Amy Speace’s lucky break was really lucky. Four years ago, the singer-songwriter found herself at a bar in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest, drinking tequila with a woman who she later found out was Judy Collins’ manager. Within three months, the iconic ‘60s folk singer had signed Speace to her Wildflower Records on the strength of little more than a demo CD. This August, Speace released her second album on the label, Killer in Me, its message a resolutely hopeful take on heartache and loss, her beautiful lyrics spun with a soulful, husky voice that lilts like a country sweetheart but mourns like Leonard Cohen. Paste spoke with Speace while she packed for her big move from New York to Nashville at the end of October.
Paste: So you’re about to embark on a tour?
Amy Speace: I feel like I’m always on tour so “about to embark” is a weird way to say it. I guess I am but it feels like it’s been continuing for years. I just take three days off, do laundry and then it will be time to repack.
Paste: Do you look forward to it?
Speace: Oh, I love it.
Paste: You do a lot of international and European tours. Is there a particular place that you’re always yearning to go back to?
Speace: I just love playing in the U.K. I love London.
Paste: You’re big in Europe and the U.K. What do you think it is about your very American style of music that appeals to non-Americans?
Speace: I think that Europeans are—and I really hate to say this—they’re better listeners. They seem to like intelligent, story-driven music. I think that’s why Americana does well in the U.K. I’m always surprised when I drive around and turn the radio to any BBC station, at A, what they’re playing and B, how much talking they do. The DJs have these intelligent conversations about, you know, recycling plastic bags from the shopping center. Stuff that you don’t have the opportunity to hear on the radio in the States. It just doesn’t seem as commercial-driven… It’s funny. I played in this tiny little town outside of Munich. I’d never been to Germany in my life so I didn’t expect anyone to show up, so I was surprised when we got there to see people lined up around the block. Guys came in Nudie suits and Stetsons, and I wouldn’t consider myself country at all, but to them that’s real country. So they come completely dressed to the nines and they knew every lyric to every one of my songs. They couldn’t speak English very well, but they could muddle through. I couldn’t have a conversation with anybody, but then I started singing one of my songs, “Double Wide Trailer,” and they knew every lyric. It cracked me up.
Paste: That’s got to be a good feeling to have people in a foreign country, who don’t speak your language, respond to your music like that.
Speace: Yeah, that’s the moment when you say, “Thank God I’m doing this.”
Paste: I read the latest entries of your blog, Innerspeace, on your Website. And I was really struck by how, like your song lyrics, your writing is personal, poetic, but also controlled. How do you walk a fine line in song-writing and other writing between sharing enough of yourself to connect with people but not so much that you are writing a diary entry to the world?
Speace: That’s interesting because no one’s ever said it that way. I think I started out, like most people, as a really bad poet in high school. And then in college I was a playwright and I came to New York City as an actress, but I was also the artistic director of a theater company and I was writing plays and directing. Coming from a theatrical background I think there’s definitely a discipline that I attained as a songwriter. I try to face things when I write songs and I really see them visually. You show just a little bit so that people can get a hook in, but you don’t want to show too much because you want to allow the listener to have an active experience by putting it together themselves in the end. Otherwise, you’re just dumbing it down. So as a songwriter, what I’m always trying to do is I’m trying to start from a place of truth. But if the story is just about me it’s not that interesting. Because honestly, if I’m just writing about me, all you’re going to read about is my pursuit of the organic grocery store in every town I go to. It’s not that exciting. I’m pretty much driving to the gig, doing the gig, having a glass of wine and then going to sleep. But if I can find that emotional moment in my day that opens me up to life, then I try to wrap a story around it. It might not be mine. Or it might be mine but I I’m not going to let you know if it is.
Paste: There is a tendency in the 24-hour celebrity gossip and online coverage, a need for people to nail down the literal interpretations of things that they hear. That’s not what music should be.
Speace: I think that’s what art should be—that there’s mystery in all of it. I had a great songwriting teacher, a writing teacher, who said to write it all out there and then the best part of songwriting is when you get out the scissors. When you’ve written a line, then challenge yourself to go back and ask how many words can you cut from that line and still retain its meaning. I think that’s what really great writing is.
