Danielle Spencer - Mother of a comeback

Danielle Spencer took six years off to concentrate on her children. Now she has teamed up with up with Tony Visconti, who produced Bolan and Bowie. Fiona Sturges meets them

Friday 22 January 2010 01:00
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It wasn't, you imagine, the flawless comeback she had in mind. On Monday, during a live performance of "On Your Side" on ITV's This Morning, the Australian singer-songwriter Danielle Spencer's earpiece became unplugged, leaving her marooned on stage, unable to hear either her band or her own vocals. "I could just make out the pulsing of the band and I could hear a muffled version of my own voice," she says glumly over a cup of coffee later on. "I spent about 10 seconds thinking: 'Shall I just stop, or shall I carry on to the end of the song singing badly?' In the end I just carried on. When I finished I said to my manager, 'everything is going to be easy after this'.'

True, though matters are certainly helped when, while talking to the press, you have a legendary producer at your side saying things like, "this is the best album I've worked on in years". Tony Visconti, known for his work with Bolan and Bowie, and latterly Morrissey and Razorlight, seemingly doesn't think twice about jetting from New York to London to join his artists for promotional duties, even if it involves stepping off a plane and straight into an interview.

This is Spencer's second shot at a career in music. The first came with the release of her debut LP White Monkey in 2001, which sold respectably and was followed by an extensive US tour. It was an album that earned positive reviews and saw her likened, somewhat improbably, to Kate Bush. But, following Spencer's marriage to her long-term boyfriend Russell Crowe in 2003, shortly after which she became pregnant, she took time off to focus on motherhood.

Seven years and two children later, Spencer is now hoping to pick up where she left off with Calling All Magicians, an album of off-kilter, piano-led songs that echo the witchiness and emotional candour of Tori Amos.

It was mutual friend Neil Finn who initially put Spencer in touch with Visconti. Spencer sent him the producer a four-track demo, the first song of which was "Just A Thought" which he describes as "too beautiful for words".

"I listened to the rest and was on the phone to her within a few days," he said. Six months later Visconti flew to Sydney, where the pair recorded Calling All Magicians.

Spencer's first album came with shades of electronica but with her second she wanted a more stripped-back, live feel. "It's got the nice clean sound of – what do we call this decade? – the 2010s, but it also has heart and soul," says Visconti.

Asked what are his principal requirements for working with an artist, he says: "The material has to be good, but I like to hear a voice that's very unique, which Danielle's is. That's why I wanted to work with Bowie and that's why I wanted to work with Morrissey. In the old days you'd call it 'the needle-drop'. It's where you can drop the needle on the vinyl and after hearing a few notes you know exactly who the singer is. That's a quality I'm always looking for."

Spencer made her first foray into music in early childhood when she started playing piano under the tutelage of her father, Don Spencer, the children's entertainer and musician best known for his presenting stint on Play School. Her father's work with the BBC meant that long periods of time were spent in England (her mother is from Yorkshire). "We would constantly move backwards and forwards between the UK and Sydney," she recalls.

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"My years in England shaped me more than the years in Australia, I think. I don't know if it was the history or the climate but the UK seemed to give my imagination a lot more space to roam. I like the dark fairy-tale world that is captured more here than it is at home, which is all about bigness and sunshine."

Though music remained her first love, throughout her teenage years Spencer studied as a dancer. Upon leaving school she took a role in the musical Rasputin and it was through this that she fell into full-time acting, taking roles in TV shows including Home and Away and Hampton Court, and the films What the Moon Saw and The Crossing (on which she met Crowe).

By 1996, a pervading sense that her chance to become a full-time musician was slipping away led Spencer to take a year-long part in the schlocky Aussie soap Pacific Drive as a means to fund her first album. When the job ended Spencer set about recording some demos and sent them to a series of music publishers. A record deal duly followed.

After releasing and touring her first album, Spencer's plan was to return to the studio and record a second. But pregnancy suddenly brought her career to a halt.

"Because we were moving around so much as a family, I wanted to be the security in my child's life," she recalls. "I didn't want to be flitting off and doing stuff when he was so young. Then I fell pregnant with my second and so that whole process started again. Like a lot of mothers, I had a lot of guilt about the thought of doing my own thing."

Looking back, says Spencer, it has been a strange ten years. "I went from being this musician who had just put out an album to suddenly being married to this person that everyone was interested in for weird reasons which had nothing to do with me. And then I got pregnant straight away, so it was an odd period of adjustment. There were definitely a couple of years where I needed to get my balance."

Spencer concedes that her husband's fame means that her own endeavours, whether musical or otherwise, are likely to be judged more fiercely. "But I don't feel defensive about what I'm doing," she says. "I like to keep a low profile, and Russell's the same. We don't court the limelight. The attention we get... that's out of my control.

"Some people may judge me more harshly but I hope that the majority will just listen to the music and take it for what it is."

'On Your Side' is out on 7 February and 'Calling All Magicians on 15 February

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