for a little bit, and I made that beat; I wrote that song. It’s a heavy story that I never thought I would tell, but just in these conversations that I was having with my friends, I figured it provides a bit of context into the way I was raised. My family was very protective. I was raised by my mom and my grandparents, and they were all very protective of me, and when I was very young, South Side Jamaica, Queens, was pretty rough, rougher than it is now. And they didn’t want me outside; they didn’t want me mixing with the wrong people. They wanted me to understand how serious shit was and how I need to take myself seriously and stuff like that.
The story that I tell on “Baby Boy” is a valuable bit of context to why they were so protective of me because this was the only other man that my family raised, and he went down a bad path. It was heavy on my grandmother. So she babied me my whole life, and she still with me, thank God. I think the way I live my life and just what’s happening for me, I feel like there’s light on me, and I’m going in a great direction. I feel like it provides a lot of context and contrasts to why I don’t care for certain shit or why I won’t put myself in certain positions.
How did “How Far We’ve Come” with Mavi and Eliza Moon happen?
That’s one of my favorite ones. I had a bunch of sessions with Julian and Eliza Moon and they are part of this pop group called Michelle, and I’ve worked with them in the past. So I was excited to work with them on this project. And this was one of the beats that Julian had when I came through one day, and it felt like something I could rap to. It gave me that early 2000s vibe. And I played it for this other rapper I fuck with, and he was like, “it gives me that Mase vibe.” And I’m like, “Okay.” But yeah, I wrote the verse that day. Me and Emma came up with the hook, and she did her part. And I loved it. I knew it was going to be one of my favorite joints, but I wanted a rapper rapper on it. I sent it to Mavi. He fucked with it. He got it right back to me. I never heard him on anything like this. I’m very grateful for this song. It’s one of my favorites.
You recently tweeted, “stillness doesn’t mean stagnancy.” How long did it take you to realize that, and how important is it for people to realize, especially artists?
I feel I’ve always known that. That was more for other people to receive. I think it’s very important for artists to understand that you can make a lot of progress without a lot of movement. A lot of my work was done in Jamaica, Queens. I wasn’t traveling the world. It wasn’t millions of meetings or none of that. It was like the internet. And there’s a lot of resources at our disposal. We can always learn. We can always activate our community. It’s a lot of stuff we can do locally that will mean a lot without our lives having to change immediately. A lot of times, when you feel stagnant, you feel like, “Damn, my life needs to change tomorrow. Something needs to happen.”