Spencer Wirth-Davis looks tired.
Last night the producer known as Big Cats flew home to Minneapolis after jetting from New York to Portland to Los Angeles to work on a new album collaboration and to meet with ad agencies about musical commissions. He wears a gray beanie and a violet hoodie with a red heart on the left side of his chest. His face is friendly, his features exaggerated; black eyebrows stretch straight over brown eyes and stubble surrounds his plump lips.
Wirth-Davis is here in a busy south Minneapolis coffeeshop to talk about his third album, Most Days, which drops on Friday, followed by a release show at Icehouse on Saturday. The album’s title refers to the idea that you are what you do with your time. “That’s the best, the most honest way of evaluating yourself,” he says. “I can think that I’m all these things and I want people to think of me a certain way, but at the end of the day, what do I actually do with my time?”
Until June, what Wirth-Davis did with his time was teach small classes of high-schoolers at Hennepin County Home School, a correctional facility in Minnetonka where his students were serving six- to nine-month sentences. Half the curriculum was fun music-making; half was music theory and education. He also answered students’ music biz questions: “How do I book shows?” “How do I get on iTunes?” “What are some red flags to look for when working with a promoter?” “Where’s the best place to get posters made?” “Is it worth it anymore to do CDs?”
“It was amazing working with that group of kids, especially because it was their only creative outlet, probably, in their whole day,” he says. But it was 50 hours per week, so for the two years he taught there, Wirth-Davis didn’t make music of his own. “I was learning a lot and growing a lot on the teaching side, but I was going backwards on the music side.”
This summer, he dedicated himself full-time to music and started working on Most Days with no expectations, deadlines, or obligations. He sent demos to Nelson Devereaux (saxophone, flute), Eric Mayson (vocals, piano), Miguel Hurtado (drums), and Lydia Liza (vocals, guitar) before they met up to experiment and record. Wirth-Davis then reassembled the best parts of the recordings for the new five-track instrumental album. Most Days is a sonic collage: melancholic, pensive, and oceanic.
Born in St. Paul, the 31-year-old was involved in orchestra in high school, and he played in jazz and rock bands too. But he also DJed and made beats, and that’s what he decided to focus on around the time he entered the University of Minnesota to study painting and photography. His older brother, also a musician, dubbed him Big Cats.
In 2006, while still in college, Wirth-Davis began collaborating with local rapper and spoken word artist Guante; they released Start a Fire in 2009 and would make two more albums together.
“His work is just consistently gorgeous, whether on a pop ‘this is catchy’ level, a hip-hop ‘this bangs’ level, or a deeper ‘I resonate with this’ level,” says Guante. “I hear humility in Spencer’s music; it situates itself as part of a larger tradition, it doesn’t neglect the listener, it pushes forward without disdain for its roots, it’s collaborative. And the end result is something more timeless and deeply rooted than a lot of similar music.”
Through the Guante collaboration, Wirth-Davis befriended other local artists like Alexei Caselle, Chastity Brown, Haley, and Brandon Allday and Medium Zach of Big Quarters. Wirth-Davis has partnered creatively with more than 100 rappers since, including Lizzo, P.O.S, and Toki Wright.
“Big Cats has an ear for detail and understands texture. He’s someone that is constantly seeking new ways to bend sounds,” says Wright. “Every time we collaborate he’s expanded into another realm and pushes me to continue stepping outside of my comfort zone.”
“As a producer, my role is to get the artist to a point that they haven’t been before or to pull that best material out of them,” Wirth-Davis says. That might mean convincing someone to try an ambient soundscape, adding drums when they usually wouldn’t, or using live instrumentation. It isn’t always easy. “A lot of times, artists are not going to veer that far off of what has already worked for them. It’s a big risk to take. At the end of the day, that’s your living, making music that people relate to.”
The one thing he doesn’t do? Write lyrics. “Even when I listen to music, I’m barely paying attention to what’s going on with the lyrics,” he says. “That’s why I’ve always been more attracted to working with rappers like Toki or Guante or Stef [P.O.S], who are incredibly skilled lyrically, but are responsible people. I can trust that they’re not going to say some wild shit.”
Demanding his fair share of the credit helped him build a brand and a good reputation. Wirth-Davis believes producers should be named on records, be included in live shows, and be paid fairly for their contributions. “That was something that I, early in my career, very consciously tried to address. If I’m producing a record for Guante, it’s not a Guante record, it’s a Guante/Big Cats record. If I’m doing a record with you, we’re splitting it 50-50. It’s as much mine as it is yours and vice-versa.”
Wirth-Davis has considered moving to L.A. or New York, but ultimately the low cost of living and the “low-key” music scene keep him tethered to Minnesota. He works from RiverRock Studios in Minneapolis as well as his home studio in the Longfellow neighborhood. “I kind of love having winter from a musical perspective because there’s nothing better to do than stay inside and make a record every winter,” he says.
And while he’d like to get back into teaching, Wirth-Davis hasn’t found an avenue that would allow a good work-life balance yet. Still, he knows how important it is to share music with young people. “If you’re not connecting generationally, a lot of the culture gets lost and a lot of groundwork infrastructure gets lost.”
For now, Wirth-Davis stays busy producing, working on his paranormal podcast What If?, and “musical odd jobs” like composing for companies like Nike, CNN, and PBS. And he’s constantly evaluating whether his time is well-spent.
“There’s a very toxic practice of doing things so you can show other people that you’re doing them. You go to a show now and everybody’s on their phones,” he says. “What are you doing with your time and your energy? Is it anything good at the end of the day? No one gives a shit about your Instagram account. It does not matter at all.”
With: Eric Mayson, DJ Just Nine
When: 11 p.m. Sat. Dec. 9
Tickets: $8/$10; more info here