There can be an airy, ethereal quality to modern fingerstyle guitar that smacks of day-dreaming hippies and jazz magicians — and then there’s Spencer Elliott, Charleston’s modern fingerstyle guitarist.
Elliott, who is due to release his third CD through CandyRat Records June 8 at Rock City Cake Company in Charleston, said, “My roots are punk rock and hardcore. I was into gothic music, like Bauhaus — and that was before Mother Nang.”
Mother Nang was a prominent 1990s indie rock band in Charleston. The group disbanded years ago and eventually Elliott discovered modern fingerstyle guitar.
“My best takeaway from my punk years,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t that everything was embedded in the look or even the music, just this idea that it was OK to buck convention, that what everybody thought was normal didn’t have to be normal.”
By that definition, modern fingerstyle guitar is very punk.
The musical style uses non-standard tuning, percussive drumming on the body of the guitar and a variety of hand techniques to draw out unexpected sounds from the guitar, sometimes making it sound like more than one instrument is being played.
Elliott thinks of himself as an instrumental storyteller. He said the music he writes are often scenes and he uses his guitar to attempt to describe what’s in his mind.
“If I can connect the music with the images, I think I intone it better,” he said.
Elliott’s latest record is called “Folding Space,” which is a direct reference to a concept in author Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic, “Dune.”
Elliott is a diehard fan and said he had all of the books and the director’s cut of the film made by David Lynch in the 1980s.
In the book series and film, navigators move ships from planet to planet through folding space.
“They travel vast distances without moving,” Elliott explained.
That is what he’d hope the record would achieve.
“It’s an invitation to travel without moving,” he said. “It’s an invitation to see the images I’m trying to plant while you’re cooking dinner in your kitchen, sitting in your car or taking a walk.”
He laughed and said, “Well, I guess walking is actually moving, but I think you get the point.”
Writing this kind of music, Elliott said, was exploratory and slow.
“It’s almost like I don’t know what the instrument does when I start working on a new song,” he said. “I compose a lot by feeling.”
Elliott said he envied songwriters who can produce a song or two in a day, but it usually takes him a few months.
“I’ll find a phrase or a bass line or a bit of percussion I want to build on,” he said. “Whatever seed I get, I’ll nurture it, work and rework it.”
The basic body of the song will usually take shape early, Elliott explained.
“It becomes like making a cake and then decorating. I spend a lot of time decorating,” he said.
After the record comes out next week, Elliott said he had plans to tour some. Music is a passion, but it’s part-time. He’s also a local attorney.
“I’m playing some summer shows in Cincinnati and Hilton Head,” he said.
Elliott is also supposed to teach at an acoustic guitar camp near Little Rock, Arkansas later this year, which he’s very excited about.
“It’s kind of a ‘pinch me’ moment,” he said. “Some of the biggest names in the field will be there and I’m going to be there, too.”