When you're a Midwestern dream-pop band signed to a Scandinavian record label, your music can be enjoyed in ways you might never expect, much less appreciate in real time.
That's been the case for Spectator. With the official release of Charlie, Baby on April 12 via Norway-based Nordic Records, the St. Louis band has a unique view of how modern music is created, recorded, distributed and enjoyed. Sometimes, the latter happens in the hours before musical- and life-partners Megan Rooney and Jeff Albert are awake.
Occasionally, they tune in. As Rooney says, "There's an amazing radio show in the UK called Audition. Each week, they play a set of songs and listeners vote on the songs to be added to their playlist. Hearing that 'we are live in the UK right now,' was like, 'Huh, that's not something we ever thought would happen.' It went well, too. We finished number five out of about 30 or 40."
Blog posts, podcasts, reviews in various foreign languages, a few appearances on European radio stations: These are the realities of spring 2019 for Spectator, which has primed the pump for its new album by releasing three singles in recent weeks: "Waves," "Weight" and, most recently, "The Only One." Interestingly, the first two singles featured Albert as the primary vocalist, though Rooney is principally found in that role.
Fitting, perhaps, this mild misdirection. Spectator has always had a bit of elusiveness and mystery in its story, with releases spread out over time and a spare live schedule. In some ways, the band has been appreciated outside of St. Louis as much as it is here.
Meeting in 2006, the songwriting pair first released an EP, In the Brick, in 2012, with its next album, The Last Exchange, arriving three years later. Both were recorded at Centro Cellar Studio in Columbia, Missouri. For Charlie, Baby, the duo brought their efforts closer to home, working at Native Sound Recordings with their bassist, Kevin Bachmann, serving as producer.
"This guy's got an intimate knowledge of the songs," Rooney says. "Even in the rehearsals leading up to our playing live, he's played that producer's role. It takes a little bit of pressure off of us, as he can make some of the decisions."
"He's very clear," Albert adds. "He can step back and see the whole thing. He's got a laser focus on our pieces and may hear something we'd otherwise missed."
That said, Bachmann was working with a base of lovely, understated pop songs, compliments of the band's two songwriters, whose output is not unlike that of Mazzy Star, Viva Voce or Fleet Foxes.
Changing its approach with each recording experience, the group went into the studio this time with some players who will be continuing with them in live settings. In-demand drummer Mike Schurk is the talented second half of the rhythm section, alongside Bachmann. Guitarist Dominic Puleo, who's played with the group previously, is on hand as well. (RFT columnist Christian Schaeffer didn't appear on the record, but he performs with the group live on keys.)
It's something of a departure from the way the group worked in the past, when the recording came first and a fleshed-out membership followed.
"Dominic's been playing with us for a long time. He got involved right around the time we released the second record and he's been playing live with us pretty much since," Albert says. "Mike took over on drums and has been playing with us for a few years, whenever he was available. He's been with us since the last album, but he hadn't been on the previous albums. This time, Mike was involved from the outset, alongside Kevin, who's playing bass and played a ton of the instruments on the records. The two of them have the rhythm so locked down. It's unique for us, having the two of them from the beginning and now as part of the live show. We'd always pieced bands together after the fact."
The addition of a dedicated keyboard player has proven fruitful, freeing up Rooney to concentrate on her vocals.
"Christian's been great on keys," Rooney says. "He's stepped in like a pro. Having Christian allows me to just focus on singing. I'll play some keys now, but historically I'd played all the keys and sang. I'd rather just focus on singing, and he's taken that weight off of me."
Rounding out the studio unit was Seth Porter, who helped arrange strings. Adding a string section was a big step, Albert says, but the result was a sound "a little bit more true to what we heard in our heads."
Rooney and Albert recently spent two years in California. While they were gone, the pair suggest, a transition of sorts took place around town. But they're again finding their place in the local musical landscape.
"We've started rehearsing for our show and playing with the core band that recorded our album," he says. "I feel a little bit back in the zone."
"I think that new bands pop up and move forward a little bit, so it takes time to get back into the groove," Rooney says. "You want people to remember you, that you're still around." The move to Nordic, she says, "allowed us an opportunity for us to find new people and start fresh."
Spectator's official album release will take place at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 18 at Off Broadway. Charlie, Baby will be available digitally via the usual platforms on Friday, April 12.