Paste: Tell me about your collaborations with Judy Collins.
Speace: My friend lives in Austin, and in 2005 I told him I wanted to come to South by Southwest. He said I should come to this casual, impromptu performance one afternoon. It wasn’t even on a stage, it was at a restaurant. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m going to do this.” Judy had just started Wildflower Records, and she sent her manager to South By to find bands for the label. And I think her manager was either there to have lunch or to hear the person after me. But she heard me. She came up later… Actually, it was at the Paste party. She was making a joke, asking me what I drank, and I said tequila. So we were hanging out, drinking tequila, but I had no idea who she was. My manager knew who she was, and slipped her a copy of the demo. I didn’t hear anything back, but then three months later, she walked into a show I was doing in New York City and came backstage at intermission and said, “Judy loves this, and wants to put it out as a record as it is.” I thought, “How bizarre.” That demo became Songs for Bright Street. It came out in 2006, and then I did an opening show for Judy that year.
When I opened for Judy I’d be playing five or six songs. I’d been playing my song “The Weight of the World” for the last year and actually I didn’t even know it was going to go on a record. But I would sing that song and Judy would kind of hum it to me afterwards. And then one day she came up to me and said, “That’s one of the best war protest songs I’ve ever heard.” So she started singing it in concert. And that’s why The Killer in Me has that bonus track. Because I wanted to get that song on there but it didn’t fit as a part of the record.
Paste: That’s well-deserved, high praise from someone who was a professional folk singer in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and certainly heard her share of war protest songs.
Speace: I know. I mean, whenever she says that—and she’s been saying it a lot—I’m always like, “Are you serious? Come on.”
Paste: I read that you basically created The Killer in Me in two weeks at a studio in the woods in North Carolina?
Speace: We recorded it in six days, and we mixed it in about a week.
Paste: Is that a normal pace for you to put out an album?
Speace: So far, all three records have been completely different. But no, that was really quick considering that Songs for Bright Street took three years to make, because I wasn’t signed when I was doing that record. It was me just finding my footing and making a demo of the songs as I wrote them, and as I got the money. So when I wrote The Killer in Me, for the most part, I wrote the songs in a short period of time, or they were old songs that I took and reworked based on what I wanted the album to feel like. Because I wanted it to be a real, old-school record. It’s conceptual rather than just a bunch of songs. So once I realized that, I said to Jim Mastro, who produced my last two records, “I’d like to do this quick and live.” Because the band had already played it on the road. They’d gotten it down. I just want to get it feeling as immediate as possible. I wanted to work with Mitch Easter and his studio, but it was an expensive studio so, A, we couldn’t spend that much time because we didn’t have that much money. And, B, I thought if you spend too much time on something you’re too worried about the perfection of it. And I really wanted this one to have a lot of honesty in it. We worked from ten o’clock in the morning to three o’clock in the morning and basically lived there. And it was just a great bout of creativity.
Paste: Is there one thing that you’d most like people to know about you or about your music?
Speace: It’s funny because I did an interview and the host kept talking about The Killer in Me, saying it’s a break-up record. He kept saying, “Oh, it’s a really sad, hard, dark record.” And I’m like, “It’s not, man. It’s not. It’s actually got tons of hope.” You know? And I kept feeling like I was fighting this pressure. He kept saying, “Was this like therapy?” And I said, “No, it’s not even about me.” I mean, part of it is about me but… I think any songwriter wants to crash through that wall of “I am not writing an autobiographical play.” I am trying to craft stories that have some truth about me that’s also universal. So, really, at the end of the day, I’m a pretty optimistic, hopeful person. I just really, really am attracted to the dark shapes, but not in a way that’s morose and morbid. I just find that that’s where the mystery is. And then you can pull from that for the song. But if it’s all dark, then it’s just slit-your-wrists. It sounds like college journal-writing. “Suzanne” is one of my favorite songs ever by Leonard Cohen and it’s a pretty dark song but there’s moments of light and joy to it.