When she sings 'I am I am, I am I am a goddamn believer' on I Predict A Graceful Expulsion number 'Blank Maps' you could easily be forgiven for thinking Cold Specks' soulful, perfectly flawed voice was nurtured in the gospel air of the deep south: its velvety texture and rough edges wrapped in a world weary weight. It was, however, the increasingly hipster climbs of Ontario capital Toronto and the Etobicoke neighbourhood therein which played host to Al Spx's vocal education. Even though she was thousands of miles north of Mississippi River Delta, her output is riddled with gospel's religious overtones, only raised on a diet of Tom Waits, Bill Callahan and more recently Richard Hawley.
Openly enthused about her musical inspirations, Al is uncomfortable talking about the religious elements of her upbringing – the ones that most likely led to her creating not only a stage name in Cold Specks but a pseudonym in Al Spx. the album's very title belies what young Al may have feared upon taking those first steps down what we have no doubt will be a long musical career path although she assures us that her parents disapproval has wained.
“It's all fine now,” she explains. “I think any parents would be terribly freaked out if their kid called them from a different country to inform them that: 1, they’ve dropped out of university; 2, they're not even close to graduating and 3, they’ve decided to pursue a career in music. Naturally they were just fucking freaked out and couldn’t understand. I think at that point they’d never really heard me sing or play anything. They were just confused more than anything and disappointed and I can’t fault them for that. It’s all very good now though, they’re very supportive.” Who wouldn't be upon hearing a debut offering as bewitching as her Mute released debut?
I Predict A Graceful Expulsion was definitely a cathartic process for the young singer, having written brutally honest songs in her parents' house without expecting anyone to hear them. “There are a lot of people with a lot of opinions and interpretations,” she says speaking of her early days reading what critics had to say. “Sometimes they’re a bit close to being on the mark and sometimes they’re way off but I guess that comes with the territory of writing an album. I try to be very vague but every now and then a review will come up where someone is attempting to interpret things that are just not there. I find it incredibly amusing.”
Although not immediately apparent underneath the breath taking beauty and slow burning intensity of her recorded output, Al's sense of humour is something that shines through in person and permeates the sombre stoicism of her live performances. “I went on tour with Josh T Pearson in February and he told a lot of insanely funny jokes, so I decided on that tour to start singing the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and it just stuck. It’s just a good way to lighten the mood. I was a big fan of the show, I grew up in North America so it was on TV all the time, all my family used to watch it.”
Having seen its official release way back in May, a relatively short time in reality but a life time in musical and personal terms, it is understandable that things are different now. “My attitude towards writing and playing has definitely changed, but I'm not sure how. I've been writing new stuff on and off for a while, since maybe last September” she admits before explaining that she has found inspiration for the her new material in travelling. “I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I do. Touring is exhausting at times but it’s very, very exciting and entertaining. Seeing a different city everyday is naturally going to affect the way you write.”
As did her move to the UK about 2 and half years ago I imagine. “When I started Cold Specks I was working a shit job. I had some songs, an annoying human being who lived in the UK who wouldn't stop phoning me and telling me to come out. I had nothing better to do and had enough money for a plane ticket so I came here. I don't know if there was a particular scene in Toronto I was attached to. I definitely have a lot of respect for a bunch of musicians out there but I feel more a part of a community now that I'm here.”
With a greater sense of freedom and an acute awareness that people will be listening to whatever she writes from now on, Al explains: “I didn't do a good enough job of being vague last time around so I'm trying to approach things from a slightly less personal perspective. I've started going to junk shops in every place I play and writing songs about what I find there. Things like old photos and old postcards. It's insane how many people throw away their old photos. Some of them are absolutely stunning and I just wonder what made these people throw them out – What is their story? Why is this woman doing that? Why is there a creepy man standing in the background?”
Talking about her new material it feels as though Al intends to remove herself from it as much as possible, perhaps allowing for even more amusingly incorrect interpretations, but like the religious upbringing she quietly rallied against we can rest assured that the memory will remain, embedded in the strums of an acoustic guitar, the distant bellows of a horn section and the quivering, tender and yet completely self assured vocals of this 23-year-old Canadian chanteuse.
Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde
Words by Lauren Down
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Cold Specks is currently on tour, catch her at the following shows:
14 Manchester Deaf Institute
16 Belfast Black Box
17 Dublin Sugar Club