How Brittney Spencer Went from Classical to Country Music: 'It Sounded Like Church to Me'
"My story is but a fraction of the bigger story of this ever-evolving thing that we get the honor and privilege to be part of," Spencer tells PEOPLE about her presence in country music
When country music's newest star Brittney Spencer stepped onto the hallowed wooden circle at the Grand Ole Opry for the very first time in May, she wasn't thinking about who was watching or what she was going to sing. She was thinking about so, so much more.
"Stepping into that circle is just a very firm, yet gentle reminder, that this is so much bigger than any of us," Spencer, 32, tells PEOPLE. "My story is but a fraction of the bigger story of this ever-evolving thing that we get the honor and privilege to be part of. It's about the history of country music and where it's been, where it is right now and where it's going."
"That's what I was thinking about when I was standing there," she adds.
With a smile that seems to radiate straight from her soul, Spencer currently shines as one of the genre's most impressive talents, a classy spitfire of a woman that is sparking the attention of those who've heard her golden tones and brutally honest songs, such as "Sober & Skinny," which she co-wrote alongside Nelly Joy and Jason Reeves.
"It's not exactly autobiographical, but it's definitely inspired by my own story and relationships where weight has been a factor, because I'm not a size two," she says with a laugh. "The two things in this song are really just a metaphor for the idea that everybody's got something they need to change. It's so easy to fixate on someone else's thing that they need to change while ignoring the thing that you probably need to get a handle on yourself."
She lets out a deep sigh.
"Honestly, if no one loves this song, I'm still so proud of it," she says of the song featured on her EP Compassion. "I will listen to it for the rest of my life."
Originally from Baltimore, Spencer grew up much like most country artists do, singing in the church choir and belting out spiritual music to all who would listen. But Spencer's innate star quality couldn't be denied, even from an early age.
"I was that kid that was so sad that they wouldn't let me sing Whitney Houston at the services, so I would just put on concerts in the ladies restroom downstairs," says Spencer, whose parents filled their car speakers with a wide variety of gospel and pop music.
As a teen, Spencer had her eyes set on attending the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology and soon began to put the work in towards what some might consider an almost impossible goal.
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"I knew I would have to sing classical music there," she says. "So, I went to my middle school teacher and said, 'Hey, I want to sing classical music' and she started working with me every single day, teaching me how to sing an Italian aria. My world has always been knowing how to do this and that. I was playing steel drums in music class and then after school I'd sing Broadway and then I would sing classical music."
At the age of 15 years old, Spencer found country music when a friend at church suggested she take a listen to a new album she had discovered.
"I don't remember what album it was or what song we were listening to in her car," says Spencer, who began to fill her own ears with a pop/country mix of artists such as Kelly Clarkson, Sara Evans and The Chicks. "I just remember listening to the songs and thinking that the backgrounds sounded like the ones I would hear in gospel music. It sounded like church to me."
Just about eight years ago, Spencer made her move to Nashville, where she spent much of her time busking downtown, performing a mix of 'what the people wanted to hear.'
"I would play Miranda Lambert and then I would play Johnny Cash and then I would play Beyoncé and Adele and Michael Jackson," says Spencer, who will join Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on tour this fall. "And it was this variety that made people stick around."
It's a trend that continues to this day, as Spencer continues to draw in a variety of music lovers from a variety of places, eager to breathe in the authenticity she brings to her songwriting. Because unlike other people or other songs, "Sober & Skinny" does not end with some sort of resolution, where problems are erased, and bows are tied to pretty up the pain.
Spencer is as real as it gets.
"I didn't really have a goal for this song," she says. "I honestly just wanted to write a little song."
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