She may have coined the phrase “doom soul” to describe her music, but that doesn’t mean Cold Specks frontwoman Al Spx is a gloomy person. “I write dark music,” she points out. “I think people expect me to be some kind of tortured artist, but I’m not.”
Listening to Cold Specks’ debut album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion (Arts & Crafts), it’s easy to understand the confusion: Songs like “Blank Maps” and “Lay Me Down” have gripped listeners precisely because of the stark honesty with which they address difficult subjects like spiritual struggle and death. Perhaps it’s only natural to imagine that Spx is dour in person, but she’s actually warm, affable, and quick to laugh. Maybe that “doom soul” thing will have to go, too; quips Spx, “Morbid Motown is the theme for the next record.”
Following her breakout performance on Jools Holland’s BBC talk show late last year, Spx has watched Graceful Expulsion collect rave reviews in her native Canada and the UK, where she currently lives—and with a crowded tour schedule, the word of mouth for one of this year’s most accomplished debuts is only growing.
As Michael Kiwanuka discovered earlier this year, it’s pretty much impossible to be a black artist with an acoustic guitar and not find yourself being compared to artists you don’t really have anything in common with. You’ve been lumped in with Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, and even Adele—is this frustrating for you?
I guess it’s a natural thing to happen in this line of work. I’ve noticed that in the UK, there have been a lot of comparisons to black singer-songwriters who don’t sound much like me, and I do find that to be a bit offensive, because they only thing we have in common is the color of our skin. I really try not to analyze it too much—dissecting all the comparisons I get would drive me insane. It’s music for me; if people like it, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s okay too.
What’s been your experience with bringing these intensely personal songs into the public eye? Has it been an adjustment learning to share your music with people who may not understand it?
It was very difficult at first, because they were so brutally honest. I was writing songs in my parents’ home, and I wasn’t expecting to ever make an album. Initially, I was horrified and a nervous wreck, but it’s become a lot easier for me.
I’ve got my own personal meanings, and when people ask me what the songs are about, I’m always quite vague. I enjoy listening to people’s interpretations of the songs—I find it to be incredibly interesting. Sometimes they’re way off, but I can see how they came to whatever conclusion they came to.
How has your relationship to the material changed on the road?
I made a conscious decision to remove myself from the songs. When I play live, the songs were written from the perspective of a girl with a different name. I perform under a stage name, Al Spx; I’ve created a bit of a character, which allows me to become a bit desensitized. It made it easier for me to sing them.
It was also difficult when I was touring when on my own. I mean, it was fun because I got to see some places, but I missed my band, and I didn’t really believe in the solo set I was doing. I had worked so hard on the arrangements for those songs, and to strip them completely bare was really difficult for me.
Cold Specks, “Old Stepstone” (live on Later With Jools Holland
And yet you attracted quite a bit of attention for doing exactly that when you appeared on Later With Jools Holland.
The album had been recorded before I performed on the show. We had a full band together, but a producer of the show happened to come and see us play, and really liked that sound, and asked us to play those songs. I guess that’s what a lot of people expect to hear when they see Cold Specks, but it’s not what Cold Specks is. That’s been difficult at times. The only reason I ever play solo is if I can’t afford to bring my five English boys along.
I read an interview where you referred to your singing voice as “a beast,” and talked about being unsure of what to do with it—how to really use it. To go from that to performing “Old Stepstone” a cappella on television—that’s quite a journey.
It was live television, too! I was horrified. Yeah, I don’t know. It was a crazy idea that worked out well for me.
For a lot of creative people, that first taste of success often goes hand in hand with the fear that you’re never going to be able to duplicate it—that feeling that you’re a fraud and everyone else is just about to find out.
I think about it every now and then. I always say the first album is a collection of your greatest hits, and the second record might be more difficult. I’ve written a number of songs for it, though. I’m hopeful.
Much of the material on your first album deals with some pretty profound emotional turmoil—the type of struggles that a lot of people deal with as they reach adulthood, like trying to figure out where they stand with God. When you write now, are you making any kind of conscious effort to understand what people are responding to in your music, or are you just making it?
I just make it. When I write, I write from the privacy of my own home—I make sure no one else is around. I don’t have a filter; I just write what I’m thinking. It’s very difficult writing honest songs and then putting them out for people to dissect and criticize, and sometimes I think maybe I should write from a less personal perspective, but it’s all I really know how to do. I have been obsessed recently with old photos and letters, so maybe I’ll start writing about other people’s lives—but it hasn’t happened yet.
Cold Specks plays at Glasslands tomorrow with Doe Paoro and Arms.