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Art Beat: Musician Spencer Westphalen discusses the transcendental art of music

Spencer Westphalen: “I feel it when I play. The feeling of the color gives me a sense of structure inside; there’s a shape that this sound makes. It's like molding your soul, and it's hard to explain.”

By Fiona Murphy | Oct. 11, 2017

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Mangosteen is a local funk blues band started in the summer of 2015 by singer and drummer Spencer Westphalen and keyboardist Michael Miller. The band’s first album, Planets, is available on Spotify and provides a refreshing and jazzy sound hard not to groove to.

Mangosteen is also the name of a tropical fruit from Southeast Asia that contains some of the most precious and beneficial vitamins for human consumption, according to the New York Times. Once banned in the U.S., the small purple fruit is prescribed by doctors to fight allergies and cancer, making it one of the most resilient and pure fruits in the world. Miller and Westphalen began jamming together in 2014 with the members’ first band, Dangerfield.

Dangerfield played jazz at Aladdin’s Hookah Lounge on Thursday nights from 9 to midnight. It was the first time Westphalen sank his teeth into the music scene of downtown Columbia and transitioned into a singer.

“I did backups for Dangerfield, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence back then,” Westphalen said. "I would sing in the car and in the shower like everyone else does. The first time I really sang was with Dangerfield and our main singer wasn’t there so I just made up something on the spot, and from there we went with it.”

Westphalen, now the main vocalist for Mangosteen, has always had rhythm in his bones. From banging on pots and pans as a child to joining percussion in seventh grade, Westphalen has been playing drums for 10 years. Only recently has he adopted the title of singer and lyricist.

Aiming to tackle words over beats, Westphalen draws inspiration for his lyrics from some of the greats of songwriting, most notably Bill Withers. Mangosteen’s songs incorporate blunt, pure language denouncing the style of flowery metaphor. Leaving little to the imagination, Westphalen’s words intentionally cut deep with ease, much like each of his concise drum beats.

“I don’t want to try and mask an emotion if I’m feeling it through the words,” Westphalen said. “The word choice might be a bit uglier, but the word choice will catch your attention. Just because it's not aesthetically pleasing doesn’t mean it’s not important because there are certain beauties in everything.”

And to this artist, beauty and inspiration are found in everything. Westphalen seeks lyrical inspiration from the natural world. He thrives on the higher consciousness of seeing music and truth in what others might view as ordinary: birds chirping, the changing of seasons and old houses creaking.

This awareness liberates his creativity and allows his art to be somewhat transcendental. He uses colors to express the feeling when he plays. As Westphalen plays, deep blues and greens emanate from a raw and honest feeling within himself. This all-encompassing experience takes control of the musician and connects him with his band mates and audience.

“The feeling of the color gives me a sense of structure inside; there’s a shape that the sound makes,” Westphalen said. “It's like molding your soul, and it's hard to explain. When you’re really focused you enter a flow, and when you’re with a band that’s all together that starts to really take shape. It starts from the inside and everything meshes to become one.”

Live performance relies on the collective attention of an audience and band to enter the “flow” that is an ever-present and yet, fleeting moment. Each show, Westphalen strives for the moment when the audience’s attention and energy interlock with the performers’ and the colors begin to fly. That climax is different by show because the culmination of people and vibe change.

Much like improv, the intimate moments created at a show must end, making each an original. Westphalen believes the finiteness of a concert’s apex is the most essential part of live performance. Music, in this way, is one of the most honest, versatile and connective forms of art. The authentic, vulnerable nature of music becomes a tool for Westphalen, providing him with opportunities for self-reflection and exploration while also uniting him with others.

“I don’t write music for other people,” Westphalen said. “On the flip side, I want my music to reach people it needs to reach, even if it’s one person in an empty crowd. If one song we play really strikes a chord with them then that show was worth it. If they can see it from my perspective that’s great, but I’d rather have them make something out of it on their own.”

Performance art is a shared experience. Humans are inherently attracted to music as well as naturally susceptible to despondent times. Westphalen is no stranger to depressive periods and anxiety himself. While experiencing these issues, music allowed him to examine his problems candidly and straightforwardly.

Much like his realistic lyrics, Westpahlen finds importance in a direct approach to solving life’s problems. Asking difficult questions about himself and his relationships,Westphalen looked for deliverance from the dangerous cycle of evading his problems or masking them with substances.

“In some of my dark times, you can choose to shut it down and bottle it back, but the questions are still going to be there and until you answer them, they’ll remain,” Westphalen said. “At first I made a bunch of excuses as to why I was there, and you have to dig into the deeper parts of your life. It starts with you and if you’re blaming your unhappiness or depression or whatever on anything else but you, you won’t get anywhere.”

Westphalen advocates for a forthright approach to self-examination when dealing with mental health. His philosophy reflects Withers’s song “Another Day to Run” by saying, “if you don’t look into your mind and find out what you’re running from, tomorrow might just be another day to run.”

The album Planets echoes the answers to these questions. However, Westphalen feels the album is no longer representative of the band. Bassist Alex Rideout is the newest member of Mangosteen and is what Westphalen believes is the missing puzzle piece to completing the cohesive group the band has become.

Mangosteen will be recording new tracks this November, and they hope to eventually make it to the West Coast, where the competition is higher and the opportunities are more accessible. Westphalen’s resilient, wise perspective and inspiring strength will no doubt hurl Mangosteen into the future with ambition and leadership.

Regardless of notoriety, Mangosteen’s pure, colorful and beneficial music gives them significant potential for success and fosters the relationship between human nature and music.

Edited by Claire Colby | ccolby@themaneater.com

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