Cold Specks battles her demons, both real and imaginary, on debut
Wales is a long way from Etobicoke, but it was in the Welsh countryside that Al Spx came into her own as an artist.
Two years ago, the 24-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter, who performs under the name Cold Specks, left Toronto for the United Kingdom with the intention of making an album of stripped-down, acoustic folk music. At some point between her first day at Wales' Monnow Valley Studios in April 2010 and the final recording session last September, her intimate tunes became more epic in scope.
"I had sort of realized I could sing at 15, but I guess I really discovered my voice in Monnow Valley Studios," she explains. "I had never worked in a studio before -- [had never] recorded songs properly and listened back to them in studio session after studio session, really."
This week, Spx will return to Canada to play intimate shows in Guelph, Ontario and at Toronto's Music Gallery as part of Canadian Music Week two months before her debut full-length, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, is released in North America via Arts & Crafts on May 22 and a day earlier on Mute Records in the U.K.
Growing up in Brampton, Ontario and the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, a frequently bored Spx began writing songs to pass the time. Although she sang in choirs as a child, it wasn't until high school that she started to get into music, developing obsessions with the angular rock swagger of The Strokes, American troubadours Bill Callahan and Tom Waits, British shoegazers The Jesus and Mary Chain and girl groups The Spice Girls and TLC.
Her first attempt at writing and singing music was under the name The Hotel Ghost and later, Basket of Figs. "The Hotel Ghost was essentially me as a teenager not knowing how to play the keyboard," she says. "It was me figuring out my voice. Those songs were actually really horrible, but I guess anything you think is great when you're 15 probably is s*** when you look back at it."
Although she never hung out in Toronto's music scene, she performed at West End venues like the Holy Oaks Café and indie rock institution The Tranzac Club.
Wembley-based producer Jim Anderson (Anna Calvi, Mark Ronson) was one of Spx's earliest fans. He heard her demos while visiting his younger brother's apartment in Toronto and was so captivated by her voice that he persuaded her to fly to the U.K. to spend a few months recording.
A few months turned into two years as Anderson recruited guitarist Pete Roberts, pianist Thomas Greene, cellist Tom Havelock and drummer/arranger Rob Ellis, best known for his production work with British music legends PJ Harvey and Marianne Faithfull. Spx's sparse, folky sound soon grew larger with dramatic and mournful orchestral swoops and swells.
"I wouldn't know what to do if it wasn't for Jim," she says. "He helped me become comfortable as a singer and as a songwriter. He'd be honest and tell me when things are absolutely s***. He's like my musical partner in crime."
During the studio sessions, Spx changed her musical moniker Basket of Figs to Cold Specks after reading a line in James Joyce's book Ulysses: "Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil lights shining in the darkness."
The visceral terror invoked in that line is an apt reflection of the weary duskiness in her voice and the dark, impassioned tone of her music, which she once ominously described to a reporter as "doom soul." The characterization has followed her ever since.
While she readily describes how the recording process influenced her sound, she stutters when asked about influences and themes in her lyrics. Take the song "Hector," which she cites as her favourite from Expulsion.
"Hector is the name of my imaginary friend-slash-demon," she says, a nervous titter creeping into her voice. "It's a long-running joke. I won't get into it because it's absolutely ridiculous."
An imaginary friend she had while growing up?
"Um, sort of yeah!" she adds, bursting into laughter. "He was my imaginary friend as a child and as I grew older I acknowledged that he was imaginary but thought he was -- uh, I'm going to stop talking about this."
She's even less inclined to explain the religious connotation in the album title.
"The record sort of documents a crisis of faith. It just seemed like an appropriate title," she says cryptically.
Pressed further, she reveals a bit. "I guess I'll say it: the record documents my falling out with God.
"I don't really like to go into details about it but my folks are super religious and I wasn't," she adds. "The songs, as a result, came out of that."
In February, she embarked on her first headlining tour of the United Kingdom and performed on the late night talk show Later... with Jools Holland for an audience that included Mary J. Blige, Florence Welch, The Who's Pete Townshend and The London Suede's Brett Anderson.
She'll travel Europe in April before returning to North America in May to tour with Great Lake Swimmers. After that she plans to return to Monnow Valley to begin work on her sophomore album for which she has already amassed a lot of new material.
"We're going to do a session and get Rob in as well. Jim will produce it," she says. "We've been talking about going to Black Box Studios in Paris or Nashville, but I think we're just going back to Monnow Valley. We'll do the final sessions in December and then hopefully we'll be done."