How Life on a Communal Farm Helped Inspire Botany’s Debut Album

On Monday, New York-based music publication The Fader posted a single from North Texas musician Botany, otherwise known as Spencer Stephenson, accompanied with a brief yet complimentary writeup. The track, entitled “Anchor” will appear on Botany’s upcoming full-length, which will be released through Austin’s Western Vinyl imprint. Fader’s Duncan Cooper had the following to say:

The heart of the Botany’s “Anchor” emerges at one minute in, slowly unraveling like footage of a flower blooming, a floating vocal line that, if it doesn’t actually sample Depeche Mode’s “Here Is the House,” evokes it enough to put a doubly big smile on my face.

Curious about the origins of the sample myself, I spoke with Stephenson by phone. “That was a good guess. I listened to the song they were talking about,” Stephenson said. “What the sample actually is, I have to keep that on lock. It’s not Depeche Mode, though.” No matter who the quoted passage is from, it is an instantly haunting melody, and a sharp lift by Stephenson.

In addition to the willful obscurity of the samples, the incorporated field recordings, and the general fogginess of the music, Botany has been a mysterious project when compared to peers in the self-promoting world of local music. There have been seemingly successful moments, such as a dream spot opening for Panda Bear at a crowded Granada Theater in Fall of 2011, or the release of his well-received first EP, Feeling Today, the year prior. Stephenson explains that his dedication to an ideal recording is partly to blame.

“Really for a long time, in my mind, my focus has been that I’m going to make the best record, and that’s first priority,” Stephenson said.

According to Botany, a performance doesn’t even have to necessarily reflect the recorded document.

“It doesn’t have to be the album, verbatim,” Stephenson said. “I prefer the live set to be its own creative, organic thing.”

Naturally, a lot of the freedom stems from never having to answer to collaborators in a band setting—meddling, helpful, or otherwise. As for the band experience that Stephenson has chalked up, he had a not insignificant stint as a drummer for Sleep Whale, the popular, all-instrumental, Denton act that ceased operations in 2010. Stephenson recalls the time with a cautious fondness.

“Nostalgically, I maybe miss that time in my life a little bit, but I definitely enjoy making my own decisions about music over being in a band,” Stephenson said.

Even geographically, Botany has been a hard act to define. I had heard everything from Denton to Austin, to the Mid-cities as possible locations. Stephenson isn’t much help.

“I’m in the DFW area right now,” he said. “I’m living on the outskirts of Fort Worth. This past year, I’ve been living all around.”

Location has played an enormous and even tragic role in the project’s young history. According to the description on the Western Vinyl page, Botany’s first EP was “a humble collection of tracks dedicated to his recently deceased mother, pieced together in the house where she raised him.” For the new record, Stephenson took himself out of his most familiar, emotionally-weighted environment.

“I was just trying to get away from the Fort Worth area,” Stephenson said. “I grew up here. So I was just trying to branch out.”

As he began working on the record, he ended up on a farm for four months during 2011, in Niederwald, TX, a former German colony between Austin and San Antonio. The town has only been incorporated since 1987, boasting a population of less than six-hundred. The artist started off as a volunteer, but eventually worked for “food and a room” while on the farm, attempting to isolate himself in the process.

“I thought that would be a good way to get away from the world, and work on music,” Stephenson said.

Ultimately, the farm’s association with the WWOOF (“Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms”) program meant that Botany would have a little company during the creative process, since the organization connects hosts with transient agriculturists all over the globe. Stephenson himself was not a member.

“Around the same time I started working there, a lot of other people from different parts of the country started rolling through the farm, living right next to me in these tiny, little, converted horse stables,” Stephenson said. “It turned into a situation that wasn’t quite as private as I wanted it to be.”

The experience was a positive one, however.

“The lifestyle was beautiful,” said the artist.

After all the talk of distant areas, and the self-imposed displacement leading up to Botany’s debut full-length, we finally arrive at the relatively mundane business of whether or not there will be a celebratory performance when the album is released.

“I definitely plan on having some kind of release show, maybe in Fort Worth,” Stephenson said.

Since Botany’s label is not local, that’s being taken into consideration as well. He hopes to have a related performance at the famed Austin venue, the Mohawk.

“I feel like with Western Vinyl being down there, and me having moved down there for a minute, it’s like a second home base,” said Stephenson of the capital city. “I would feel like I was leaving a piece of the puzzle out if I didn’t celebrate the release down there as well. I’m just trying to get some stuff together.”

Botany’s debut album, Lava Diviner (Truestory), will be released on October 29th through Western Vinyl Records. FrontRow will have details on a release show, as soon as it is booked.

Image: Botany, at the Dallas World Aquarium, August, 2013. Credit: Sally Glass.